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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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.

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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.