Review: Robert Wang, The Rape of Jewish Mysticism by Christian Theologians: How the Modern Occult Movement Grew out of Renaissance Attempts to Convert the Jews, Columbia [MD]: Marcus Aurelius Press, 2001; vi + 147 pages. ISBN 0-9715591-0-4.
[See a description and the preface of the book at www.marcusaureliuspress.com + ordering information.]
In spite of the “assertive title” (the author’s term, page ii), The Rape of Jewish Mysticism by Christian Theologians by Robert Wang is a rather drab summary of well-known—and well-worn—sources. Wang does not make use of much scholarship since Gershom Scholem (works cited from 1941 and 1974) on kabbalah (though there is recourse to Moshe Idel, especially regarding Abraham Abulafia), Frances Yates (1964 and 1979) and Francois Secret (1964) on cabala, Charles G. Nauert (1965) on Agrippa, and Peter French (1972) on Dee, etc. The scope of the book is too limited: It starts too late (nothing on Ramon Llull, thirteenth century) and ends too early (nothing on developments of the seventeenth-through-nineteenth centuries) to fulfill the promise of its title. Moreover, Wang does not engage his thesis (i.e., the rape of Jewish mysticism) except fleetingly anywhere in the book save the preface and the brief conclusion.
The Rape of Jewish Mysticism does fairly distinguish the separate, if intersecting, paths of Jewish kabbalah and Christian cabala. The first chapter (of three), “Beginnings,” opens with a summary of Jewish mysticism up to the Zohar. The chapter is interrupted by a few pages on the Hermetica and then returns to “The Early Hebrew Kabbalists” (one paragraph), Isaac the Blind (three paragraphs), and Abraham Abulafia (about four pages). Thereafter, we meet the familiar Renaissance figures: Ficino, Pico, and Reuchlin. However, to tell the story from the beginning, Wang should have begun his account of Christian appropriation of Jewish mysticism in the thirteenth century—a century earlier than he did—with Ramon Llull, who was apparently the first to incorporate kabbalah, or kabbalah-like ideas, into his system and rhetoric with the aim of converting Jews. (Refer to Harvey Hames, The Art of Conversion: Christianity & Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century, Leiden – Boston – Koln: Brill, 2000.)
The second chapter, “After Reuchlin,” might be useful to those who cannot read the French works of Francois Secret; the first half of the chapter summarizes material from Les Kabbalistes chretiens de la Renaissance (Paris: Dunod, 1964) on Paul Ricci, Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo, Francesco Giorgio, and others. It then discusses Agrippa (dependent on Nauert), followed by a return to Jewish kabbalah—that of sixteenth-century Safed—with sections on Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria.
The third chapter, “Occultism Established” (which actually starts by backing up a few centuries) opens with a rapid account of the inquisition, passing to a segment called “The Hold of Egyptian Magic on the West,” which leads us to “Giordano Bruno and the Egyptian Gods.”1 Sketches of Athanasius Kircher and John Dee follow. The coverage of Dee serves as a particularly noticeable example of Wang’s dependence on a limited number of dated sources—in this case, Frances Yates’ Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), Peter J. French’s John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) and two texts, A True and Faithful Relationship… (reprinted in Glasgow, 1974) and Monas Hieroglyphica (translated by C.H. Josten, published in Ambix XII, 1964). Wang failed to make use of a wealth of research since Yates and French, most notably Nicholas H. Clulee’s John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), but including Robert Turner’s Elizabethan Magic: The Art and the Magus (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1989) and the numerous texts translated and edited by Geoffrey James (1984), Gordon James (1995), and Joseph Peterson (1985). A substantial number of works by and about Dee were published in the ’eighties and ’nineties by both academic and popular—some occult—presses.
The Rape of Jewish Mysticism comes to a premature halt with “Christian Kabbalah becomes Rosicrucianism,” “The Fama Fraternitas,” and “Robert Fludd.” A coda entitled “Rejected Jews” sidles up to the supposed theme of the book which is so energetically shouted by its title. Alas, there is little more here than restatements of the obvious and speculations undermined by inadequate research: “Expulsions and forced conversions were a deeply disturbing process…” (page 140); “Perhaps, indeed, there were many ‘secret Jews,’ for whom the deeply meditative Christian Kabbalah may have been a compromise” (page 141).
In the midst of the second chapter, Wang mentions S.L.M. Mathers’ and Aleister Crowley’s compendium 777 (page 71), where he states that Francesco Giorgio’s lists of correspondences is “an early precursor” of 777. This suggests that it is to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—which was headed by Mathers and which counted Crowley among its members—that he is ultimately leading us, namely, to the British occult of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Golden Dawn’s dogma and ritual have indeed shaped Western occultism “as it is known today” (a phrase from the back cover). Not only does Wang fail to inform us who Mathers and Crowley are, but, as already noted, he stops his account short at Robert Fludd. (Nor does he specify the nature of 777, which is table upon table of correspondences whose organizing principle is the ten sefirot and the twenty-two paths, i.e. the twenty-two Hebrew letters, of the kabbalistic “tree of life.”)
Wang’s omission of developments through the seventeenth-to-nineteenth centuries is all the more puzzling given the book’s subtitle, How the Modern Occult Movement Grew out of Renaissance Attempts to Convert the Jews. We could quibble over the meaning of “modern” (as it might be broadly understood in a formula such as Biblical-Talmudic-Medieval-Modern), but the full text of the back cover takes away any doubt about what “modern” refers to here: “The extraordinary story of how, from the fourteenth century on, Christian theologians used the essence of Jewish mysticism to prove the divinity of Christ, and how that effort resulted in Christian Kabbalah, in Rosicrucianism, and in all aspects of the Western occult movement as it is known today.” Further, the last paragraph of Wang’s preface begins, “By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the assimilation of Jewish Kabbalah into Western occultism was complete” (page vi). Add to this that Wang has written on the Golden Dawn’s manner of Western occultism in books such as An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979), The Secret Temple (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1980), and Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Occult Philosophy (York Beach: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1983—a new edition is now being prepared by Marcus Aurelius Press).
Were Wang at the very least to get us to Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (Sulzbach: 1677-8, 1684), he would have accounted for of the other key source for “the Modern Occult Movement” as characterized by the Golden Dawn (the most important single source being Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia—whether by way of Barrett’s Magus or not). Indeed, from the Latin of Kabbala denudata, S.L.M. Mathers translated to English three tracts from the Zohar (with von Rosenroth’s—and his own—elaborations) under the title The Kabbalah Unveiled (1887; this title is still available in several versions). Kabbala denudata was source to many other influential occultists, the best known being Mme. Blavatsky and Albert Pike.
Along with the general shortcomings of the book, we must also endure its many ill-conceived phrases: (referring to the Zohar) “The book…became shrouded in mystery” (page 11); “The system of Abulafia was quite unique” (page 21); (about Agrippa) “He was the turning point toward modern occultism” (page 76); and (also about Agrippa) “…he became the leader of a relatively avant garde group of scholars…” (page 80). All this and the topic-by-topic rehash from too few sources suggest a hasty scholar writing at his material. Contrast Wang’s work with Philip Beitchman’s Alchemy of the Word (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), where a clear dependence on secondary sources does not stand in the way of a provocative and nuanced discussion.
Some of Wang’s statements are simply wrong: (writing about Lurianic Kabbalah after 1590 in a section on Jewish developments) “Of course, Luria’s work was only of use to, and understood by, a very small elite” (page 98); while Wang cites Scholem’s Major Trend in Jewish Mysticism, he seems to have missed the second part of Scholem’s “Seventh Lecture: Isaac Luria and His School.” There are also mistakes and omissions in the notes.
The need for an up-to-date introductory book on Christian Cabala has certainly not been filled by The Rape of Jewish Mysticism. The fault is not with the effort to write a “popular,” accessible book. There are a number of well-done works on Jewish mysticism aimed at a general audience, e.g., Neil Asher Silberman’s Heavenly Powers: Unraveling the Secret History of the Kabbalah (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1998) and J.H. Laenen’s Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction (Louisville, London, Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001). Even more specialized books, such as Lawrence Fine’s excellent study of Isaac Luria, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003) have been written so as not to exclude the non-scholarly reader.