Mystic Circles

Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg

Prof. Joseph Dan, 73, the renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism, rises between 5 and 6 each morning. He reads the newspaper, listens to the 7 o'clock news on the radio and then gets down to work. "I am a morning person," he says. "Those are my best hours. Usually I have prepared my materials the afternoon or evening before, so the books and studies are already on my desk, and I write for a few hours in the morning." Lest anyone think he is sacrificing his life to study, he is quick to say, "I am not a monk. By 5 or 6 P.M. my mind is no longer focused, so I go out, meet friends or watch television. I do not have an ascetic streak and I don't want to give the impression that I'm devoting my life to this enterprise. On the contrary, this enterprise gives me life."

He has lived this way for the past seven years. The result, just published, is the first three volumes of a monumental project, "Toledot Torat Hasod Ha'ivrit" ("History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism," Zalman Shazar Center, Jerusalem). It amounts to an attempt by one individual to write the entire history of Jewish mysticism: not some executive summary, but rather a full-blown academic survey abridgment for executives but with academic detail. The first three volumes deal with antiquity, from the beginning of the Second Temple period to the end of the Talmudic period, on the cusp of the Medieval era. Dan does not yet know how many volumes will be needed, and is unwilling to restrict himself. "I have the whole picture in my head, up to the end of the 20th century," he says. "But at my age, I am only prepared to commit to what is close to completion."

Dan says he approached Zvi Yekutiel, the executive director of the Shazar Center, with a proposal for the first three volumes "only when they were very close to completion, and as of now I still haven't signed a contract for them. It's the same with the rest: I'm not about to enter into a commitment I'm not sure I can meet. The fourth volume, the first of the books on the Medieval period, is already at the publishers. I am in the process of completing the fifth, which I hope will be done by January. That's why I allowed a note in the first volume indicating that the project is intended to include the Middle Ages as well, but I'm not prepared to make a commitment regarding the later periods. At my age everything is in God's hands."

Dan says that at his current rate he can complete one volume a year, "probably even one and a half.

"Maybe the fairest thing to say," he continues, "is that in the natural order of things it is more than I have the right to expect to accomplish. So there is a good chance the project will be completed by someone else."

Do you regret that?

"Absolutely not. Don't forget that I've already written 60 books, so I definitely think I have fulfilled more than half my desire, maybe even 90 percent. And what I have already done in the present project is, after all, not just a beginning but a significant part."

Dan works at home - a spacious apartment in Jerusalem's San Simon (St. Simeon) neighborhood, which he shares with his partner of 20 years, Prof. Miri Kubovy. Kubovy is Professor of the Practice of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and director of the Modern Hebrew Program at Harvard University. Accordingly, in recent years Dan spent much of his time in the United States, teaching in Israel just one semester a year.

His research assistant, Na'ama Bat-Shahar, fact-checks and also photocopies texts that Dan does not own. Dan receives generous support (he declines to say how generous) from the London-based Arcadia Fund, which is managed by a couple who are personal friends and "great lovers of Israel."

According to the Aracadia Fund's own Web site, it awarded Dan a $150,000 grant for the project in 2005, for the first three volumes, and intends to support the next three as well. The site also says that an English version of the project will be published by Oxford University Press New York.

The funding, Dan emphasizes, is earmarked entirely for his research assistant and to defray publication costs. He does not get a penny of it, he says, and his only regular income is his pension from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Jewish Thought for 40 years and held the Gershom Scholem Chair in Jewish Mysticism.


A study on this scale creates the clear impression that its author is out to leave the personal imprint of one who has "summed up his field of endeavor" and is accordingly the preeminent scholar in that field. (It's clear that this means, at best, the preeminent scholar after the late Gershom Scholem, who is responsible for the academic status this field now enjoys.)

Dan says his motivation for undertaking the study was "first of all a desire to sum up everything I have done, particularly because I saw that there were quite a few things to which I had given thought but had not yet said and that needed to be said. But the main motivation was the feeling that after Scholem the study of Jewish thought was very much characterized by a search based on the formula: What is Judaism really? That is, a kind of overview of Jewish history, with the resultant neglect of an approach based on an enumeration of the distinctive phenomena in all their diversity and variety. Having a historian's genes, I am suspicious of these all-embracing overviews. Accordingly, I wanted to emphasize the multiplicity in my field of expertise, Jewish esoteric theology."

For that it is not necessary to write so many volumes of particularized research. It is enough to write an essay warning against comprehensive overviews.

"I am retired now and had the opportunity to see everything I did in an orderly fashion, and as I said, I also have the genes of an historian who wants to elaborate the various phenomena."

The overall title of the work reflects some of the very important decisions Dan had to make. Most tellingly, the Hebrew title refers to a history of "torat hasod" - literally "the doctrine of the secret," sometimes translated as "esoteric theology" - rather than "mysticism." The reason: "In Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, mysticism is not an authentic element. Christianity is replete with mysticism, with reports by people of revelations and visions they had about the hidden worlds. In Judaism, the view of the hidden worlds generally derives from scholarship and great learning, not necessarily from an experience we call 'mystical.' So it is more accurate to talk about 'esoteric theology.' Of course, there is also mysticism, but it is relatively secondary and for the most part even those we would describe as mystics - those who have revelations - perceived themselves more as possessors of esoteric knowledge than as mystics in the conventional sense of the word. It is not by chance that Hebrew does not even have a word equivalent to 'mysticism.'"

On the other hand, in English there is no meaningful equivalent to "torat hasod." Accordingly, the book's English title contains the word "mysticism."

"Gershom Scholem," Dan notes, "preceded me in this by titling one of his books in English 'Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.'" At the same time, Dan says, Judaism stands out, in comparison to Christianity and Islam, as a religion that is intensively engaged with the hidden aspects of reality, with the happenings in the upper worlds - what is known in esotericism as "ma'aseh beresheet" (the description of the act of Creation) and "ma'aseh merkavah" (the description of the different "components" of the Godhead).

"Furthermore, both in Christianity, and particularly in Islam, there are groups that deal with the upper worlds, such as the Muslim Sufis, but there is little awareness of this aspect of Islam among the Muslim mainstream. It has been marginalized. In Judaism, however, even the greatest rationalists, the most vocal opponents of mysticism, could not ignore the potent presence of esotericism in Jewish thought."

In other words, even Maimonides, the most important figure in the history of Jewish thought, was ultimately unable to inculcate the major message of his philosophy: the rationalism that rejects not only mysticism but also denies the very assumption that a human being can describe the Godhead in any meaningful way. Engagement with the secrets of the Godhead is a central and inseparable element of Judaism, from the prophet Ezekiel, who describes God's appearance, down to the kabbala of our time. Ezekiel is also connected to another of Dan's key decisions: to begin his journey into Jewish mysticism not from the Bible but from the Second Temple.

"The Bible is filled with prophecies," he explains. "All through the Bible we have prophets who are in direct contact with God. In this situation there is no place and no need for mysticism. You do not have to 'learn' about the Godhead when you are in direct touch with it. Accordingly, Jewish esotericism begins only at the point where prophecy ends."

With the end of the prophetic age an extraordinarily rich mystical literature comes into being. The general public is unfamiliar with this body of literature, collectively termed the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. They include the works of the "Yordei Merkava," whose authors purport to "report" in great detail about the upper worlds where God and all his angels reside.

"Indeed, Ezekiel's descriptions could also fit the description of 'Yordei Merkava,' but they are not 'esoteric theology,'" Dan explains. "Ezekiel 'reports' his prophetic vision to the entire nation. He does not safeguard it for a handful of select pupils." Another distinction relates to the fact that in the popular view Jewish mysticism is wholly identified with the term "kabbala."

"The kabbala is a central branch of mysticism, which began to develop from the 13th century; indeed, since then it has been the major branch. What we researchers view as new ideas of the kabbalists, from their point of view are ones that have been passed down, received - hence the name 'kabbala' [receiving] - through the generations. The chief characteristic of this outlook is the implication of the term 'sephirot,' which in the early esoteric theology related to the physical reality of the world, to the Godhead itself [in the sense of different levels within it."

Biographical scoop

Joseph Dan was born in 1935 in Budapest, Hungary. This fact is something of a scoop, since all the biographical documents about him (including his own Web site: give his birthplace as Bratislava. Even today he finds it hard to openly talk about the reason for the misinformation.

"We fled here out of fear of Hitler when I was four. After we settled in Jerusalem the British caught us, and a Jewish Agency lawyer told my father: Don't say you are from Hungary, because if you do they will send you back there. Say you are from Czechoslovakia, in which case they will let you stay - because Czechoslovakia was already under Nazi occupation. His whole life my father feared that the truth would become known, so we continued to say we were from Slovakia. I was no longer afraid, but somehow I inherited his feeling of being a refugee."

Dan's surname is also the result of the family's infiltration into Mandatory Palestine: "Originally it was a complicated Hungarian name, but when we crossed the border from Lebanon at Metula, people from [Kibbutz] Kfar Giladi made us false papers with the name Dan, so we would be considered sabras. Our immigration was definitely not Zionist-driven but entirely the result of our being refugees. When my father was asked where the family wanted to live he said Jerusalem because it was the only place he knew. I grew up totally alone, without a family: no brother or sister, uncle or aunt, grandmother or grandfather. At the same time, I felt completely at home in Jerusalem. To this day, I would say, my secularity is very much a Jerusalem thing, and as such differs from a secular identity in, say, Ramat Aviv or Kfar Shmaryahu."

At Hebrew University, Dan began a double major in Assyriology and Jewish Thought. It was the personality of the revered teacher, Prof. Gershom Scholem, that tipped the scales toward Jewish mysticism. "He was an extraordinary personality," Dan recalls. "You sensed you were in the presence of a cultural depth and range you would find nowhere else. It is rare for people to encounter a teacher of this stature. I take issue with him on many points in my books, but those differences derive from principles that he taught me."

He has also been described as a very difficult man, even tyrannical. Was that your experience?

"I don't know. It is true that he did not show much sensitivity to other people. He was a very insular person. He was always supremely polite and a cordial conversationalist. He did not reject anyone. But that did not go very deep; he did not draw people in. You didn't feel bad about the lack of personal warmth because you understood it had nothing to do with you, it was his personality. The only student with whom he had ties that went beyond politeness was Yosef Ben Shlomo, of blessed memory. Somehow he saw in him something more than a student, and don't forget that Scholem had no children."

Were other students jealous of Ben Shlomo's relationship with Scholem?

"Not that I am aware of."

Dan stresses that as a teacher Scholem was completely open to the possibility that people would disagree with him. "Once I published an article in the journal Zion. It was a reworking of a chapter from my doctoral thesis, which contained a paragraph in which I disputed Scholem fiercely. But there wasn't room for everything in the article, and I dropped that particular paragraph. He was very angry with me for not leaving it in."

He says Scholem's dominance continues to cast a shadow over his students even now: "For some of the teachers in the department, including some who are teaching today - I won't name names - Scholem and his achievements were an oppressive complex. That means, first of all, that in regard to every subject they ask themselves what Scholem would have said and how he would have responded. And it's not only scholars in Jerusalem. While giving a lecture in Berlin on 'Sefer Hayetzira' [an early work of Jewish mysticism] I noticed that Peter Schaefer, the most important scholar of Jewish studies there, was fidgeting in his chair. After the lecture he got up and said: That is not what Scholem said, Scholem had a different opinion. I replied: True, what of it? In the meantime, Schaefer, too, has shed this attitude, but at the time the question of whether you accepted Scholem or not was critical.

"Even today," Dan continues, "researchers have a hard time with Scholem. Think about it: In the 20th century, Israel had many important scholars who did important things, but the best-known Israeli scholar in the world, the one whose name is known to the greatest number of intellectuals, is undoubtedly Scholem. That inevitably creates a feeling of oppression and also, in some people, a deliberate desire to attack him. I, too, have no problem attacking him, but I still feel loyal to his method."

Dan ventures that perhaps he was "less damaged" than others because he was a student of Isaiah Tishby, whom Scholem despised. (Scholem prevented Tishby from teaching kabbala in the Department of Jewish Thought; he was compelled to teach in the Department of Jewish Literature.)

"That barrier created a situation in which even though I attended Scholem's seminars every week for 15 years, it was obvious from the outset that I could not become his confidant. But it took me time to escape the shadow, too. I made my definitive escape while cataloguing Scholem's library. That took ten years, because for every book a decision had to be made about where to place it. Even after making a decision of principle - the decision of Scholem himself - to organize the library chronologically, there were still endless dilemmas. What about interpretations of a particular book, should they be placed with the original book or with other books from the period in which they were composed. In the end, a specific decision had to be made for each book, and for that it was necessary to know what each book contained - and the library has 13,000 books. And then, holding a card and trying to decide, I felt Scholem standing over my shoulder asking: Does one really think so? Oh, it was hard."

By the way, why did he despise Tishby?

"There were many reasons, but I think it began when Tishby published 'Mishnat Hazohar' [selected passages from the Zohar, edited according to themes - a kind of popular version of the Zohar]. Scholem was a total elitist and hated the idea of popularizing texts. He believed that readers of Hebrew, at least, could cope with the Zohar itself."

Decline of the generations

The Hebrew University's Department of Jewish Thought is facing the most serious crisis in its history: It will have only six teachers on staff this year, compared with 15 in the past, the fate of the adjunct teaching staff is unclear, and there are virtually no mid-career faculty members. Dan says the latter problem affects all of Israeli academia, but is worst in the humanities.

"We do not have an intermediate generation because 15 years ago there were five professors of kabbala, and when we thought another younger teacher was needed we were told we had enough. Then they all retired and there was no one to step in. The same problem exists with contemporary philosophy. Eli Schweid declared that he would not retire until a successor was found, but he failed and today the department has no regular teacher in this field.

"There were also personal circumstances that led to the simultaneous leaving of several veteran teachers," Dan explains: "[Prof. Aviezer] Ravitzky's injury, Paul Mendes-Flohr's move to Chicago, the fact that I found someone in the United States and taught only one semester a year."

In 1997 Dan was awarded the Israel Prize in his field and delivered the acceptance speech on behalf of the recipients. He took the occasion to attack the neglect of Jewish studies by secular academics, which had enabled Orthodoxy to "take over" the world of Judaism. He has not changed his mind about this, he says.

"The typical secular person identifies Judaism with Haredim. That is the whole of Judaism, he thinks, and he hates it. I admit that in the past I harbored a similar instinct. Many years ago I attended Rosh Hashanah services in a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, where they had an organ and a choir. It was a very moving ceremony, but I, a totally secular person, was shocked. What, I thought - is this Jewish? I no longer feel that way, but in my opinion this is still the instinct of most secular Jews. The result is that the enmity of the secular population for what they perceive as Judaism is absolutely unbelievable, and it is becoming ever more extreme. Forty years ago, writers like Bialik or Agnon were not considered 'Jewish' artists. They were our culture. But over time, everything that is associated with tradition is being labeled 'Jewish' with a corresponding decline of interest."

That approach clearly affects the attraction to Jewish studies, Dan notes. "Actually, the situation in Jerusalem is still relatively good, because many settlers are coming to study. But when I taught, the majority of the students were secular and so were at least half the teachers. Today the majority of students and teachers are religiously observant, and in Tel Aviv no one at all is registering for Jewish studies because the general Israeli attitude toward Judaism is reflected there."

Isn't your criticism somewhat anachronistic in an era in which there are so many secular 'batei midrash' teaching Jewish studies? Maybe the problem is the way Jewish studies are taught in academia?

"Of course I welcome the batei midrash phenomenon. But at my age, after seeing more than 50 years of attempts of this kind, I am quite pessimistic. It seems to me that the identification of Judaism with extreme 'Haredism' runs so deep, and the loathing for it is so rooted among the secular public that I don't know what to do. As for the criticism of the universities - they have a research function they must fulfill, and spiritual activity can take place outside of them."

On the face of it, Dan has no cause to complain about a lack of interest in his own field, the study of Jewish mysticism. After all, there is tremendous interest in the kabbala in Israel and throughout the world. Predictably, he is not exactly thrilled at the way Madonna and her celebrity friends approach the kabbala.

"These days the name 'kabbala' is attached to everything," he says. "When Britney Spears is sick, Madonna gives her an antique edition of the Book of Zohar and she reads the Zohar for a week and recovers from the flu. I see that as part of the postmodernism phenomenon, the shaking off of the great ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It comes from a sense of the limitations of reason, and one cannot call this criticism unjustified. After all, the nation where reason held the greatest sway was Germany, and we know what happened there. In the absence of an ideology that tries to cope with reality, people are attracted to things to which any meaning can be attributed. Nowadays, kabbala is a word to which everyone attaches every meaning, from medicine and seeing the future to the transcendence of the soul for personal needs, for example to become a better businessman. The problem is that postmodernism says no to modernism but has nothing to which it says yes. Until two weeks ago we might have said the answer is humanistic capitalism. Today we can no longer say that."

Beyond its lack of seriousness, is the superficial popularity of the kabbala also dangerous?

"In principle, there is no danger that every inanity of Madonna's will hurt someone. But what happens is that dangerous people enter this experience, people who found sects and practice brainwashing."

Is it possible that you and your colleagues benefit indirectly from this trend, that it heightens the general interest in kabbala so more people come to study it seriously?

"It may decrease the foreignness of the field, but I don't think it can contribute to a deep interest because someone who is impressed by the popular manifestation of the kabbala will recoil from it when he encounters the real thing. It is more difficult for me to explain the kabbala to someone who doesn't know anything than to someone who has totally distorted concepts about it."W