Mysticism in Modern Times

Today, Jewish mysticism is in many ways integrated into normative Judaism. The Zohar, the classic mystical Torah commentary, would be included in any post-biblical Jewish canon, 16th century mystic Isaac Luria’s concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a hallmark of Jewish theology, and Hasidism—once a controversial movement—is now considered one of Judaism’s most traditional factions. Recent developments in academic Jewish studies and contemporary spirituality have brought Jewish mysticism to a position of further prominence.

Academic analysis of Judaism and Jewish history began in earnest in the 19th century. However, the scholars who pioneered this field largely ignored mysticism because it embarrassed them. They embraced academic study because they lived in a culture that privileged the intellect and reason. They believed that mysticism represented the opposite: magic and superstition.

One man changed all of this. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) ignored these biases and single-handedly established Jewish mysticism as an academic discourse. Scholem unearthed a range of manuscripts on mysticism and established the authorship of the Zohar. His landmark collection of essays, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, is the starting point for all scholarship on Jewish mysticism.

In recent years, contemporary scholars have begun to question some of Scholem’s theories and findings. Chief among them is Moshe Idel, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1988, Idel published Kabbalah: New Perspectives, in which he presents a narrative of kabbalistic history that differs from Scholem’s. Idel believes that Scholem ignores the centrality of ecstatic mysticism—including, for example, Abraham Abulafia’s attempts at prophecy—in tracing the history of Jewish mysticism. In addition, Idel challenges Scholem’s view that the Spanish expulsion was the inspiration for Isaac Luria’s kabbalah and that this, in turn, laid the groundwork for the tragic messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi, which in the middle of the 17th century whipped much of world Jewry into an apocalyptic frenzy.

Aside from historical scholarship, mystical inclinations have permeated the thought of many of the great modern Jewish thinkers. Martin Buber’s (1878-1965) philosophy was greatly influenced by Hasidism, and he also wrote a number of books about Hasidic figures, philosophy, and folktales. The writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)—himself a descendant of a Hasidic master, the Apter Rav—is also filled with mystical insight. The philosophies of both Buber and Heschel focus on human relationships with the divine.

Since the 1960s, there has been an increased interest in experiential religion and many people have turned to Jewish mysticism for guidance. Jewish Renewal, a self-described “transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions,” merges a concern for social justice with an interest in personal spiritual experience. The movement is based largely on the teachings of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

Schachter-Shalomi received his rabbinic ordination from a Lubavitch Hasidic yeshiva, but later became interested in general spirituality. Like those attracted to Eastern religious practice, Schachter-Shalomi and the many rabbis and teachers who consider themselves his students are especially interested in the experiential aspects of religion. Jewish Renewal has embraced many practices associated with the New Age movement, such as meditation and yoga, and put them in a Jewish context.

More traditional Jews have also sought out mystical teachings. Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983), a physicist and Orthodox rabbi steeped in normative Judaism, played a key role in popularizing the study of Jewish mysticism in the Orthodox community. He wrote commentaries on classic works of kabbalah, like Sefer ha-Bahir, and authored several introductions to practical Jewish mysticism. Kaplan’s book Jewish Meditation shows how traditional Jewish prayers can be used for meditative purposes.

In recent years, popularized books about Jewish mysticism have been published by the score, and classes on kabbalah are popping up at community centers and New Age institutes all over the world. Even non-Jews have jumped on the kabbalah bandwagon–Madonna is among its most famous dabblers. The Kabbalah Center, a chain of teaching franchises, with more than 40 locations, describes itself as “the largest, leading educational organization on the wisdom of Kabbalah worldwide”. The organization has been the object of a fair amount of criticism and controversy, for its recruitment and teaching methods, the accompanying paraphernalia it sells, and its presentation of kabbalah—which many Jewish leaders and scholars condemn as a distortion of kabbalistic teachings and concepts.

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