Jewish Mysticism Renewed

In the last three decades, Jewish mysticism has gone from an underground discipline to a mass phenomenon.

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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.

The newest frontier in Jewish mysticism in America is an attempt to enhance the purely intellectual study of kabbalah with mystical experience. The trend owes its start, at least in part, to the late Aryeh Kaplan, a physicist and Orthodox rabbi whose Jewish Meditation (1985) was the first modern effort to compose a simple and contemporary do‑it‑yourself guide to mys­tical meditation.

From Los Angeles to Boston and beyond, from the Chochmat ha‑Lev meditation center in Berkeley to the more secluded Elat Chayyim in upstate New York, there are as many as a dozen spiritual retreats and learning centers where once there were none.

Young people especially seem drawn to kabbalah. Unmoved and impatient with sterile synagogue services, unfamiliar with home rituals, lacking other charismatic models of living Judaism in the modern world, they flock to what seems to be a fast track to God. While there’s no way to predict whether dipping into mysticism will move these young people into deeper Jewish learning—much less home observance, synagogue attendance, and community responsibility—the attraction to Jewish mysticism may very well be keeping some of these people from drifting away from Judaism into the mystical traditions of other religions.

To be sure, kabbalah does not appeal to everyone. Many Jews—many of those beyond middle age, in particular—find themselves puzzled by, if not hostile to, the recent appetite for kabbalah. Likewise many rabbis and educators are skeptical of the phenomenon, if not alarmed by it. One professor of Judaic Studies derisively describes the recent surge of interest as Kabbalahmania.

I understand the attraction. In my teens and early 20s, I was drawn to kabbalah. It was exotic, and I was curious. In actual belief or practice I never really became a mystic—and in the years since, my scholarly interests have moved in the direction of kabbalah’s main rival: rational Jewish philosophy, as represented by such thinkers as Maimonides. Yet I have never stopped studying kabbalah, and I have never stopped being intrigued by it.

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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.