Crisis and Mystical Creativity: Three Perspectives [Scholem, Idel, & jewish Renewal]

By Mark Beitman

Gershom Scholem understands all of the great flourishings of Jewish mysticism, and all mysticism in the history of monotheistic religions, as being associated with a particular historical crisis. In his essay “Reflections On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time,” written in 1963, he gives his evaluation of whether there has been any original mysticism in his generation.

He also explains why he is both optimistic as well as doubtful about the possibility of a new awakening of Jewish mysticism resulting from the Holocaust. In Absorbing Perfections, Moshe Idel will take issue with the accuracy of Scholem's position regarding the role crisis has played in the history of Jewish mysticism.

This paper will contrast Scholem's understanding of the relationship between crisis and mystical creativity with the perspective of Moshe Idel. This paper will also include a third perspective from within the contemporary movement known as Jewish Renewal, based on interviews conducted in the summer of 2009. The paper will conclude with a comparison of these three perspectives.


The Relationship Between Crisis and Mystical Creativity

Gershom Scholem sees a direct relationship between crisis and mystical creativity. Historically, he sees all the great flourishings of mysticism as being the result of crises. In 1963, he writes in his essay “Reflections On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time”:

There are no greater hours of inspiration in the history of religion, no times of greater creativity in the public realm of mysticism, than times of historical crisis. All of the great outbreaks of mysticism in the monotheistic religions (of which we know a considerable amount, after four generations of research) are associated with crisis. I will not elaborate this point here. The same holds true for the history of Jewish mysticism, in all of its various forms.

Throughout his writings on Jewish mysticism, Scholem is consistent on this point. Later in his essay, he will address the situation of mysticism in his time, as well as weigh in on the possibility of a new mystical awakening within Judaism as a result of the Holocaust.

Scholem's Understanding of the Present

Scholem position is that there is “no authentic original mysticism in our generation, either in the Jewish people or among the nations of the world.” He continues:

Those expressions of feeling or consciousness on the part of people possessing mystical knowledge, involving the giving of form and its transmission to future generations, have long since ceased. It is clear that in recent generations there have been no awakenings of individuals leading to new forms of mystical teachings or to significant movements in public life. This applies equally well to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

For example, although he acknowledges the mystical nature of the Subud movement in Indonesia which had emerged ten years earlier, and is impressed by “the speed with which such an impulse, originating in an individual of intense personal charisma, spreads today to all corners of the globe by means of contact or a type of quasi-contact,” he is doubtful as to the lasting significance of this movement, referring to it as simply a “wild growth of the human spirit.”

He sees the last mystical revival within Judaism as having occurred two hundred years ago. He points to the founding in Jerusalem of Yeshivat Beth El, “the center of those Kabbalists who came from the Sephardic communities and of the Jews from Arab lands.” He speaks of it with admiration, and more importantly, emphasizes how this center “providing a certain expression for the feeling of an entire public, and not only of those isolated individuals involved – one that was considered the height of inner awareness of the meaning of Jewish experience.” He also mentions the Hasidic movements in Poland and Russia, established some two hundred years ago, that “provided an anchor for Jewish mysticism as a broad and multi-faceted public phenomenon in our history.”

And, while acknowledging that there have been continuations of such mystical impulses “here and there”, that one can find “certain wild growths of mysticism which grew out of the intuitions of individuals, and which found a sectarian echo in narrower or wider circles,” nevertheless, he is clear in making his point that his own generation has not seen any original mystical awakenings that have had public significance.

One needs to understand precisely what Scholem means by mysticism to really understand how Scholem can conclude that there has been no new original mysticism in the world. Scholem is referring to mysticism as a public phenomenon, a mysticism bearing public significance. While acknowledging of course that mysticism as an experience belongs to the individual, this is not what he is referring to:

When we speak of such questions in general, certainly in the context of such reflections as these, we are not concerned with the private domain of mysticism. Isolated individuals, undergoing experiences known or comprehended only to themselves, which suddenly shed new light and understanding upon their inner world, drawing upon inner sources of inspiration, vision, and comprehension – such persons have existed in every generation, and were not unknown even after the Hasidic movement; that is, even after the degeneration of Hasidism.

Such people, he tells us, have existed in every circle. However, because these phenomena are confined to the experience of the individual and “not translated into public language” they do not have public significance. As he puts it:

Many have drunk from those wells and many will drink; they have not and will not find it possible to translate their experience, which is beyond the framework of human language. They sufficed with their own apprehension of what was given to them, or did not talk of it at all. If they did reveal it, they remained on the level of translators, without any echo or response.”

Therefore, what Scholem is concerned with is mysticism which has been successful in translating its message from the private to the public realm. This mysticism is one which “seeks to influence the generation as a whole, to show a path, not only to that individual whose eyes have been opened and who sees and comprehends something of the root of our being, but to transmit this knowledge to others.” In this way, when he is referring to mysticism, he is speaking of it as an historical phenomenon, one that took shape “beyond all those wild flourishings of private mysticism of which we know nothing and which existed without leaving a trace in the living literature and tradition.” He gives the example of Nathan Birnbaum to prove his point. Although Birnbaum came to support an extreme version of Orthodox Judaism on the bases of mystical experiences, nevertheless, he is not to be considered a part of the historical phenomenon of Jewish mysticism because, as Scholem explains:

Whatever may have happened between himself and his Creator was not translated into the language of literature, save for the slightest hints. Whoever does not know how to read the writings of Nathan Birnbaum...and does not know this secret tradition, will not know from whence he derived the feeling of mission that is so prominent in several of his later writings.

Scholem will also address three seemingly obvious contradictions to his claim that there is no original Jewish mysticism in his time: the outstanding figure of Rav Kook, Rabbi Arele Roth and his circle, and Chabad Hasidim. First, while acknowledging Rav Kook as “an example par excellence of a great Jewish mystic,” he explains that “anyone reading Rav Kook's Orot ha-Kodesh can immediately see that he is not a Kabbalist; rather, we see here a great man, who translated his own religious experience into human language, drawing upon the heritage of the generations.” Likewise, in discussing Rabbi Arele Roth and his circle, he acknowledges that here “we can see that there still exists the possibility of spiritual ascent by means of pious attachment to the tradition, which originally doubtless drew upon an individual of mystical inspiration.”

Nevertheless, like Rav Kook, while “these two figures still have the great quality of faith, for which there is no substitute...they are no longer Kabbalists in the strict sense, like the Kabbalists of Beth-El or those who preceded them.”

Lastly, in discussing the Hasidic renewal of Chabad Hasidim, he explains that like Rav Kook and Rabbi Arele Roth, all three of these manifestations have in common that “they minimize insofar as possible the mystical component of their inspiration, to the point of barely acknowledging it at all.” While he acknowledges that “they derive their inspiration from something like a genuine shock,” and he sees in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's declaration “Redemption Immediately!” (le-'altar le-ge'ulah), “a clear reliance upon the private realm of mysticism,” nevertheless, he explains how the Chabad Hasidim have assumed a guise that is anything but mystical.

While they have embraced the Orthodox way of life, “the mystical side remains as a kind of hint to the individual whose soul may be touched by God, but not to the public whom they wish to organize or to build up.” In fact, the public success of Chabad, in Scholem's opinion, is the direct result of ignoring the mystical realm.

Scholem recognizes it will take time after the Holocaust for a new, authentic Jewish mysticism to arise due to the extent of the trauma. He explains, “The immediate function of a creative mystical religious awakening is based, as we said, upon a profound and living personal religious experience. The time needed to react and respond to such an event is in direct proportion to the depth of the shock.” As such, Scholem cautions us that there is “an element of rashness in anticipating immediate results from crises.” He explains how this was the case with Lurianic Kabbalah:

The Kabbalah of Safed, one of the best-formulated and best-understood mystical manifestations in terms of its historical significance in the history of Judaism, was a response of the Jewish people to the expulsion from Spain, which constituted a tremendous crisis in the life of the nation. Yet two or three generations passed until this legitimate response was articulated in the language of its contemporaries in a form that carried historical meaning for the public, beyond the two or three Safed Kabbalists whose names are associated with this phenomenon as original visionaries.

He also sees this as having been the case with Hasidism, saying “it too emerged after the crisis had passed, and not immediately after the shock.” Scholem is consistent on this point, explaining how “only after some time does an historical shock penetrate to those productive depths from which such impulses emerge. Sometimes a great deal of time must pass until the reaction becomes visible.”

Based on this understanding, it makes perfect sense for him that there has yet to be seen any original mysticism in light of the Holocaust. He explains:

It is therefore understandable why the response to the Holocaust, which was such a profound shock – whether that reaction be destructive or productive – is not yet in sight. We hope that this shock will be productive and it is for that reason that we live here, in this country. Therefore, in my opinion, it is not at all surprising that we have yet to see mystical manifestations as a reaction to those events. This should serve as a warning to those who ask: Where is the religious and universal human reaction of our generation to what happened, to what so shook the very roots of the existence of our people?

Nevertheless, Scholem does see creative energy as having emerged from the Holocaust, although having taken a different form, and will remain optimistic that his generation is poised for an awakening of mystical creativity.

Scholem sees a tremendous amount of creative energy as having already been created as a result of the Holocaust. However, rather than manifesting itself in mystical or other religious expressions, he sees this energy as having been invested in secular forms through the establishment of the State of Israel. He sees this as a problem, in so far as a new emergence of Jewish mysticism is concerned:

It is a basic fact that the creative element, drawing upon the authentic consciousness of this generation, has been invested in secular forms of building. This building or reconstruction of the life of the nation was and still is difficult, demanding energies of both will and execution leaving little room for productive expression of traditional forms. This power includes much that would under different circumstances have been invested in the world of religious mysticism. This power has now been invested in things which are seemingly bereft of religious sanctity, but are entirely secular, the most secular things imaginable – and therein lies the greatest problem.

In reflecting on the possibility of a new mystical awakening in his own generation, the question for Scholem is whether there will be any energy left.

Scholem's Optimism and Doubt For the Future

Scholem's view of the possibility of a new awakening of mysticism, and Jewish mysticism in particular, in his own time can be characterized as both optimistic and doubtful. On the one hand, he is optimistic, seeing his generation as ready for a renewal of Jewish mysticism in light of the Holocaust.

Our generation, being a generation of crisis, is seemingly ready for such a manifestation...Indeed, we are now at such a propitious moment: the Jewish people has undergone a crisis and catastrophe that are beyond the power of human words and language to express. We must nevertheless ask: What will become of this? What can emerge from it?

However, this optimism is severely tempered by doubt in the face of the problem of secularization.

Scholem sees his generation as one where most Jews no longer believe in God and the traditional view of the Torah as the word of God is no longer a living reality. This concerns Scholem because he sees this belief historically as having been the basis for all Jewish mysticism:

What is the basic assumption upon which all traditional Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah and Hasidism is based? The acceptance of the Torah, in the strictest and most precise understanding of the concept of the word of God. In other words: one must clearly emphasize the significance of the concept of Torah from heaven and the belief in it as a factor in the existence of Jewish mysticism as an historical phenomenon.

Without this principle, Scholem is concerned about what form mysticism can now take within the Jewish world that would be able to have public significance.

Scholem sees this principle as having been of crucial importance for the history of Jewish mysticism. He exclaims, “One cannot overemphasize the significance and necessity of this element in the productive lives of Kabbalists or Hasidic masters...each and every word and letter was an aspect of the revelation of holiness that is meant by Torah from heaven.”

Regarding the Lurianic Kabbalah, he explains that “these Kabbalists explicitly stated that each Jewish soul has its own unique mystical path by which to read the Torah, in the sense of it being a living body and a true manifestation of the divine word; a path connected with the root of each person's soul in the upper worlds, which he, and he alone, is able to reveal.” This great faith in the Torah as the word of God and its infinite meanings allowed the gates of exegesis to remain open to everyone, and in this way gave Jewish mystics a means of expressing themselves while remaining within the tradition.

Not only do Jews in Scholem's time not affirm this belief, but he sees the entire world of the contemporary Jew as being far removed from the traditional world in which the Kabbalah and Hasidism emerged:

What is the difference between this world, in which mysticism is a living phenomenon, and ourselves, who do not pretend to, are not able to, and do not wish to wear the mantle of pious, Orthodox Jews following the tradition of our forefathers? What is the difference between a contemporary Jew, who has experienced whatever he has experienced, and the creative individual? And is there any room for such continuity even for one who is outside the realm of those who observe the halakhic tradition?

Therefore, he is doubtful that there can be a “new Kabbalah.” What for them “was an absolute belief” has become for us “an absolute obstacle”:

We do not believe in Torah from heaven in the specific sense of a fixed body of revelation having infinite significance. And without this basic assumption one cannot move...The moment this assumption falls, the entire structure upon which mysticism as built, and by means of which it was to be accepted among the people as legitimate, likewise falls.

Because there is now this “stumbling block which stands in the way of the formulation today of a Jewish mysticism bearing public significance” Scholem finds himself in a world of “religious anarchy.” He explains that, “Anyone attempting today to bring matters of inspiration and mystical cognition within the range of public understanding, without seeing himself, with a clear conscience, as being connected in an unqualified way with the great principle of Torah from heaven, that selfsame Torah with those selfsame letters as it is, is a religious anarchist.”

He says that it is a fundamental fact that “a religious understanding of Jewish continuity today goes beyond the principle of Torah from heaven.”

As such, Scholem has tremendous doubts that a new Jewish mysticism will be able to find a firm foundation. He asks if anyone can find “a clear objective basis for a new Jewish translation of our generation, which is a translation of experiences of no less significance than those of other generations?”

Where will Jewish people find a “firm basis for that same continuity, for that same feeling that the gates of exegesis have not been shut to the infinite wealth of the divine word known in its expansion?”

For Scholem, if Jewish mysticism is to be possible, two things will be needed. First, there must be Jews who have “undergone a living and authentic religious experience, one drawing upon the realm which is beyond routine performances, or even beyond living faith, because they have come to the sources of that faith itself, upon which they drew and to which they returned.”

Second, is the “possible form such a living experience may assume for the public.” In this state of religious anarchy, there may be upheavals of mystical intuitions here and there, but Scholem is ultimately very concerned as to how they will be able to express themselves:

If there is to be a mysticism that reflects the experience of an individual or individuals, it will not easily, if at all, assume the simultaneously free and obligatory expression that derives from its being bound to an historical revelation, to the living word of God; a feeling, if not a conviction of certain knowledge, that whatever one wishes to express is already hinted at in the Torah; the sense that “There is nothing that is not hinted at in the Torah,” as the early ones understood the significance of this talmudic saying...It is not surprising that within this path to anarchy...we have no clear knowledge as to whether mystical experience can in our generation assume a crystallized form obligating any sort of community.

Scholem entertains the idea that perhaps a secular or universalistic form of mysticism will appear. While he does not see any examples of this within Judaism, A.D. Gordon aside, he points to the figure of Walt Whitman, and a tradition of individuals professing personal mystical experiences that has existed for three generations. This is based on the idea that people will always be having mystical experiences because they are a “basic human experience, connected to the very nature of man.” Ultimately, Scholem holds out the possibility of a secular or universalistic mysticism, however, this is not his main concern.

Scholem's main concern is with the possibility of a new awakening of Jewish mysticism happening in his lifetime. He suggests the possibility that in Israel, there will be a double path of holiness and secularity, that mysticism will be revealed not in the traditional garb of holiness, but as Rav Kook saw it:

Perhaps holiness will be revealed within the innermost sanctums of this secularity, and the traditional concepts fail to recognize mysticism in its new forms? Perhaps this type of mysticism will not fit into the conservative traditional conceptions of the mystics, but will have a secular significance...there are those who see in the secularity of our lives and the rebuilding of the nation a reflection of the mystical significance of the secret of the world.

In this way, we have seen that for Scholem there is a direct relationship between crisis and creativity, and mystical creativity in particular, and that this perspective is based primarily on his understanding of the history of the Jewish mystical tradition. We have also seen how he makes sense of the dearth of original mysticism in his own generation, seeing this as consistent with his understanding of the time it takes for mystical creativity to fully emerge as a result of the trauma experienced, and therefore, how he is able to retain his optimism.

Seeing creative energy as already having emerged from the Holocaust, manifesting itself in secular terms, he questions whether there will be any creative energy left, and if so, if it can also be invested within a religious context. Seeing the majority of Jews in his generation, including himself, as not believing in the Torah as the word of God, he is concerned as to what form a new Jewish mysticism can take that will allow for private mystical experiences to be translated in such a way that they bear public significance.


Moshe Idel seeks to clarify Scholem's position on the relationship between crisis and mystical creativity. Unlike Scholem, Idel does not see the great flourishings of Jewish mysticism to be the result of crises. He will distinguish between “crisical arcanization” and “systemic arcanization” in order to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Scholem's statements from a historical perspective. Harold Bloom, in the introduction to Absorbing Perfections, sums up his position, “Idel always has been wary of Scholem's tendency to ascribe Kabbalistic transformations to the direct effect of Jewish catastrophes, such as the Spanish Expulsion. Again, this is a disagreement mostly in degree and not in kind, almost as if Idel's aim is to sharpen Scholem's focus.”
Idel's focus on arcanization is based on his shared understanding with Scholem that the mystics considered the Torah to be the word of God and therefore, they saw the text as possessing infinite meaning. He explains that there is a connection between the mystics having experiences and arcanization:
...the belief in or attribution of a secret dimension to the canonical texts, and its subsequent discovery by complex exegetical methods, is only rarely a purely intellectual exercise. The very belief in the existence of a secret layer or layers of a text that may be discovered and disclosed to others assumes the possibility of contacts with dimensions of reality that are only rarely the common experience of a religious person.

As such, Idel is in agreement with Scholem's “more cautious and all-encompassing” definition of mysticism as concerning “the existence of people blessed with spiritual sensitivity, who have any sort of experience of divine matters.” Like Scholem, for Idel Jewish mysticism is therefore the result of the Jewish mystics both having profound religious experiences as well as being able to translate these experiences in a way that bears public significance through exegesis of a text deemed to contain infinite meaning.

Arcanization for Idel refers to “both conscious and unconscious efforts to introduce secrets into the canonical texts, as the result of either a systemic development or a crisical situation.” He distinguishes between crisical and systemic arcanization. Crisical arcanization refers to “arcanizations that result from the pressure of external events, historical or cultural, that demand a reorganization of the order of the text as rotating around an esoteric core than answers the repercussions of that crisis.”

Systemic arcanization, on the other hand, is not the result of some external historical crisis, but refers to that natural developments involved in finding deeper meanings in a text deemed to contain infinite meanings. What for Scholem is always the result of crisis, for Idel is not. Idel sees crisical and systemic arcanization in relation to each other, and cautions against the inaccurate and overly simplistic view that crisical arcanization could exist without any element of systemic arcanization also being present. This is because, as he says, “the crisical one will always attempt to capitalize on the systemic arcanization.” In this way, even when Idel acknowledges crisical arcanization to have taken place, it is still rooted in systemic arcanization. He explains:

...when crises intervene, they affect the particular form of existing arcanization which did not fulfill the needs of the intellectuals and thus is to be rejected, implicitly or explicitly, in favor of another, new type of arcanization. In that manner, I assume, most of the developments took place.

For Idel, crisis affects the form of arcanization, not whether it happens in the first place.

Idel understands the history of Jewish mysticism differently than Scholem. He does not regard the great flourishings of Jewish mysticism to be the result of crisis. For example, he explains that Lurianic Kabbalah did not come about as the result of crisis and considers the scholarly opinion that there was crisical arcanization with the emergence of Kabbalah or Lurianic Kabbalah to be a “rather doubtful assumption."

He describes this position as relying “less on detailed analyses of texts than on historiosophical suppositions which, interesting as they may be, represent what the scholar understands as external history, the scholar's views on the impact of history on individuals and groups, their way of reacting to crises, and other paratexual factors.”

In particular, Idel attacks Scholem's opinion that symbol formation in Kabbalah is in response to an external crisis. He sums up Scholem's position:

...”the more sordid and cruel the fragment of historical reality allowed to the Jew amid the storms of exile, the deeper and more precise the symbolic hope which burst through it and transfigured it.”...The tears of a lachrymose history crystalized into Kabbalistic symbols, which served as mirrors within which Jewish history receives its meaning. The mystic's consciousness becomes a mysterious alembic for this alchemical transformation and also the agent that transmits, symbolically, the meaning of history for his generation.

Idel does not agree with this evaluation. While acknowledging that “some historical events may perhaps have deepened the significance of some preexisting symbols,” he does not see historical experience as having created any new symbols. Instead, he says that the origins of these symbols “remain obscure, to be traced in the preceding phases of Jewish mysticism, which predate the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.”

Just as Idel does not see symbol formation in Lurianic Kabbalah as the result of crisis, likewise he does not see the symbols of Early Kabbalah as having originated due to crisis. He explains the position of those scholars who hold “the assumption that symbolization is motivated by the feeling of a crisis in the canonical text, in sacred language, or in tradition generally” as one which incorrectly sees symbolization as a means by which the Kabbalists were able “to safeguard the values they believed in, when those values were deemed, according to scholars, to be endangered by religious insufficiency.”

Idel sees this misunderstanding of early Kabbalah as the result of Scholem and other modern scholars having undergone their own crisis, and projecting this into the past. He explains:

...the Kabbalists were deemed to be able to recover from this alleged crisis or “depression,” to escape the dominion of Satan and open the path to a luminous way of life. It seems very plausible that the attribution of such a dark starting point for Kabbalistic creativity is the combined result of the importance given to Gnosticism in Scholem's studies, on the one hand, and to the impact of the Shoah on modern Jewish scholars, on the other.

Here, Idel is attacking not only Scholem but also his students, notably Isaiah Tishby. He explains that while this theory may be “fascinating,” it is “hardly plausible.” He sees the appearance of this theory as “ representative of a modern development of the conception of Jewish history as haunted by crises and presided over by a demonic power, as formulated by Scholem, but it is less in accord with the understanding of hermeneutics in the Middle Ages.” In this way, Idel sees the experiences that the modern scholars have underwent as having affected their ability to be objective.

Rather than seeing crisis as the cause of Kabbalistic symbol formation, he will offer his own understanding which he says is based on “a sustained exegetical and spiritual, rather than a historical or naturalistic, reorientation of Kabbalists.” He explains how the Kabbalists were attempting to “enrich the value cargo of the canonical texts” rather than trying to find meaning in the events that the Kabbalists would have personally experienced. He is firm in his position, stating that “neither the calm times of the mergence of Kabbalah and its floruit in thirteenth-century Spain, on the one hand, nor the socially catastrophic and sometimes psychologically traumatic events of the expulsion from Spain, on the other, produced a direct form of spiritual reaction that might be translated into the emergence of new symbolics.”

He points out that people, places, and events of a historical nature did not make their way into the literature. Instead, he sees symbolism in the Kabbalah as the result of a “postreflective stage” and maintains that there was “much more direct contact with the literary material than with reality.” and this is why “the most insignificant of the Edomite kings mentioned in the Bible becomes infinitely more important for a theosophical Kabbalist than the most potent of the Spanish kings.”

Idel considers his view of the Kabbalists themselves to be different than Scholem's. He sees the Kabbalists as far from reacting to, or even perceiving, any crisis. He describes them as “elite scholars, very creative and serving as guidance to their communities” whose “creativity also encompasses nonsymbolic modes like halakhic writings.” He points to the “absence of an awareness of a crisis either in their explicit writings or in our historical records,” in concluding that crisis was not even a part of the early Kabbalist's consciousness.

Idel sees the Kabbalists as responding to Maimonides, not crisis. For example, he says that “Kabbalistic arcanization, as well as that of the Hasidei much more systemic than crisical. As a reaction to Maimonidean arcanization, some of the Kabbalistic texts betray a crisical nature, as they attempt to counteract the purportedly pernicious views of the great eagle.”

Therefore, he sees the Kabbalists as having “resorted to radical exegetical techniques and to more comprehensive and systematic theological conceptions...the result of an acculturation of some parts of Jewish elites to their environment.” Idel sees the Zohar and the Maimonidean project in the same light, explaining both as the result of the Bible in the Middle Ages being “contemplated and commented upon from cultural angles that prompted questions alien to the cultural horizon of its ancient authors.”

Furthermore, like Scholem, Idel acknowledges the power the mystics held in viewing the Torah as containing infinite meanings. However, Idel makes this point not to show how the mystics dealt with crisis, but rather how they were able to respond to Maimonides. By assuming the Torah encompassed everything, “the sacred text fulfilled the role of allowing religious adapt themselves to new intellectual developments and encounters.”

Instead of seeing the early Kabbalists as responding to crisis, Idel maintains that it is the Maimonidean project which is an example of crisical arcanization. This he sees as “quite obvious even in the title of the work in which it has been expounded: Guide of the Perplexed.” Seeing the relationship between crisical and systemic arcanization, he explains: “This is a comprehensive, though neither systematic nor systemic, arcanization. Crisical as Maimonides' own move is, however, it does not easily renounce its conservative claims, namely self-presentation as a systemic development, more precisely a partial disclosure, of rabbinic esotericism.”

Idel also attacks the notion that the early Kabbalists were responding to an intellectual crisis in confronting the Muslim world:

As I have suggested elsewhere, the emergence of more complex semantic and parasemantic discussions of the Hebrew language may have something to do with polemics and apologetics related to ideas expressed by Muslim theologians about the perfection of the Qur'an and the Arabic language. Such a debate does not, however, mean that the Jewish thinkers were necessarily in a spiritual crisis.

Therefore, Idel does not see the early Kabbalists were neither responding to an external crisis nor an intellectual one.

While Idel's focus in Absorbing Perfections is on the Kabbalistic literature, he also addresses the Heikhalot literature as well as the emergence of Hasidism. Regarding the former, he does see this as an example of crisical arcanization, in contrast with the Rabbinic literature which he sees as systemic in nature. This is because, while the Rabbinic literature was the result of an “intense preoccupation with text as a precondition of the attainment of its recondite layer,” the Heikhalot literature underwent a crisical arcanization due to its being “imposed by an entity that is external to the recipient of the revelation and does not involve the prior profound absorption of the content of the text.”

However, with regards to Hasidism, he again contradicts Scholem's view of it, namely that it should be seen as a response to the crisis of Sabbateanism, by suggesting that the neutralization of elements in Lurianic Kabbalah was “perhaps also influenced by ecstatic Kabbalah.”

Idel has from the beginning a different understanding of the relationship between crisis and mystical creativity within the Jewish mystical tradition. Even when he sees creativity emerging from crisis, he characterizes this creativity as “conservative.” He says that “only rarely have total ruptures produced significant types of influential literature. It seems that moments of crises are prone to encourage turns toward more conservative stands, toward more “authentic” types of thought that will ensure, in a religious society, the continuity of a certain sort of mentality despite the historical, social, or political ruptures.”

How then could Scholem have made so many mistakes in his scholarly understanding of the history of Jewish mysticism? Idel answer is that Scholem was reading crisis into the text, rather than acknowledging that the nature of the text itself was given to further arcanization. He explains how such a mistake can be made in doing the type of philology Scholem was known for. He explains how “a later semantic meaning of a given term may mark a development caused by a dramatic change, a rupture with the past – a crisical arcanization.”

But, on the other hand, it may mark “a gradual development of possibilities that are inherent in the earlier texts but not obvious to a modern scholar for various reasons, like the fragmentary nature of the pertinent literature or oral transmission.” This is what Idel means by systemic arcanization, the notion that “the texts themselves are sometimes prone to provide the springboard for various esoteric logics.” He explains how, in the same way that “the same interpretations may be embraced by Jewish mystics living in different historical periods and in different geographic areas” likewise a particular mystical text “may be understood differently by modern scholars who subscribe to the same academic methodology.”

In addition to making philological mistakes, however, Idel will suggest that Scholem and his students are guilty in projecting their own experience of crisis back into the Kabbalistic experience. He says pointedly: “The question, then, is whether a crisis should not be discerned in the lives of those who formulated the crisical theories.” He wonders whether the earlier Kabbalists “experienced such shocking historical experiences as Tishby did.”

As we have seen, Idel disagrees with Scholem that the great flourishings of mystical creativity have been the result of crisis. He acknowledges the role that crisis has played at times in determining the particular form of arcanization that took place, through the process of crisical arcanization, however he sees such arcanization in relation to the more ongoing systemic arcanization. Idel uses Scholem's emphasis of the mystical belief in the Torah as containing infinite meanings against him. It is precisely because of the text having this quality that it is able to undergo systemic arcanization, marginalizing the role of crisis. Idel's critique against Scholem is focused on the early and later developments of Kabbalah, in particular denouncing Scholem's understanding of Kabbalistic symbol formation in relation to crisis.

However, unlike Scholem, Idel does not look around to see whether there is any authentic mysticism, Jewish or otherwise, in his generation. He is not concerned with this question, nor in speculating about the possibility of Jewish mysticism in the future. Idel is the historian par excellence and keeps his critique of Scholem focused on the past. Nevertheless, based on Idel's position, we can detect that he would not be as optimistic as Scholem in evaluating the potential for the Holocaust to bring about a new awakening of mystical creativity.

If mystical readings of the Torah are to occur, this will primarily be the result of the nature of the texts themselves, the ongoing process of systemic arcanization. The crisis of the Holocaust would only affect the type of arcanization that takes place. The Holocaust may have this effect, or another form of creativity may emerge, or perhaps creativity will not occur at all. If Scholem's position can be summarized as “crisis results in mysticism and mysticism is the result of crisis,” Idel would be happier with the position that “crisis does not necessarily result in mysticism and mysticism is not necessarily the result of crisis.”

However, in coming back to Bloom's statement that “this is a disagreement mostly in degree and not in kind,” I cannot agree. While certainly Idel wants to clarify the role that crisis played in the major developments of the Jewish mystical tradition, Idel's position is much stronger as well. In Absorbing Perfections, Idel is going to argue the exact opposite of Scholem, namely, that the great flourishings of Jewish mysticism were not the result of crisis, and therefore, there is no inherent relationship between crisis and mystical creativity.


Every two years, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, holds a summer retreat. In the summer of 2009, they met on the Ohio Wesleyan University campus. I was fortunate to attend this retreat. While there, I had the opportunity to conduct interviews with over twenty individuals connected with the movement known as Jewish Renewal. During these interviews, one of the questions I raised was whether they see a relationship between crisis and mystical creativity, and if so in what way? I also asked them to explain what they mean by mysticism, and Jewish mysticism in particular. Further, I inquired as to whether they see the movement of Jewish Renewal as a part of the Jewish mystical tradition. Keeping Scholem's insights in mind, I further inquired whether they see a connection between the emergence of Jewish Renewal and the Holocaust, or other crises, as well as their understanding of the written Torah. It is with reference to these interviews that I now present this third perspective on the relationship between crisis and mystical creativity.

What I found is that most of the Jewish Renewalists did see a relationship between crisis and creativity. They see crisis as having a positive function in leading to new growth. Regarding Jewish mysticism, they see crisis as a stimulus for replacing old models with newer more effective models for understanding the divine and its relationship to humanity. At the same time, many were ambivalent about the role that crisis plays, noting its destructive element. Just as crisis can lead to new life, it can also destroy life. In agreement with Scholem and Idel, they also recognize that the creativity resulting from crisis can take many forms, not just mysticism.

In terms of the orientation from which these Jewish Renewalists are responding, unlike Idel, it is not purely historical. While some of them have a historical understanding of Jewish mysticism, their responses are based in philosophical reflection as well as through relating to their own experiences, with Jewish Renewal and otherwise. This is in a large measure the result of my interviews being conducted during a summer retreat. As Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg explained to me, while he is giving certain answers to me on this occasion, on another occasion his responses might be completely different. And of course there is a difference between answering questions in an interview and crafting your position for publication.

What is Jewish Mysticism?

In order to understand the Jewish Renewalists' perspective on the relationship between crisis and mystical creativity, we need to understand what they mean by mysticism. While there was a variety of responses, the most common was an understanding of mysticism as involving a direct experience of the divine. Jewish mysticism, therefore, refers to the particular Jewish way of establishing and maintaining these connections. Of course, while this was the most common understanding, other responses were given. Akiva Wharton affirmed the notion of Jewish mysticism as mystical exegesis, while Yehudit Goldfarb described it as something like psychology “only deeper....a mapping of the soul.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow emphasized the centrality of mystery, that “mysticism has as a principle that you can't come up with all the answers.” Meanwhile, Rabbi David Zaslow looks at the term Jewish mysticism as a misnomer. He explains “there is nothing mystical. It's extremely natural...There is no Jewish mysticism. It's Jewish naturalism.”

The general consensus of what mysticism is as rabbinical student Hannah Nathans put it, it is the “personal experience of God.” Rabbi Diane Elliot speaks about connecting to the Ein Sof and becoming a channel in order to draw it down into our own lives, “bringing it in more and more, bringing more God.” Barry Bub talks about being able to “feel in the flow of the vastness of what is out there.” Seth Fishman emphasized the centrality that the divine names have played in facilitating this connection with the divine. Meanwhile, Rabbi Goldie Milgram speaks of the need to “extend neural networks in the brain and make new levels of awareness possible.” Caroles de Vries Robles affirms Scholem's statement that “no one apart from the mystics themselves really knows what mysticism is.”

In understanding mysticism as involving the direct experience of the divine, the Jewish Renewalists emphasize that mysticism is neither a theory nor a philosophy. As Rabbi Jeff Roth explains, “There is a theory relating to mysticism, what it might look like... but mysticism is about experiencing the divine directly, not talking about it.” Rabbi Howard Avrum Addison speaks of the need for silence in order to create a space to hear the ever-present voice of God in our lives. Rabbi Burt Jacobson refers to his own experiences that led him to Jewish mysticism. He explains, “In the 1960s most of this stuff was concepts on paper in books. It wasn't real. What made it real was psychedelics...It was the kind of revelations that came through psychedelics that made many of us go back and say 'is this stuff some place in the Jewish tradition and if so how do we make it come alive?'”

Seeing mysticism as involving a direct experience of the divine, the Jewish Renewalists understand Jewish mysticism as the particularly Jewish way of establishing and maintaining these connections. As Caroles de Vries Robles puts it, “There is not a Jewish god. There is a Jewish connection to this source.” Goldie Milgram explains how the Jewish mystical traditions have given us specific ways for developing this connection. She say that “we have unquestionably inherited tools to enter into the various mystical traditions in Judaism.” She emphasizes the willingness to engage in a sustained way with practices “within a Jewish container” such as keeping the mitzvot and Shabbat. Rabbi Phyllis Berman perhaps sums it up best. She refers to chanting and meditation, reading the Zohar and other texts “not only on a peshat level but looking for the deep meanings of the text and believing there are secrets there to be uncovered,” maintaining “a strong belief in the unity of all” and “doing practices that allow us to experience that unity.” She also explains how having mystical experiences informs the way one lives one's life as a “natural extension of that practice.” In emphasizing the need for direct experience of the divine, the Jewish Renewalists' understanding of mysticism is in agreement with Scholem and Idel's. However, unlike Scholem and Idel, the Jewish Renewalists do not see mystical exegesis as the only means of translating these personal experiences into the public realm.

Crisis and Mystical Creativity

In answering the question as to whether there is a relationship between crisis and mystical creativity, many of the Jewish Renewalists responded that they do see such a connection. While most of the Jewish Renewalists were addressing the question philosophically, in addition to relating it to their own life experience, several of the responses were rooted in a historical understanding of Jewish mysticism. Diane Elliot, for example, sees this dynamic at play in the 17th and 18th centuries in the emergence of Hasidism. Her view of the Baal Shem is also consistent with Scholem's understanding of the need for time to elapse in order to overcome the trauma brought about by crisis. With regards to the Holocaust, she explains that while “there was some literature that came out right away, and there was a burst of creativity afterwards, it took fifty years for the real inspiration.” Howard Avrum Addison also sees a relationship between crisis and mystical creativity that is consist with Scholem's understanding of the history of Jewish mysticism. He sees this as being the case regarding the Merkavah literature, and also mentions the expulsion from Spain and the Crusades. Like Scholem, he sees this dynamic at play in connection with the Holocaust. He explains how now: “People are looking for both ultimate answers and also new paradigms, to understand the workings of the divine in the world that allow us to carry on and not lose a sense of the divine when the world goes mad.”

Other Jewish Renewalists brought more of a philosophical understanding of the relationship between crisis and creativity rooted in their own life experiences. As Ruth Broyde Sharone succinctly put it, “The hardest parts of our life are where we have the greatest growth.” Yehudit Goldfarb explains how crisis can lead to the breaking down of old patterns in that “It challenges your set places, your parts where you think are stable and solid and tend not to grow.” Rabbi Hannah Tiferet Siegel tells us of how sometimes people have to “hit the wall before they can see the light.” Richard Kaplan sees the questions one asks in a time of crisis as “coming under the heading of mystical concerns because really they are deep philosophical issues. For instance, why do bad things happen to good people?” Arthur Kurzweil referred to a lecture given by Rabbi Steinsaltz where he said:

“The Jewish people as a unit is not an animal. We are a plant and we function as a plant. And as any botanist knows the way to get a plant to grow is by cutting it back. So we had this terrible cataclysm when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed. What was the result of that? The Talmud. We had the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1942. What came out of that? The Kabbalistic group in Tsfat. We had the terrible massacres in the Ukraine. And what was the result of that? Hasidism. Great burst of creativity. So it seems like as terrifying as it is that we grow when we are cut back so the crisis mode seems to be for the Jews like it is for plants, you cut them back and suddenly they burst.”

David Zaslow, seeing the Holocaust as the culmination of a history of European anti-semitism, understands the movement of Jewish Renewal as part of the emergence of a “new paradigm,” and explains, “God forbid anybody should have to have any enlightenment through suffering. The reality is this seems to be a part of the natural system.”

Some, such as Arthur Waskow, while seeing a relationship between crisis and creativity, point out that this creativity can manifest itself in many different ways. He speaks of the crisis of the Roman empire and Hellenization and how “some of them even concluded that god and human could be totally united in at least one human being so that you might say that at the heart of at least some versions of Christianity is the mystical assertion that the carpenter from Nazareth was God.” On the other hand, he points out that another response to religious crisis is atheism. He draws connections with the past in describing humanity's current economic and ecological crisis:

The kind of crisis that I think we've been through for sure now and in the Roman empire and probably in the collision of the Sumerian empire and the invention of agricultural mono-crop agricultural and irrigation canals is often a kind of economic ecological crisis. A big jump in control over the earth including a big jump in disastrous control over the earth.

Furthermore, Waskow sees Jewish Renewal as similar to the “renewalist” movements of other religious denominations, in that they are all the result of the “collision of modernity with all the traditions. That's a big crisis!” He sees the power human beings now have over the earth as a crisis which “often brings a much broader and deeper sense of God being in the world and in human beings because it dislocates the assumption that God is outside. Suddenly, God seems much more inside and so in that sense I think that that kind of crisis at least does lead to a likely, I don't know about inevitable, mystical response.”

Rabbi David Ingber sees both the potential of crisis to lead to mystical creativity, as well as its more destructive elements. He explains: “Crisis is an ellipsis in the ego in the people or the individual where what you know to be true has fallen apart and what is yet to emerge has not yet emerged. And so in that space there can be great creativity that is fostered by a breakdown of the old system.” However, he is quick to point out that “if it is not maximized it can become catastrophic.” He does not see any crisis in the formation of the early Kabbalistic literature. He explains how this relationship “ like anything. Your ego can drop in a moment of great rapture, ecstasy and joy or it can drop in great moments of crisis, frustration, and disintegration. And, as for the individual, so too for the larger.” Likewise, Elliot Ginsburg's answer reflects a balance of historical understanding, personal experience, philosophical reflection, and aesthetic sensibility. He explains that while crisis “forces you to confront certain issues, problems, and possibilities,” he does not see crisis as engendering creative responses. He continues: “Sometimes it engenders a repetition of something that worked before but now has changed or something that doesn't work.” Like Idel, he points out that some forms of creativity are not based on there having been a crisis. He explains that: “It is not just a functionalist equation. Some people are just hardwired to find creative models.” When I asked him his thoughts on the difference between Scholem and Idel's understanding on this point, he replied:

I find Scholem more satisfying, but I do not know that he is right. Scholem is dialectical and I love dialectical thinking. And I find his understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah as a response to the expulsion of the Jews from spain to be absolutely satisfying but I think not convincing. It's existentially satisfying for me but it's not the whole picture. Ultimately I think Idel has a better handle on it, although I find Scholem much more beautiful.

Several Jewish Renewalists were equally concerned with the destructive element of crisis as they were ready to acknowledge its potential to lead to a creative response. As Hannah Nathans explains: “Crisis can be two different things. It can take you out of your connection and it can force you into your connection.” Jeff Roth speaks about crisis as being built into the nature of existence and human existence in particular, and how this is “part of the plan of waking up.” Nevertheless, he sees crisis as well as ecstasy as being capable of both waking one up or “bring greater darkness” into one's life. Phyllis Berman explains how sometimes crisis can “make people tighter and less open to mystical experience.” Rabbi Shefa Gold replies: “It's a strange question...because crisis can open up a creative path or not.” Goldie Milgram shared her ambivalence. Taking an organic view of the world that sees us as “made out of compressed stardust like everything else on the planet,” she continues to explain that “it's the organic nature of things when under stress to attempt to adapt so it would make sense that in periods of stress there would be mystical yearning and more mystical creativity.” But while this “makes sense,” she cautions us that only research can reveal if this is accurate.

While in the minority, there were several Jewish Renewalists who did not see a relationship between crisis and mystical creativity. Barry Bub explains that while “mysticism is useful to assist us in transcending crisis, in connecting to see beyond immediate crisis in our environment, other than that I cannot see the connection.” Akiva Wharton, seeing Jewish mysticism as exegesis, says that “it just proceeds.” Seth Fishman reminds us that “history is always open to interpretation” and therefore expresses a deep concern “of any interpretation of history that builds something positive off of something negative.”

Jewish Renewal and the Mystical Tradition

The relationship between crisis and mystical creativity is not just a philosophical or historical question but one that has direct bearing on the present and the future. It directly relates to Scholem's speculations as to whether there will be a mystical response to the Holocaust that will be able to attain a form bearing public significance within the Jewish world. If Jewish Renewal as a movement is to be viewed as an original form of Jewish mysticism, the question is then whether this mystical creativity is the result of the Holocaust or some other crisis. With this in mind, I asked these Jewish Renewalists whether they view the movement of Jewish Renewal as a part of the tradition of Jewish mysticism.

Most of the Jewish Renewalists I interviewed consider Jewish Renewal as a movement to be an authentic form of Jewish mysticism and as such, they also see it as a continuation of the Jewish mystical tradition. Howard Avrum Addison sees Jewish Renewal as similar to Hasidism in being a “popularization of Kabbalah,” mentioning the centrality of the “four worlds” and the sefirot within Jewish Renewal, and how these concepts have been incorporated into new practices. Of course, he sees distinct differences between Jewish Renewal and Hasidism, referring both to its egalitarianism as well as its “desire to overcome mind-body dualism.” As such, he was comfortable describing Jewish Renewal as a form of Neo-Hasidism, while Arthur Waskow uses the term “feminist Hasidism.” Diane Elliot connects Jewish Renewal with the Hasidic and Kabbalistic traditions as well as acknowledges that “there are other streams” from which Jewish Renewal drinks. She affirms Addison's sentiment of Jewish Renewal as popularizing Kabbalah, seeing how “the information held by very few in the past is now being disseminated much widely.” Phyllis Berman explains how Jewish Renewal is a continuation of practices which “have been a part of our people from time immemorial.”

Several of the Jewish Renewalists emphasized the novelty within Jewish Renewal as well as its connection with traditional Jewish mysticism. David Ingber explains that Jewish Renewal is the only authentic progressive mystical branch of Judaism today, and in a way similar to Scholem, he explains why Chabad, as well as the the Kabbalah Center are neither progressive with respect to the former, nor Jewish with respect to the latter. He tells how the Kabbalah Center “finds metaphysical reasons to remain modern. It's an interesting phenomenon, premodern and universalistic...they are trying to say that because the Zohar is a divine document they have to listen to everything in it.” In terms of Chabad being seen as progressive, he explains that “they would be insulted by that term.” On the other hand, in describing Jewish Renewal, he exclaims: “Reb Zalman and Reb Zalman's students are fully mystical, fully academic, and critical. They assume that mysticism means practice: tools, paradigms, things you do to access higher states of consciousness that are universally present in all human beings, and Judaism has a unique mystical toolbox.” Richard Kaplan tells of how Jewish Renewal has overcome such premodern conception as there being a unique Jewish soul as well as being able “to harmonize its integrity with other spiritualities.” Burt Jacobson addresses many people within Jewish Renewal who turned to Eastern mysticism, seeing it as a bridge which has brought people back into the Jewish fold. He explains how mysticism “was lost in Judaism because of the modern world and the situation that Jews came into. They gave it all up basically and there was no continuity. And so for many of us in Jewish Renewal an acquaintance with Za Zen or with Vipassana or with other kinds of Eastern traditions helped us understand what the Kabbalists and Hasidic masters were talking about.”

A few Jewish Renewalists were ambivalent in describing Jewish Renewal as part of the Jewish mystical tradition and wanted to clarify exactly in what way this could be seen as being the case. In Yitzhak Buxbaum's opinion, for a movement to be a part of an authentic religious tradition it must be able to produce saints, which he does not see Jewish Renewal as having done. Nevertheless, he exclaims “a lot of the people here have accomplished something spiritual.” Seth Fishman, seeing the centrality for Jewish mysticism of connecting to God through divine names, sees Jewish Renewal as having helped many people do this, especially women. He explains:

Part of their innovation has been to recognize that some of the traditional names of God are not working for certain people who are therefore sort of truncating their Jewish connection because they find the old tradition language as stifling to their connection to God or their ability to turn to God in prayer. In Jewish Renewal Reb Zalman has given those people permission to bring new ways of calling God into the service.

Nevertheless, he emphasizes the importance for those entering Jewish Renewal to become deeply rooted in traditional Jewish material. Because of the depth of the Jewish mystical tradition, he is doubtful that the innovations of Jewish Renewal will live on, saying “even though there has been a lot of innovation in our time in terms of prayers to God, I believe the body of work related to traditional mysticism is so deep and vast that the new work will disappear.” Meanwhile, Elliot Ginsburg gets to the heart of the question of the “authenticity” of Jewish Renewal as a Jewish mystical tradition, exclaiming “It's authority who decides. Who has the authority to decide? There is no central authority. In a way history decides, not always correctly, but they decide.” Furthermore, he points out that Jewish Renewal's incorporation of material from other mystical traditions is itself a part of our tradition. And then there is Jeff Roth who questions the meaning of referring to Jewish Renewal as a movement in the first place! He explains: “Jewish Renewal is a pair of words that represent a particular concept. Jewish Renewal is about as “unmovement” a movement as a movement can be.”

Understanding Jewish Renewal in Light of the Holocaust

All of the Jewish Renewalists I interviewed understand Jewish Renewal as having emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. Goldie Milgram explains: “There is no question in my mind that those of us engaging in Jewish Renewal starting with Reb Zalman who was interned in the camps by the Vicci french during the war...that we all are the descendants of a recent trauma and that the mind, body and spirit know to engage in an integrative search for healing.” In this way, she sees those who are participating in Jewish Renewal as “worker bees in the collective healing process of our people...doing research and development that has contributed broadly across the Jewish people.” Richard Kaplan explains how the Holocaust has forced Jews to reaffirm their faith “in spite of what happened. We still choose to believe that there is a divine plan and make that leap of faith to act for the sake of a higher good.” Yehudit Goldfarb, seeing the process of renewal as continuous, points to Mordechai Kaplan and others who “had this feeling” early in the 20th century. However, she sees the strength of Jewish Renewal in particular as the result of the depth of the Holocaust, saying: “The way renewal is manifesting now and the strength and the length and breadth and variety has a lot to do with the depth of crisis we are growing out of.”

Several Jewish Renewalists explained the need to overcome and heal from the trauma of the Holocaust. Seth Fishman sees how Reb Zalman has tools for “healing from the Holocaust” as his greatest legacy. He understands the new paradigm that Jewish Renewal embraces also in light of the Holocaust, “There are things that Reb Zalman points to when he talks about paradigm's a whole slew of things that have led him to decide to leave orthodoxy and go in a new direction and the Holocaust is definitely one of those things.” Burt Jacobson explains that when he founding his synagogue in Berkley in 1984, he made a conscious decision to move beyond the Holocaust:

I come from a Holocaust oriented family. I grew up very pessimistic and cynical. But because of the changes I had undergone in the 60's and 70's, when I decided to start a synagogue, I decided that I'm not going to talk a lot about the Holocaust. I am not going to base a new kind of Judaism in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was being used at that time in nefarious ways by Jewish educators in trying to frighten children into remaining Jews. And I was very much reacting against that. I have to show people through new kinds of ritual and community experiences that Judaism can be a joyous thing. We don't have to be sunk in the tears of the past even though I carry those tears with me.

Ruth Broyde Sharone also wants Judaism to focus on joy rather than the Holocaust and the other bad things that have happened to the Jewish people:

The Holocaust was a huge tragedy in Jewish history but I don't want it to define Judaism. It has for a long time...I would never want my Judaism to be just a list of inquisition, persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust. One of the things Jewish Renewal does is say we do not deny anything that happened but the joys of being Jewish include all these alternative spiritual practices that were not a part of my upbringing but now seem so natural.

Several of the Jewish Renewalists indicated that if Jewish Renewal is to be seen in light of the Holocaust, it should also be viewed in light of other crises that Jews, as well as the rest of humanity, have experienced. Seth Fishman mentions the Atom Bomb. David Zaslow refers to the history of European anti-Semitism that built up before the Holocaust. He explains, “we are living in post-Holocaust realities. Not only the Holocaust – the Holocaust was a culmination.” David Ingber explains the new paradigm that Jewish Renewal embraces as going back to the beginnings of modernity, in particular the turn inward ushered in by people like Freud. He explains:

Even before the Holocaust Freud really is the beginning of this new paradigm...the turn inward proliferated in the western world with experiential modalities and the replacing of the church within the sectarian culture and the replacing of the priest with the analyst. Finding God in the self...that turn inward which in the height of the 60s in the counterculture...There are many other factors. I'm not saying Freud started renewal...The Holocaust played a huge role in destroying previous lineages and creating catastrophe, the '67 war, the return to the Baal Teshuva movement...

In this way, the Jewish Renewalists both acknowledge Jewish Renewal as emerging in light of the Holocaust, as well as other crises.

The Need for Time

Some of the Jewish Renewalists pointed to both the positive and negative reactions to the Holocaust and in doing so affirmed Scholem's notion of the time required for mystical creativity to emerge due to the depths of the shock experienced. Hannah Nathans explains how early on there was much fear and closing off in Europe because of the Holocaust, and only some exceptions where there was a deepened experience of the divine. She explains: “When I look at the European's had the effect of stimulating fear and leading to closing off from the outer world going back to old forms instead of new forms, clinging to what was and not being opened to the flow of divine energy.” Jeff Roth points to the “tremendous amount of dysfunctionality in Jewish life” caused by the Holocaust and how we are only now seeing anything positive emerge from it. He explains how, “depending on what they do with the facts of the Holocaust, the Holocaust could spell the death of relevant practice or it could spell the opportunity to wake up and make a difference...It is only in our generation that the first glimmers are coming out.” Hannah Tiferet Siegel explains how the earlier generation could only retain the outer form of Judaism and only now are the Jewish people able to make their way back:

We are the sparks from the Holocaust. Many of us are reincarnated souls from that time, we died with Shema on our lips. And so with that God consciousness we left this world and we reentered this world....Immediately following the Holocaust it was just despair and denial. So our parents created a continuity of Judaism which had the outer form but not the inner. So we were naturally motivated to find out what the inner was and so we've done that through Jewish texts but also by exploring outside the Jewish world to find the mystical and the light and the truth and then come back in and say “Wow it's here too.”

Jewish Renewal as a Way Back

Jewish Renewal is seen as a way back for people to reconnect to Judaism and re-infuse it with vitality, such as with mystical practices. Barry Bub also explains how Jewish Renewal has served in the non-Orthodox world as a means for reconnecting to Judaism: “The non-spiritual nature of traditional Judaism as it was being practiced traditionally...was traumatizing people. Jewish Renewal offered a way of reviving and resuscitating a Judaism that was dying in the non-Orthodox world.” Akiva Wharton echoes this point: “Because of the Shoah many people were turned off, contaminated by death, and had a hard time teaching us and we had a hard time learning. And so for many of those kids going to ashrams or going to the East was in fact a way back in and I see God's great compassion that he or she allowed those doors to be opened for those people.” As Ruth Broyde Sharone exclaimed, Jewish Renewal is a Judaism that speaks to the soul.

Religious Anarchy: The Torah as Divine?

So far we have seen that most of these Jewish Renewalists do see a relationship between crisis and mystical creativity, if not historically, than at least in their own experience. For the most part, they see Jewish Renewal both as a part of the Jewish mystical tradition as well as bringing its own innovations. They acknowledge a connection between Jewish Renewal and the Holocaust as well as other crises which have occurred in the recent history of the Jewish people and in the world. It is not our purpose here to conclude whether Jewish Renewal as a movement is to be considered an authentic form of Jewish mysticism. However, in taking their self-evaluation into consideration, let us now turn back to Scholem's concern as to how a new Jewish mysticism can find a form that would have public significance without maintaining the belief in the Torah as the word of God “in the strictest sense.” Therefore, the question we now turn to is in what way these Jewish Renewalists understand the Torah to be the word of God.

There were a range of responses in addressing the question of the divine nature of the Torah, however, for the most part, these Jewish Renewalists do not understand the Torah as the word of God in the strict sense, although they still see themselves as participating in the continuation of the Jewish religious tradition. As such, Scholem would deem them to be religious anarchists. There were several responses indicating a desire to retain these traditional conceptions of the Torah. David Zaslow was able to affirm tradition by understanding its truth “on a different level.” He explains:

It's a contradiction to say what I'm about to say. But Reb Zalman would say it's only a contradiction: that Moses wrote the whole Torah in 40 days. In the world of Assiyah it's kind of an absurdity. But I believe Moses wrote the whole Torah in 40 the world of Yetzirah, in the world of Beriyah.

Arthur Kurzweil has faith because, as he tells us, “If it's good enough for the Rambam, if it's good enough for Steinsaltz, than it's good enough for me.”

Akiva Wharton supports the position that it the Torah is the divine word, while also acknowledging that some mistakes may have come through in translation: “In some way that I don't understand it was somehow dictated by God. People may have thought they were hearing a voice and they wrote it down. They may have gotten some of it wrong but they wrote it down the best they could...That's all real stuff.” Yehudit Goldfarb affirms this as well. “It's magical...I do believe a lot of the traditional teachings that it is divinely inspired, that whatever is coming down to us, even with the mistakes or whatever, has significance.” Likewise, Yitzhak Buxbaum says “the Torah is lets say 95.3% true or 86.7% but as a whole it's true....something happened. When I open the Torah something happens. That's what's more important. I'm being exposed to revelation.” Is the Torah the word of God? Well, “Everything in the world is the word of God.”

Several Jewish Renewalists explain the Torah as the conjoining of the human and the divine, “divinely inspired” as Hannah Nathans put it. Howard Avrum Addison uses the following analogy:

It's kind of like listening to a Beetles record. Are you hearing the Beetles? Well yea but not exactly. There can be some scratches and pops along the way...But for there to be a revelation there must be a revelator and the correspondent, the one who receives the revelation. So I see the Torah as partaking of both the human and the divine.

Diane Elliot agrees, seeing the Torah as a human translation of the divine and also acknowledging the existence of “human parts that were not so much in the translation.”

Several of the Jewish Renewalists emphasize the Torah as being both divinely inspired as well as a product of its time. David Ingber explains what he calls a “dynamic theology of progressive revelation of the Torah.” He explains:

I believe that the people who wrote it were inspired but like any other inspiration it was only a state of consciousness so it was refracted through the stage they were at in their particular point in history. So that's the way it works. We achieve high levels of awareness and then we refract it through our culture in the time and place. so it was a progressive revealed document.

Although he sees the Torah as both sacred and revealed, he does not see it as perfect. Ruth Broyde Sharone mentions the documentary hypothesis while Goldie Milgram explains that “The Written Torah was once an Oral Torah” seeing it as “a question of timing and codifying.” Seth Fishman sees the Torah as being divine precisely for these reasons, that it was “formed over so many centuries and lifetime, the best and brightest of every generation helping to shape it.”

Although seeing it as divinely inspired rather than the word of God, several of the Jewish Renewalists still see the Torah as a means of connecting to the divine through exegesis. Hannah Tiferet Siegel delights in being a “Torah detective” in combing through “the levels of meaning and mystery and endless revelation” contained within. Elliot Ginsburg refers to the Torah as “a midrash on God,” which also contains its share of “power politics.” Nevertheless, he explains, “I like very much the notion of the white letters, the white spaces between the letters, as also Torah.”

Other Jewish Renewalists go further in clarifying the Torah's nature as “divine,” Carola de Vries Robles does not see the Torah as divine, but explains how one can reach the divine through it. Jeff Roth sees the Torah as being divine “no more than anything else” since “everything is God and nothing but God.” Meanwhile, he understands that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai as “representing the truth of the possibility of experiencing the divine present at any moment.” Burt Jacobson echoes this sentiment, exclaiming that the Torah “is just as divine as Shakespeare. It's just as divine as any profound human book. And it has a lot of elements within it that are not well thought out and it has dangerous elements in it as well.” Barry Bub wishes to emphasize the difference between believing in revelation as the word of God versus seeing the Torah as divinely inspired. He explains, “I see and I hear Mozart and Bach as divine and I do not believe that God came down and handed the score to Mozart and Bach...There is a big difference between being divinely inspired and the magical appearance of a text that was written somewhere out in the cosmos.” Shefa Gold is content referring to the Torah as a sacred text which “can be used for transformation and healing, not that it necessarily will be used in that way.” Phyllis Berman, affirming that God is in everything, sees the divine as present “when any one of us does a piece of creative work...when our egos get out of the way and something is able to flow through us.”

In addressing Scholem's concern as to what form Jewish mysticism can take in translating personal experience into the public realm when the Torah is not seen as the word of God in the strict sense, the Jewish Renewalists answer is twofold. First, they find themselves capable of doing so by viewing the Torah as the word of God in an “unstrict sense.” Secondly, and more importantly, the form which they have adopted to give their experiences public significance has been attained through the incorporation, innovation, and revitalization of mystical practices, both ritual and liturgical. While mystical exegesis informs their understanding of Judaism, the divine, the Torah, and the world, it is through Jewish practice that Jewish Renewal manifests itself as a mystical movement. Jewish Renewal as the “R&D of the Jewish world” both creates practices geared towards directing the individual towards mystical experiences as well as shapes its practices from such experiences. Through Jewish ritual and liturgical practices, the Jewish Renewalists experience the world in a way that is both mystical as well as Jewish. These experience inform their understanding of the world and their place in it, leading to beliefs extending beyond Judaism that extend from social justice, issues of gender, religious toleration, and environmentalism. In this way, they see themselves as practicing a Jewish mysticism which strengthens their connections with the divine and the Jewish tradition, as well as the and non-Jewish aspects of existence.


In looking at Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel, and the Jewish Renewalists we find three distinct perspectives on the relationship between crisis and mystical creativity. Scholem sees a connection historically with crisis and mystical creativity within the history of Jewish mysticism and for all the monotheistic religions. He also maintains that the amount of time it takes for mystical creativity to emerge is in direct proportion to the shock experienced. As such, when he wrote “Reflections On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism,” he understood his evaluation that there was no original Jewish mysticism in his generation to be consistent with his views. He also expressed hope that a new Jewish mysticism could emerge as a result of the Holocaust. He was concerned, however, at whether a suitable form could be found within Judaism for such a mysticism due to the diminishing appreciation of the Torah as the word of God in the strict sense. As he put it, this absolute belief had become for many Jews an absolute obstacle. While doubtful as to the form that Jewish mysticism could take, he nevertheless remaining somewhat optimistic due to his firm belief in the power of crisis to bring forth mystical creativity.

In Absorbing Perfections, Moshe Idel challenges Scholem's position on the basis of his different understanding of the history of Jewish mysticism. Idel does not see crisis as having been involved in the great flourishing of Jewish mysticism. To prove his point, Idel focuses on the process of arcanization, the finding of secret meanings in the Torah and other Jewish texts through the process of mystical exegesis. He differentiates between crisical arcanization and systemic arcanization and explains that the Kabbalah in both its early and late stages was primarily the result of systemic arcanization. He shows that when crisical arcanizaton takes place, such as in Lurianic Kabbalah, it affects the way in which arcanization takes place, but not whether it will occur in the first place. In particular, he attacks the scholarly position that Kabbalistic symbol formation was in relation to external crises. His critique also extends to Scholem's understanding of Hasidism as being in response to the crisis of Sabbateanism. Idel stands in opposition to Scholem, seeing crisis as more likely to lead to conservative reactions in the history of Judaism. He indicates that it would be more appropriate to consider the Maimonidean project as a form of crisical arcanization than the early Kabbalah. Idel's opinion on the relation between crisis and mystical creativity is exclusively informed by historical scholarship. As such, he does not give an evaluation of the present situation or speculate about the possibility of any mystical developments as a result of the Holocaust or any other crisis.

There is a spectrum of belief within the Jewish Renewals community. Nevertheless, it is possible to find a common thread in their perspectives. Most of the Jewish Renewalists see a relationship between crisis and mystical creativity in so far as they see a relationship between crisis and creativity generally. Creativity can take the form of mysticism or manifest itself in other ways. Additionally, crisis does not always lead to creativity. It can have equally destructive effects. The Jewish Renewalists' perspective is primarily philosophical and based on personal experience, although at times it is informed by historical scholarship. In addressing Scholem's question of the possibility of mystical creativity resulting from the Holocaust, for the most part, the Jewish Renewalists view the movement of Jewish Renewal in this way. They see mysticism as involving the direct experience of the divine and Jewish mysticism as the Jewish way of establishing and maintaining such connections. As such, they see Jewish Renewal as both an original form of Jewish mysticism as well as a part of the Jewish mystical tradition, with connections to Kabbalah and Hasidism. They see Jewish Renewal as originating in the wake of the Holocaust as well as other crises. They do not see the Torah as the word of God in the strict sense. Nevertheless, through mystically informed ritual and liturgical practices, they have been able to find a form to translate their experiences into the public realm. These three perspectives can serve as a solid foundation for understanding how this question has been posed and answered within the modern Jewish experience.

Works Cited

Addison, Howard Avrum. Personal interview. 03 July 2009.

Berman, Phyllis. Telephone interview. 10 July 2009.

Bub, Barry. Personal interview. 05 July 2009.

Buxbaum, Yitzhak. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

Elliot, Diane. Personal interview. 01 July 2009.

Fishman, Seth. Personal interview. 30 June 2009.

Ginsburg, Elliot. Personal interview. 30 June 2009.

Gold, Shefa. Telephone interview. 06 July 2009.

Goldfarb, Yehudit. Personal interview. 01 July 2009.

Idel, Moshe. Absorbing Perfections Kabbalah and Interpretation. New York: Yale UP, 2002.

Ingber, David. Personal interview. 01 July 2009.

Jacobson, Burt. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

Kaplan, Richard. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

Kurzweil, Arthur. Personal interview. 01 July 2009.

Milgram, Goldie. Personal interview. 05 July 2009.

Nathans, Hannah. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

Robles, Carola de Vries. Personal interview. 22 July 2009.

Roth, Jeff. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

Scholem, Gershom. "Reflections On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time (1963)."On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time & Other Essays. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997. 6-19.

Sharone, Ruth Broyde. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

Siegel, Hannah Tiferet. Personal interview. 01 July 2009.

Waskow, Arthur. Personal interview. 30 June 2009.

Wharton, Akiva. Personal interview. 03 July 2009.

Zaslow, David. Personal interview. 02 July 2009.

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