Interview with Daniel Abrams

April 7 1997

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Daniel Abrams is a young researcher and lecturer of Jewish mysticism in Jerusalem. He wrote his Ph.D. on a work of the first known Kabbalist in Castile, R. Jacob ben Jacob ha-Cohen's, Sefer ha-Orah (The Book of Illumination). He is presently one of the major experts in Kabbalistic manuscripts. He published two exceptionally valuable critical editions: The Book Bahir and the Complete writings of R. Asher ben David, one of the first known Kabbalists who lived in Provence. He is preparing several additional books of the early Kabbalah. He is also the publisher of a series of books in a new publishing house settled in Los Angeles: Cherub Press, which he courageously established independent from public institutions. Entirely devoted to the editing of Jewish Mysticism studies and texts, Cherub Press is the main editorial event of this century for the Jewish Mystical library. Moreover, by publishing the first academic review devoted to the field, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, of which one volume has already been published (now three, 5/5/1998), Cherub Press has become the international center for the editing of Jewish Mystical literature of the highest academic level. The JEC has decided to question Daniel Abrams in order to know the reasons of his almost incredible achievements, to know also his goals, his means, his projects.

JEC: Thank you Daniel Abrams for answering our questions. First of all, we would like to know what is Cherub Press?

DA: Cherub Press is an independent academic publishing house based in Los Angeles which seeks to publish textually oriented studies of Jewish Mysticism.

JEC: Could you tell us why you decided to create a publishing house devoted to Kabbalah research and textual scholarship? Did you think that something was lacking in the existent publishers?

DA: Textual scholarship is the basic layer of the field of Jewish mysticism. In one sense, it can be viewed as the extension of the medieval Kabbalistic enterprise. However, in the modern, academic context, the study of Kabbalistic manuscripts is the basis of any serious study of medieval Jewish mysticism. Gershom Scholem intuitively knew this when he first sought to define the field and award it the legitimacy of an academic discipline. Scholem polemicized often against the rationalist scholars of the nineteenth century who were selective in their readings of Jewish literature, including of course Jewish mysticism. Scholem's comments were much more harsh when he discussed the “charlatans” who claimed to write a history or theoretical analysis of Jewish mystical literature. They didn't even bother to read the primary sources! This situation could never sustain a legitimate field in the academy. Scholem's view is no less true for scholarship today.

While I see Scholem's methodology as a guide for scholarship today, Scholem's accomplishments have de facto been a burden to the field. Scholem's numerous publications left many with the impression that the textual grounding had already been done. In the years since his death, many scholars seem to believe that the reading of manuscripts is not important, or at least not necessary. According to this view, enough has been published and in any event Scholem uncovered in his readings the major works which are found only in manuscript.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Scholem did catalog and discuss many works, it is incumbent upon every scholar to know the material from the ground up and not to rely - solely - on the synthesis or analysis of another who has read the texts. Imagine if scholars of Shakespeare's works would read “about” Shakespeare in the studies of those who read any unpublished works.

In establishing Cherub Press I sought to provide a platform for the publication of such studies that would fill in the huge gaps of our knowledge and provide reliable source-books, in fact, scholarly textbooks, which would collect and organize all the data related to the classics of Jewish mysticism. In this sense Cherub Press follows in the footsteps of Scholem who in his celebrated letter to Bialik stated that the field would not progress unless basic textual tools were not published. Scholem at the Hebrew University and Alexander Altmann at Brandeis University required their doctoral students to edit Kabbalistic texts.

JEC: How did you do to create ex nihilo such a monumental enterprise? Was this exceptional venture initiated a long time ago; is it a dream you have realized? Where did the idea originate?

DA: The idea originated with a post-doctoral project, an edition of the Bahir, considered by many to be the first Kabbalistic work. Scholem edited a German translation for his doctoral thesis but never published the Hebrew original. This created an awkward situation where scholars read either Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah which offered his thematic overview of the issues found in the Bahir or the edition of Margolioth edited from corrupt and late manuscripts.

JEC: What are the means of Cherub Press, a private organization which publishes in two areas: a book series and a journal, works which are similar to those printed in University publishing houses?

DA: Cherub Press is an independent and private company, much like other recognized scholarly publishing houses: Brill, Mohr-Siebeck, Kluwer, Cerf or Verdier. Being small and independent has many advantages, including minimal bureaucracy and academic politics.

JEC: How did scholars react to these new publications and what are their views about your project? Did you receive numerous proposals?

DA: Most scholars are rather shocked at first. I have found that most people in the academy accept a basic division between scholarship and publishing. To engage in both is seen as breaking the rules. Here I believe that technology and modern editing techniques have forced the serious scholar into publishing. When editing a text involves more than copying a manuscript and includes the presentation or layout of the material on the page, the scholar has in fact produced a camera-ready copy! Prof. Peter Schaefer has set the precedent for this. His edition of Hekhalot literature was not complete until it was arranged in the format in which it now printed. Especially in recent years when computers allow the scholar to control all aspects of the presentation, every text scholar is in part a publisher.

JEC: What is your opinion concerning the actual trends of Kabbalah research? It seems to be an increasing interest on Kabbalistic subjects, but do you think that the work of making critical editions is sufficiently assured? Or on the contrary, do you complain about a lacking of interest in this domain?

DA: There are many new and exciting developments in Kabbalah research and still much needs to be done. Every scholar chooses his or own direction and methodology for research. I do not believe that there is one formula for everyone nor must everyone produce a critical edition of a text. There is sufficient interest in all things textual to guarantee the rich future of textual scholarship as well as other avenues.

JEC: Is there really such a lot of unedited Kabbalah books?

More than one can imagine. Take for example the collection of  The Jewish Theological Seminary in America. They have close to one thousand Kabbalistic manuscripts, many of them containing unpublished works or versions of known works which have not been printed. This situation is true of many other large collections such as the manuscripts of the Vatican, London, Paris, Oxford, Firenze and more.

JEC: In conclusion of your article in the first volume of the Kabbalah review that you edited with Avraham Elqayam (Bar Ilan University) you speak about the place of computers and word processors which are important tools for editing critical editions. Do you think that these new instruments could change the situation in the relative disinterest of many scholars in the work of critical editing?

DA: I can only hope that the widespread use of personal computers will encourage people to enter into the world of textual scholarship. Anyone who prepared an edition on a typewriter will certainly be aware of the tremendous difference and ease with which one can edit a text.

JEC: There was a vogue of synoptic presentations of texts in mystical literature, like the famous Synopse of Hekhalot Literature of Peter Shaefer (1981) and other books of the same kind. You seem following this trend in your own books as the edition of Sefer ha-Orah, Bahir's edition and the book on Asher ben David. Is this a general principle you adopted or rather the consequence of the nature of the texts you edited?

DA: I am aware that some believe that the synoptic edition is a trend. I am in fact reluctant to choose this format as it turns most readers away. The average reader, academic or not, still would prefer to read a single text. The synoptic edition is in itself a collection of data which must be studied, not read. Synoptic editions are therefore the necessary solution to a complex problem. This is true of the Hekhalot literature as well as the texts you mentioned.

JEC: Could you tell us what are the general goals of  Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts and what is the difference between it and already existent reviews as Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought or Tarbiz, by example, that published several works in Kabbalah studies?

DA: First let me say that there is no competition here. All these journals are contributing to Jewish studies in a unique way. Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts offers scholars a platform for publishing short text editions. This does not diminish from the importance of studies in the history of ideas. Rather, because these other platforms already exist, there is a need for a journal like Kabbalah.

JEC: Could you tell us what are the next books to be published by Cherub Press ?

DA: Sure. Cherub Press will issue shortly an annotated bibliography of the writings of Prof. Moshe Idel. Also in the works are a volume of studies in English on the Kabbalah of Nahmanides, a book on mystical experience by Havivah Pedaya, an edition of Sefer ha-Shem by Michal Oron and a few more surprises.

JEC: Where and how the books of Cherub Press can be obtained?

DA: Cherub Press sells its books by direct mail order. Anyone can contact Cherub Press at 9323 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, California 90232, USA.

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