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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News ootober 2007

October 8, 2007

The Kabbalah

In recent decades there has been an explosion of interest in the Kabbalah. Jewish mystical manuscripts that lay neglected for centuries have been brought to light and serious studies about them undertaken. Those engaged in the sociology of knowledge can speculate about what factors in the intellectual climate of our time are responsible for the re-discovery of the Kabbalah.

In recent years, this explosion of interest has also surfaced in popular culture around the world, especially in the United States. In the clumsy search for meaning in Hollywood-type circles, it has taken on a kitschy-type quality, off-putting and sometimes alien to those whose connection to Jewish mysticism is on a more serious religious or scholarly plane.

The Memorial Foundation has provided financial support over the last several decades to serious Kabbalah scholarship. In this report, I should like to highlight the Foundation’s support to a number of individuals who have made major contributions to Kabbalah, trace the evolution of the field and project a Foundation plan for dissemination of Kabbalah in the future.


From Gershom Scholem To Moshe Idel: The Memorial Foundation’s Support For Kabbalah

The re-discovery and re-emergence of Jewish mysticism has been to a remarkable degree the accomplishment of a single scholar, the late Prof. Gershom Scholem of Hebrew University. Scholem, who for many years served on the Board of Trustees of the Memorial Foundation, did the pioneering manuscript research that created the field of Kabbalah as a scholarly discipline.

Our major contribution to Scholem’s pioneering scholarship were the grants awarded for his work at the Hebrew University in the 70’s and 80’s for assembling and cataloging manuscripts of Jewish mystical writings which he assiduously collected from diverse sources, and supporting his research on those texts. It was Scholem, too, and later his students, who wrote the histories and interpreted those texts. Those manuscripts, which are now part of the Gershom Scholem Library at the Hebrew University, whose establishment the Foundation also helped support, are today a major resource for current research on the Kabbalah.

There were several important lacunae in Scholem’s work. His disdain for Talmudic Judaism led to a picture of Kabbalah unrooted in the rabbinic tradition, existing in tension with normative Judaism. He also ignored mystical practice and comparative studies and did not devote serious and sufficient attention to the implications of mysticism for Jewish theology.

Scholem’s passing inevitably created a major void in the field of Kabbalah, but also the possibility for revisionist studies. The scholar who undertook and organized this Herculean task was Moshe Idel, one of Prof. Scholem’s students, today one of the most eminent and influential scholars of Jewish mysticism in the world, currently serving as the Max Cooper Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University.

One of the most productive Jewish scholars in the world today, he is the author of 15 books. A bibliography of his writings published in 1997 in honor of his 50th birthday runs 32 pages long. Prof. Idel is also the winner of the most prestigious prizes in Jewish culture, among them the Emet Prize, given by the Prime Minister of Israel; the prestigious Israel Prize for Jewish Thought (1999); the Gershom Scholem Prize for research in Kabbalah, given by the Israeli Academy for Sciences and Humanities; and the Jewish National Book Award.

Born in Rumania, Prof. Idel immigrated to Israel at age 16 and earned his doctorate from the Hebrew University. He received three doctoral scholarships from the Foundation in 1973, 1974 and 1978 to help him complete his studies, two fellowships in 1983 and 1984 for his scholarly activity after receipt of his doctorate, as well as several grants given to him through Hebrew University for his major studies, including the Critical Edition of Abraham Abulafia’s Hayye Ha-Nefesh. We take great pride at the Memorial Foundation for helping launch his distinguished career in Kabbalah.

It is impossible in this brief report to present the full scope of Professor Idel’s contributions. What I should like to focus on is his overall revision, in a sense, standing the work of his teacher, Professor Gershom Scholem on its head. The full scope of that revision is contained in one of Idel’s most important books, Kabbalah: New Perspectives published by Yale University in 1988, a magisterial work of scholarship, comparable to Scholem’s own Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. In it, Idel rejects the historical and chronological presentation of Jewish mysticism that characterized Scholem’s Major Trends in Mysticism. Prof. Idel demonstrates that the history of Jewish mysticism, rather than an inward mirror reflecting the external vicissitudes of Jewish history, as Scholem contends, is instead the result of the interplay of types of religious experiences and categories of trans-rational thought. Prof. Idel also demonstrates that Kabbalah and its symbolism is deeply tied to the essential practice of Judaism and Halachah. Furthermore, Kabbalah is not a medieval reaction to rationalism, as Scholem supposed, but is a late articulation of the values that underlay Judaism from its very beginning.

The revisionism that characterizes Idel’s work, notable for its lack of polemics, is well known to scholars in the field, and returns the importance of Kabbalah and its study to the realm of religious thought. Even more important from our perspective, and yet to be fully accomplished as Professor Arthur Green has pointed out, is the impact of Idel’s work on future Jewish theology. Our age is one thirsty for a more profound understanding of Judaism than is usually offered. The Kabbalistic tradition, stretching back nearly two millennium, offers an infinitely rich field for Jews interested in serious Jewish learning and thirsty for an understanding of what appears to be a non-normative stream in Judaism. But Prof. Idel has demonstrated Kabbalah has deep roots in historic and normative Judaism and Jewish thought. This may make it especially attractive to young Jewish people today and a worthy subject, with proper dissemination of materials and programs, for that important sector of our community.

Below I will report on a modest plan by the Foundation to utilize the scholarly and potential educational impact of Idel’s work as an area of interest and study for Jewish young people around the world. Who said that one man’s scholarship cannot make a huge difference in Jewish life?

Scholem and Idel are, of course, the major stars in the constellation of Kabbalah scholarship in modern times. However, the Foundation has supported other important researchers in the field. Please see Appendix A attached, an impressive listing of other recipients of Foundation fellowships and doctoral scholarships in Kabbalah including Professors Isadore Twersky, Zwi Werblowsky, Haim Zafrani and Moshe Hallamish.

I should like to briefly highlight two other important researchers who have made significant contributions to the field of Kabbalah for reasons indicated below. Rachel Elior, who currently serves as the John and Golden Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University, is an excellent representative of Jewish women scholars engaged in serious scholarly research whom the Foundation has sought to identify and support in recent decades. She received two doctoral scholarships in 1975 and 1976 from the Foundation to complete her doctorate at that university and numerous fellowship grants for preparation and publication of her research after she became a member of the faculty there. Prof. Elior serves as a Senior Fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and was also the recipient of the Gershom Scholem Prize for research in Kabbalah.

Prof. Elior’s thirteen books range across the whole history of Jewish mystical literature. Her book, The Three Temples; On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism examines the mystical writing found in the Qumran caves. In Jewish Mysticism, Prof. Elior deals with various aspects of medieval and early modern Kabbalistic phenomena. Her research on Rabbi Joseph Karo, the leading Halachic authority in the Jewish world in the 16th century and an inspired mystic, and on Hasidism were published in Studies in Spirituality and The Mystical Origins of Chasidism. In her Paradoxical Ascent to G-d, she elaborates on the dialectical mystical theories of Habad Hasidism.

According to Prof. Elior, the Kabbalists contemplated the Jewish sacred texts and read them anew, exploring new meanings in those works in their search to create order, structure and meaning in the hidden world and transcend the borders between heaven and earth and mundane time and eternal cycles. Prof. Elior contends that Jewish mystical literature is “an important chapter in the history of freedom. “ The celestial sanctuaries, divine spheres, and the “breaking and mending” are all profound expressions of interest in achieving eternal continuity as against the fragility of Jewish existence in two and a half millennia of exile.”

The second scholar is Professor Elliot Wolfson. Many of the important scholars who are recipients of Foundation support in Kabbalah are Israelis. Prof. Wolfson is one of the exceptional Americans. Wolfson, who was schooled in classic rabbinic learning from the time he was a child, received his doctorate from Brandeis University with the help of three scholarships from the Foundation in 1983, 1984 and 1985. He is currently serving as the Abraham Lieberman Professor of Jewish Studies at New York University.

Wolfson has brought to bear in his research on Kabbalah his training in philosophy, literary criticism, feminist theory, postmodern hermeneutics, and the phenomenology of religion. His most significant contribution to the field has been his challenge of the rigid disciplinary boundaries separating philosophy and mysticism, and his attempt to use contemporary theoretical models to study classical and medieval texts.

Professor Wolfson has served as a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University (1996), and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University (2000). His publications include Through the Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton University Press, 1994), which won the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Category of Historical Studies, 1995, and the National Jewish Book Award for Excellence in Scholarship, 1995; and Language, Eros and Being: Kabbalisitc Hermeneutics and the Poetic Imagination (Fordham University Press, 2005), which won the National Jewish Book Award for Excellence in Scholarship, 2006. He is presently working on a new book, Open Secret: A Postmodern Reading of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.


Next Steps: The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship On-Line Program

I recently reported that the Foundation’s Executive Committee approved the expansion of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship On-Line activities. During the last three years we introduced a pilot program on the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship website of four on-line courses taught by Professors Ruth Wisse, James Kugel, Avigdor Shinan and Michael Rosenak. The program shows promise of creating the beginnings of a virtual Nahum Goldmann Fellowship.

We plan to launch an on-going, year-round program of courses next spring. In accordance with what I pointed out above, two of the courses will be devoted to the area of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah: An Overview taught by Prof. Rachel Elior; the second, The Historical and Contemporary Relevance of Chassidut, by Prof. Ada Rappaport of University College, London, an internationally distinguished scholar in the field of chassidut, who has been on the faculty of several Nahum Goldmann Fellowships.

Further details about this program will be shared in the future with Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni and other international and regional bodies who are working with potential young Jewish leaders around the world. We will keep you posted about the on-going development of this innovative program.


The Latin American Nahum Goldmann Fellowship

The twentieth Nahum Goldmann Fellowship will be held in Latin America in Uruguay on February 6-12, 2008. Three previous successful Fellowships were held in Latin America in 1996, 2001 and 2004. Our plan is to recruit fellows from all over South and Central America and Mexico, together with young leadership from Jewish communities all around the world. The theme of the Fellowship is World Jewry in the 21st Century. The faculty will include distinguished academics and community leaders from Latin America and all around the world.

Should you wish to recommend young people to apply, they can obtain applications from us by fax (212)425-6602, email at,from the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship website: or by writing to us (Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture – 50 Broadway, (34th Floor), New York, NY 10004).

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President