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A Neurocognitive Approach to Mystical Experiences

Shahar Arzy and Moshe Idel

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In this original study, Moshe Idel, an eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism and thought, and the cognitive neuroscientist and neurologist Shahar Arzy combine their considerable expertise to explore the mysteries of the Kabbalah from an entirely new perspective: that of the human brain. In lieu of the theological, sociological, and psychoanalytic approaches that have generally dominated the study of ecstatic mystical experiences, the authors endeavor to decode the brain mechanisms underlying these phenomena. Arzy and Idel analyze first-person descriptions to explore the Kabbalistic techniques employed by most prominent Jewish mystics to effect bodily reduplications, dissociations, and other phenomena, and compare them with recent neurological observations and modern-day laboratory experiments. The resultant study offers readers a scientific, more brain-based understanding of how ecstatic Kabbalists achieved their most precious mystical experiences. The study further demonstrates how these Kabbalists have long functioned as pioneering investigators of the human self.

Shahar Arzy is the director of the Computational Neuropsychiatry Lab at the Faculty of Medicine at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and a senior neurologist at the Department of Neurology, Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center. Moshe Idel is Max Cooper Professor in Jewish Thought in the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and senior researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

"In this thought-provoking book, the authors present compelling evidence that over hundreds of years, a group of Jewish mystics mastered techniques to probe and potentially unlock the secrets of human consciousness, mind and body, sense of self, and ecstatic experiences."—Steven C. Schachter, MD, Harvard Medical School, from the Foreword

“What could be more fascinating, or more challenging, than viewing mystical phenomena – ecstasy, dissociation from the body and dissociations of the mind – through the lens of contemporary neuroscience? Arzy and Idel provocatively bring to the study of mystical experiences a modern understanding of the brain.”—Adam Zeman

“This well-written and innovative book aims to introduce and specify the value of a more physical, self-centered, and individualized approach to the study of Jewish mysticism. Going beyond a “simple” psychology, to a more contemporary neurocognitive, intra-individual approach to mystical experience, this is a bold and very engaging book that deserves to be applauded and recognized.”—Philip Wexler, Brandeis University

“An amazing story about the power of mind over body, this book shows how unique Kabbalah mystics achieved a true mastery of mind. It teaches us how mystics gain cognitive control in seemingly uncontrollable mystical experiences.”—Tamir Ben-Hur, Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center

"The book provides an exceptional synergy between cutting-edge approaches and tools from cognitive neuroscience and the interpretation of Kabbalistic texts. The authors open new horizons in understanding the interaction between neural mechanisms and mystical experience."—Oron Shagrir, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“[Idel and Arzy are] to be commended for continuing to think critically about kabbalah, expanding the discourse beyond the humanities and into dialogue with science.”—Aubrey L. Glazer, Theological Studies

"A fascinating, unconventional, and important book. . . . It should be of particular interest to students of religion
who are also interested in psychology or the natural sciences, but even those focused on religion will find this book
stimulating. It is absorbing and easy to read. . . ."—Shaul Stampfler, Religious Studies Review
ISBN: 9780300152364
Publication Date: June 30, 2015
216 pages, 5.5 x 8.25
10 b/w illus.

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Moshe Idel

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Absorbing Perfections

Kabbalah and Interpretation

Moshe Idel; Foreword by Harold Bloom

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