Review Comment

Mystical Dimensions in Islam and Judaism

January 07, 2006

Wolfson, Elliot
Mystical Dimensions in Islam and Judaism

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Elliot Wolfson was a visiting professor this past fall from NYU, but rumor has it Columbia is going after him pretty hard so I'll go ahead and review him.

This class and Elliot Wolfson require two different reviews. First of all, the class. Basically this was a seminar on medieval Sufism and Kabbalah. It attracted two main types of people. People who thought they knew a hell of a lot about Kabbalah (rarely Sufism) but were terrible students, and people who were obviously excellent students but knew very little about the material. Elliot Wolfson is pretty much the smartest guy in the world when it comes to Kabbalah, and he's pretty awesome when it comes to Sufism, too. For some reason, some members of the class saw this as an invitation to two things. The first was to constantly challenge his readings, and then clinging to and jabbering on about their own interpretations even after Wolfson had explained, usually backed by extensive textual references, why they were wrong. These people were often obstinate and rude in their challenges, and basically wanted to hear themselves talk about Kabbalah. The second thing, was to ask him anything they ever wanted to know about Kabbalah, whenever they felt like it, regardless of whether it had anything to do with the subject or time period. Unfortunately, Wolfson usually, and thoroughly, answered these questions, and thus classes often felt jilted and disorganized, and thus it was pretty tough for people who didn't know much at all about Sufism and Kabbalah, like myself, to come away with a cohesive understanding of it.

My guess would be that any class Wolfson would teach would have a very similar makeup, full of people who are confident they know more about Kabbalah than the preeminent scholar in the field, and thus I would make sure to sit in on a few classes and see whether you can tolerate that.

However, if I had to go back and decide whether to take the class again, I almost certainly would, and the main reason for that is Elliot Wolfson. First of all, he's pretty much the foremost scholar on Jewish mysticism in the world, with a CV a mile long to back it up. Go check out his books; they're massive, in size, scope, and number. His command on the source material, which he refers to constantly and painstakingly, is absolutely phenomenal. But he is by no means dry. He's very capable of working with the extremely dense and deep concepts of the material, to the point that, while you yourself may not be able to understand his formulations and interpretations, you are certainly able to admire them as clever, succinct and deeply insightful. I'm a senior religion major, and as far as scholarship and intelligence, I really think Wolfson would jump immediately to the top of the department should he come here. He's just an excellent teacher, who answers questions clearly and quickly, with abundant textual evidence combined with his own readings and insights. It's immediately evident that he has an incredible command over the material anda very, very sharp mind to go with it. He's also very knowledgable about philosophy; he's extremely capable of bringing in people like Heidegger or Levinas to explain certain concepts in mysticism, and I'd wager that he knows those people better than those who are paid to theach them here. I also found him to be very fair in providing contratting points of view to his own. He usually pointed out where other scholars had disagreed with him on certain points, and while he of course favored his own interpretations, he usually at least put critiques out there.

Wolfson has one flaw, and it is a deep one. He lets the self-styled Kabbalah experts in the class get to him. Over the course of the semester, his resentment towards people challeging his readings grew until it reached a point in the middle of the term where he blew up more than once at students. In a sense he was right to get frustrated with these blowhards. Their questions were never about clearing up discrepancies or improving their understanding. Frequently they were in the form of, "Well, have you considered such and such a text?" Well, obviously he's considered them extensively and written thousands of pages about them, and he did not hesitate to let the class know this. Wolfson basically started to take these challenges as personal attacks on his scholarship. He frequently asked if we had even read his work. No, Professor Wolfson, believe it or not, we haven't read everything you've written, we've got a few other things to read at the moment.
Due to the contentious and personal nature of the material, I would have expected Wolfson to be used to these types of challenges and to dismiss them casually as insignificant, which they are. And he did for a while. But, eventually, he cracked, and a few classes were pretty awkward because of his palpable anger. Worse, he sometimes went off on perfectly innocent people who had a great deal of respect for him and had no intention of questioning his scholarly integrity, because he simply assumed them to be doing so. During the latter half of the semester, Wolfson regained his composure. And when he's not offended, he's actually a very likable professor. He's funny, wry, about academia and the material he's teaching, and pretty sympathetic to lateness (I would know). I really, really liked him when he wasn't getting his briefs in a twist, but, although I was sympathetic to him and the way he was constantly pressured by the think-they-know-it-alls, he sometimes just took things too personally.

Bottom line, Wolfson is probably the smartest professor I've ever had at Columbia, and a pretty good and funny guy to boot. I would do two things to take advantage of him. First I would really read the material and come with questions ready to ask him, whatever you're interested in. Really think about it hard, because he has an incredibly nuanced understanding of this stuff and will reward interesting and well-thought out questions with really detailed and direct answers. Second, I would make sure to treat him with the respect he deserves and try to ask questions about what this stuff means and where it comes from instead of whether he's really sure (he is). Basically, don't be that know-it-all guy. If you can get past those people, and you put in the effort, a class with Wolfson could be incredibly rewarding.

Workload:

Not really that much reading, even though it is pretty dense and layered. You don't really cover that much in class, so its mostly to get ready for the take-home midterma and final paper. The midterm was fair and tough, but really long: three question (out of 5) with no real word limit, and that could have been book topics. We were going to have a take-home final in addition to a final paper (10 to 12 pages on a topic of your choice), but he canceled the final, saying it was too much.

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