Kabbalistic Messianism Versus Kabbalistic Enlightenment

  • A. P. Coudert
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 173)


Gershom Scholem’s philosophy of Jewish history rests on the assumption that forces within Jewish culture are sufficient to explain historical developments without recourse to the intrusion of foreign ideas or influences.1 Thus for Scholem, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain set off a chain reaction that led from the Lurianic Kabbalah, to Sabbatian messianism, and finally to secularization and the Haskalah. Rather than a gradual progression, Scholem envisions Jewish history as a series of catastrophic ruptures.2 This is especially true in the case of Sabbatianism, which Scholem contends destroyed Judaism from within. Thus, fervent, antinomian messianism, when disappointed, led to its polar opposite, secularism and religious indifference.


Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution Jewish History Early Modern Period Jewish Culture 
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    David Biale, for example, suggests that Scholem’s outlook can best be described in dialectical terms: “Scholem’s theory of how mystical heresy ushered in the modern period of secularism and rationalism is the culmination of his attempt to show the hidden influence of mysticism on Jewish history. His account of the development of kabbalistic messianism into apocalyptic heresy and finally secular enlightenment rests on his theory of the productive conjunction of opposites: myth and monotheism, mysticism and rationalism, apocalyptic messianism and secularism. This theory derives from his understanding of the role of demonic forces in history” (Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979], 164). Scholars have also pointed out the way Scholem’s philosophy of history was influenced by his Zionism and attack on the kind of universalist thinking represented by the Wissenshaft des Judenthums. Moshe Idel has, however, pointed out the limits of Scholem’s strictly internalist view of Jewish history in the case of “Jewish Gnosticism,” which Scholem variously described as both intrinsic to Judaism (in the case of Merkabah mysticism) and a foreign element (in later Kabbalah). See Idel, “Subversive Catalystis: Gnosticism and Messianism in Gershom Scholem’s View of Jewish Mysticism,”in The Jewish Past: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians, ed. David N. Myers and David B. Ruderman ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998 ), 39–76.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. P. Coudert
    • 1
  1. 1.Arizona State UniversityUSA

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