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.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.