Mahlev, Haim

Core areas

German Enlightenment; rationalism; perennial knowledge; archaeology of knowledge; occult tradition; clandestine literature; religious toleration; Haskalah; Hebraism; philosophy of pessimism; Wissenschaft des Judentums; fin-de-siècle Vienna

Project:Theologia Naturalis Hebraeorum? Models of Rational religion in the German Enlightenment

My research project investigates different models of rationality and categorization of knowledge in the German Enlightenment and their impact on religious and intellectual tolerance. I am particularly interested in the way the growing supremacy of reason during the 18th century challenged knowledge that formerly enjoyed an authoritative status because the inability to scrutinize its content rationally. As a result, Kabbalah, ancient wisdom (prisca sapientia), mystical and hermetical thought, previously considered as ‘pristine’ and ‘perennial,’ gradually lost their validity and worth and became a codename for fanaticism and irrationality. This intellectual ‘ostracism,’ which was facilitated by the definition of revelation as an intellectual instrument, had direct implications on religious toleration as well, since theosophical thought was closely connected to the inter-religious debate between Christianity, Judaism, and Paganism.

A representative example of this intellectual process can be seen in the impact of the discourse on natural theology (‘theologia naturalis’) during the German Enlightenment on shaping the image of Christianity and Judaism as rational religions. Attempts to base Christianity on reason, which often depicted Judaism as irrational and atheistic, led both religions to try and disengage themselves from theosophical thought. German Protestantism’s harsh criticism of the Christian preoccupation with mystical and kabbalistic thought (“Christian Kabbalah”) led to the construction of an alternate narrative of knowledge-transfer from rational Greeks to Christianity. Judaism’s reaction to that move was to denounce kabbalistic thought as well and revive Jewish rational thought from the Middle Ages, while arguing that Judaism was in fact based on natural theology. The process culminated in the late Enlightenment in a formulation of two different but essentially interrelated models of rational religion, one based on historical progress (Lessing), the other on ‘historical cyclicality’ (Mendelssohn). As a curious effect, the attempt to distance the Vernunftreligion from theosophical thought did not lead to the latter’s abolishment, but rather to its re-esotericism: Instead of being readily interpreted and studied, such knowledge became once more the property of secluded, secret societies such as the Freemasons or Illuminati, which allegedly shared its ‘true meaning’ only between their members.

Selected Publications

  • “Kabbalah as Philosophia Perennis? The Image of Judaism in the German Early Enlightenment: Three Studies.” In: Jewish Quarterly Review 104/2 (2014): 234-257.
  • “‘To sin with Reason’ — Spinoza’s Moral Atheism in the German Early Enlightenment.” In: Philosophisches Jahrbuch 120 (2013): 277-294.
  • “Spinozismus als Philosemitismus? Johann Georg Wachter zwischen dem ‘Spinozismus im Jüdenthumb’ und dem ‘Elucidarius Cabalisticus.’” In: Morgen-Glantz 22 (2012): 91-114.
  • “Between Spinozism and Atheism: The Impact of Spinoza’s Philosophy on the German Early Enlightenment” (in Hebrew). In: Hidushim, Leo Baeck Institute (Jerusalem 2012): 1-28.
  • “Der Spinozismus vor Spinoza: Johann Franz Buddes Erwiderung auf Johann Georg Wachters ‘Der Spinozismus im Jüdenthumb.’” In: Scientia Poetica 15 (2011): 67-91.