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- No one has a right to speak who, in the midst of thinking, hasn't been overcome with the experience of glimpsing the essence of history.
- Diary Entry (2 March 1916), published in Lamentations of Youth : The Diaries of Gershom Scholem, 1913-1919, p. 109
On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1960)
- Zur Kabbala and ihrer Symbolik (1960) as translated by Ralph Manheim for Schocken Books (1965)
- The Kabbalah, literally 'tradition,' that is, the tradition of things divine, is the sum of Jewish mysticism. It has had a long history and for centuries has exerted a profound influence on those among the Jewish people who were eager to gain a deeper understanding of the traditional forms and conceptions of Judaism. The literary production of the Kabbalists, more intensive in certain periods than in others, has been stored up in an impressive number of books, many of them dating back to the late Middle Ages. For many centuries the chief literary work of this movement, the Zohar, or 'Book of Splendor,' was widely revered as a sacred text of unquestionable value, and in certain Jewish communities it enjoys such esteem to this day.
- We shall start from the assumption that a mystic, insofar as he participates actively in the religious life of a community, does not act in the void. It is sometimes said, to be sure, that mystics, with their personal striving for transcendence, live outside of and above the historical level, that their experience is unrelated to historical experience. Some admire this ahistorical orientation, others condemn it as a fundamental weakness of mysticism. Be that as it may, what is of interest to the history of religions is the mystic's impact on the historical world, his conflict with the religious life of his day and with his community. No historian can say — nor is it his business to answer such questions whether a given mystic in the course of his individual religious experience actually found what he was so eagerly looking for. What concerns us here is not the mystic's inner fulfillment. But if we wish to understand the specific tension that often prevailed between mysticism and religious authority, we shall do well to recall certain basic facts concerning mysticism.
A mystic is a man who has been favored with an immediate, and to him real, experience of the divine, of ultimate reality, or who at least strives to attain such experience. His experience may come to him through sudden illumination, or it may be the result of long and often elaborate preparations. From a historical point of view, the mystical quest for the divine takes place almost exclusively wit a prescribed tradition-the exceptions seem to be limited to modern times, with their dissolution of all traditional ties. Where such a tradition prevails, a religious authority, established long before the mystic was born, has been recognized by the com munity for many generations.
- Ch. 1 : Religious Authority and Mysticism
- Here I need not go into the paradoxes and mysteries of Kabbalistic theology concerned with the seflroth and their nature. But one important point must be made. The process which the Kabbalists described as the emanation of divine energy and divine light was also characterized as the unfolding of the divine language. This gives rise to a deep-seated parallelism between the two most important kinds of symbolism used by the Kabbalists to communicate their ideas. They speak of attributes and of spheres of light; but in the same context they speak also of divine names and the letters of which they are composed. From the very beginnings of Kabbalistic doctrine these two manners of speaking appear side by side. The secret world of the godhead is a world of language, a world of divine names that unfold in accordance with a law of their own. The elements of the divine language appear as the letters of the Holy Scriptures. Letters and names are not only conventional means of communication. They are far more. Each one of them represents a concentration of energy and expresses a wealth of meaning which cannot be translated, or not fully at least, into human language. There is, of course, an obvious discrepancy between the two symbolisms. When the Kabbalists speak of divine attributes and sefiroth, they are describing the hidden world under ten aspects; when, on the other hand, they speak of divine names and letters, they necessarily operate' with the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, in which the Torah is written, or as they would have said, in which its secret essence was made communicable.
- Ch. 2 : The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism
Quotes about Scholem
- Scholem … says that Jewish mystics have always tried to project their own thought into the biblical texts; as a matter of fact, every unexpressible reading of a symbolic machinery depends on such a projective attitude. … For the Kabalist, the fact that God expresses Himself, even though His utterances are beyond any human insight, is more important than any specific and coded meaning His words can convey.
- Umberto Eco, in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984),  Symbol, 4.4 : The symbolic mode, 4.4.4 : The Kabalistic drift