Jewish Studies Woo with Mysticism and Magic
Yup, rabbinical Judaism is surely the religion of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles. Uh-huh. Two articles from Haaretz:
Jewish studies to woo with
mysticism and practical magic

By Amiram Barkat

Increasing the number of courses offered in Jewish mysticism, practical magic and the significance of Jewish existence are among the proposals to make Jewish studies more attractive to Israelis that will be debated at the 14th World Congress of Jewish Studies, which opens today in Jerusalem.
Some 1,200 speakers, one-third from abroad, will take part in the congress, organized every four years by the World Union of Jewish Studies, in fields ranging from Talmud to Jewish art and poetry, and contemporary Judaism.
Of interest to the congress is how to teach about Jewish mysticism and practical magic, which includes exorcism and spells, in an academic framework. Professor Itamar Greenwald of the Philosophy Department of Tel Aviv University says, "The intention is not that the students will deal with exorcism, but it is certainly important for students to understand what is behind processes like this. We know that in a trance things can happen that don't happen in normal waking states and these things cannot be discounted as lies or hallucinations."
Greenwald says that in recent years there has been more thought given to the "dry and banal" way mysticism is presently taught. "Students come to us saying that research has reached a dead end, that they want not only to study the texts but to understand what is behind them." Greenwald does not discount the idea that in the future, students will "go out into the field, observe these people and in some way try the things out on themselves." He added that he hoped the students would meet "true mystics and not the kind that sell kabbala for a penny."
Jewish studies at Israeli universities have had difficulty attracting students in recent years, with the most serious problem being in the classic areas of Jewish studies - Talmud, Medieval poetry and some areas of Bible study. The Talmud department at Tel Aviv University closed down this year, and the Talmud department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where some of the world's greatest scholars once studied, goes by the nickname "the talmid [lone student] Department."
Professor Menachem Ben-Sasson of the Hebrew University, who says he believes that the Israeli public is "impervious to Jewish studies," says the problem is common to the Orthodox and the secular. "Some people are not interested, while others are unwilling to accept Jewish studies as an academic field."
Ben-Sasson says the way to reach more students is to make Jewish studies of core courses, like those at American colleges.
Jewish studies experts note that there is an increased demand in Israel for Jewish studies - but not at the universities. Some university professors look with envy at the success of Jewish studies in colleges like the Oranim teachers' college and the Elul and Kolot Orthodox-secular study programs.
Dr. Menachem Lorverbaum, chairman of the department of Jewish culture at Tel Aviv University, opposes making Jewish studies "practical." "It's not right to do everything to attract students," he says. "The demand for Jewish studies stems to a great extent from a search for meaning. I believe the university should deal more with the study of the meaning of Jewish philosophy, of course from a critical perspective. The fact that Jewish studies has focused through the years on historical analysis and not on philosophical significance, I believe, is absurd and is the great mistake of Jewish studies."
A comprehensive 2001 study in the U.S. showed a 30-percent increase in the numbers of students taking Jewish studies as electives over their parents' generation. Professor Steven Cohen, of the Hebrew University's Melton Institute, says that in the U.S., universities in areas almost devoid of Jews have opened Jewish studies programs to attract Jewish students who will someday become its alumni donors.
Eastern European academic institutions have also seen a growth in their Jewish studies departments as part of the effort to bring alive the Jewish past. Almost 100 Eastern European Jewish studies scholars will participate in the congress, most of whom, as opposed to those coming from the rest of the world, are not Jewish. 

A New Age for mystics
By Shiri Lev-Ari
The fascinating encounter between practice and theory began long before the debate started: Outside the auditorium in Hebrew University's Rabin Building a quorum of men recited afternoon prayers. When they finished the practical aspect of their faith, they entered the auditorium to hear a theoretical debate on the question of "Teaching Mysticism in Academia."
This constant tension - between academia and mysticism; between the desire to know and strive for the truth and the internal certainty that is not dependent on anything concrete; between the words and categories and the physical and mental experience in which the words disappear - this tension hung over the session of the 14th World Jewish Congress of Jewish Studies held this week at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In recent years, as students of the humanities are showing increasing interest not only in the spiritual world of Judaism and religions of the East, but also in New Age cultures in general, the need for academia to address these changes has grown accordingly. Many of the students appear to want not only to investigate religious texts that deal with mystical experiences, but also to explore and understand the experience itself, the practice behind the ideas.
A number of Israeli scholars from the field of mysticism, and especially kabbalah, participated in the debate held this week. What happened in the auditorium provides a precise display of the tension between the two worlds - the academic world, committed as it is to rational, logic thought and the clear rules of research, and the spiritual, experiential, mystical world. A stormy debate - at least in academic terms - raged in the hall, inflaming passions among the participants.
To be a plant
The opening shot was fired by Dr. Avraham Elqayam of Bar-Ilan University, who did something daring and quite unusual - some might even say provocative. He chose to begin his lecture with guided meditation, "to purify the thoughts" in accordance with the kabbalah of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known as "the Ari." He called his student Orna Rachel Wiener to the stage and she asked those seated in the hall (religious and secular, students and lecturers) to shut their eyes, make themselves comfortable in their seats and concentrate on the letters she would read aloud with special sounds for a few minutes.
When the participants opened their eyes, Elqayam began his lecture, in which he called for a genuine revolution in the study of mysticism in academia, causing some of those present to move with unease in their seats. Elqayam called for the consolidation of new directions in the teaching of kabbalah in the university - more practical ones.
"In the Harry Potter books, the train that takes the children to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry stands at platform nine and three-quarters; in order to reach magical domains, one needs to think in an unconventional manner," he said.
Elqayam went on to explain that Israeli academe is structured in accordance with the criteria of the German academe of the 19th century. When the Institute for Jewish Studies was established in Israel in 1924, it taught kabbalah using the same methods used today: there is the researcher and there is the kabbalist - and they are two completely separate things. Elqayam calls for the blurring of the dichotomy between the scholar and the kabbalist.
"I favor the Parisian school in which the researcher is committed to the object of his research, identifies with it, and there is no alienation between them," he said.
In his view, there is no contradiction between logical thinking and the mystical experience; a scholar can draw on both of them. "I am always asked if a professor of botany has to be a plant in order to research plants, or if a professor of geometry has to be a triangle to understand what a triangle is. To me, that is a very Western question. Eastern thinking would say: Yes, you have to be a plant in order to understand a plant. When a Chinese artists wants to paint a mountain, he goes to the mountain, observes it - he becomes a mountain, and only after that does he return and paint the mountain."
Culture has changed, said Elqayam, times have changed. Students of the humanities have already visited India, experienced different things, used drugs - their needs have changed. "Mysticism for them is not just a text; it is an experience of the body and the mind."
In his view, the best way to learn mysticism is by means of the expanse that is created between the scholar and the kabbalist - a kind of mid-path that combines study and knowledge with experience and personal exposure.
"The scholar must be inside the experience and outside it at the same time, which is a delicate and fragile balance," he said. "New Age people are good at experience but lack the historic scientific discipline. Mysticism without scholarship and scholarship without mysticism are hollow. We are committed to rebuilding all the logic and methodology of mysticism studies in the Israeli academe."
How does one do that? One way is by changing the place and time in which mysticism is taught - not necessarily in lessons given in overcrowded classrooms, but rather outside, in nature, "If possible, while walking, in a cave, like that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, or under a tree, like the tree of Elijah the Prophet," said Elqayam. "Kabbalah is taught in the wee hours of the night. Universities can be open 24 hours a day - that is a matter of choice." He proposes integrating classes in meditation, music, solitude, the study of koans as in Zen Buddhism and more.
At this stage in his lecture, Elqayam stops and plays a tape he brought with him of a flute melody ("to create a free space for my next comments.") In fact, he was illustrating how he would like to teach mysticism in an academic framework. "The language of music is close to the language of mysticism," he explained. "It is a nonverbal language."
When he resumed his talk, he expanded on his proposal further: Just as the philosophy department trains philosophers, he said, the department for the study of kabbalah should train mystics. He called upon the academe to produce prophets. In his view, academe today should broaden the tasks it takes upon itself and produce a new figure of a prophet, a social-political figure.
Sparking opposition
Elqayam's comments sparked a great deal of opposition among those present at the lecture - some of them his colleagues. A lecturer who teaches about magic asked if now on he will have to bring a black cat to his classes to demonstrate what he is talking about. Others accused Elqayam of using gimmicks, or of overly ingratiating himself with his students and their needs. There is room for experience, some of them said, but not in the framework of the university. One cannot combine the two, because then the practical studies will necessarily come at the expense of the theoretical studies. And besides, they said, who says the practical methods chosen by Elqayam - meditation according to letters and flute melodies - are the original methods of the kabbalists? Perhaps these are no more than popular New Age practices.
A woman in the back asked Elqayam to relate how he teaches the secret of coupling according to the kabbalah. "Come to my classes and you'll see," he responded, and the audience burst into laughter.
Dr. Boaz Huss of Ben-Gurion University represents an entirely different approach. He completely pulls the rug out from under the concept of mysticism. In his view, there is no characteristic common to all mystical phenomena. Mysticism does not exist in reality; it is merely a modern term for diversity that needs to be investigated using the critical tools of the humanities and the social sciences. It is not a universal concept that describes the encounter with the transcendental or the divine, but rather a term that describes a variety of phenomena from different places and times in the world, all of which are culturally bound. The study of mysticism tends to disconnect these phenomena from the context in which they came about.
According to Huss, because no universal mystical experience exists, there is no particular way to investigate it and therefore, no particular way to teach it.
Prof. Ithamar Gruenwald of Tel Aviv University's philosophy department, on the other hand, proposed studying mysticism in general and the kabbalah in particular through thinking. In his view, the halakhic literature supports the idea - that appears a great deal in kabbalist literature - according to which thoughts have the power to create reality. It is not speech or action that count, as conventional wisdom in the world of magic would have it, but rather thoughts, which create intent and work to create reality.
Like falling in love
Gruenwald compares the mystical experience to the experience of falling in love. "Can one learn in the academe how to fall in love?" he says the day after the conference. "These are internal experiences that have psychological and sociological causes, but who one falls in love with and why, and the intensity of the emotions, is an internal matter and there is no way to explore it except through texts. So many poems have been written about love.
"We are dependent on texts. Mysticism is an area that is studied in the academe and it has extensive literature, but one must develop a special openness and sensitivity to this field, but I don't have a recipe as to how one does that."
The first three speakers on the panel, which was chaired by Dr. Ron Margolin, tried to offer a specific academic method to teach mysticism. Towards the end of the discussion, the fourth speaker's turn came, Dr. Moshe Idel of Hebrew University, the most experienced teacher on the panel. Idel returned to the broadest foundation of the study of religions: the "toolbox" method. There is no one good way to study mysticism, he said, there are many ways - all good or bad at the same time. Every tool in the box can help solve a different problem; most of the tools in the toolbox are unnecessary most of the time, but you have to keep all of them just in case.
The theological, psychological, sociological, literary, historic, feminist, cognitive angles - all can shed light on some corner of the study of mysticism, but at the same time darken others, said Idel. To one degree or another, all reduce the mystical phenomenon.
"The three lectures that preceded me all bore a positive nature," said Idel, summing up the discussion. "Each of the speakers tried to find a way to study a phenomenon as complex as mysticism and kabbalah. Avi Elqayam pointed to a clear way of doing so; Boaz Huss asked that we not seek out great things, but that we make do with studying the concept itself and Itamar Gruenwald asked that we study the thought process. This positive approach fills me with skepticism - which I already had anyway."
What then does Prof. Idel propose? A perspectivist approach, as he put it, to adopt each of the study methods in a controlled and sober fashion and to take into account that there are other perspectives on the same subject. He also suggests being more eclectic.
"That is a word researchers don't like, but it is very difficult to be eclectic; you have to read a lot of things and understand what each can contribute to us. After 35 years of being involved in mystical materials," he added, "I have to say that they are a melange, that they are filled with internal contradictions, and any attempt to study them using a single method is a utopian effort."

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