R. J. ZWI WERBLOWSKY (1924-2015):
THE SPARK OF COMPARATIVE RELIGION
Guy G. Stroumsa
Numen, February 2016 ©
Alluding to his long-standing involvement with the study of Kabbalah, his adult children jokingly and lovingly called him “The Spark.” Zwi Werblowsky, who passed away in Jerusalem on 9 July 2015, seemed to retain a constant spark in his eyes. During his lectures, one was under the impression that with them, he was scanning not the room, but the whole world, past and present, in search of examples and counter examples for the phenomena he had just been describing to his students, across the spectrum of religious beliefs and myths, ritual practices and traditions. On the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Zwi Werblowsky cut for decades quite an impressive, singular figure: tall, elegant, he was never to be caught without a red carnation on the lapel of his jacket -except, of course, when donning his kimono at home (I doubt very much whether any one else in Israel was following that old world habit of manly elegance). Werblowsky was an insatiable traveller to all corners of the world, and his lectures and seminars would take his baffled and enchanted students from the sexual life in the Trobriand islands, as studied by Malinowski, to Japan’s new religions (he was one of the very first to bring serious attention to Japanese culture to Israel), from Pascal’s Jansenism to Levy-Strauss’s Mythologiques, from comparisons between Jewish and Christian mysticism, or Christian and Buddhist monasticism to psychoanalysis and religion. Carl Gustav Jung even wrote a Preface to his first book, Lucifer and Prometheus, a Study of Milton’s Satan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).
Coming from Manchester and Leeds, Werblowsky had followed in the mid 1950s a Ruf to establish (together with the late Neutestamentler and Judaist David Flusser) a Department of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University (it is a sad fact that to this day, and despite far reaching transformations in the Israeli academic system, this Department remains the only one of its kind in the country).
As an adolescent, he had studied at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, a highly respected Talmudic academy relocated in the 1940s from Lithuania in Palestine, and knew as an insider what religious virtuosity meant. But he persistently insisted that in order to be fully understood, religious phenomena could and should always be studied not only in context (that goes without saying) but also comparatively, with ‘similar’ phenomena, from other times and other cultures. It was obvious to him, as to any comparative student of religion, that differences between such ‘similar’ phenomena matter much more than the similarities between them. In his way, he was thus challenging the academic establishment, which insisted on clear-cut boundaries between the disciplines – which often meant, where philological expertise is needed, entrenched fields and little inter-disciplinary cooperation. ‘No culture is an island’ was perhaps the most obvious message Werblowsky intended – and succeeded - to impart to the many students who audited his lectures, at a time when Israeli society was still very much isolated, a pariah in the Middle East and with uneasy (and expensive) access to travel abroad.
The French Jewish historian of religion Salomon Reinach once said that while being religious is not a precondition for the study of religions, it may be useful for the scholar to have been religious at some point in his (or her) life. When asked about his religion, Werblowsky used to answer: ”My religion is comparative religion.” This was meant not only as a spirited retort to a prying question, or mainly pour épater les bourgeois. By this, Werblowsky wanted to insist on the categorical imperative of the study of religion (and for him any serious study of religion was comparative by nature): the study of religion, historically a fruit of Christian theology, needs to distance itself from theology in order to flourish. For him, in order to exist, Religionswissenschaft must become totally independent from theology. To his students, this might sound as an obvious truth, not anymore in need of argumentation, but it is striking that his passionate plea, made more than half a century ago (“Marburg – And After?” Numen 7 , 215-120) is still relevant today, in our postmodern days, when so many departments of ‘Religious Studies’ throughout the world remain unsure of their own methodological legitimacy. The delicate complexity of the study of religious phenomena, between sympathy and objectivity, the emic and the etic, is well known, and striving toward the right balance may be illusory; but for Werblowsky, it was clear that theological preoccupation is detrimental to the study of religion. His arguing in favor of a Husserlian epoche of one’s own religious feelings and beliefs in order to approach the study of religion was as strict as can be.
Like that of any serious intellectual, Werblowsky’s activity was felt, simultaneously, on various fronts. The first was the home front of the university, where he was both a teacher and an administrator: for three years in the late 1960s, he acted as the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. His home was open to his students, upon whom he impressed many of his generosities. In Jerusalem, he established both the Israel Interfaith Committee (in 1958) and the Rainbow Club, where, for a generation, Jewish, Christian and Muslim intellectuals could meet and talk in a serene and non-polemical atmosphere. As an Israeli patriot, born in Frankfurt in a generation that either suffered or witnessed the horrors of Nazi Germany, he fought religious bigotry both at home and abroad, and through his Dutch connections (he had spent years in Amsterdam as a young man) helped planting the seeds of contacts between Israel and Indonesia. But his great love was devoted to the traditional culture of Japan, and he was very influential in starting the academic interest in Japanese religion in Israeli universities.
As already mentioned, he was also a leading actor on the international scene. There is hardly a distinguished university or research institution abroad, on all continents, which has not seen him as a guest lecturer or visiting professor. He served as the Editor of Numen for many years, and was the Secretary General (1975-1985) and the Vice-President (1985-1995) of the International Association for the Study of Religion. From 1984 to 1988, he was also the Vice-President of UNESCO’s Conseil International de la Philosophie et des Sciences Humaines.
Throughout his years of intense activity on all fronts, Werblowsky never let the many demands of vita activa weaken his thirst for vita contemplativa. He regularly retreated into monasteries (often the Trappist monastery of Latrun in Israel) for periods of spiritual resourcing. He was particularly proud of his continued connection to his Zen master from Japan, who had overseen his long stay of many months in his monastery.
In the end, however, a scholar’s main accomplishment is neither public activity nor meditative powers. A scholar’s legacy remains essentially her or his published writings. The editors of Werblowsky’s Festschrift, Gilgul: Essays on Transformation, Revolution and Permanence in the History of Religions, edited by Shaul Shaked, David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa (Studies in the History of Religions [Supplements to Numen] 50; Leiden: Brill, 1987) listed 135 items in his bibliography. Werblowsky has of course published a lot since then. The topics of his articles, written in English, Hebrew, German, French or Dutch, reflect the huge spectrum of his many interests. It would be at once pedantic and tedious to even mention them here. Let me then limit myself to what I consider to have been his most important intellectual contributions.
Joseph Karo, Lawyer and Mystic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960; 2nd. ed. New York, Jewish Publication Society, 1976) studies the mystical writings of a sixteenth-century Rabbi living in Galilean Safed, whose huge Shulhan Arukh, a highly detailed Codex of halakha, or religious life, came to represent the Summa of Jewish life, and remains to this day the main guide of religious orthodoxy. Working on his Hebrew Codex during the day, Karo was at night composing a mystical text, the Maggid Mesharim, also in Hebrew, under the dictation of a personal angel of sorts. In his important monograph, Werblowsky provides a detailed and elegant analysis of this complex text, and offers a sophisticated understanding of the odd unio personalis between a legalist and mystical mind. Doing so, he undermines the traditional but simplistic opposition between mysticism and religious law. Such conclusions have an obvious bearing on our understanding of mystical phenomena, far beyond Judaism. Werblowsky had started his study as a young scholar, while still in Manchester. Coming to Jerusalem meant, for anyone interested in Jewish mysticism, becoming a disciple of Gershom Scholem. While Werblowsky had not been one of Scholem’s students, he soon became deeply impressed by Scholem’s oeuvre, and approach to mystical phenomena. He set himself to translate Scholem’s magnum opus on Sabbatai Zevi, the seventeenth-century false messiah of Smyrna, into English (Sabbetai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah 1626-1676 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973]). This translation is a masterpiece, and only someone as versed in the Jewish tradition as Werblowsky could have so successfully introduced a leading figure of early modern Judaism to the comparative study of religion.
As should now be amply clear, however, Werblowsky’s intellectual interests encompassed all religious continents. His Jordan Lectures at SOAS became Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Changing Religions in a Changing World (London: Athlone Press, 1976), a book devoted to the multifaceted transformation of religious traditions in all contemporary cultures. The dedication, to his five children, presented them as “heirs, victims and re-makers of both tradition and modernity.”
Werblowsky’s intellectual curiosity for Asian religions was not limited to Japan. Over the years, his strong interest in popular religions in China was reflected in a number of scholarly articles. In his later years, he devoted many efforts to work on J. J. M. de Groot’s intellectual legacy. His monograph on the famous Dutch Sinologist, who had taught in Berlin at the turn of the twentieth century, entitled The Beaten Track of Science: The Life and Work of J. J. M. de Groot was published by Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden, 2002).
For all his achievements, Werblowsky was awarded the EMET Prize, one of the most important prizes awarded in Israel. Slighly transforming the Roman playwright Terentius’s famous sentence, Werblowsky could easily have said about himself: “Homo sum, religiosi nihil a me alienum puto.”