Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of Garb, Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah

Jonathan Garb. Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. x + 276 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-28207-7.

Reviewed by Ronald Kiener (Trinity College)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

Modern Kabbalah and Religious Studies

This is a book that can be recommended not only to researchers working in the field of Jewish mysticism, but also to colleagues working in the field of religious studies in general. Through its very provocative title--and then through well-argued but dense chapters--it raises three challenges to the formerly regnant contours of Jewish mysticism studies, which to this day have been dictated by the research agenda and ideological proclivities of Gershom Scholem. At least one of these challenges has been tackled by Jonathan Garb in earlier writings: the notion that there is a useful domain within the history of Jewish mysticism which can best be characterized as “modern Kabbalah.” The very term “modern Kabbalah” suggests that the developments, personalities, and movements of Jewish mystical thought of the last four hundred years (Lurianism, Sabbateanism, Hasidism, Mitnagdism, and all that flows therefrom) can be regarded as representing a revitalizing response of Jewish religiosity to modernism. This approach explicitly contravenes the Scholemian view that Hasidism represents the “latest phase” in the history of Jewish mysticism, and that after a few generations of initial mystical creativity, Hasidism experienced a decline and degeneration, marking a kind of end to the history of the movement.

Another potentially disconcerting challenge offered by the title of the book, shamanism is a domain of religious studies typically linked to rural South America or Asia. Garb successfully argues that modern Kabbalah can be readily understood as bearing numerous shamanic traits. One might begin the book with a sense that Garb is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, but as the book unfolds the reader is compelled to accept that the traits of shamanistic phenomena are indeed present in modern Kabbalistic practice. For that matter, “trance” can be a slippery and fluid term, but by carefully delineating the difference between trance and concentrated meditation, Garb demonstrates that the many diverse streams of modern Kabbalah view the inculcation of trance states as an acme of the mystic way. These trance experiences are comparatively described by Garb as “shamanic” insofar as they oftentimes invoke and promote the same themes of power, transformation, and healing associated with shamanic phenomena.

I offered a somewhat analogous argument for shamanism as a useful framework for understanding pre-Kabbalistic Merkavah Mysticism in my book Descenders to the Chariot: The People Behind the Hekhalot Literature (Brill, 2001).