Page 164 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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powerful arguments for dating the work to the late thirteenth
century and confirming Moses de Leon as its author. He was thus
able to show that the magnum opus of the Kabbalah came from
medieval Jewish history — the third stage in the development of
the Jewish religion. It was thirteenth-century Kabbalah, argued
Scholem, that saved Judaism from the sterility of law and
At the heart of Scholem’s historiography is the belief that myth
is crucial to the vitality of a religious tradition, an idea which
betrays the influence of German romantic thinkers such as von
Baader. Scholem identified the central myth of the Kabbalah with
Gnosticism. He argued that already in late antiquity, Jewish mys­
tics developed a monotheistic version of Gnostic dualism. This
Jewish Gnosticism persisted in underground traditions and made
its way from Babylonia via Italy and Germany to southern France
where it surfaced in the
Sefer ha-Bahir.
This work, which was the
subject of Scholem’s dissertation, was the source for the Gnostic
tendencies in the thirteenth-century Kabbalah of Provence and
Scholem’s history of the Kabbalah is therefore a tracing of the
recurrence of this Gnostic myth throughout medieval Jewish
history. He argued that it formed the basis of the Lurianic system
of the sixteenth century and of the heretical Sabbatian theology of
the seventeenth. Indeed, it was the very heretical potential of the
Gnostic myth in Judaism that made the Kabbalah at once a force
of vitality and also a source of danger. It pushed monotheism to
its limits and this kept it in touch with elemental psychological
forces, but it could just as easily transcend those limits. In Sab-
batianism, the Gnostic myth exploded and caused an outburst of
antinomian heresy.
Scholem’s studies of Sabbatianism and its mystical theology
complement his work on the origins of the thirteenth century
Kabbalah. He began his investigations of mystical messianism in
1928 and published his seminal essay “The Holiness of Sin” in
1936. This work culminated in
Sabbatai Sevi
in 1957. In these
studies, Scholem argued that the Sabbatian movement was not a
fringe phenomenon in Jewish history, but instead the central
event of the seventeenth century. Sabbatianism captured the