This is one of my posts I wrote in the summer and never posted. It has been severely edited becasue my memory no longer contains the information necessary to continue certain trains of thought, but I trust that the reader will find this an improvement.
I’m not sure if I approve of long, light filled summer days that seem to stretch endlessly on and on, inviting one to go from one indulgence to the next because, after all, there is still time. Not that I can really blame them, since I am quite aware that reading takes time and I know – a word which here means feel the shudder of my bones and the low keeling of my soul and cannot ignore their meaning – that I am only trying to put off cleaning my kitchen. Yes, even though armed with a new sponge and laden with limes to appease the foul-smelling imp that has taken up residence in the garbage disposal. So I should not blame the light, the lingering rays of gold that brighten the room, for making it so easy to say “it’s still but late afternoon, I can read one more chapter,” until the book is finished and it’s eight o’clock precisely.
In summary: reading takes time and we are good at putting off what we don’t want to do in the first place. But what about those things we do enjoy, even though they require effort. Even though they are a little irritating in places? We drag our feet and meander down the road just looking for little rabbit trails to deter us, but eventually we reach the end and can only wonder why we dragged it out so long. So has been my reading of On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, by Gershom G. Scholem. It is done. I finished it a few days ago (. . . . from when I wrote this, which was three months ago. But I digress).
Okay, so stepping back to a sparser English, let’s look at the facts. First, what is this book? I honestly have no idea. It was not meant for the lay person (i.e. me) who has little to no foundation in the Kabbalah or even Judaism (again, me). It appears to be a compilation of essays that build upon each other to produce a kind of rough basis of what Kabbalism is. Only Scholem is not defining it, so much as defending his interpretation of it to other scholars who have their own, equally obscure, notions on the subject. To say this book is a bit inaccessible is an understatement. Even setting aside the words he used which I was unfamiliar with (I did look up a few but it was rather like trying to shuffle new cards. I kept dropping the gist and so gave up the practice), his sentences were often so crammed with assumptions that even reading them four or five times couldn’t make them clear.
The book starts with a kind of outline and then 1) proves that the Kabbalist is both a conservative and a rebel (or rather, thinks he’s the former but is, without really meaning to be, the later), 2) which leads in to how such people generally see the torah and 3) the fabric of their religious history, nicely curtailing into 4) the Kabbalists’ traditions and why they were so popular among the masses. Chapter 5 ends rather anticlimactically with the history of golems which, while interesting, seemed like a completely separate work. That, in a nutshell (or five) is the book.
Okay then, what is Kabbalism? Literally Kabbalah is tradition (tradition!). What it has come to mean, through the work of medieval Jews ( waaaaaay late to the party but not shy at all about crashing it), is Jewish mysticism. The thing is it’s not one, solid, consistent idea but, rather like America, contains all sorts of people who, though similar in some fairly obvious ways, still manage to clash a bit. So when we say Kabbalism believes this, or Kabbalist say that, we can only mean in a general way that the major of Kabbalisitc writings imply such a thing and not too many people have made a fuss about it.
That’s as clear as I can get without getting convoluted.
I always think of the mystical as things which are slightly ambiguous, in a supernatural way. Like smoke from incense, or fog on a dark, abandoned road. Or Professor Trelawney’s bottle-bottom glasses. Mystics, in this largely self made definition, are people who look, and generally find, the ethereal wherever they go. Mysticism then is the art of seeing the eerie and supernaturally mysterious. When Scholem describes Kabbalism as Jewish mysticism I can see what he means. The Kabbalist love to find traces of divinity in every little line and thought. From my reading of Potok’s Book of Lights I know they are associated with visions and trances, which Scholem usually refers to rather obliquely as “ecstasies,” preferring to talk about the legend and theory rather than the actual practice and experience of the act.
Obviously, people who have visions are going to be generalized as mystics, but I still struggled with the idea of them creating myths. Jews shouldn’t need to invent myths. Their past is all written out, not as myth, but as historical-religious fact. The Kabbalist, I thought, can’t have myths because they have history.
Oh, how wrong I was. We can’t take the Bible literally all the time – it was, after all, written by people, poetic people, and we humans can’t even use the word “literally” in the correct context without dramatization – but, seriously, you have never seen interpretation like the Kabbalist do it. In fact, the Kabbalist didn’t even have to do anything very radical to create their myths, they merely continued on the traditions that had been handed down to them. Like good Jewish scholars they read their midrashes – those commentaries on the Torah – and their interpretations of those ancient interpretations led to such wonderful works of logic as the deduction that the Torah is not a revelation but a direct manifestation of the Divine. In this view, the Torah is infinite, but it’s also limited by the context it is in. The logical conclusion of this belief is that there is really more in the Torah, beyond the limits of this reality, than what we see – the white spaces around the words, as one person put it. Not only that, but as it can only speak to us through context so even the phrases which we do see are not really the actual Torah but only a kind of dress to clothe the purity of the Divine, or what not, which the patient scholar can eventually learn to remove. Some Kabbalist used the symbolism of nuts for this explanation – the shell, the thin covering, the seed itself. In fact, I found this portion the most fascinating on a technical note because Scholem kindly documents how this classification of levels directly mirrored the current Christian theories of Biblical interpretation. But for the purpose of this short summary what I want to impress upon you is that the Torah is generally thought of as female. This is important mainly becasue it lets me segue into the Shekhinah (as in, the Shekhinah glory – the present presence of God), which is also female, and is the tenth of the Seifrah. These Seifrah are defined in the book in a nicely befuddling, backwards way, but basically they are a more mystical version of the trinity (so, since there are ten, a decacity?). Oh, and sometimes they are time periods instead of division of the Divine. We’re in the second such period, judgement, between Mercy and Grace.
For the Kabbalist, the most important Seifrah is the Shekhinah. This is becasue when God made our universe it was too fragile and everything shattered and the Shekhinah glory was exiled in earth and now every time we do anything right we help bring it a little closer to home. A lot of the Kabbalist traditions, as you might imagine, focus around the Shekhinah, and Scholem has some rather lovely thoughts on why this is and how the Jews, adrift in exile and far from all the geographical and agricultural things so necessary to their traditions, would have found the idea of an abandoned goddess quite appealing.
As an aside, it must be pointed out that Scholem never once refers to the Shekhinah as a goddess, but he might as well have. Instead he explains that in Jewish tradition the Shekhinah was closely tied with the nation of Israel. A busy lady, then. But this assumption allowed the Kabbalist to interpret the Song of Solomon as between the Shekhinah and the main portion of Divinity, since it had been previously established that the female part of that drama represented Israel.
But to return to the Shekhinah’s exile: the Kabbalist, accepting her sadness as their own, added rituals of weeping and mourning for the Shekhinah – with the Shekhinah. These were balanced by more joyous sabbath observances – since, of course, the Shekhinah was reunited with the rest of the Divine, occasionally referred to allusively as her bridegroom, every Sabbath.
Organized religion is weird enough, but then people have to go and get creative.
Fascinated horror aside, I did enjoy this book and would heartily recommend it, just not to everyone. You need either a thick skin or a pig’s head, and of course you must care even a teeny-tiny bit about the subject. The writing was a delight and a challenge which I rather enjoyed.
My next book has got to be something more frivolous if I ever hope to finish by December.
A lot of the ideas were stimulating, and the rest of them gave depth and drama to a past which, sadly, is usually rather flat and dreary to us non-historians. On top of all this, Scholem is a master of footnotes. Not only do they add clarity and context but they are just really delicious. If only he could pull a reverse Lewis Carroll.
This book was published in the 1960s, during the last bit of Wouk’s The Hope. It’s possible the main character in Potok’s work could have written it; he would have been around 45. It’s strange to read this academic book and know what else was going on in the world around its author and yet to have none of that drama on display. Not one mention of Israel reclaimed. A historian, completely focused on his work and the past.