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Abstract

Popular culture today is suffused with kabbalah, an elitist, intellectual strand of medieval Judaism that claimed to disclose the esoteric meaning of the rabbinic tradition. While rooted in esoteric speculations in late antiquity, kabbalah emerged in the tenth century as an internal debate among Jewish theologians about the ontological status of divine attributes. At the end of the twelfth century speculations about the nature of God emerged among the Pietists of Germany and the ‘masters of kabbalah’ in Provence. During the thirteenth century kabbalah flourished in Spain where its self-understanding as redemptive activity was expressed in two paradigms – the ‘theosophy-theurgic’ and the ‘ecstatic-prophetic’. Kabbalah continued to evolve in the early modern period, shaping both Jewish and European cultures. The modern period saw the rise of the academic study of kabbalah, but it was employed in two conflicting manners: in the nineteenth century scholars associated with the Enlightenment used historical analysis of kabbalah to debunk Jewish traditionalism, but in the first half of the twentieth century, the academic study of kabbalah was used to generate a secular, collective Zionist identity. Although scholarship on kabbalah has flourished in the twentieth century, kabbalah has become a variant of New-Age religions, accessible to all, regardless of ethnic identity or spiritual readiness.