Anyone who has engaged in the academic study of Jewish mysticism knows that there are two dominant scholarly approaches to the subject: that of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) and that of his erstwhile student Moshe Idel, now professor emeritus at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. In the following passage, extracted from an interview by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Idel describes his journey from the Romanian hamlet where he spent his childhood to the university where he would spend his career:
I was born into a traditional Jewish family in 1947 and I grew up in a small shtetl in northern Romania, Targu Neamt, where Jews survived the war. Like other boys in traditional Jewish families, I started my schooling at the age of three in the traditional ḥeder. 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 six.
This meant a very sharp move from a Yiddish-speaking environment of Jews only to a 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.
Idel goes on to describe how as a doctoral student, he began to develop his signature approach to the history of Jewish mysticism:
[W]hen 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.