March 14, 1996
Harvard
University Gazette

 

Full contents
Notes
Newsmakers
Police Log
Gazette Home
Gazette Archives
News Office
Feedback

SEARCH THE GAZETTE

 

HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Mystical Encounters

New exhibition at Houghton shows how Renaissance scholars used ancient Jewish Kabbalah to prove Christian doctrines

By Ken Gewertz

Gazette Staff

The term "Christian Kabbalah" -- the subject of a new exhibition at Houghton Library -- is apt to create some confusion.

How and when did the Kabbalah, the body of Jewish mystical speculation that originated in Europe in the 12th century, become Christianized?

As the rare and remarkable items in the exhibition illustrate, this scholarly baptism was a phenomenon of the Renaissance, a time when European scholars, inspired by the idea that the ancient world was a great repository of lost wisdom, sought to bring pre-Christian learning within the confines of their own world view.

"This is what the Renaissance is all about, that antiquity is the ultimate assurance of truth," said Joseph Dan, Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and curator of the exhibition.

"The Christian Kabbalah: Jewish Mystical Books and their Christian Interpreters" will be at Houghton Library from March 11 through April 26. Dan and other scholars will participate in a symposium on the Christian Kabbalah in the Houghton exhibition room on Monday, March 18, from 2 to 5:30 p.m. The symposium is free and open to the public.

Christian Kabbalism began in the 15th century with the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola, who was captivated by the secrets of Kabbalah and intrigued by the possibility of using them to demonstrate the truths of Christianity.

Pico, an intellectual prodigy who died at the age of 31, accepted the claims of Jewish mystics that Kabbalah represented an unbroken oral tradition originally revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, a beautifully printed copy of which is featured in the exhibition, he defended this notion and maintained that the Kabbalah is full of implicitly Christian doctrine.

"There is no science which better certifies to us the divinity of Christ than magic and kabbalah," declared Pico in a famous statement from another work, Conclusions.

By magic, Dan explained, Pico meant not only such "occult" activities as astrology, alchemy, and divination, but chemistry, physics, astronomy, and other disciplines on which the modern age confers the name of science. In the 15th century no distinction was made between what we consider two very separate categories.

Pico's idea of validating Christian doctrine with ancient Jewish mysticism was daring, but it was also a logical extension of traditional belief. Christianity had always recognized itself as originating in Judaism and interpreted the Old Testament as a symbolic foreshadowing of Christian redemption.

The key to Christian Kabbalism lay in the idea that Kabbalah, traditionally held to be an oral tradition as ancient as the Old Testament, foreshadowed Christianity as well.

"Because the Kabbalah was supposed to be ancient, it must be true, and because it was true, it must be Christian," Dan said.

Dan, considered by many the world's foremost scholar on the Kabbalah, finds the Jewish Kabbalists fascinating because "they often went as far as one could go in thinking about and describing divine phenomena. Kabbalism was an eruption of freedom, of images and experiences. Usually you don't find such vigor and courage in theological literature, which is often very conscious of boundaries."

The Christian Kabbalists inherited some of this vigor and exuberance, and their reliance on ancient Hebrew sources permitted them to "push the envelope" of Christian thought.

"Their reliance on the Hebrew Kabbalistic tradition allowed them to legitimize ideas and thoughts which they would have hesitated to present without this support," Dan said.

The exhibition consists almost entirely of works from Harvard's collection. The depth of the Houghton's resources surprised J.F. Coakley, cataloger in Houghton's manuscript department, who mounted the exhibition.

"When this exhibition was first proposed, I thought there might not be enough in the collection to support it. But every time I went down to the stacks, I discovered another rare volume."

The exhibition contains some incunabula, works printed before 1501, as well as several handwritten manuscripts, some of them masterpieces of Latin and Hebrew calligraphy. A number of works display mystical drawings and diagrams, attempts to render the supernatural in graphic form.

In addition to original books by Pico there are also examples of works by Jewish scholars who helped him translate and interpret the Hebrew sources. Among them are Flavius Mithridates, a Christianized Jew whose contribution to Pico's efforts included 3,500 pages of Latin translations of Hebrew mystical works, and Yohanan Alemanno, a Jewish scholar who wrote on science and magic and whose book Gate of Desire, a commentary on the Song of Songs, is included in the collection.

There are also examples of earlier Hebrew works upon which Pico drew for inspiration. Among them is the Sefer Yezirah, or The Book of Creation, a treatise on the creation of the cosmos which presents the idea that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the numbers 1 to 10 are the means by which the universe was created.

Another work, the Zohar, was recognized by the Christian Kabbalists as the most important work of Jewish mysticism. In it is found the clearest expression of the concept that Kabbalah is an ancient tradition revealed by God to Moses and transmitted to Jewish sages from generation to generation. The exhibition includes early editions of the Zohar, along with works by important Jewish kabbalists Joseph Gikatilla and Menahem Recanati.

Pico's effort to Christianize the Kabbalah was carried on by Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), whose book On the Art of the Kabbalah argued that works of Jewish mysticism reflected classical traditions and supported Christian doctrine. Reuchlin, a pioneer in the study of the Hebrew language, opposed the Dominicans of Cologne who wanted to burn all Jewish books within the Holy Roman Empire.

The encounter between Jews and Christians continues with a work by Eleazar of Worms with marginal notes by Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. This work is represented by a photocopy of a manuscript in the British Library. Eleazar, a Jewish scholar, recounts a story from the Jewish Life of Jesus in which Jesus takes the Holy Name from the temple and flies into the air, then struggles with a rabbi and is defeated. "This is blasphemy!" declares the cardinal in Latin.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Christian Kabbalists began to look to Jewish mystical literature as a source of magical knowledge. This group included Agrippa Von Netteshein, Guillaume Postel, and Robert Fludd -- all of them represented in the exhibition.

An exquisite handwritten and illustrated book by a 17th-century Franciscan friar named Chrysostomus à Capranica exemplifies this magical aspect of Christian Kabbalism. The book, dedicated to Ferdinand II, explains how the emperor might achieve victory over the Turks by invoking the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew name for God which Christian Kabbalists believed could be altered by the insertion of an additional letter to produce the secret name of Jesus.

Other works represented are those of Athanasius Kircher, a brilliant 17th-century scholar who wrote on the Kabbalah and attempted (unsuccessfully) to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics; Francis von Helmont, who showed through diagrams that the tongue naturally formed Hebrew letters in the act of speech; and Knorr von Rosenroth, whose book Kabbala Denudata opened Kabbalistic learning to Protestant scholars.

The ideas of the Christian Kabbalists were never widely accepted by mainstream Christians, and many of them were criticized and persecuted as heretics. But their involvement with Jewish mysticism, though it often embroiled them in controversy, did not necessarily mean that they were more accepting of the Jews than their more orthodox colleagues.

"The Renaissance was a time of great persecution of the Jews," Dan said. "The Christian Kabbalists stand out in this period as exceptional in every way, but they were totally and absolutely Christian. It's a very complex situation."

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College