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Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Thought, by Moshe Idel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 323 pp. $59.95.
Paul Klee’s iconic “Angelus Novus” graces the cover of Old Worlds, New Worlds, a fitting invitation into Israeli-scholar Moshe Idel’s anthology on the intellectual reception of Kabbalah in the preceding century: once owned by Walter Benjamin, later inherited by Gershom Scholem, this drawing is today housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Like the angel, Scholem’s presence hovers insistently over this book: he is featured in each of its thirteen essays, which address topics as diverse as gnosticism, Hasidism, and modern literary criticism. Indeed, many of these pieces, written throughout Idel’s career, place Scholem in explicit dialogue with luminaries such as Abraham Heschel, Arnaldo Momigliano, Eric Voegelin, and George Steiner. And viewed as a whole, Old Worlds, New Mirrors can be described as an ongoing, at times sharp, dialogue between Idel himself and the founder of his field. Herein are to be found some of Idel’s most trenchant critiques of Scholem and his school. And herein as well are clear signs of Idel’s ongoing effort to liberate the study of Kabbalah from the dialectic and catastrophic historiosophy in which it was entrapped by Scholem—a historiosophy inspired, as it were, by Benjamin’s “reading” of the above drawing he famously dubbed the “angel of History.”
A number of critical themes hover, alongside Scholem, in the backdrop to this book: the influence of Christian scholarship as well as the experience of the Holocaust over the modern Jewish study of Jewish sources; and the relationships between history and textual interpretation, mysticism and Jewish practice, Zion and diaspora, and Hebrew and non-Jewish languages.
Idel himself distills some of the broader themes of this book in a short opening essay, in which he also offers some programmatic statements on the pursuit of Jewish studies. He notes that “two competing theological theories” (p. 4), namely “unifying” and “fragmenting” conceptions of the divine and its power, have characterized most of Jewish history (here a fuller treatment than the two pages offered would have been welcome); calls for “large-mindedness” in research, i.e., a willingness to entertain different explanatory models that “overlap or even coincide in one point but disagree on another” (p. 10); and notes that most of the writers treated in this work comprised what he styles “A New Jewish Elite” (p. 6). Relatively unschooled in traditional sources, these scholars opted to write for a general scholarly audience instead of for the Jewish masses, all the while adopting methodologies “presumed to be neutral” with respect to religion and culture (p. 7), but in fact, for Idel, deeply invested in the majority culture and its interests.
The members of this “elite” were also largely of Central European provenance, differing markedly in their approach to Jewish topics from their Eastern European co-religionists. Idel, born in Romania in what he describes as “one of the few shtetls that survived the Holocaust without major harm” (p. 10) is well-positioned to be sensitive to this important point. He stresses repeatedly the need to consider the Jewish masses and their religious practice in accounts of Jewish history alongside elites and theory (as favored by the Central Europeans). Failure to so leads to a thoroughly distorted selection of source material and thus a highly problematic conception of Jewish history. For example, responding to Scholem’s recommendation in the 1930s to read Kafka in order to understand Kabbalah, Idel comments that “[m]uch more of Kafka is found in Scholem’s own understanding of Kabbalah than is found of Kabbalah in Kafka” (pp. 118–19). Throughout the book, one senses Idel’s simultaneous fascination for, and repulsion from, the accounts of Judaism put forward by the Central European intellectuals.
For our author such matters are hardly academic, at least and especially whenever the dual issues of Zion and the Hebrew language are at hand. Already in the introduction Idel stresses the melancholic character of his “new elite,” later emphasizing (p. 70) the high rate of suicide among assimilated Jewish writers in Europe. While Idel is certainly correct to stress these aspects, his presentation of Jewish life in the diaspora is clearly colored by his own deeply felt commitment to the Zionist project. This becomes especially apparent in “George Steiner: A Prophet of Abstraction,” where the literary critic is taken to task for neglecting Hebrew letters and conceiving a monolithic “Jewish spirit” “that exclude[s] the beliefs and intellectual experiences of the vast majority of Jews” (p. 75), especially of Israelis, whose “life is complex, rich, and often difficult, and should not be oversimplified by preconceived notions of abstract generalizations formulated in other times and places” (p. 74). I am sympathetic to Idel’s Zionism and Hebraism as well as to his critique of Steiner, but worry that in his account of diaspora life he stumbles a bit into the very “monolithic” posture he himself criticizes and vows to avoid. Still, the juxtaposition of scholarly and personal concerns is refreshing, as is the exposure to a major scholar like Idel’s musings (however implicit) on some of the major questions of contemporary Jewish life.
Idel’s strongest suit is his undeniable breadth of knowledge of Jewish texts—a knowledge far superior to that of most if not all of the dramatis personae that fill this book’s pages and therefore grounds for interesting correctives and associations (who else could juxtapose Steiner and Abraham Abulafia? See p. 265, n. 48). It is most exciting to encounter Idel here applying his skills at text and source analysis to the twentieth century. Indeed, in showcasing the specific influence of Scholem’s formulations on a dizzying array of contemporary thinkers (including Steiner, who learned of Abulafia from him), Idel makes a major contribution to modern Jewish intellectual history—even as he takes that very history to task for its prejudices and distortions.
Idel is at times weaker in his exposition. He is on occasion content to suggest rather than fully explain or analyze, to indicate his opinion on a certain question without offering substantial proof. The first essay (on Momigliano and Scholem) nears but does not quite seize upon the paradox of the historian Momigliano’s non-historicist and the scholar of religion Scholem’s (at least partially) historicist approach to Judaism. And for all his insight into Scholem’s scholarship, Idel at times takes his expressions of self-identity at face value, rather than subjecting them to full critical scrutiny.
Nonetheless, for the most part, the essays which comprise Old Worlds, New Mirrors make for reading that is at once challenging, stimulating, and rewarding. Idel ably succeeds in placing Kabbalah and modern thought in deep dialogue, and shows how they each have both enriched and, at times, also distorted, our understanding of the other.
Daniel Stein Kokin
University of Greifswald