People Get Ready

by John Dorfman

MESSIANIC MYSTICS • by Moshe Idel • Yale University Press • 451 pp • $40 • October

Five years ago, members of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect were instructed to report to a gated storefront in Brooklyn in order to buy an electronic device of profound religious significance. To the uninitiated, it looked like an ordinary telephone pager, but the Hasidim called it a Messiah beeper. The idea was that at the instant when their rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, openly declared his mission as the Messiah, all the beepers would go off simultaneously, so that the faithful would not miss one moment of the era of redemption. The Hasidim chanted, "We want Messiah now!"--a saying repeated on bumper stickers--but the rebbe never did declare himself. He died not long afterward, leaving his flock in a state of deep consternation, but the incident served as a vivid reminder that messianism still resonates powerfully among many religious Jews. As the millennium approaches, eschatological hopes and speculations are by no means the exclusive province of Seventh-Day Adventists and born-again Christians.

Although Judaism is generally understood as a conservative, legalistic creed rather than a radical chiliastic one, it has always contained a streak of messianism, starting with the prophetic books of the Bible. Maimonides listed belief in the coming of the Messiah as one of the thirteen articles of the faith. Echoes of messianism can also be heard in ostensibly secular styles of Jewish thought, such as modern Zionism and Walter Benjamin's theory of history. Yet until recently, little attention has been given to the relationship between messianic prophecies and the course of mainstream Jewish thought.

In his arresting new study, Messianic Mystics, Moshe Idel argues that messianism deserves a central place in Jewish intellectual history. More than that, he insists that there are close ties between messianism and the Kabbalah, the font of Jewish mysticism. The conventional wisdom is that messianic activism and the Kabbalah's mystical quietism are contradictory rather than complementary. But Idel, a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, offers convincing proof that both would-be messiahs and theorists of messianism have generally been mystics as well, and that their sense of prophetic mission has usually been the result of mystical epiphanies. It is not surprising that the Hasidim, the most feverishly messianic movement within contemporary Judaism, are also the only group (apart from certain New Age cults) to have preserved the Kabbalah as a vital force in their devotional and intellectual lives.

The Kabbalah's origins (the Hebrew word implies oral transmission) are difficult to pin down, but some of its ideas and practices are mentioned in the Talmud, the compilation of oral law and its exegesis that was inscribed in the first few centuries A.D. Hundreds of years before the Kabbalah had a name, there were treatises devoted to mysticism, which was understood as the personal quest for direct contact with the divine through visions. In twelfth-century Provence and Catalonia, the Kabbalah flowered and acquired philosophical sophistication. Various schools evolved over the next four hundred years, endowing the Kabbalah with tremendous prestige; its central text, the Zohar, written in Spain around 1300 and consisting of symbolic and often poetic commentaries on the Torah together with theosophical speculations, was considered as holy as the Talmud and the Bible itself. But by the eighteenth-century, Enlightenment rationalism had dealt a crippling blow to its reputation in the mainstream of Judaism. It was kept alive within Hasidism, a decidedly un-mainstream, antirationalist movement that arose in opposition to the increasingly rationalist turn of orthodox Jewish thought.

During the 19th century, the Kabbalah was dismissed by assimilated Jewish historians as mumbo-jumbo from the dark ages, a morbid inheritance to be rejected and then dissected with the cold instruments of Religionswissenschaft. In our own century, it was Gershom Scholem who rescued the Kabbalah from obscurity, and by his sympathetic scholarship established it as a subject of crucial importance to any understanding of Jewish spirituality. In seminal works like Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism(1946) Scholem systematically charted the Kabbalah's history, using modern philology to elucidate its difficult texts. As a pioneer of modern Kabbalah studies, Scholem naturally emphasized the tradition's distinctiveness, showing how it differed from mainstream Jewish thought and practice. True to his training in German historicism, Scholem divided the Kabbalah into dialectical stages of development. And Scholem may have had reasons other than a deep admiration for Hegel to paint in such broad strokes: he needed to win for mysticism its place within Jewish history itself.

In creating the academic field of Jewish mysticism, Scholem also induced a certain anxiety of influence (to borrow a phrase from the literary Kabbalist Harold Bloom) in younger scholars. Idel was one of Scholem's students, and has recently taken the place of his late teacher as dean of the secular scholars of Jewish mysticism. But instead of simply carrying forward Scholem's work, he has been robustly challenging the master's views, going over much of the same ground but coming to very different conclusions. Where Scholem saw the Kabbalah as the return of mythic consciousness to a legalistic tradition that had rejected it, Idel claims that myth never left. His view of mysticism is organic; he sees it as part and parcel of the Jewish religious experience. His view of messianism is equally organic: messianism as part and parcel of the Kabbalistic experience.

Messianic Mystics takes issue with just about everything Scholem had to say about messianism, including the definition of the term. According to Scholem, there were two versions of the messianic idea: the utopian, which emphasizes a radical break in the historical process or the "end of history;" and the restorative, which looks forward to a conservative restoration of an ideal past, namely the time before the diaspora and the destruction of the temple. Either way, the messianic idea cried out to be enacted on the stage of history by a putative savior and his followers; it was, in other words, the stuff of social and political rather than intellectual history. For Scholem, messianism was a form of apocalyptic politics, not of intellectual contemplation. And it was a tradition of activism that invariably led to disaster for those Jewish communities that were seduced by its false promises of imminent redemption.

Although Idel's scholarship comes across as somewhat patricidal at times, the main purpose of his book is not polemical but hermeneutic. His approach to Jewish spirituality eschews the historicism of Scholem in favor of what Idel calls "phenomenological methodology"--by which he means an attempt to understand the inner experiences of the mystics themselves and to explicate their ideas as their creators would have understood them. This sounds rather conjectural, but Idel proceeds not by intuition but by very close explication de texte kabbalistique.

His book focuses on two very different messianic figures, Sabbatai Sevi and Abraham Abulafia. Sevi is the very model of the "false Messiah." Born in Smyrna, he proclaimed himself the Messiah in 1665 and attracted a large following among Jews as far away as Poland before being summoned by the Ottoman sultan and offered the choice of death or apostasy. He chose to save his own skin and become a Muslim, a capitulation that did not faze some of his adherents, who promptly converted to Islam themselves; their progeny remained as a crypto-Jewish underground sect in Turkey until quite recently. Scholem wrote a towering work on Sevi (Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah), whom he considered the prime expression in Jewish history of the "messianic idea." His assessment of Sevi was not exactly flattering. In fact, Scholem barely discussed the Messiah's intellectual formation, since he saw him as a madman pure and simple, a sufferer from manic-depressive psychosis.

Although Idel does not reject sociological analysis, he prefers to apply the phenomenological method and look to the inner life of Messiah figures like Sevi. Skeptical of any postmortem diagnosis, he treats Sevi's ideas respectfully and seeks an explanation of this one-man phenomenon through an examination of his thought. He quotes telling passages from Sevi's own writings that show how his messianic mission grew out of intensive Kabbalistic reading and visions induced by his practice of systematic meditation. And where Scholem laid the blame for Sabbateanism on Lurianic Kabbalah, a radical innovation in mystical thought that arose in the sixteenth century, Idel shows that Sevi's ideas were congruent with earlier, more conventional forms of mystical speculation.

Because of his great historical importance (and because of the commanding presence of Scholem's giant book), Sevi has had a disproportionate impact on our understanding of messianism. In Idel's view, Scholem erred in generalizing from Sevi to messianism in general. There are, he says, other types of messianism (which he calls "models"), and not all of them are inherently apocalyptic and revolutionary. For Idel, one need not start a mass movement to be a Messiah, and redemption need not be of this world.

In his critique of what he calls the "apocalyptic model," Idel examines the word "messiah" (mashiyah in Hebrew) as it has been used throughout Jewish literature. Literally, it means "anointed", and one of its earliest uses refers to a king anointed by God to rule an already-established kingdom or to take part in a ritual of restoration. This "myth-and-ritual model," which Idel relates to ancient Near Eastern fertility rites, involves cyclical rather than linear time, and this resonance of the word mashiyah allowed later Jewish thinkers to elaborate messianic ideas without implying the kind of end to history latent in Scholem's similar idea of restorative messianism. Mashiyah was also used by Kabbalists to refer to various supernatural or angelic entities, to philosophical constructs like the Aristotelian "agent intellect," and even to aspects of God or the human soul. In this last sense, mashiyah could signify the soul's project of self-redemption through prayer and contemplation. In short, mysticism.

Idel's richest example of this contemplative messianism is another curious character, Abraham Abulafia, a medieval Spanish Jew who left behind an impressive corpus of both mystical and autobiographical writings. In 1280, after extensive wanderings through the Middle East and Europe, Abulafia traveled to Rome, believing that he had been divinely called to meet with Pope Nicholas III. The pope forbade Abulafia to see him and retreated to his country estate, then died just before the indefatigable sage got there. (A sixteenth-century messianic mystic named Shlomo Molkho actually did get to meet Pope Clement VII, with whom he became quite friendly.) Abulafia was arrested by Franciscan monks, but he was soon released and then retired to Sicily, where he founded a small Kabbalistic school.

Although Abulafia's quest for contact with a world-historic political figure suggests secular ambition rather than divine introspection, Idel shows that he was more interested in gaining an elite hearing for his distinctive religious ideas than in leading the masses. Legend has it that he wanted to convert the Pope, but all he ever said was that he wanted to discuss "Judaism in general" with the pontiff. Idel glosses this to mean "the 'authentic' essence of Judaism;" that is, Abulafia's own brand of mysticism. By contemplation and by manipulation of divine names and Hebrew letters, Abulafia considered himself anointed for a prophetic mission that, according to Idel, mainly involved "internal spiritual processes." The fact that he went to see the pope on the eve of the Jewish New Year, signifies to Idel that his mission had a restorative, not a utopian, aspect, and that the restoration in question would be not of a kingdom but of an idea.

Despite his criticism of Scholem's historicism, Idel is by no means indifferent to history. He grants that persecution and poverty have inspired messianic yearnings and mass movements but astutely points out that it isn't always so. As Idel observes, the catastrophic expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 did not significantly increase messianic activity, and messianic figures seldom referred specifically to current events in their writings. For that matter, the perception that things are going well for the Jews can itself trigger messianic hopes: One of the motivations for Abulafia's interest in messianism, Idel provocatively suggests, was the Mongol conquest in Asia, which, some hoped, would end by liberating Palestine for the Jews!

Idel's reconstruction of Abulafia's messianism is the centerpiece of Messianic Mystics. Until now, Abulafia had not been considered a Messiah, and in Scholem's collection of essays, he does not even rate a mention. But while Idel's phenomenological method succeeds in broadening our understanding of an important concept, his book is sadly marred by a pedantic and often obscure writing style. Mystical modes of expression are usually poetic and visionary, but Idel's emphasis on empathic understanding never finds its way into his own voice. Too often, he appears to be aiming for the labored precision of a social scientist with references to "models" and things like "hermeneutical grids." And because this is an insider's book that takes familiarity with the secondary literature for granted, it is not always obvious just which idea or assertion Idel is arguing against.

Idel's argument for the importance of mysticism provides a powerful corrective, but his account is not likely to replace Scholem's because of the recrudescence of apocalyptic activism within contemporary Judaism. Since the Six Day War, Jewish messianism has witnessed a grim "return of the repressed" in the form of anti-Arab violence at Temple Mount and messianically tinged claims about divine land grants. Along with the Messiah mania in Brooklyn, such developments suggest that Scholem's "apocalyptic model" cannot be easily dismissed, even by way of exegesis as careful as Idel's. There are, alas, many more Schneersons and Baruch Goldsteins than Abulafias out there, and the Messiah beeper, whatever its virtues, was not exactly a call to mystical introspection. •

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