Jewish Mysticism Renewed

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

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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.