Mysticism in Modern Times

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Aside from historical scholarship, mystical inclinations have permeated the thought of many of the great modern Jewish thinkers. Martin Buber’s (1878-1965) philosophy was greatly influenced by Hasidism, and he also wrote a number of books about Hasidic figures, philosophy, and folktales. The writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)—himself a descendant of a Hasidic master, the Apter Rav—is also filled with mystical insight. The philosophies of both Buber and Heschel focus on human relationships with the divine.

Since the 1960s, there has been an increased interest in experiential religion and many people have turned to Jewish mysticism for guidance. Jewish Renewal, a self-described “transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions,” merges a concern for social justice with an interest in personal spiritual experience. The movement is based largely on the teachings of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

kabbalah and mysticismSchachter-Shalomi received his rabbinic ordination from a Lubavitch Hasidic yeshiva, but later became interested in general spirituality. Like those attracted to Eastern religious practice, Schachter-Shalomi and the many rabbis and teachers who consider themselves his students are especially interested in the experiential aspects of religion. Jewish Renewal has embraced many practices associated with the New Age movement, such as meditation and yoga, and put them in a Jewish context.

More traditional Jews have also sought out mystical teachings. Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983), a physicist and Orthodox rabbi steeped in normative Judaism, played a key role in popularizing the study of Jewish mysticism in the Orthodox community. He wrote commentaries on classic works of kabbalah, like Sefer ha-Bahir, and authored several introductions to practical Jewish mysticism. Kaplan’s book Jewish Meditation shows how traditional Jewish prayers can be used for meditative purposes.

In recent years, popularized books about Jewish mysticism have been published by the score, and classes on kabbalah are popping up at community centers and New Age institutes all over the world. Even non-Jews have jumped on the kabbalah bandwagon--Madonna is among its most famous dabblers. The Kabbalah Center, a chain of teaching franchises, with more than 40 locations, describes itself as "the largest, leading educational organization on the wisdom of Kabbalah worldwide". The organization has been the object of a fair amount of criticism and controversy, for its recruitment and teaching methods, the accompanying paraphernalia it sells, and its presentation of kabbalah—which many Jewish leaders and scholars condemn as a distortion of kabbalistic teachings and concepts.

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