[ by Charles Cameron — controversy and scholarship re Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse and Kabbalah of considerable interest to students of comparative religion ]
With Latter-day Saints more than a little in the news, Ha’aretz yesterday posted an article titled How kabbala shaped Mormon faith which you can also read here, and as it’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, I thought I’d point you to the article Lance Owens, a friend of a friend, wrote some years back, in which he describes the library of Alexander Neibaur, a Jewish convert to Mormonism and friend and Hebrew teacher to the Prophet, along with quite a bit of context.
I have to say that I find Owens’ work on Neibaur’s library, and the conclusion he draws about Joseph’s King Follett Discourse – one of the Prophet’s last sermons, and a fascinating work in its own right – pretty compelling.
The great magister of studies in Kabbalah Moshe Idel probably catches the situation well when he writes in his as yet untranslated book, The Angelic World: Apotheosis and Theophany (Olam Ha’malakhim):
See for now the controversial article by Owens, Joseph Smith and Kabbalah, pg. 117-194, which also contains a list of Kabbalistic sources which supposedly were in the library of Joseph Smith’s teacher. The connection between Enoch-Metatron in Jewish tradition and Mormonism was first noted by Harold Bloom, in his book The American Religion, pg. 99, 105. I can’t go into the details of the controversies created by Owens’ article and the doubts about Smith’s relationship to the Kabbalah. It seems that the matter of kabbalistic connections is more complicated and interesting than what can be learned from the currently published documents. (Pg. 156)
For a Mormon response to Owens’ article, and pending the comments our Mormon and other interested readers will hopefully provide, might I suggest William Hamblin‘s review of Owens’ piece, which indicates how seriously Hamblin takes the issues involved when it opens with these two sentences:
The Mormon History Association recently awarded Lance S. Owens’s “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection” its Best Article Award for 1995. With such an imprimatur the article deserves a closer critical evaluation than it has apparently heretofore received.
Hamblin’s review runs to 74 pages and 186 footnotes – together with Owens’ original 77 pages and 161 footnotes, that would make a book-sized volume of interesting reading. And as Moshe Idel notes, what we don’t know may be “more complicated and interesting” yet…