Mysticism connected to “ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism”

Earlier this month David Shasha, the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage wrote an interesting article in The Huffington Post titled, “Dangerous Mystic Motifs in Judaism.”  He starts it off with these words:

The organized movement to attack the writings of Moses Maimonides, perhaps the most significant post-Talmudic sage over the course of Jewish history, originated in Ashkenazi rabbinic circles and was executed by a ban promulgated by their disciples in Christian Spain. It is intimately connected to the triumph of mystical occultism in Judaism.

Then he shares the various scholarly explanations given for the ban. Halfway through the article he introduces Moshe Idel, one of the most famous and influential contemporary scholar on Kabbalah as someone who “relentlessly promoted the pro-magic, neo-pagan, anti-rational strain of Jewish tradition.” Finally Sasha quotes Idel,

a relatively organic evolution of Jewish mysticism […] can also be rejected by philological or historical analysis of the texts.”

Sasha shows how this idea influenced the development of Zionism, the establishment of the State of Israel and contemporary Jewish culture and identity. He believes that because the mystical motif that spread within Judaism identifies itself as separate from the “other,” it (being “alien to universal civilization and the standards of science and rationality”)

led to the rejection of Sephardic Jewish Humanism as formulated by Maimonides and an affirmation of an ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism based on the magical mysticism of Kabbalistic theurgy.”

I found the reasoning and its data points in it enlightening, but altogether do not fully accept the causation. They are correct as far as internal, within-Jewry  processes, but the main reason Jews thought of themselves as separate in the late middle ages, because they were treated as such, at least in the European countries. These mystical motifs, and the ideas they carried, helped them to understand their on situation. I am aware that Jewry outside Europe faced different challenges. Sasha is right that because Zionism grew out of Ashkenazim the Sephardi philosophy had less of an impact on the development of modern Jewry. This process goes as far as Sephardim in Israel considered the outgroup, while Ashkenazim are the norm.

In short, the author missed mentioning the external, historic reasons that lead to “Jewish chauvinism”, thus providing only half the picture.

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