The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice

The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice

The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice

The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice


The Scandal of Kabbalah is the first book about the origins of a culture war that began in early modern Europe and continues to this day: the debate between kabbalists and their critics on the nature of Judaism and the meaning of religious tradition. From its medieval beginnings as an esoteric form of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah spread throughout the early modern world and became a central feature of Jewish life. Scholars have long studied the revolutionary impact of Kabbalah, but, as Yaacob Dweck argues, they have misunderstood the character and timing of opposition to it.

Drawing on a range of previously unexamined sources, this book tells the story of the first criticism of Kabbalah, Ari Nohem, written by Leon Modena in Venice in 1639. In this scathing indictment of Venetian Jews who had embraced Kabbalah as an authentic form of ancient esotericism, Modena proved the recent origins of Kabbalah and sought to convince his readers to return to the spiritualized rationalism of Maimonides.

The Scandal of Kabbalah examines the hallmarks of Jewish modernity displayed by Modena's attack--a critical analysis of sacred texts, skepticism about religious truths, and self-consciousness about the past--and shows how these qualities and the later history of his polemic challenge conventional understandings of the relationship between Kabbalah and modernity. Dweck argues that Kabbalah was the subject of critical inquiry in the very period it came to dominate Jewish life rather than centuries later as most scholars have thought.


“Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is science.” Thus Saul Lieberman, the great Talmudist of the twentieth century, introduced Gershom Scholem to his colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Lieberman’s apocryphal and oft-quoted remark testifies to the modern Jewish ambivalence toward Kabbalah, successfully overcome only by Scholem’s scientific scholarship. No one did more to perpetuate the narrative of Scholem’s rescue of Jewish mysticism from the condescension of his scholarly predecessors than Scholem himself. Enlightened scholars of the Jewish past had persisted in casting Kabbalah as primitive, antimodern, and irrational. in a word, nonsense. the demands of responsible scholarship required careful and considered criticism of Kabbalah, a task Scholem identified with the trajectory of his own career. in the preface to the first edition of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, he reflected: “More than twenty years have passed since I began to devote my life to the study of Jewish mysticism and especially of Kabbalism. It was a beginning in more than one sense, for the task which confronted me necessitated a vast amount of spade work in a field strewn with ruins and by no means ripe as yet for the constructive labours of the builder of a system.” For all its sarcasm, Lieberman’s quip only reinforced Scholem’s carefully cultivated posture as the heroic founder of historical scholarship on Kabbalah.

This book explores the substance and subsequent history of Leon Modena’s critique of Kabbalah in seventeenth-century Venice as a challenge to Scholem’s foundational narrative. a rabbi and a preacher in the Venetian ghetto, Modena witnessed the transformation of Jewish society, culture, and institutions through the spread of Kabbalah. in 1639 he took the unprecedented and dangerous step of subjecting this newly dominant spirituality of early modern Judaism to meticulous analysis. Part religious polemic, part cultural criticism, and part epistolary treatise, Modena’s Hebrew exposition entitled Ari Nohem (The Roaring Lion) addressed a society saturated with Kabbalah, a condition that he sought desperately, and with utter futility, to change. Modena argued against the antiquity of Kabbalah by subjecting the origins of kabbalistic texts to rigorous analysis. He

Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1941), vii. On Lieberman’s remark and its variants, see Abe Socher, “The History of Nonsense,” ajs Perspectives (Fall 2006): 32-33.

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