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A Scholar of Kabbalah

How I left Romania for Israel and learned to study without preconceptions

Moshe Idel
November 04, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original photo: YouTube
Tablet Magazine; original photo: YouTube
Tablet Magazine; original photo: YouTube
Tablet Magazine; original photo: YouTube

I was born into a traditional Jewish family in 1947 and I grew up in a small shtetl in northern Romania, Tirgu Neamtz, where Jews survived the war. Like other boys in traditional Jewish families, I started my schooling at the age of 3 in the traditional heder. Romania was now under the Communist government and one could not remain in a Jewish school for long. I had to enroll in a secular grammar school when I was about 6. This meant a very sharp move from a Yiddish-speaking environment of Jews only to Romanian-speaking secular school with non-Jews, who were totally different people from the Jews I knew as a young child. The shift entailed broadening my linguistic and cultural horizons and exposing me to communist ideology and propaganda. So, in a communist society, I was like everyone else: I believed in all the mythology of the communists, including the cult of Stalin. I remember even now the moment I learned that Stalin died; I experienced it as a catastrophe. But after a while, it changed because I began to be skeptical and could no longer plug into the propaganda.

So, I had a period, let’s say, between roughly speaking, the age of 12 to the age of 16 when I left Romania, during which I was reading a lot but not exactly what I was supposed to read, including material of religion which was not, shall we say, the cup of tea of the Communists. I started to read philosophy and also got interested in Hinduism, which was a big discovery for me. Until the age of 15 I didn’t know anything about it. Externally, at least, I continued to be a part of the high school, because it was impossible not to be there, but I experienced the school like a prison. I attempted to establish my intellectual independence by reading, and it was up to me to decide what I would like to read and whether or not to read what I was supposed to. How to seem to be reading official literature while reading something else actually was a big intellectual effort because I had to escape the watchful eyes of the authorities.

Growing up I knew that my family wanted all the time to come to Israel. When I say “all the time” I really mean it; from the moment I was born my parents and the rest of the family wanted to leave Romania, but the communist comrades didn’t allow us. Half of the family did manage to leave in 1949-1950, but the other half had to wait for another 14 years or so before it could depart. So, growing up meant a life in suspense, I think. We knew that we were going to leave, but the problem is, when? Obviously such a stance is not conducive to integration from many points of view. Not only because I was thinking about this Israel, even though I had no idea what was there, and I did not know the Zionistic story at all. Yet, as a young person I knew that part of the family was in Israel and that I would like to be with the family. Needless to say, that created a certain tension with the Romanian environment. Even more so because everyone in school knew that we wanted to leave, which was taken as an insult by the communists. As a result, I could not receive various prizes or awards in school, simply because it was known that my family wanted to leave Romania. This was not a secret conspiracy against Jews, but simply the rule of the game. I did not experience a crisis as a result of this awareness, but there was a certain form of alienation. In postwar Romania, even though we were Jews, we were very much part of the culture. We had to study Russian and I knew Russian well enough, despite the fact I didn’t want to know it at all. The pressure to conform was great.

During my adolescent years, when I started to read material that was not part of the curriculum while attempting to graduate like everyone else, I experienced a kind of alienation from the surrounding culture. Remember that we were traditional Jews, in fact, Orthodox Jews, even though Orthodoxy in Romania at that time was something totally different from Orthodoxy in Israel today. I must confess, though, that while I was a traditional Jew, personally, I was not religious; I didn’t believe in almost anything. As a child I assumed that I was like everyone else, but when I became a teenager, it was over. I did not espouse the traditional beliefs of Judaism and I assume that the communist propaganda had an influence on me, even if I did not believe the propaganda either.

The one certainty I had was that the family wanted to leave Romania for Israel. For that reason I consumed a lot of foreign literature about another kind of life. Even though I grew up in a small town, which was quite pedestrian, there were a lot of books. These books were the major reason for my feeling of alienation as a Jew, but also as a Romanian. Communist Romania was no longer the old Romania which I imagined as a rather glorious life. Maybe it was really glorious in Bucharest, but I was not in Bucharest, only my dreams were there. Now, let me make it clear: I did not suffer and I did not encounter anti-Semites who rejected me because I was a Jew. It was nothing like that; we were rejected because we wanted to leave. So what I experienced was not suffering, it was alienation, a mild alienation. I did not have a sense of living in exile, and no feeling of being an exile; I just knew that I lived in a place where I knew I didn’t want to be.

But then when I turned 16, my life was radically transformed one day when we were given permission to leave. My world changed in one second and from then on I could not imagine what I was going to do next year. The life I knew was over; it disappeared in a moment, all because we were given permission to leave for Israel. In truth I knew nothing about Israel. To the extent that I had some notion about Israel it was simply imaginary, as I would later discover. But from the moment we were allowed to leave Romania the world changed and we were no more part of Romania; we already belonged to another country, another place. So the change was very dramatic, precisely because I was very much part of Romania. I knew Romanian very well and I understood its culture, including its Eastern Orthodox heritage, but now that I was leaving for Israel I wanted to belong to a place that existed only in my imagination.

Photos of the author and his family, Romania, circa 1958
Photos of the author and his family, Romania, circa 1958Courtesy Moshe Idel

I imagined Israel as a desert. I believed we were going to be on a farm, in order to receive some training to work in the desert. And my major worry was how am I going to have books. Indeed, when I met the Israeli ambassador in Bucharest as we were ready to fly to Israel, the only question I had for him was whether there are libraries in Israel. His answer was very calm as he reassured me, “Yeah, sure there are,” but he didn’t convince me nor did he allay my anxiety. I was sure that he responded to me as a joke, making light of my concern. So when I arrived in Israel I had a cultural shock. First, the shock was linguistic: I did not possess the means for communication with other people in Israel. I knew how to read Hebrew, but I could not speak the language. And English, another dominant language in Israel, I did not know at all. So, in a moment, I became an analphabet, a person without a language and without capacity for verbal communication. Keep in mind that there were no books in Romanian, or at least I did not know where I could find such books.

So, like all newcomers in Israel, I enrolled in ulpan [Hebrew language school] in Kefar Masarik and there I started to study Hebrew. I may have known a little bit more Hebrew than all the other students, who didn’t know anything, but still I did not know too much. The experience of being without a language compelled me to study very intensively; I really studied very, very, very intensely in order to master Hebrew. So after two or three months, I decided it was not right for me; because it was in a kibbutz, the style of teaching reminded me too much of the Bolshevik methods of inculcating certain teaching through simple stories. By contrast, I was putting all my energy into mastering Hebrew grammar from Gesenius’ book of Hebrew grammar. In other words, I studied Hebrew as one would study Latin: I was asking my teacher about all kinds of grammatical exceptions, but he had no idea what I was talking about. It was so bizarre for him to listen to some of my questions that, you know, he didn’t dismiss me as if I was someone crazy, but only as someone who is asking questions that have no relevance to the actual use of the Hebrew language. So, after three months, I decided to enroll in my junior year in high school, that is, 11th grade, along with native speakers of Hebrew.

My family settled in Kiryat Ata so I enrolled in the local high school and there I encountered what serious learning is all about. I did nothing but study and study, and I was exposed to an entirely new curriculum. I had to learn Hebrew grammar, Bible, Hebrew literature, Jewish history, and many other topics that were totally brand new for me. And on top of that I had to learn English. Of course, I was fluent in Russian and French, not to mention Romanian and Yiddish, but no one in high school either knew these languages or if they knew any of them they did not want to speak to me in these languages. If I were to matriculate from an Israeli high school and be like everyone else, I had to study English. To get to the appropriate level in English within such a short time, I had to study English basically alone in order to catch up and reach the level required for matriculation.

That junior year in high school was the only period of my life that I really studied, from morning to the evening, all the time. Part of the required topics for matriculation was Bible, which for me meant basically learning another language. So I made a lot of mistakes as I tried to master biblical Hebrew alongside modern Hebrew. I availed myself of the commentary of Tur-Sinai because it was the biggest commentary on the Book of Job, and I plowed through it with a small Hebrew-Romanian dictionary. You can imagine that this was a frustrating experience because a lot of words in the Bible were not in my Romanian dictionary. In retrospect, of course, it was really a big mistake to do something like that, but I was utterly determined to be able to master the language of the Bible.

In short, the year and a half in high school was a real difficult period, partly because I didn’t consult people and partly because I had to recreate for myself a new identity in a new language. As I was studying day and night to prepare for the national matriculation examinations and did all of them, with one exception, history, I received a note from the Israeli army, exempting me from the draft. Apparently, I passed the exams with distinction and was eligible to enter the university without being drafted first, which meant I was admitted to what is known in Israel as atudah academait. But now I had a real quandary: All my new friends were born Israelis who were going to do compulsory army service, and I would avoid the army and enter higher education. For about a month and a half I enjoyed feeling proud of my intellectual prowess, but eventually there was a change in the rules and I was indeed drafted into the Israeli army, like all the others, and my experience in the army was quite difficult.

Basic training was difficult for me because I could not devote myself to study, which was my mission at the time. Instead, my life was reduced to focusing on basic, shall we say, “dirty necessities.” Furthermore, I knew I had to master the English language in order to pass the entrance exams to the university, so I studied English on my own by memorizing dictionaries and I did so on the bus while traveling back and forth between my home and the army base.

I was drafted to the IDF’s Combat Engineering unit and I had to acquire a lot of technical knowledge about engineering, which is not a simple topic at all. Although engineering is a challenging topic, intellectually it was not satisfying for me, so I started to study Japanese.

As a survival tactic, that turned out to be quite good because all the people were looking to me and saw that I was learning Japanese, which they couldn’t understand, so their reaction was this guy must be nuts, so it is better to leave him alone. This was the best thing for me because it discouraged them from challenging me, or making my life difficult in any way. And so during my army service I started to study subjects that had no relation to a profession or a career. While other soldiers were asleep, I was studying Aramaic, by translating the Aramaic sections of the Bible. It was in the army that I started to read the books of Mircea Eliade in English in order to improve my English. Interestingly, I got into reading Eliade not because he’s Romanian, and not because of his theories of religion, or his own religious proclivities, but because his English was adequate to my level.

So, it was during my army service that my English improved greatly through reading, for which I had plenty of time. My work in the IDF Combat Engineering unit was physically very, very hard and very dangerous, but we had plenty of free time, which I devoted to reading theories of religion (mainly Eliade), poetry, and philosophy. I still did not know what I would study after my compulsory service, but I began to have an inkling that it would be either philosophy or religion. These were not obvious topics for a new immigrant in Israel in those years.

You must remember that after the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel was in a period of economic crisis and my family was rather poor; to be blunt, we didn’t have anything. So I had to think in very, very practical terms and I decided to study English and Hebrew literature in order to become a high school teacher. A teaching post would at least guarantee my livelihood. I enrolled at the University of Haifa majoring in English and Hebrew literature, and I do not regard this choice as a mistake.

The first two years in the University of Haifa (1967, 1968) were difficult times because Israel was in the midst of an economic crisis and there were no jobs at all. But then something changed and the government began to give out stipends and fellowships for newcomers to Israel. Out of the blue, without expecting anything, I received a scholarship which made my third year at the university free with some additional income. Finally I did not have to work so hard for a living, although I continued to work very hard because of a deep sense of economic insecurity; one never knew what was going to happen next year. I also worked very hard because I wanted to be sure that no mistake would happen.

In 1969 I graduated from the University of Haifa with a B.A. and a teaching certificate that enabled me to be a high school teacher. In 1970 I decided to focus on literature as the topic of my graduate training, but then a friend of mine, the late professor Arieh Motzkin, who was my teacher at Haifa, convinced me to go to Jerusalem and check out the people at the department of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah. By then professor Shlomo Pines was the most senior scholar in the department (Gershom Scholem had already retired), but I did not imagine myself doing graduate work at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In fact, I was pretty sure it was going to be the first and last time I went to Jerusalem. But again something totally different started for me; it was a sort of a break.

As a newcomer to Israel, I had a sort of inferiority complex, which was exacerbated by the difference between the two universities. The University of Haifa at the time did not match the history and reputation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Now I could meet intellectual giants, such as professor Eliezer Schweid and professor Shlomo Pines, and studying with them seemed to me beyond my wildest imagination. So I started to take graduate courses with some professors and getting to know this august faculty. And once again something surprising happened: Professor Ephraim Gottlieb, one of the scholars of Kabbalah who taught at the department, invited me to be his research assistant. Financially this was terrific because it saved me money, since traveling between Haifa and Jerusalem was quite expensive. But the more surprising development was that professor Pines admitted me to the direct Ph.D. program at the Hebrew University. So again, out of the blue, I was accepted as a Ph.D. student at the Hebrew University, which was beyond my wildest dream.

As a graduate student in the department of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah I was not only exposed to new topics, but also to new research methods. Initially I sought to write my dissertation on Jewish philosophy with professor Shlomo Pines rather than on Kabbalah, but since I was the research assistant of professor Gottlieb, I was also introduced to Hebrew manuscripts. I started to read manuscripts under the supervision of professor Gottlieb, and that’s the way my career as a scholar of Kabbalah was launched. I left the study of literature (be it English or Hebrew) as well as the study of Hebrew language; these subjects became passé basically, as I focused my time and interest on reading kabbalistic manuscripts. In the early 1970s the economic situation improved dramatically in Israel, in general, as well as for me personally. So I could now actually read whatever I would like, including a lot of manuscripts. Being admitted to the Ph.D. candidate program at the Hebrew University was a source of incredible pride; and it was all before I even launched my academic career. So that’s what happened.

Initially I was interested in philosophy, not in Kabbalah; that’s why I knew I would write my Ph.D. thesis with professor Pines. As you know, I wrote about Abraham Abulafia, but it took a while for me to arrive at that decision. In fact, it was professor Gottlieb who challenged me to define my intellectual interests. I knew that Abraham Abulafia wrote commentaries on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and I thought that professor Pines, whose expertise was Maimonides, could agree to my study of Abulafia. So I started to read the relevant manuscripts and found them quite interesting, but when I spoke with Pines he was not keen on the idea because he did not feel himself competent to direct a dissertation on Abraham Abulafia. Pines insisted that professor Gottlieb would be the supervisor of the dissertation and that is how I started to think about Kabbalah.

I did not know that Kabbalah would become the focus of my career. Even though I wanted to know about Kabbalah, and I took a course with professor Gottlieb, my main instructor was professor Pines and I was mostly interested in the history of philosophy.

Like any other student, I started with a very limited topic, but the research was based on manuscripts, and as you know, manuscripts are not pure. When I started to read the primary sources I realized that the material could not be classified simply as “Kabbalah” or as “philosophy”; the manuscripts contained a complex set of ideas that required me to explore a variety of directions simultaneously. This was not a matter of my choice, but rather something dictated by the manuscripts. Thus I noticed that the manuscripts contained a lot of material that could be classified as “magic,” and I noticed that no other scholar wrote much about this. So I began to find ways to cope with the material in the manuscripts. Keep in mind that I was already exposed to the writings of Eliade, who had some ideas about the nature of religion from the dawn of humanity to the present. Eliade thought he knew something about the essence of religion, or what is “real religion.” But then I encountered the writings of Gershom Scholem, one of the founders of the department of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah at the Hebrew University, and the most important scholar of Kabbalah in the 20th century. And when I started to read Scholem, I encountered a totally different worldview, meaning a secular thinker who believes in the progression of the human spirit through stages, obviously a totally different outlook than Eliade’s.

To my amazement, as I delved into the manuscripts, I realized that neither of the two approaches to religion were working—meaning, the manuscripts resisted the theories. In the early 1970s I also became more familiar with Carl Jung’s theories and while I was still in Haifa, I introduced Kabbalah to a group of Jungian psychiatrists. I was quite surprised to see how the Jungians approached the kabbalistic texts; they knew in advance what the texts presumably were supposed to say, before they even read them. It was a very powerful experience for me because they were so certain about the meaning of the texts; they were even laughing as we were trying to fathom what the texts were saying. Whereas they thought they understood the texts, I told them, “Wait a second, the texts may be saying something else.” Of course, they summarily dismissed my caution.

So, when I started to read the kabbalistic texts extant exclusively in manuscripts, I had at my disposal theories about religion that did not help me at all to understand the texts. While it is true that we never enter the interpretation of texts without some preconceived notions about the text, when you truly attempt to fathom the text, you are lost and you are alone. Meaning, the text does not help you and does not tell you what it says or what it means. The encounter between the interpreter and the text is direct and unmediated. So the kabbalistic texts were a kind of an enigma to me, and neither Eliade’s ideas nor Jungian ideas helped me to make sense of them. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t use existing theories of religion, but even when I thought I knew something, the question still remained: How do I apply what I think I know to these kabbalistic texts? The application was rather, how to put it, almost impossible.

So I attempted to find different ways to unpack the meaning of the kabbalistic texts. For example, I started to read the research produced by the scholars of the Warburg school, dealing with myths and symbols and astronomy, astrology, and magic, and these studies brought a little bit of clarity to the manuscripts. But I didn’t have too much time to really delve deeper into these cultural domains, because my task was to make sense of the material that was in fact impenetrable. I had at my disposal some tools (e.g., the ideas of Eliade and Scholem, both of whom seemed right to me) but I sensed that the tools did not work. So why did they not work? I began to think that perhaps I was the problem; perhaps I needed to know more and expand my intellectual horizons in order to make sense of the kabbalistic texts. I slowly understood that maybe if I had different lenses, I would be able to see other things. So on my own, without formal academic training, I started to read very broadly and encountered other scholars of religion and other intellectual historians, such as Frances Yates and others who were connected to the Warburg school. Her work was a sort of revelation for me, because it was closer to the Kabbalah and it shed light on various historical and cultural issues related to the Italian Renaissance. Finally, I felt that scholarship in other fields is helpful to interpret the kabbalistic texts.

So from 1971 to 1986 I focused mainly on reading manuscripts and I learned an important lesson: The theories we have don’t work; they simply don’t work. The experience of facing the manuscripts and fathoming what they tell me was a crucial experience; the manuscript resisted any attempt to impose a ready-made theory or explanation. In retrospect I think this can be said about any text, not only manuscripts or specifically kabbalistic manuscripts. My encounter with the texts made it very clear to me that you cannot subscribe to some existing theory or approach because the minute you try to apply it to the text, you are going to do violence to the text. This is especially true if you subscribe to these theories seriously. This seriousness is going to cost you. While it is necessary to pose questions to the text you seek to understand, you must remain free to listen to the text.

To put it differently, you must have the questions because the text is not giving you any answer if you don’t ask. But if you’re going to ask all the time the same question, and you believe that that is the answer, you actually don’t understand the text. That was not at the beginning, but with time, I started to understand that in fact that’s something beyond Kabbalah or philosophy. I believe this now about textuality.

This essay is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and published in Moshe Idel, Representing God, eds. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes (Leiden: Brill, 2014). Reprinted by permission of the author, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, and Brill publishers.

Moshe Idel is professor emeritus in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a Senior Researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute.