Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of Mysticism or Mystifications of Science?

By Levi, Jerome M. | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of Mysticism or Mystifications of Science?

Levi, Jerome M., Anthropological Quarterly


This paper argues that Kabbalah, the generic term for Jewish mysticism, and structuralism, as articulated in anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss, share a number of unexpected theoretical foundations. These include the idea that surface diversity conceals underlying unity, truth is hidden within a layered model of reality, and linguistic and mathematical relationships constitute elementary structures enabling diverse and seemingly unconnected orders to be correlated with each other systematically. Yet if Kabbalah and structuralism are so similar, does this imply that Kabbalah is scientific or, as David Maybury-Lewis suggests, that structuralism is akin to mysticism? [Stucturalism, Kabbalah, Lévi-Strauss, Maybury-Lewis, science and religion, hermeneutics, symbolic anthropology]

"It is a magnificent feeling to recognize the unity of complex phenomena which appear to be things quite apart from the direct visible truth."

-Albert Einstein

"Structuralism uncovers a unity and a coherence within things which could not be revealed by a simple description of the facts somehow scattered and disorganized before the eyes of knowledge."

-Claude Lévi-Strauss

"God's only desire is to reveal unity through diversity. That is, to reveal that all reality is unique in all its levels and all its details, and nevertheless united in a fundamental oneness."

-Aharon Ha-Levi Horowitz (1766-1828)

Founder of the Staroselye branch of Habad

Mysticism and science are usually understood to represent very different forms of knowledge. What does it mean, then, when a certain type of study commonly construed as science, and another type of understanding conventionally seen as mysticism, in fact can be shown to exhibit a number of ontological features in common? In broad terms, this is the central conundrum this paper addresses.

Kabbalah and structuralism seem about as incongruous as two systems of thought and inquiry can be. Kabbalah, the generic term for Jewish mysticism that reached a florescence in Medieval Spain and now enjoys a popularized renaissance amidst Hollywood trendsetters, on the one hand, and structuralism, an analytic tradition flowering in anthropology in the mid-twentieth century that deposed existentialism from the French intellectual scene while casting long shadows in psychology, philosophy, and literary criticism, on the other, at first glance seem to have nothing in common. Yet it is the purpose of this paper to suggest that these two apparently contrasting theories of knowledge and being in fact share some noteworthy points of contact.

Related to this claim is the observation that each of these intellectual traditions reveals aspects of the kind of knowledge system that normally is accorded to the other. Put simply, whereas Kabbalah is conventionally understood as mysticism, some of its leading advocates have portrayed it as science. Conversely, while certain proponents of structuralism have argued that their approach is a branch of science, some of its critics have depicted it as more akin to mysticism. Among others, Daniel Matt, whose recent annotated translation of the Zohar (2004), Kabbalah's central text, is being hailed as the definitive translation of this book in English, has shown striking parallels between modern physics and Kabbalah (1996). Correspondingly, David Maybury-Lewis, ever the perspicacious critic of structuralism on empirical grounds, suggests that insofar as strucuralism's scientific formalism is basically pretense, in the end the method is essentially an intellectually seductive form of mysticism (1960, 1970a, 1970b).

A clarification of terms is apropos at the outset. The version of structuralism to be examined here is as narrow as the definition of Kabbalah is wide. By structuralism, I mean " the systematic attempt to uncover deep universal mental structures as these manifest themselves in kinship and larger social structures, in literature, philosophy and mathematics, and in the unconscious psychological patterns that motivate human behavior" (Kurzweil 1980:1).

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