Author Archives: Robert Eisen

Robert Eisen

About Robert Eisen

Robert Eisen is Associate Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at George Washington University. He is the author of Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People.

The Revival of Jewish Mysticism: Causes and Concerns

Excerpted and reprinted with permission of the author from “Jewish Mysticism: Seeking Inner Light.” Originally published in
Moment Magazine
, February 1997.

My observation is that students of Kabbalah today fall into three types: those who study it out of simple curiosity; those (generally Orthodox) who study it as true believers and find in it a means for understanding God and the universe; and those (for the most part non‑Orthodox) who study Kabbalah as part of a general search for “spirituality.” 

A number of recent books appeal to this last group by explor­ing commonalities between Jewish mysticism and mysticism in Eastern religions–in particular, Hinduism and Buddhism. The best example of this ecumenical search for spiri­tuality is described in Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (HarperCollins, 1994). Kamenetz provides a fasci­nating account of a meeting in India in the fall of 1990 between the exiled Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists) and eight rabbis and Jewish scholars. During 10 days, they shared their respective beliefs and practices as the Dalai Lama sought to learn about the sources of Jewish persis­tence, and even vitality, in exile.

The recent revival of Jewish mysticism seems to date from the ferment of the late 1960s. In a recent book, Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at U.C. Santa Barbara, examines current religious beliefs and affiliations of the generation that came of age in the ’60s. Many of these “boomers,” he reports, are still engaged in the search they began in the ’60s, and they continue to explore forms of religious expression, like mysticism, that lie outside America’s mainstream religious institutions.

For some young Jews, the attraction to Kabbalah stems from a rebellion against the Judaism they knew growing up. They perceive their parents’ Judaism as having been dry and lifeless; their homes, lacking in Jewish content; their synagogues too large, too impersonal, too passionless–more like social clubs than holy places for cultivating a heartfelt relationship with God. Kabbalah, they say, offers them a Judaism that they see as intense and engaging.

Jewish Mysticism Renewed

Excerpted and reprinted with permission of the author from “Jewish Mysticism: Seeking Inner Light.” Originally published in
Moment Magazine
, February 1997.

In 1968, Response, a Jewish student journal, ran an article called “Notes from the Jewish Underground” that boldly likened the effect of then‑popular psychedelic drugs to the experience of kabbalah, the uniquely Jewish brand of mysticism. At the time, kabbalah, even more than the substances to which the article compared it, lived only underground. Universities—even rabbinical seminaries—offered few courses in Jewish mysticism, and Jewish bookstores stocked few titles. 

The article in Response was signedby ltzik Lodzer—the pseudonym, the editors noted, “of a Jewish student living in the Boston area.”

jewish mystical beliefsThat student, it turned out, was Arthur Green, who continues to live in the Boston area—but now far from underground, as a prominent intellectual and theologian, a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and a professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis.

Green’s journey from the counterculture to a position of prominence in the Jewish world speaks volumes about the new respectability that kabbalah has attained in the 30 years since he wrote his article. Today all major rabbinical seminaries and many universities offer courses on Jewish mysticism, directors of Jewish adult‑education programs say that classes on kabbalah are the ones that reliably pack in the most people, even secular bookstores stock a trove of kabbalistic literature. Not only are English translations now available of the classic kabbalistic texts, but alongside them are the expository writings of Green, kabbalah scholar and theologian Daniel Matt, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and Rabbi Philip Berg, whose international network of Kabbalah Learning Centres has made a “pop” version of kabbalah attractive to a broad audience, including such Hollywood celebrities as Roseanne and comedian Sandra Bernhard. Of the 55 titles published by six‑year‑old Jewish Lights Publishing, says publisher‑founder Stuart Matlins, fully 20 deal with Jewish mysticism and spirituality.