The God of the Kabbalists

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Judaism is often thought of, with justice, as a religion in which faith and dogma take a back seat to behavior and action. Yet the library of Jewish theology is rich—or at least it once was. For many religious Jews today, the multiple dislocations of the last few centuries have left a void where God used to be.  Increasingly, though, and not a little surprisingly, that void is being filled by sophisticated theological works informed by the seemingly obscure and fantastic doctrines of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.   

Indeed, when one thinks of the esoteric nature and sheer complexity of Kabbalah, not to mention the low esteem in which it was held by the modernizing elements of Jewry, its ubiquity today is nothing short of astounding.  Much of this is due to the heroic researches of Gershom Scholem and the generations of students and critics whose work he made possible. But it is clearly also due to the temper of the times, in which straightforwardly rationalistic and scientistic worldviews have proved themselves ill-equipped to explain or speak to either the highest or the darkest impulses of humanity.

This is where Kabbalah excels. Its characterization of God as Eyn Sof, Infinitude, or Ayin, Nothingness, presents a way around the more obvious limitations of the idea of a personal God and in particular the logical contradiction between a good God and an often evil world. Kabbalah more readily concedes the existence of evil as a genuine force in the world, one that, depending on human actions, feeds off the same divine energies as do the forces of good.  In addition, where philosophical religion works with a fundamental divide between the human and divine orders—the so-called lower and higher worlds—in Kabbalah those two orders circulate in and out of one another in cosmic motions of attachment, loss, and attempted reunion.  Finally, Kabbalah's extraordinarily rich and strikingly erotic symbolism and wordplay offer freedom from the constraints—or the discipline, as others would call it—of strictly rational thinking and the possibility of arriving at complex and paradoxical truths with the expressive force of literature.  

Of course, much contemporary reading of Kabbalah, even leaving aside the down-market, New Age versions on display everywhere, is very selective, if not downright sanitized.  A major element of the system—its role in unlocking the deepest meanings of Scripture—is diminished in favor of its mystical-theological claims. More importantly, gone are Kabbalah's genuinely disturbing elements:  its misogyny, its deeply polarized views on Jews and Gentiles, its magic and its demonology.

Here enter two recent books, related but different:  Arthur Green's Radical Judaism, published earlier this year, and Michael Fishbane's Sacred Attunement (2008).  In the hands of scholars as learned and self-aware as these two, the contemporary theological salience of Kabbalah becomes abundantly clear.

Green's theology is earthy in every sense of the word. The "radical Judaism" of his title is, first and foremost, radically immanent, offering a world positively soaked in divinity. His God, although largely de-personalized, is still very much alive, pulsating through both the natural world and the human spirit. In contrast to pantheism, which asserts the unity of God and nature, Green speaks of "mystical panentheism"—in which transcendence, or God, dwells within the very immediacy of life, and the consciousness of "this underlying oneness . . . is accessible to human experience."  Judaism's task is to bring this consciousness to life by "doing the will of God" through what are conventionally called mitzvot, commandments, redefined by Green more broadly (and vaguely) as "the way we as a religious community respond to the One that calls out to us."  

Green's theology reflects his long immersion in the literature and life of Hasidism—and is also openly of a piece with his radical politics. Fishbane's theology is more rarified, with self-consciously ornate and Latinate prose to match.  Fishbane also works with a different strain of Kabbalah: the medieval theosophical works that seek to map the inner life of the Divine and to trace the borders between Being and Nothingness. Theology, he writes in one characteristically knotted passage, seeks "to attune the self to the unfolding occurrences of things in all their particularities and conjunctions, and help one remain steadfast at each new crossing point where raw elementariness, radically given, becomes human experience." Attunement is thus the registering in human consciousness of the rise of Everything, a/k/a Being, out of Nothingness: the biggest Revelation of them all.

And what is it that someone so attuned is straining to hear?  Fishbane invokes an obscure and highly suggestive kabbalistic term, Torah kelulah, "all-encompassing Torah," by which he means the comprehensive, divine truth and life of all possible worlds, the truth and life that, in our particular world, the Written and Oral Torahs, each in its way, conjure into existence.

For both of these writers, Nothingness, or the Void, is an important concept. This is not the void of modern existentialism—gray, alienating, indifferent, crushing, godless—but the Nothingness that in Kabbalah is paradoxically also the fount of Being, the guarantor of existence beyond human finitude, the metaphysical opening beyond the deadening certainties of scientism, atheism, and historicism.  In Kabbalah , the Void's seeming emptiness is but the refraction in our limited human consciousness of a fullness and vitality too great to be imagined. Choosing to see the Void in this way is perhaps the contemporary kabbalist's greatest leap of faith.

Yet is this Void something on which the religious life of a people can be built? Historically, Kabbalah was an esoteric tradition, transmitted in secret and reserved for a select few. Its theological doctrines were more than abstruse—they were, and are, paradoxical to their core. Today, as ever, it is hard to see how ordinary people, or for that matter extraordinary people, can live their lives by these abstruse terms, or how one can inculcate by their means the thick sense of commitment necessary for long-term survival.

It is especially difficult to see how a reader without Green and Fishbane's personal experience of traditional life and culture—which, even as it informs their loving descriptions of Jewish ritual and peoplehood, operates on rather different premises from those they embrace here—is to make sense of their arguments. In this respect, Fishbane, a scholar of Bible and Midrash, may be the more approachable of the two; in an intriguing exercise of what he calls hermeneutical theology, he invites the reader to explore the ways in which the study of texts, even disturbing and difficult ones, can serve as a template for the various modes of religious life in general. Green, for his part, candidly expresses the difficulty he has with integrating much of the halakhic tradition into his vision.

And, finally, the big question:  can we make sense of society, or of the will, or of our most defining obligations, in the absence of a personal God?  Can we truly ground moral commands in the absence of a commander?  While an ethic of human flourishing based in Aristotle, the Buddha, or the Baal Shem Tov might provide moral fiber, doing good in the face of great difficulty, or great evil, requires something more immediate and decisive; it requires a moral law. It will be interesting to see whether the new, Kabbalah-inspired theologies prove capable of engaging with the most inescapable feature of Western religion: the ability to turn to the universe and say, "You," in the second-person singular.

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