Tuesday, December 30, 2008

AJS Conference Day Two Session One (Studies in Mystical Experience and Identity)

Pinchas Giller (American Jewish University)
"Kabbalah and Meditation"

Can we speak of a Kabbalistic meditation? This concept seems to be rooted more in modern interests than in traditional source material. When we speak of meditation we mean something very specific. It involves specific uses of the body and mental states. Contemplation is not the same thing as meditation. Kabbalistic prayer is not easily reconciled with meditation. Cleaving to God is not becoming one with him. Jews tend to work with a transitive model of prayer, engaging in rites directed at a given object, in this case a monotheistic God. The closest thing to meditation in the Kabbalistic tradition is Abraham Abulafia. Abulafia's teaching do involve breathing exercises and body positions in order to achieve a spiritual result. But Kabbalah never developed a methodological school with a living tradition. Abulafia's tradition was lost and failed to achieve any wide influence. Where meditation does come into play in Judaism is the Sufi inspired tradition of Bahya ibn Pakuda and Abraham Maimonides.

(Giller and Menachem Kallus got into a debate about certain technical issues involving Hindu-Buddhist meditation traditions, which went completely over my head. I did recognize one of the terms they were using, chakra, from having watched Naruto. I take it as a bad sign if I am getting my knowledge of Eastern meditation from Japanese anime.

It struck me as interesting how important Eastern thought has become for Kabbalah studies. I recognize that this is a legitimate line of scholarly inquiry. As a historian, though, I am more inclined to focus on narrative questions such as who, what, when, where any why as opposed to methodological questions; I am not concerned with defining the nature of mysticism as something spanning time, space and cultures. I know that medieval and early modern Kabbalists were not talking to Hindus and Buddhists. Muslim Sufis, and Christian mystics is another story entirely and therefore of interest. In this respect I guess I come down into the camp of Gershom Scholem and not Moshe Idel.)

Menachem Emanuel Kallus (Haifa University)
"On a Purported Copy of the Cosmographic Diagrams of R. Hayim Vital"

(Dr. Goldish had me read some of Kallus' work so I had become a fan and was really looking foward to hear him speak. Unfortunately his presention went right over me. Therefore I am not going to even make the attempt to summerize what he said. )

Igor Victor Turov (National University, Kievo Mogilyanska Akademiya)
"Attitude of the Founders of Hasidism to Gentiles"

In general Hasidic attitutudes toward gentiles are quite negative. Gentiles are physically and spiritually dangerous. That being said you do have certain streams of Hasidic thought that, in a strange sense, are positive. For example, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk talks about admiring the beauty of the gentiles. The Besht makes a treaty with Carpathian bandits; he would pray for them and in return they would not attack Jews. At the root of this "positive" view of gentiles is the notion that God concealed himself amongst the gentiles and that by interacting with gentiles one released the divine sparks trapped within them.

(This brought to mind an essay my Kallus which talks about a sort of "parasitic" Kabbalism where you can have someone so wicked that there is no hope of saving him. The Kabbalist sage would therefore take the little merit that this person had, leaving him completely with nothing, in order that some good should come of this merit.)

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