yoni garb: kabbalizing modernity

An exciting scholar at the Hebrew University, Yoni Garb seeks to modernize Kabbalah scholarship. As he says in his recent article in Modern JudaismThere is no time like the present for calling attention to the emergence of a new field of scholarship, that of the modernization of Kabbalah.” To put it pithily: Kabbalah is modern. How? Isn’t Kabbalah a medieval and early modern system of theological (or theosophical and ecstatic) speculation? Isn’t it at least a “family resemblance” of stuff that, if it isn’t anti-modern, sure feels old?

Asking the question in this way will strike my readers as absurd. Kabbalah is obviously modern, or at least contemporary. Not just that, Kabbalah stares us down in its ubiquity from Robertson Blvd. to the daily spam we get from Madonna to the Kabbalat Shabbat services to the heavily publicized activities of Rabbi Pinto. What’s more voguish, adaptable, in-style and even sexy than Kabbalah?

Scholarship hasn’t neglected modern Kabbalah. It has feasted on it. For example, a few years earlier, in the very same pages of Modern Judaism where Garb makes his claim, Boaz Huss wrote an article on essentially the same theme: the neglect of Modern Kabbalah. There is at least one edited volume on Kabbalah and Modernity. Garb himself wrote a book devoted to Modern Kabbalah. Elliot Wolfson has a recent book on a modern Kabbalistic/Hassidic thinker. The most recent issue of Kabbalah journal include articles on Besht, Ezekiel Landau, the history of Kabbalah in America, Nathan of Nemirov and Nehemiah Hayon—all topics in Modern Kabbalah. There is also a recent book on Rashash and his contemporary followers. The claim that Modern Kabbalah studies are somehow underdeveloped just seems completely DOA.

So what does Garb mean by modernizing Kabbalah? This would not be scholarship if we didn’t attack the old dude, so without further ado:

The classical paradigm of twentieth century Jewish studies, as exemplified in the work of luminaries such as Isaac Baer, Julius Guttmann, Saul Lieberman, Shlomo Pines, Gershom Scholem, Ephraim Urbach and Harry Wolfson, was founded on intensive study of texts ranging from later antiquity to the medieval period. The only one of the above to dedicate a significant degree of inquiry to the modern period was of course Gershom Scholem. Yet, the latter deeply believed in the primacy of origins in scholarly investigation and devoted only one book-length study to the modern period: Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676.Precisely through this exquisitely researched exception, which was limited to half a century (as its title demonstrates), we can see how central sabbateanism and especially one figure, Sabbetai Tsevi, were for Scholem’s understanding of modernity.

As a result, from Scholem’s time onwards, numerous giants of Jewish modernity, such as R. Yonathan Eybeschutz, R. Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto and even R. Elijah (the Gaon) of Vilna, have been researched mostly with respect to one question: If and how sabbatean they were. Of course, one might argue that an influential figure in twentieth century Jewish Studies, Martin Buber, foregrounded a modern movement: Hasidism. As this is not the place to address this issue, I shall merely confess to sharing Scholem’s own opinion (which profoundly affected Buber’s reception in Jewish Studies in Israel), namely that the latter’s writing on this topic was that of a public intellectual rather than research in the classic sense.

As a result, entire mystical worlds, such as the circle of Luzzatto, the center in Prague, the Oriental school of R. Shalom Sharʿabi and Lithuanian Kabbalah-not to mention many schools of nineteenth century Hasidism and twentieth century Kabbalah, are absent in Scholem’s Sabbato-centric scheme, which was largely upheld by his students.One can note similar choices with regards to Mussar literature, surely one of the most widely disseminated forms of Jewish writing in the modern period: The focus of Scholem’s followers, especially Joseph Dan, was mostly on medieval works in this genre, and again modern classics, such as R. Eliyahu Itamari’s Shevet Mussar or the anonymous Hemdat Ha-Yamim were examined only with regard to their possible connection to Sabbateanism.

I think we need to discount all prose directed against the Scholemic paradigm. In all honesty, it’s a never ending and barely welcome addition to otherwise fine Kabbalah scholarship. In this case, Scholem gets blamed for his greatness in producing the Sabbatai book, which then somehow stifled everyone, except that it didn’t, see above.

These methodological moves are exhausting and how they became de rigueur for an important field of study needs to be addressed. But still, I think Garb is doing something wonderful in this piece, albeit something that doesn’t jibe with the pretensions of his methodological summa.

After pillorying the sad neglect of modern Kabbalah, Garb pivots to a fascinating case study of Rabbi Moshe David Valle, a contemporary and associate of one of the most influential modern Kabbalists, Ramhal. Where most of the studies of modernization of Kabbalah focus on Hasidism and its alleged psychologization of Kabbalah, Valle politicizes Kabbalah and forms a counterpoint to this much explored psychological impulse. Interestingly, Valle’s oeuvre has recently been reprinted by mainstream Haredi Kabbalists in over twenty volumes.

A study of this treasury of complex and innovatory texts reveals a constant response to a vast range of modern phenomena, including travel and discovery, anatomy and contemporary medicine, new military technology, Baroque aesthetics, harmonics and poetics, pollution, youth culture (especially smoking and gambling), work, secularization, and again the political. … Valle’s texts reveal a particular concern with various Italian phenomena, such as carnivals, but here I shall focus mainly on his theory of the political.

The most fascinating thing Valle says concerns providentialism. For example, he writes

Observe again and note His general and individual Providence: That he directed the hearts of all men to take up different trades, so that each city will be comprised of all that is of general need, and thus with goods and food. For you see that the peasants who work the land enter the city, one bringing with him one item and one another . . . and their intention is undoubtedly only for their own benefit, and God has calculated this for the general good.

It is not too much to say that providentialism doesn’t just constitute an anticipation of Adam Smith. Garb astutely contextualizes Valle as

marking the beginnings of the Golden Age of economic theory in eighteenth century Italy, in which public happiness (pubblica felicità), and the reciprocal nature of the market were key concepts.

But Valle can do more work than this. As Michael Rosen points out, providentialism (along with rationalism) is one of the background beliefs of modernity. While in Rosen’s view it will fall to Hegel to harmonize rationalism and providentialism, an important tradition of providentialism informs all modern ideas of society as a system (itself underpinned by organicist metaphors).

I guess what Garb has given us in Valle doesn’t consist in an account that Kabbalah is also modern—that it persists within modernity or adapts to modernity. Rather it’s that modernity is Kabbalistic. The texture, metaphorics, normativity—the whole story of modernity, are generated by Kabbalists as much as they are generated by philosophers, scientists or other presumed apostles of modernity.

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5 Responses to yoni garb: kabbalizing modernity

  1. I welcome the engagement with my study, and the comment on Rosen’s book is especially apt.
    Regarding my treatment of previous scholarship on modern Kabbalah:
    I never claimed that I am in a solitary venture. Rather I noted that there was the beginning of a change in the 1990’s and that today Gries, Kahana, Pedaya, Sorotzkin and Weinstein (whose Kabbalah and Jewish Modernity has just appeared) are developing a new approach. Of the studies mentioned by Chakira, some (Giller, Garb) were actually mentioned in my article, one (Wolfson) was mentioned in its reworking of this section in my recent book Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah and most (Huss’s volume, the Kabbalah issue [Chakira’s count includes an article on Sabbateanism, which for me is the exception which proves the rule] were published after my article was finalized or published (unlike some kabbalists that I study, I don’t claim to read the future). All confirm that there is a change underway and my article is but part of it.
    One should also note that most of these studies are on one (the 20th) century, rather than the entire modern period.
    In any cases, claims as to neglect are always relative – I never wrote that modern Kabbalah has not been studied, just that it has received less attention until now than medieval Kabbalah (which is still going strong, as evidenced by all the recent books on the Zohar) – this despite the fact that most kabbalistic texts that we have were written after the 16th century.

  2. Josh says:

    I think this comment stems from a misreading of the post. I was not saying that you are unaware of the literature– that’s laughable given that you quote it. I was saying that your claim of neglect was less about the numbers of studies and more about a methodological orientation stemming from Scholem. Whatever the merits of this position, there is a reflex of piling on Scholem which I find to be unnecessary and repetitive.

  3. ej says:

    Could you elaborate on your last sentence “The texture, metaphorics, normativity—the whole story of modernity, are generated by Kabbalists as much as they are generated by philosophers, scientists or other presumed apostles of modernity.” Which developments do you have in mind, secularism, advanced capitalism, fascism, stream of consciousness? Maybe I don’t understand your use of term ‘modernity’.

    • Josh says:

      I was restricting myself to the uniquely modern notion of providentialism as discussed by Michael Rosen (Amos Funkenstein et. al.). There are other concomitant notions necessary for modernity such as rationalism, subject object dualism, self assertion (depending on which genealogy of modernity you are using) which are not necessarily reflected in Valle.

  4. Pingback: Moshe David Valle Bites the Bullet | Chakira

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