The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Shadal’s Sceptical Guest: The Rarely Considered Early Scholar of Kabbalah

The history of the early academic scholarship of the Kabbalah has been told numerous times. It is usually framed as the work of a group of primarily German scholars – such as Landauer, Frank, Jellinek, Graetz, and Steinschnieder – who developed a new field of scholarship during the 1840s and 1850s, and against whom Gershom Scholem polemicised a century later. In this lecture, I will argue that one important scholar has been omitted from this early history; a figure known to us only as ‘Ha-Oreaḥ ’ or the ‘Guest’.

This fictional character is the protagonist of a brilliant early dialogue written by Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), entitled “Vikuaḥ Al Ḥokhmat Ha-Kabbalah” (A Disputation Concerning the Wisdom of the Kabbalah). In the dialogue, the ‘Author’ is confronted by an extremely knowledgeable ‘Guest’, who argues trenchantly against the antiquity and authority of Kabbalistic texts and doctrines. The Guest’s arguments range across Jewish history, philosophy, philology, liturgy, theology, literature, and law, and serve as an impressive example of a highly-educated scholar of Jewish mysticism in the Wissenschaft Des Judentums mold.

Remarkably, this dialogue was composed by Shadal in 1826 (although it was only published in 1852), long before academic Kabbalah scholarship had gained a foothold among European Jewish scholars. This lecture will present the arguments, methodologies, and attitudes of this ‘Guest’, and demonstrate the manner in which his statements foreground many of the later arguments made by prominent scholars of the Kabbalah. It will also discuss the polemical and pedagogical aspects of Shadal’s dialogue, and its place within the history of Kabbalah scholarship. In sum, I will argue that Shadal’s ‘Guest’, while only a literary creation, exhibited a competence and ethos similar to many later academics in this field, and therefore should be considered a significant early Wissenschaft scholar of the Kabbalah.