“Origins of the Kabbalah” by Gershom Scholem— An Esoteric World of Jewish Mysticism

Scholem, Gershom. “Origins of the Kabbalah”, (Princeton Paperbacks), translated by Allan Arkush, Princeton University Press, reprint 2019.

An Esoteric World of Jewish Mysticism

Amos Lassen

I have tried many times to read and understand the Kabbalah and always have a great deal of trouble. I even used those idiot guides such as “Kabbalah for Dummies” and still nothing. I imagine it takes a very special person to work with someone else to unlock the mysteries of the Kabbalah and unfortunately I never had the chance to sit in one of Gershom Scholem’s classes when I was at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Scholem was one of the most important scholars of our century.  Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) opened up a once esoteric world of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, to concerned students of religion. The Kabbalah is somewhat undefinable but I believe that it is a rich tradition of repeated attempts to achieve and portray direct experiences of God: its twelfth-and thirteenth-century beginnings in southern France and Spain are discussed in “Origins of the Kabbalah”, a crucial work in Scholem’s oeuvre. The book is a contribution not only to the history of Jewish medieval mysticism but also to the study of medieval mysticism in general and is of interest to historians and psychologists, as well as to students of the history of religion.

This study provides a painstakingly detailed history of Kabbalah’s rise among medieval French and Spanish Jews. It describes the first publication of Jewish mystical texts and investigates the growth of their influence on Jewish religious life. We also get descriptions of  secret traditions of Jewish Gnosticism, which describe a Creation story that is so numerological and esoteric, it makes the New Testament book of Revelation look simple. While it is not an easy read, it is thought provoking. It also helps to remove much of the confusion concerning the Kabbalah which is a rich tradition of repeated attempts to achieve and portray direct experiences of God. The basic thesis of this book is that the Kabbalah originated in one chronologically limited time-span (13th century) and in one geographically limited area (Provençe, France and Gerona, Spain). Scholem writes, “Once the ice of ignorance has been broken and the charlatanism that dominated the field has been overcome, the way will be open to further fruitful research. Jewish studies as well as the history of Oriental and Western religions will benefit equally from a more penetrating study and discussion of the problem of the Kabbalah.”  Here is a spiritual relationship ready and willing.

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