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Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 30 Aug 2007
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"Dan has given us the best concise history of Jewish mysticism.... As a 'very short introduction' to this sublime treasure house, Joseph Dan's book is warmly recommended."―Benjamin Balint, Commentary
"In a little more than a hundred pages, Dan races through more than a thousand years of Jewish religious texts, explaining a vast, amorphous body of beliefs and practices that have influenced Freemasons, Hasidim, Carl Jung, New Age gurus and, more recently, Hollywood celebrities. It's quite a performance, carried off with only a few stumbles."―William Grimes, The New York Times
"Professor Dan is one of the leading scholars of Jewish mysticism in the world today. He combines deep erudition with methodological sophistication and clarity of exposition. He is the ideal person to write a short introduction to the study of the Kabbalah."―Shaye J. D. Cohen, Harvard University
"This survey of Kabbalah offers deep history in succinct fashion, resulting in a fascinating and highly readable effort."―Publishers Weekly
"A lucid history and explanation of Kabbalah, covering its key periods, texts, figures, and theories. Dan knowledgeably and expertly untangles the complexity of the tradition, specifically addressing misconceptions by discussing what Kabbalah is and what it is not.... This primer is scholarly yet accessible to the lay reader; it's 'Kabbalah for Dummies' sans the cheeky humor."―Library Journal
"Even someone who knows nothing more than the celebrity connection will come away with a nuanced understanding."―Dallas Morning News
"Culling over fifty years of Kabbalah research, Joseph Dan presents a schematic introduction to Kabbalah, its major periods, personalities, and ideas. This slim volume is a window into the intriguing history of this esoteric wisdom - its Christian and Islamic influences, the proliferation of Christian Kabbalah, its influence on modern philosophy, and the important periods of Jewish heresy. From the ancient world to New Age spirituality, Dan lucidly covers the key ideas of Kabbalah as they developed over the centuries. Accessible, readable, and informative."―Shaul Magid, Indiana University
About the Author
Joseph Dan is the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah in the Department of Jewish Thought, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His many books include The Heart and the Fountain: Jewish Mystical Experiences, The Early Kabbalah, and The Teachings of Hasidism. He resides in Jerusalem and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School.
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By contrast, Joseph Dan is the quintessential academic. He has the skill of an extremely talented teacher. The book has precision to inform the un-initiated, the absolute beginners, what really Kabbalah is. He apeals to every day concepts people know, to get images.
For example, in section Kabbalah and Spiritualization, he explains how Jewish believers - who had to fulfill 613 commandements - were told that G-d is absolutely perfect, infinite and incomprehensible to human mind. If He is infinite and incomprehensible, why fulfill the commandements? We are doing material things (even prayer is not complete if we don't move our lips) to satisfy a perfection with whom we had no communication
Judaism was in the thirteen century practically removed from spirituality. What Kabbalists did, was to transform the rather dry commandments (mitzvot) in a "powerful concept of interdependence between man and G-d, in which the commandments were the instruments used by man in order to influence the processes of he divine world"
As Joseph Dan elucidates, there is divine emanation called "shefa", which each time flows in abundance, the good power are stronger.
I described merely two pages from the book, which is very dense. I need to re-read a few pages, but there was a daylight clarity in every word. There are no fluff. Every phrase and paragraph has clear meanings. One feels as following a theorem in mathematics, where if a line is missed, the proof eludes.
This is not a mystical book - Dan proves the term "mystical" is purely Christian in origin and has no equivalent in the Jewish and Islamic religions. It is not a prayer or a meditation book. It is a scholarly manual, yet with all references and academic reasoning are hidden for the reader. The book has no promises, other than clarity. It invites precise questions. It makes comfortable anyone who graduated from high school or an University has rational and literary questions , rather then "mystical".
Yet the meaning of "mysticism" is defined by Joseph Dan. It is a need for using rituals and metaphors for unique inward feelings and visions and we have no vocabulary to transmit the experience. The book does not cover the un-explained, the from-beyond, other than describe how it may happen in some followers of Kabbalah. The religious high some people expect to live in Kabbalah is not part of this book and will make Joseph Dan smile, if anyone expects it.
First, Dan greatly minimizes the ecstatic tradition of kabbalah associated with Abraham Abulafia. Granted, the ecstatic tradition may not have dominated medieval and modern kabbalah as did the theosophical-theurgical tradition (represented by the Zohar etc.), but the ecstatic tradition nevertheless exerted a significant influence on Safedian kabbalists, Hasidism, and even medieval theosophical-theurgical kabbalah, as Moshe Idel makes clear in his book "Kabbalah: New Perspectives." (See, e.g., Idel's discussion of Moses Cordovero on p. 101 and his discussion of Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazy on pp. 149-50.) Moreover, ecstatic kabbalah is intrinsically interesting apart from its historical importance, and should not be marginalized as Dan has done.
Second, although Dan spends a few pages on the subject, he fails to provide an adequate explanation of the theosophical-theurgical interpretation of the mitzvot in terms of the sefirot, which is arguably the heart of the theosophical-theurgical tradition (one of the two main kabbalist traditions, the other being the ecstatic tradition which Dan largely ignores). Some examples, such as those found in Adin Steinsaltz's "The Thirteen Petalled Rose," would have been helpful here.
Third, Dan's discussion of the various theosophical-theurgical interpretations of the sefirot is extremely brief - too brief, I believe, for such an introductory text. (For details, see Idel, "Kabbalah: New Perspectives.")
Fourth, Dan's discussion of Hasidism is overly brief and confusing. For example, he says little to clarify the role of theurgy in Hasidism or Hasidism's relationship with ecstatic kabbalah. On page 94, he describes the chief difference between the Hasidim and the mitnagdim ("the Opponents") as follows: "While the Opponents are essentially loyal to the Lurianic kabbalistic concepts, the Hasidim introduced some new concepts, especially concerning mystical leadership and messianism, into their version of the kabbalah." This is a badly inadequate summary of Hasidism, and Dan neglects to mention some of the most important aspects of Hasidism in the pages that follow, though he does provide a good explanation of the roles of the zaddik, dynastic leadership, and messianism in Hasidism. On page 103, Dan says that "Traditional kabbalah exists today mainly within the Hasidic communities." What does he mean by "traditional kabbalah"? He doesn't specify, but whatever he means, it's problematic. Suppose that by "traditional kabbalah" he means Lurianic kabbalah. In this case, it should be pointed out that popular Hasidism rejected much of Lurianic kabbalah, at least initially. (I see Lurianic elements in some contemporary Chabad writings, but I wonder how recent or widely studied such ideas are in Chabad. At any rate, as I have already quoted, Dan himself says on page 94 that the Opponents were much more loyal to Lurianic kabbalah than the Hasidim.) Alternatively, suppose that by "traditional kabbalah" Dan means either the medieval theosophical-theurgical tradition or the medieval ecstatic tradition. In that case, it should be pointed out that Hasidism retained elements of both these traditions but rejected others, while Lurianic kabbalah (and so according to Dan the Opponents) did the same. In conclusion, I cannot make sense of Dan's statement that "Traditional kabbalah exists today mainly within the Hasidic communities."
Fifth, I think that Dan's definition of mysticism on pages 10-12 is defective. For a definition that I believe is superior, see page xviii of Idel's "Kabbalah: New Perspectives."
Despite these complaints, Dan's book is really quite a good introduction to kabbalah, and I strongly recommend it. Finally, I should mention that most of the shortcomings of the book are almost certainly due to the spatial limits imposed by Oxford's Very Short Introduction series. I look forward to reading Dan's monographs in the future.