Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present


This course examines a powerful, vibrant countertrend within Judaism known as mysticism. We begin with the ancient “Chariot Mysticism,” proceed to ascetic medieval German pietism, and dwell at length on the erotically-charged “kabbalah” that emerged in medieval Spain and Southern France—its unique conceptions of God, evil, demonology, sin, death, sexuality, and magic. We then follow the emergence of ambitious circles of mystics in 16th-century Safed (Land of Israel) that eventually sparked a mass messianic movement around the figure of Shabbetai Tzevi. In the second semester, we delve into the most popular and enduring Jewish mystical movement, Hasidism. Founded on the teachings the Ba’al Shem Tov (The Besht) in 18th-century Eastern Europe, Hasidism was forged into a mass movement by charismatic miracle workers called “tzaddikim” and spread by means of oral and written tales. We follow the emergence of Hasidic dynasties, gauge Hasidic responses to modern phenomena like Zionism and the Holocaust, and follow the movement’s continued flourishing today in tight-knit communities from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. Finally, we will examine the phenomenon of neo-kabbalah. Throughout, we strive to appreciate new manifestations of Jewish mysticism within changing historical contexts.