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This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

PART I: The Post-Modern Emergence of Jewish Mysticism

By Moshe Y.Bernstein

For the past several years the world has witnessed a rather strange phenomenon. Kabbalah, the tradition of esoteric Judaism once accessible only to an elite group of Torah scholars, has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Roseanne Barr, Jeff Goldblum, Naomi Campbell, Jerry Hall… these are only a few of the celebrities who have found spiritual solace in the Jewish mystical tradition, primarily by means of the internationally-acclaimed Kabbalah Centre, founded by former insurance salesman Phillip Berg and currently managed by his wife and sons.
In general, the Jewish reaction to the hijacking of its secret tradition to the bright lights of Hollywood has been a mixed one. On the one hand, in that glittering world of pop spirituality where Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism have previously enjoyed the public spotlight, it is somewhat of an honour that elements of Judaism can compete in the slick marketplace of meaningful ideas. On the other, we feel a sense of disappointment and discomfort that many of these legitimate ideas have been commercialised and, in the process, corrupted.
As one who has delved into the authentic Jewish mystical tradition for many years, I have to admit that I cringe every time I am confronted with the common response to the kabbalah phenomenon: “Oh, yes. Kabbalah! That’s about wearing a red thread on your wrist, right?”
Unfortunately, even prior to the current trend of pop spirituality, largely because of its chequered history, kabbalah has been the subject of gross misunderstandings by Jews and gentiles alike. The aim of this series of articles, therefore, is:

To understand the phenomenon of kabbalah’s emergence in the 21st century
To analyse the visceral opposition to kabbalah
To clarify some mistaken notions regarding the nature of Jewish mysticism
To examine whether or not kabbalah can assist in the future perpetuation of Judaism

First, in order to properly gauge the impact of kabbalah’s emergence today, it is significant to note that this occurrence is not limited to the adulterated version espoused by Madonna. In Israel, the number of yeshivot that study kabbalah from authentic Jewish sources and utilise kabbalistic meditations in daily prayer has jumped exponentially in the last decade. In addition, particularly in Jerusalem and Tsfat, a growing number of alternative kabbalists outside the yeshiva framework are combining genuine kabbalistic concepts with those that are now accessible from other mystical traditions across the planet. Furthermore, an increasing number of secular Israelis are partaking in this cross-cultural, mystical fertilisation. Commonly nicknamed ChaBaKuk (after the Jewish prophet), an acronym of the three most popularised forms of Jewish mysticism-- Chabad, Breslav and Rav Kook-- this movement is far more eclectic than its name implies.
Before suggesting the reasons for this surfacing of what was heretofore the concealed mystical tradition of Judaism, it is both necessary and informative to scrutinize the intense antagonism kabbalah has frequently engendered. Curiously, this antipathy has primarily stemmed from two opposing sources: modern rationalists and pre-modern traditionalists. (Ironically, when these two sides are not engaged in bashing kabbalah, they are frequently bashing each other. )
To the modern rationalists, particularly those aligned with today’s reform movements, kabbalah has always been a cause of embarrassment. Its magical texts with incantations to summon angelic forces, its imbuing the mitzvoth with cosmic significance to rectify the world’s imbalances and its focus on the messianic future are in contradiction to the rationalist’s emphasis on a logical but humanistic approach to religion.
To the traditionalist, where faith in a dogmatic system of belief frequently trumps the rational mind, the threat posed by kabbalah originates from a different basis. Exegetically, the conventional texts are replete with warnings of the trepidations of the mystical journey. The Talmudic legend of the four rabbis who ascended to the Pardes (defined by Rashi as a mystical level achieved through meditative techniques) is the classic example. According to this story, of the four rabbis who took part in this endeavour in expanded consciousness, only Rabbi Akiva ascended and descended in peace. Ben Zoma went mad, Acher became a heretic, and Ben Azzai passed away.
Historically, as well, kabbalah has posed an enormous threat to the religious establishment. The kabbalah of Shabbtai Tzvi in the 17th century led to an eschatological disaster for the Jewish people. Other messianic pretenders, like Jacob Frank, have utilised the erotic notions espoused in kabbalistic theory (e.g. the masculine aspect of Divine transcendence in union with the feminine aspect of Divine immanence) to promote an agenda of sexual debauchery. In the early generations of the Hasidic movement, the mass proliferation of kabbalah led to concerns over its trivialisation and abuse. Ultimately, some of the rabbinic of authorities of Europe decreed to restrict its practice (though not its theoretical study) to married men over 40 who had already mastered the exoteric, legal texts.
There is another reason, however, why traditionalists often feel threatened by kabbalah. The goal of kabbalah is nothing less than an experience of the Divine in this human body, the merging of “heaven and earth”. This experience completely transcends rigid dogma and demands a total transformation of the ego. To many people, it is much safer and simpler to nestle into the familiar, “translative” aspects of the Jewish religion, i.e. those that nurture and stabilise the ego (e.g. social, ritual, mythical, ethical) rather than the daunting—and often frightening—task of transforming it. It should be noted that those translative aspects of religion serve a perfectly legitimate social function for many people; they do not, however, satisfy the needs of those seeking authentic religious experience. This is possibly the reason that nearly 50% of practicing Buddhists in the U.S. are Jewish by birth.
Although the objections of both the modernists and traditionalists contain some validity, the problem occurs when we accordingly thrust aside the entire kabbalistic tradition and end up chucking out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. Yes, kabbalah does contain elements of superstition (e.g. red threads on the wrist) that no longer sit well with the rational mind. Yes, it can be frightening to imagine the personal and/or historical dangers mysticism can pose. There are, nonetheless, aspects of kabbalah that are absolutely foundational to Jewish theology (to be discussed in Part II); by discarding its mystical component completely, we risk stripping Judaism of some of these elements most central to its teachings, thus eliminating its very heart and soul.
Consider for a moment the saintly models from our Jewish heritage: Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu, the Prophets, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Akiva, the Ari, Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbeinu Bahya, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and hosts of other personages who, each in their own way, followed the mystical path of our tradition. According to the rationalist, were all these exceptional individuals simply engaged in a program of nonsensical mumbo-jumbo? Did they, according to the traditionalists, constitute a grave threat to the tenets of normative Judaism?
On the contrary, all of these great mystics have been instrumental in preserving and perpetuating our Jewish legacy, precisely because Judaism, in its essence, is a mystical tradition. Were we to deny the greatness and achievements of these spiritual masters, we would be short-changing Judaism itself. Alternatively, if we acknowledge their greatness, we should feel compelled to explore the mystical path that brought them to those heights in our quest to discover the true depth, beauty and spirituality that is embodied in our heritage.
As one who has been involved in Jewish education for almost three decades, I can attest to the fact that the shell of normative Judaism-- neutered of its mystical aspect-- presented by the religious establishment very often fails to resonate with the younger generation. In particular, the brand of Diaspora Judaism that has hoisted the banner of Holocaust memorials and Zionism above the profundity of Torah wisdom offers very little in the way of real hope for future generations. To anyone who is looking, that banner is already in tatters, not only for the next generations but also, in many instances, for the flag-bearers themselves.
If we reduce all of the deep, ancient wisdom of our tradition to a reflexive “Oy, vey!” regarding the historical injustices of the past and the political machinations of the present, we are committing a grave injustice to both the Torah and generations of future Jews.
I believe it is high time that we lower those worn-out banners and allow ourselves a careful appraisal of the hidden treasure concealed in the Torah for time immemorial but within reach to all who seek it earnestly at any given moment with an open heart. We will be surprised to find that, rather than consisting of irrational twaddle or ominous peril, this sparkling treasure is more accessible, meaningful and relevant—particularly in the times we live in—than we had ever before imagined.

3 comments:

Kabbalah said...

Interesting

Happy New Year Moshe.

Art

sly said...

what a brilliant and coherent piece of writing, wonderful.

sly said...

What a fantastic and coherent piece of writing. Wonderful.