9 October 2011


Yaacob Dweck. The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice. Princeton University Press, 2011.

After Spain and Portugal expelled the Jews, north Italy, and in particular Venice, became a major centre for Judaism. Among the prominent Venetian rabbis of this period was Leon Modena (1571-1648), who wrote an autobiography at a time when that was an unusual thing to do, so that a great deal is known about him. 🔻
This book is not so much about his life, however, as a biography of his best-known work, Ari Nohem, ‘A Roaring Lion’.

This was dedicated to his leading student, Joseph Hamiz, and intended “as a cure for Hamiz’s kabbalistic tendencies.” It was, accordingly, an attack upon the Kabbalah, the mystical system which dominated Judaic thought in the late mediaeval and early modern eras.

Like most critics of Kabbalah, before and since, he concentrated upon the question of the authorship of the Zohar, by far the best-known kabbalistic treatise. The Zohar purports to be the work of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his disciples in the early second century.

One of Modena’s principle arguments against this book, and the Kabbalah generally, was that in fact it was written by Rabbi Moses de Leon in the late thirteenth century. As to this, it must be said that probably the majority of the world’s religious scriptures are pseudepigraphic, that is, they were written by someone other and later than the ostensible author, quite apart from those books supposed to have been composed by God, who merely dictated it to some mortal as one would to a secretary. But it is debatable whether this invalidates these writings.

Gershom Scholem, who in the 1940s showed conclusively that the Zohar was indeed written by Moses de Leon in the 1280s, nevertheless considered the book to be a masterpiece. It would not, indeed, be inherently illogical to believe that it was really by Simeon ben Yohai, but that it contents are a load of nonsense. At the same time Modena defended Maimonides, the founder of philosophical Judaism, by attacking those (mostly Kabbalists) who had attacked Maimonides. He refused to believe in gilgul, the transmigration of souls, now more commonly referred to as reincarnation. Finally, he complained that belief in the Kabbalah might encourage Jews to convert to Christianity, which, indeed, some Christian Kabbalists expected to happen precisely because they had kabbalistic arguments that Jesus was God.

A widespread but highly unlikely story told by Kabbalists was that Maimonides had himself embraced Kabbalah before he died. Modena, fearing that something similar could happen to himself, ended his treatise with a warning not to fabricate a story that he had accepted, at the end of his life, the transmigration of souls; but nevertheless at least two copyists did just that. It is reminiscent of Charles Darwin’s supposed deathbed repentance.

Dweck’s Epilogue is entitled ‘History of a Failure’, since the addressee, Hamiz, remained a committed Kabbalist, wrote a commentary on the Zohar, practised divination, and collected kabbalistic commentaries upon Maimonides rather than reading his original works themselves. Yet Ari Nohem, which was finally printed in 1840, two centuries after its composition, was influential on the rise of Jewish rationalism in the nineteenth century. This, as exemplified by Maimonides, appeared to be the undisputed victor. Bernhard Pick could begin his 1913 book on the subject with the words “the Cabala belongs to the past”.

That of course is no longer the case; and it is interesting to notice that today’s Kabbalah schools tend to accept Simeon ben Yohai as the author of the Zohar.

This is very much an academic book: the list of ‘Works Cited’ occupies 44 pages, this for a work itself only 235 pages, and it includes manuscripts in libraries in seven different countries. It is also aimed at academics: no attempt is made to explain the doctrines of the Zohar or of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed – neither of them easy to understand – apparently because the reader is assumed to be familiar with them already. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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