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.

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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.

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.

Indeed, Scholem suggested, the attraction of Kabbalah is in its mythic character--that is, it uses stories about supernatural beings to explain natural phenomena and to answer such ultimate questions as how the world began, and how God relates to us. What distinguishes the mythology of Kabbalah from many other mythologies is that in Kabbalah, the supernatural actors actually reside in God's own Being.

Kabbalah uses the same mythic approach to grapple with that thorniest of questions: If God is good and all‑powerful, why is there evil in the world? According to the Zohar, evil asserts itself because there is a demonic realm, the sitra ahra (literally, "the other side"), that resides outside the world of the sefirot. This realm, populated by evil angels and demons, occasionally manages to invade the sefirot, gain dominion over the last of the sefirot (depicted as a queen), and take her captive--an action that has devastating effects on the world.

In short, the attraction of Kabbalah is that in it God, far from being abstract and distant, becomes a fusion of vivid personalities to which human beings can easily relate.

Kabbalah is also alluring because the sefirot are said to offer insights into our own psychic lives, as well as the inner life of God; indeed, the sefirot describe the mental life of individuals. As in God, in Whom the sefirot are in perfect harmony, Kabbalah encourages balance between the various traits of the human personality.

The Kabbalah revival is reflected in recent works of Jewish theology by respected authors. In Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Jewish Mystical Theology, by Arthur Green, all the major categories of Jewish thought--creation, revelation, redemption--are interpreted by drawing heavily on Kabbalistic and Hasidic thinking, especially the notion that God is close at hand in the world and manifest in our very being. In God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science and Spirituality, Daniel Matt, a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, compares the world as it is conceived in Kabbalah with that of modern physics. In both Kabbalah and the Big Bang theory of the world's origins, he says, creation emerges from a single point of incalculable energy, then expands to become the universe we know.

But if there is much about Kabbalah that is appealing, there is also much that even some of its adherents find disturbing. I worry that most students who explore Kabbalah today--even many of the people who teach it--may be unequipped to deal with it properly.

I am disturbed too that many young people who gravitate to Kabbalah have only the most tenuous commitment to either Jewish religious practice or Jewish communal life. Many of these enthusiasts see Kabbalah almost as a way of escaping traditional Jewish responsibilities of ritual and community--a way of sampling an exotic Jewish "spirituality" that has neither burdens nor demands. We cannot afford to have young people drift into a kind of Jewish spirituality that is cut off from the rest of Jewish life--especially today when Jews are struggling with problems that demand concrete solutions: survival and assimilation, Israel and the Diaspora, interdenominational strife.

One also does not have to delve very deeply into Kabbalah to discover concepts that are in conflict with modem sensibilities. For example, there is in Kabbalah a troubling image of the feminine. The sefirot have a hierarchy, and in that hierarchy the feminine sefirot generally take on a passive role; their male counterparts, by contrast, are active. More disturbing, God's feminine powers (particularly the last of the sefirot) are often associated with evil and the realm of the demonic. So are non‑Jews.

To be sure, some Jews will always find Kabbalah deeply appealing. Unquestionably Kabbalah is both an enduring dimension of our Jewish heritage and a potential source of new vitality. But it should not be taught in isolation from the classical Judaism out of which it grew. Rather, rabbis and educators should attempt to channel the passion for mysticism into positive commitments to Jewish life and practice. Our challenge is to find for our mystical traditions a way of engaging the community's concrete problems, channeling energies in positive and productive directions that will help to build and strengthen the ever‑evolving mosaic of Jewish religious experience.

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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.