Academic journal article Shofar

Qabbalah and Academia: The Critical Study of Jewish Mysticism in France

Academic journal article Shofar

Qabbalah and Academia: The Critical Study of Jewish Mysticism in France

Article excerpt

Qabbalah and Academia: The Critical Study of Jewish Mysticism in France

No doubt because of the interest of French intellectuals in Qabbalah, it is significant that at the turn of the century it was upon French soil that the first translation of the Zohar appeared in a modern language. In addition, during the bourgeoning of the historical-critical study of Jewish mysticism in the last century, French scholarship played a major role. Leaving aside the occultists' tendencies, the present article examines the development of Qabbalistic studies in France in the academic context, dividing it into two periods. The first, historically oriented, is that inaugurated by the trail-blazing work of Adolphe Franck (1809-1893), while the second, dealing with speculative systems, is marked by the prodigious activity of the modern historian of Jewish philosophy, Georges Vajda (1908-1981) and his school. An account is also given of certain French intellectual trends which manifested an interest in Jewish mysticism.

It is commonly accepted that the research of the great historian of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, opened the doors of the academy to Qabbalah. Far from us the intention of dulling the luster of his prodigious contribution in this respect, but it is a fact that at the time the young Berlin student set about writing his first essays, the critical study of the Qabbalah had already made great strides. Moreover, its trail had been partly blazed by French scholars who can claim to have played quite a considerable rôle, particularly in connection with the central problem of the Zohar, in forming the point of departure of the modern study of this discipline. Indeed, so distinguished by characteristic traits and original solutions is their contribution that it would not be an exaggeration to speak of a "French school" of Qabbalistic studies. Is it not highly significant that the central piece of Qabbalistic literature -- the Zohar -- was twice translated on French soil, first into Latin by G. Postel in the sixteenth century and subsequently into French -- the first into any modern language -- by the mysterious Jean de Pauly at the beginning of this century? Fostered by a congenial intellectual atmosphere peculiar to the French, the study of Jewish esotericism got off to a precocious start in France in comparison to other European countries. The attainments of the humanists and evangelists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries paved the way for the mystical philosophers and Martinists of the eighteenth century, who in turn ushered in the occultists of the nineteenth century.(1)

The present essay is an attempt to describe the place the French "école" deserves in the annals of Qabbalistic studies in modern times. Let it be made quite clear at the outset that our concern relates to the historical-critical study of the question and consequently deals all but incidentally with what A. E. Waite calls "French Kabbalism." Hence the theosophers and mystagogues of all shapes, from Eliphas Lévi to A. Grad, not forgetting Papus and C. Suarès, will only be of secondary interest to our theme. Though in many respects deserving of attention, their literary activity will be taken into account only insofar as it had real repercussions on the development of the Qabbalah as an academic discipline. That the theosophists and occultists did indeed exert such an influence is undeniable, even if it is solely through the efforts deployed by the scholars to dissipate the veil of confusion with which the former had enshrouded the whole question.

In France two periods can be distinguished in the development of this field: on the one hand, an historical phase, preoccupied with the question of the antiquity of the Zohar, followed, on the other, by a bibliographical and doctrinal phase. The work of Adolphe Franck (1809-1893) marks the beginning of the first of these two periods, whereas the second was initiated, a century later, by the research of Georges Vajda (1907-1981). …

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