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  • The Origins of Jewish Mysticism
  • Eliezer Segal
The Origins of Jewish Mysticism, by Peter Schäfer. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009. 398 pp. €99.00.

The Mishnah (Hagigah 2:1) identified a number of topics in the rabbinic curriculum that could not be taught openly, among which the most secret was "the work of the chariot," the Ma'aseh Merkavah. It is clear that this esoteric discipline revolves around the extraordinary vision related in the first two chapters of Ezekiel in which the prophet saw a human-like figure enthroned upon a fantastic vehicle that was composed of and drawn by an assortment of supernatural beings. Consistent with the Mishnah's insistence on secrecy—though, to be sure, that was the policy of the school of Rabbi Akiva and was not shared by the school of Rabbi Ishmael—rabbinic literature provides very little actual information about the contents of the Ma'aseh Merkavah, and in the talmudic narratives the expositions are accompanied by an aura of supernatural special effects. The issue has been confused considerably by the fact that major schools of medieval Jewish religious thought, including both Maimonides' Aristotelianism and the Kabbalah, claimed to be rooted in the ancient Work of the Chariot. The central question in much of classic academic analysis of rabbinic esotericism was how, if at all, it connected to the late rabbinic or early medieval "Hekhalot" texts that described mystical ascents of pseudepigraphic ancient rabbis through multiple levels of palaces until they were vouchsafed a vision of the divine "chariot." Recent generations of scholars have enriched the discussion with the inclusion of a larger number of relevant texts (especially [End Page 158] the new material from Qumran), a more sophisticated understanding of the redactional and textual complexities of rabbinic literature, better editions of the Hekhalot texts (for which we are especially indebted to Prof. Schäfer), and more nuanced methodological formulations of the religious concepts of mysticism and esotericism. It is therefore most fitting that these issues be addressed again by a scholar with proven mastery of the discipline.

Schäfer's method here generally involves reading each of the relevant primary texts very cautiously with a focus on those features that could define it as "mystical," notably, whether or not it speaks of humans having a close experience or encounter with God. The introductory chapter surveys the more prominent theoretical approaches to defining the category of mysticism and its specific Jewish versions. Schäfer finds flaws in all these theories and does not really offer a definition of his own, opting instead for a pragmatic and flexible approach that would emerge organically from the texts rather than being imposed by scholarly fiat. Allowing the texts to speak for themselves encourages a receptiveness to patterns that were overlooked by previous scholars, such as the "restorative" tendency of many of the texts that are concerned with bringing back an intimacy with God that was severed by the destruction or defiling of the holy Temple. Especially when assessing the rabbinic material, Schäfer consistently places the burden of proof on those who would claim that a given text conveys a mystical experience; or (if the passage is undeniably mystical) then, on those who would argue for a more intimate degree of mystical encounter—e.g., describing a "union" rather than mere "communion" with the divine.

When dealing with rabbinic traditions, especially those emanating from the tannaitic era, this approach brings him to an assessment that is very close to the one proposed by David Halperin in his The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature, according to which the Work of the Chariot ought to be perceived as an exegetical activity rather than an experiential mysticism. Accordingly, Schäfer argues that the rabbis' trepidations about public dissemination of the exegesis stemmed not so much from their fears of the psychological or spiritual injuries that might be caused by the intense experience, but from their desire to avoid disrespectful over-familiarity with the Almighty. In this connection, it was surprising to note that Schäfer made almost no reference to E. Urbach's 1968 study of esoteric traditions in the tannaitic era which took a very similar critical approach...


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