Monday, May 17, 2010

Rabbi Yigal Sklarin’s Defense of Gershom Scholem

Prof. Gershom Scholem famously devoted a large portion of his nearly thousand-page biography of Sabbatai Sevi to arguing that Lurianic Kabbalah in the sixteenth century led to Sabbatianism in the seventeenth. In Scholem's narrative, Isaac Luria revolutionized Jewish thought by fashioning a kabbalistic narrative focused on a process of metaphysical exile and redemption. The very act of creation caused the breaking of the divine vessels, causing the power of the divine light to fall into the hands of the forces of darkness, the klipot (shells). The practice of Jewish ritual, armed with the specific Kabbalistic interpretations of Luria and specific penitential practices would lead to the redemption of the divine light and heal the cosmos. Scholem assumed that by the mid-seventeenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had spread to all Jewish communities in Europe and the Near East. Hence by the time that Nathan of Gaza declared Sabbatai to be the Messiah in the spring of 1665, Jews everywhere were prepared to accept this radical Sabbatian messianism with its explicit antinomianism. When Sabbatai converted to Islam, Nathan was ready to explain away the action as the Messiah descending into the forces of darkness to achieve the redemption of the divine light.

Prof. Moshe Idel, in his essay "'One from a Town, Two from a Clan': The Diffusion of Lurianic Kabbala and Sabbateanism," challenges this narrative. His main objection is this assumption of Lurianic Kabbalah becoming the dominant force within Judaism by the mid-seventeenth century. Idel argues that few people, even rabbis were in a position to understand Kabbalah and the Kabbalah that came through Europe was by and large not Lurianic, but that of Rabbi Moshe Codovero. Idel goes so far as to suggest that Scholem had his cause and effect backward. Lurianism did not spread Sabbatianism; Sabbatians spread Luria. Finally, Idel argues that Scholem overplayed the messianic elements within Lurianism. Those reading Luria in the seventeenth century would not have been jumping to some new radical form of messianism.

In a recent essay in the Bernard Revel journal, "In Defense of Scholem: A Re-evaluation of Idel's Historical Critiques," Rabbi Yigal Sklarin attempts to defend Scholem. Sklarin offers the case of R. Abraham Gombiner's Magan Avraham as an example of a popular work written before the outbreak of Sabbatianism that included distinctively Lurianic practices and concepts. Of particular interest to me is the fact that Sklarin attempts to use Gershon Cohen's theory of messianism to explain the popular spread of Sabbatianism. In "Messianic Postures of Ashkenazim and Sephardim (Prior to Sabbathai Zevi)," Cohen argued that Jews in Sephardic countries, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, were far more likely to start messianic movements due to the influence of philosophy. If the philosophical ideas current in rabbinic circles could gain popular currency and create a mass movement then why could not Luria have gone from rabbinic circles down to the masses to create Sabbatianism?

I am certainly intrigued by the prospect of rehabilitating the Luria-Sabbatianism connection. That being said, I find Sklarin's arguments against Idel to be very problematic. Yes, Cohen argued that Spanish culture was more open to messianism and less open to martyrdom due to the influence of philosophy. If I understand Cohen correctly, this was not simply something within the rabbinic elites, but on a mass cultural level. Regular people (or at least the literate ones) had some awareness of philosophy, particularly of astrology, and were willing to therefore willing to engage in messianic calculations. With Lurianic Kabbalah, we agree that this was something reserved for the rabbinic elites, not something that the masses would have been directly aware of. I fail to, therefore, to see how the analogy holds up. Furthermore, Sklarin seems to accept the premise that the Lurianic Kabbalah that reached our rabbinic elite was not the messianic Luria so how are the masses getting Lurianic messianism from the rabbis if even the rabbis are not getting that message? This leaves us with having to find some other solution besides for Lurianic Kabbalah to explain how Sabbatianism became a mass movement in the summer of 1665.

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