Archimandrite Pavel Stefanov

title.none: Idel, Messianic Mystics (Archimandrite Pavel Stefanov)

identifier.other: baj9928.0108.001 01.08.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Archimandrite Pavel Stefanov, Shoumen University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Idel, Moshe. Messianic Mystics. Binghamton, NY: Yale University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 443. ISBN: 0-300-06840-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.08.01

Idel, Moshe. Messianic Mystics. Binghamton, NY: Yale University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 443. ISBN: 0-300-06840-9.

Reviewed by:

Archimandrite Pavel Stefanov
Shoumen University

"Da magistrum", St. Cyprian used to say when he asked his servant to give him the works of Tertullian. Everybody who is interested either professionally or emotionally in Jewish mysticism is aware of the shadow of a magister which still hangs over this discipline. His name, needless to say, is Gershom Sholem. The erudition and authority of Sholem are still indisputable but, as often happens, his historical- critical approach has long been taken for granted, thus blocking the development of science.

Moshe Idel (b. 1947), the author of the book discussed, has emerged in recent decades as an worthwhile successor and, to some extent, a much needed corrective of Sholem. His interest in the subject of messianism dates at least to 1976 when he defended a PhD thesis on the messianic views of Abraham Abulafia and published several articles, mostly in Hebrew. He expanded his observations in a series of lectures and broadcasts presented in 1989 and 1991. However, the present monograph is not a miscellany of previously published essays but an original and valuable contribution to its field.

Most western books nowadays have a funny or provocative title which is explained by a longer and duly serious subtitle. The title Messianic Mystics is too laconic and fails to explain that it is the Jewish religious tradition to which these messiahs and mystics belong. In the Preface (pp. vii-x) Idel stresses that he deals just with the messianic dimension of Jewish mysticism and not with messianism in Judaism. It is considered against the background of messianism in older traditions and of other elements of Jewish culture. The extensive use of unpublished manuscripts made by Idel highly contributes to the value of his monograph.

The extensive Introduction (pp. 1-37) is taken up by the author's effort to define his new methodology. Idel follows Liebes in claiming that messianism is closely connected with inner mysticism. He tends to minimize the importance of the traditional traumatic-historical explanation of messianic expression and to stress instead positive events and personal existential quest. A very important observation of his is that Christianity preserved some aspects of ancient Jewish thought which were later neglected by Judaism but emerged in Hassidism and Kabbalah. (30) Idel is convinced that Jewish messianism departs from the Christian one in its emphasis on the function and not the person of the Messiah, entailing the assumption of multiple Messiahs. I think that the author should have differentiated here between biblical and postbiblical messianism because the former is clearly 'monomessianic'. The main aim of the book is to refute the prevalent idea that Judaism believed in a single Messiah through the ages and to propose a phenomenology of what it calls "synchronic polychromatism" or a multiplicity of messianic concepts. It offers three general frameworks for dealing with Jewish mysticism: the theosophical-theurgical, the ecstatic and the magical. I can not agree with Idel's assertion that early Christianity was given to internal eschatology which became external under the impact of Augustine. (19) A close reading of the New Testament proves that the opposite is true. Also, from the second century on, Christianity was not a homogenous whole but a combination of often hostile East and West which finally broke any ties in 1054. The Eastern or Orthodox church never accepted the authority of Augustine in order to feel his influence. Idel offers two approaches: panoramic, which accepts that Messiahs selected different messianic models for their aims, and global, which takes stock of their historical development within Babylonian, Greek, Christian and Islamic contexts.

Chapter one is concerned with the forms of Jewish messianism before the advent of the Kabbalah (pp. 38-57). Idel starts with the interrelation between messianism and eschatology in the Bible and proceeds to discuss the image of the Messiah in rabbinic, Heihkalot and Hasidei Ashkenaz writings. He further comments on the presence of Arabic Neoplatonism and Christian medieval eschatology in Jewish redemption theories between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.

Idel devotes chapter two (pp. 58-100) to the philosopher Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291) and his peculiar brand of ecstatic Kabbalah which focused on the sacred names of God. Abulafia proclaimed himself to be Messiah. A central role in this kabbalist's system was played by the redemptive angel Metatron, also called Son of Man, Yaho'el, hu' ha-Go'el, Ben, Enoch etc. Abulafia's idea of the Messiah endowed him with the functions of Kohen (priest), a notion highly unusual in medieval Judaism, which Idel traces to the biblical king Melchizedek but which in my opinion is more reminiscent of New Testament imagery in the epistle to the Hebrews.

The third chapter (pp. 101-125) focuses on the theosophical- theurgical forms of the Kabbalah which developed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They marginalized messianic eschatology in an effort to substitute Neoplatonism for the hitherto prevalent Aristotelian interpretation of Maimonides and his adepts and largely depended on the mythical- theurgical Kabbalah of the Zohar. Idel distinguishes another type of messianism which he calls traumatic. It was propounded in the second half of the thirteenth century by the Castilian Kabbalist ha-Kohen. According to it, Jews must contribute to achieving divine harmony by ritual observance. Idel analyzes in detail the various modes of Messiah's symbolism such as Malkhut (Kingdom) or his involvement with the various divine sefirot and even with evil.

The next period of 1470-1540 is dealt with in chapter four (pp. 126-153). It witnessed the appearance of the so called talismanic or magical model of Kabbalistic messianism. Idel is confident that its rise was triggered by the pogroms in Catalonia and Castile in 1391. One is left puzzled why similar massacres at the time of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century or earlier failed to provoke such an outburst of messianic fervor among European Jewry. Talismanic messianism was based on personal revelation, demonology and rejection of Christianity, philosophy and science. Idel is doubtful about the importance of the expulsion from Spain for the development of messianism.

The center of Kabbalah study in 1540-1640 was the small town of Safed in Palestine discussed by the author in chapter five (pp. 154-182). Jewish mystics tried to calculate the date of the coming of the Messiah and to put the Bible under eschatological scrutiny. They were led by R. Isaac Luria who strongly believed in his own messianic status but relegated messianism to a single stage in the realization of his doctrine. The idea of divine sparks lost in the shells of matter and in need of redemption is clearly Manichaean and it should provide the opportunity to study in debt the influence of Gnosticism on Lurianic Kabbalah. The cosmology of perhaps the greatest female philosopher in the twentieth century, Simone Weil, was under its spell and in turn it influenced other writers such as Maurice Blanchot.

Especially fascinating is chapter six which covers the mysticism of the seventeenth century false Messiah Sabbatai Tzevi and his movement which literally shook the world (pp. 183-211). Unlike Sholem, Idel insists that Tzevi followed not Lurianic but earlier forms of Kabbalah. Tzevi was hardly the crazy holy man that Sholem painted him to be. His thinking and conduct were much more sophisticated and centered on his deification. Tzevi's conversion to Islam was explained in terms of reparation or redemption (tiqqun).

Eighteenth century Hasidism is the subject of chapter seven (pp. 212-247). Its messianic content is diachronically varied and is still disputed because many relegate it only to historical or external action. Using as departure points the writings of Besht and others, Idel shows that these different frameworks stem from ancient Jewish and not Christian sources.

The book ends with concluding remarks (pp. 248-293), three appendices (pp. 295-326), detailed notes (pp. 327-428), references or rather a list of most but no all titles quoted, and index. One is puzzled to come across too many mistakes in an Yale University Press publication. Words are often missing, i.e. "in the wake [of] the Arab..." (p. 8), "a mass movement that [was] at the center..." (p. 36), or doubled, i.e. "What are kinds of miracle are related to the Messiah?" (p. 11), "the the redemptive nature..." (p. 22) etc. To sum up, this is a very innovative and valuable book which will stimulate or challenge for decades research in an increasingly important sphere of study.