The Revival of Jewish Mysticism: Causes and Concerns
The renewed interest in Jewish mysticism can partially be attributed to a renewed interest in non-traditional spirituality.
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.
But the revival of Kabbalah is born of more than just the shortcomings of American Jewish life. It seems as well to be a response, throughout the Western world, to a loss of confidence in the efficacy of human reason and science in answering ultimate questions. After all, goes this argument, this century has given rise to unprecedented barbarism--often with the help of science and technology.
Another important insight into the appeal of Kabbalah was provided by Gershom Scholem, the Hebrew University scholar who for decades before his death in 1981 almost single‑handedly built--and won intellectual respectability for--the modern academic study of Kabbalah. Kabbalah, he pointed out, makes God "accessible." The sefirot, for instance, are not merely abstract symbols defining the nature of God; they take on the character of male and female personalities that interact with each other. A common refrain in the Zohar is that the last of the sefirot, which is depicted as a queen, is the "bride" of the sixth of the sefirot, which is depicted as a king.