22 May 2008

Mysticism and Scholarship

I wrote on Sunday about Gershom Scholem, inspired by the recent publication of some of his journals. Let's follow-up a bit.

Scholem's two best-known works are: MAJOR TRENDS IN JEWISH MYSTICISM (1941) and SABBATAI SEVI: The MYSTICAL MESSIAH (1957).

The historical scope of the first of those works is daunting -- Scholem begins with the "Second Temple era," the period beginning around 353 BCE, when Darius allowed the Jews to building their temple. That First Temple had been destroyed at the start of the Babylonian exile seventy years before.

The ideas of exile and return are at the heart of Jewish mysticism through the centuries as Scholem portrays it. The soul of the mystic sees itself as in a state of exile from God, and sees the cause of that exile as a vast cosmological crisis -- a Babylonian captivity writ large.

One crucial text for mysticism -- both Jewish and Christian -- is the first chapter of Ezekiel, a prophet of that period of exile. Ezekiel begins his book with a dramatic vision of God, in the form of a man, driving a flying chariot, carried by four living creatures with wings and bovine hooves.

Such vivid imagery of the chapter calls out for interpretation, indeed for multiple layers of interpretation, each available to a narrower circle of adepts than the one before.

All the manifestations of religion -- the scholarly, the mystical, the scholarly/mystical -- are ineradicably part of human experience, and to know ourselves at all we must open ourselves thereto. I think the "village atheist" pose of a Hitchens, which simply sneers at such material, is itself as much a sign of the superficiality of our time as ... say ... a pop star/diva's enthusiasm about it.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.