The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

The Twofold Perception of Kabbalah in Early Modern Protestantism

This paper explores the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Protestant debate on the nature of Kabbalah sparked by the publication of Kabbala Denudata, during which a particular understanding of Kabbalah emerged that enabled Protestant scholars to continue mining Jewish texts for confirmations of their faith while leaving its major tenets such as sola scriptura untouched.

Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata (1677/84) scandalized the Protestant public. Protestant theologians and learned laymen rejected the writings contained in this monumental anthology as not only contrary to Scripture but as the epitome of heresy. This raised the question whether Kabbalah should be rejected in general or only the version of it put forward in Kabbala Denudata. Differently put: Is Kabbala Denudata a faithful representation of genuine Kabbalah? Or is there a true Kabbalah that supports the tenets of Christianity? In the subsequent debate a new conception of Kabbalah emerged: True or ancient Kabbalah was used as another designation for the primeval tradition of ancient Israel as supposedly preserved or rediscovered among Protestants. False or recent Kabbalah, by contrast, was defined as being the distortion of said primeval tradition as practiced among the Jews.

This paper traces the main positions voiced in this debate. It argues that the debate’s main outcome, namely, a dual conception of Kabbalah was on the one hand a logical continuation of the basic claim of the Reformation project of having returned not only to primeval Christianity but to the universal religion of old already known to Adam in Paradise. On the other hand, this conception of Kabbalah laid the foundation for the continued use of kabbalistic, or more general, Jewish texts among Protestants even after they had become aware of the actual nature of kabbalistic theosophy.