Tuesday, December 9, 2008

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part I)

The general exam for my major, Jewish history, was longer than my two minors. I had forty eight hours and five thousand words as opposed to twenty four hours and twenty five hundred words. The exam was written by Dr. Matt Goldish and Dr. Daniel Frank. I was given four questions from which I had to choose two. I also was given two documents to analyze. I must say they were awfully nice to me. Here are the questions I did not do.

Explain Gershom Scholem’s thesis concerning messianism from the Spanish Expulsion through the Frankist movement. Who has criticized his thesis, and with what arguments?

[This question is essentially about one part of the major Gershom Scholem versus Moshe Idel debate on Jewish mysticism, which I have made occasional reference to in this blog. Part of Scholem’s narrative is that the expulsion of 1492 brought about a major shift in Jewish thought in that the magnitude of the tragedy forced the Jews who left to account for what happened on a theological plane. The result was the creation of a new form of Kabbalah which emphasized the themes of exile and redemption. The ultimate product of this school of Kabbalah was Isaac Luria. Lurianic Kabbalah was based on a cosmic narrative of a divine exile and redemption. The act of creating the world brought the “breaking of the vessels” which caused this great damage to the sephirot. Furthermore part of the divine light became ensnared by the dark powers, the klipot. It is up to man to bring about the cosmic redemption by bringing about the repair of the sephirot and the redemption of the divine light from the power of the klipot.

Lurianic Kabbalah brought about, what in Scholem’s opinion was the key turning point of early modern Jewish history, the messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi. Sabbatai Sevi’s theology was a direct product of Lurianic Kabbalah and a logical consequence of it. The Sabbateans justified Sabbatai Sevi’s erratic behavior, violation of Jewish law and even his apostasy by arguing that Sabbatai was simply fulfilling his role as the messiah and redeeming the spiritual world by descending into the power of darkness. Scholem assumed that, by the mid seventeenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had taken over the Jewish world. Scholem uses this to explain the success of the Sabbatian movement, which was unique amongst Jewish messianic movements in that it was able to gain followers not just in one area but amongst Jews across the world.

Scholem saw the Sabbatian movement as spawning many later movements that would affect Judaism and the world. Scholem pointed to the Frankist movement, a Sabbatian offshoot in Poland, as having a direct affect on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and other liberation movements of the nineteenth century. Scholem saw Sabbatianism as laying the groundwork for the Reform movement, by undermining rabbinic authority and creating a non halachic Judaism. Finally, and probably most controversially, Scholem saw Hasidism as a Sabbatean movement.

Idel rejects this narrative. He argues that redemptive Kabbalah had its roots before 1492 and that the expulsion had no real affect on Jewish thought. Idel challenges Scholem to find people who were Kabbalists, exiles from Spain and were involved in Messianism. According to Idel the only person who fits into this category was R. Abraham b. Eliezer ha-Levi. Idel distances Luria from the expulsion. He was not Sephardic and he was born decades after the expulsion. Idel also minimizes the importance of Lurianic Kabbalah, arguing that it only became a major factor after Sabbatai. Finally Idel rejects the major prominence that Scholem gave to Sabbatianism and does not make it the progenitor of modern Judaism.]

Discuss the evolution of Karaite attitudes toward Rabbinic literature and thought during the medieval period. Please illustrate your answer with specific examples.

[This question clearly came from Dr. Frank. In essence he wanted me to throw back at him what we have been studying together in the private reading course I had with him this past quarter.]

(To be continued …)


Miss S. said...

There was an "evolution" in Karaite attitudes? From what to what? They always rejected Rabbinic Judaism; was Rabbinic literature at some point validated, then not....or vice versa?

Izgad said...

I was feeling lazy when I wrote this so I did not bother to go into details. I assume that Dr. Frank will be asking me about this issue at my orals on Tuesday. So B'H I will talk about it when I post on that.
Karaites have a love hate relationship with rabbinic literature. Yes they are officially against it, but many of them use the Talmud simply because it is useful. Also Ibn Ezra and Maimonides become popular amongst Karaites during the Middle Ages. This is not all that different from the traditional love hate relationship between traditional Judaism and Greek philosophy.
If you are interested, Dr. Frank has a really useful essay on the topic published in the book Rabbinic Culture and its Critics.