Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Politics of Secrets: Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah in Context

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Politics of Secrets: Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah in Context

Article excerpt

THE STUDY OF JEWISH MYSTICISM in the academy has, generally speaking, had two major foci- the phenomenology of ideas and historical criticism. While it has been widely accepted by most scholars that there should be a reciprocal interchange between these two domains of research,1 the tendency has been to pursue these interests separately, which has contributed to a diminished interest in the social, political, and cultural location of kabbalistic ideas and texts.2 Classical historical criticism focused largely on how historical context allowed for influence among Jews, Christians, Muslims, philosophers, Gnostics, Neo-Platonists, traditionalists, kabbalists, and mystics. The model has been one in which ideas and symbols are imagined to migrate across presumed cultural and religious boundaries through a process similar to that of contagion, wherein the values, thinking, and symbolism of a majority culture "infect" a weaker minority community, resulting in a kind of syncretism in which the modes of discourse of the minority assume an almost unwitting imitation of the majority. However, methodological developments in recent decades in the fields of religious studies, sociology, anthropology, and the observations of New Historicism and New Textualism, have called into question many of the assumptions of earlier scholarship regarding the stability of the boundaries of communities, identities, and books. There is a growing interest in considering the ways that the production of texts is part of a strategy for imagining and constructing identity within cultural contexts in which identity itself is always fluid and contested.

My working assumption is that, in studying phenomena such as "Jewish mysticism" or "Kabbalah" or even "mysticism" in general, the data in question are not personal experiences, states of mind, or God but rather discourse. As Kocku van Stuckrad rightly reminds us, "The only thing religious studies should be interested in is analyzing the public appearance of religious propositions."3 From this perspective, it becomes important to consider how certain discourses, such as the one conventionally referred to as "Kabbalah," manage to develop and acquire legitimacy and authority. If a particular kind of discourse emerges abruptly at a specific time and place, it is reasonable to regard this as evidence that such discourse is serving an important strategic purpose for those involved in its production and dissemination, and that the cultural context is one in which an opening for such discourse exists. Talal Asad has noted that when considering the development of religious modes of discourse, we must bear in mind "the sense in which power constructs religious ideology, establishes the preconditions for distinctive kinds of religious personality, authorizes specifiable religious practices and utterances, [and] produces religiously defined knowledge.""* If religious discourse acquires its force and meaning at least in part through "historically distinctive disciplines and forces,"5 our understanding ofthat discourse is enhanced by considering the political, social, religious and intellectual context in which it takes shape. In other words, as Asad argues,

it is not just that religious symbols are intimately linked to social life (and so change with it), or that they usually support dominant political power (and occasionally oppose it). It is that different kinds of practice and discourse are intrinsic to the field in which religious representations (like any representation) acquire their identity and their truth. From this it does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces.6

The contextualization of Kabbalah is thus an endeavor to reveal the multiple ways in which this discourse constructs meaning, serves strategic interests, and bolsters contested identities within specific contextual parameters that make such discursive production possible. …

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