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Kabbalah and its Discontents

Aside from a small circle of students and admirers, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag was an unknown figure at his death in 1954. Today, religious schools and New Age "educational centers" around the world are actively spreading his ideas, and his writings are being analyzed by professors and graduate students. After spending an hour in the rabbi's stone mausoleum, the pop-diva Madonna emerged with tears in her eyes. Who was this person to whom scores of pious (and impious) Jews and non-Jews are turning for inspiration?

Relevant Links
Latter-Day Luminary  Micha Odenheimer, Haaretz. The life and times of Yehuda Ashlag, who saw Judaism’s esoteric tradition as the instrument for transforming both human consciousness and human society.
Spiritual Materialism  Yehonatan Garb, Eretz Acheret. New Age movements traffic in mystical urgings to achieve material gain and cultural status.   

Born in Poland in 1885 to an Orthodox family, Yehuda Ashlag quickly established himself as a Talmud scholar and rabbinical jurist. His deepest commitment, however, was to kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, which he interpreted in light of the revolutionary fervor that characterized his times. After moving to the land of Israel in 1921, he quickly began to disseminate his radical claims.

Far from being an otherworldly tradition, kabbalah according to Rabbi Ashlag is a logical system intended for the ethical and political redemption of human society. And far from being an esoteric discipline, study of which must be reserved for an intellectual and spiritual elite, kabbalah should be taught to everybody.

Although his books display impressive erudition, the heart of Ashlag's teaching is quite simple: God is the absolute good, Who gives and never takes. By observing His commandments, we can overcome our own desire to receive, cultivate our capacity to give, and thus become godly ourselves. A society ruled by the desire to receive rather than to give—in other words, a society that celebrates the acquisitive impulse—distances itself from God and has a deeply corrupting influence. In this light, it is easy to understand why Ashlag championed a Torah-based form of communism. 

After his death, the rabbis's two sons and brother-in-law set out to propagate his ideas by publishing books and founding schools. They, too, died marginal figures, but they raised a generation of students and disciples who have rescued their teacher's work from the margins. Among institutions spreading versions of his teachings, one in particular, the U.S.-based Kabbalah Center, has proved especially effective, not least in reaching the likes of Madonna.  

The Kabbalah Center was founded in 1965 by Philip Berg, who as a young man studied with Ashlag's brother-in-law and who has claimed to be the master's direct successor. And not his alone: a timeline at the organization's website links Berg and his wife to no lesser a figure than the biblical patriarch Abraham.

A quick glance at Center offerings may be enough to suggest that Berg is working some of his own magic. For one thing, there's the red string that can be purchased to protect an individual against the "evil eye." The price is $20, for a commodity that may actually be worth ten cents—an example, perhaps, of how the Kabbalah Center helps its members become godly givers. Then there's an online lecture in which Jesus is referred to as an adept of kabbalah, which would certainly come as news to kabbalists. This and Berg's recent references to the Zohar as "the Holy Grail" raise the question of where exactly he and his organization may be headed.

Marketing aside, what is the connection between kabbalah in general, and Ashlag's teachings in particular, and what the Kabbalah Center preaches? Consider the matter of the soul, a fundamental element in kabbalistic thought. The soul, in all of its gradations, is given by God; it belongs to an order that it did not create, and it exists to be cultivated. By contrast, Madonna, a/k/a "Esther," is hardly alone these days in confusing the soul with the self—which is not part of any order, which bows to nothing but itself, and which invents and re-invents itself repeatedly. 

Traditionally, kabbalah was considered a secret science, something only for the few. Rabbi Ashlag challenged this convention. If there is anything to be learned from the contemporary fate of his teachings, it is the deep wisdom of the traditional view. As the rabbinic sages said in praise of the biblical Esther, "A blessing rests only on something that is hidden from the eye."

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Yisrael Medad on August 8, 2010 at 7:57 am (Reply)
I would suggest that the early Chassidic masters were the true "revealers of the Kabbalah", the first to spread its teachings and concpets in a real mass-movement method.
Shmuel on August 8, 2010 at 9:36 am (Reply)
I am sure you and readers will be interested in knowing about Nehora Press in Tzfat Israel:

As per their description online:

"Nehora Press was started by Mark z"l and Yedidah Cohen in 2003 when they first published their translations of Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag’s Introductions to the Zohar and to the Study of the ten Sephirot. We decided at that time to self-publish because we felt that it was of vital necessity that only dedicated students of Rabbi Ashlag’s work should edit the material and this we could only guarantee by starting our own publishing company.

Our goal is to maintain high-standards of authenticity in the publication of material of Rabbi Ashlag both in Hebrew and in English, and at the same time open up accessibility of the actual texts. This we do by maintaining a good standard of readability of the translations and by adding explanations where necessary"

Yedidah Cohen on August 8, 2010 at 10:19 am (Reply)
Hi Aryeh, I enjoyed the beginning of your article, however I would like to point out that the Kabbalah Center is not a true proponent of the works of Rabbi Ashlag. The main problem has always been the paucity of good quality translations of Rabbi Ashlag in English. Rabbi Ashlag's work is exceptionally difficult to translate, as apart from the ideas you mentioned, one of his main contributions to the study of the Kabbalah was the incredble attention he gives to the exact language it was written in.
He wrote a twenty one volume commentary on the Zohar called the Sulam , the central book of the Kabbalah, as well as a 16- volume commentary on the Etz Chaim of the Ari. These works are not known almost at all in the West.
To help correct the mis-information abounding in the West, my late husband and I translated several of Rabbi Ashlag's introductions to the Kabbalah in "In the Shadow of the Ladder", published 2003 Nehora Press.
To start to address the issues relating to his other works I compiled "A Tapestry for the Soul: the Introduction to the Zohar explained using excerpts collated from Rabbi Ashlag's other writings".This book is just published (April 2010).
The advantage of A Tapestry for the Soul is that the reader is taken into the thought of Rabbi Ashlag, by Rabbi Ashlag himself, using his own writings , which I collated, as appropriate, from all his vast output. So the reader has the advantage of learning directly from some of Rabbi Ashlag's great works. What results is an exciting encounter between the Rabbi and the pupil. I personally am still constantly refreshed and enthused by Rabbi Ashlag's writings.
(More information on these books is available on All the books are available on Amazon etc)
Best Yedidah Cohen
Nov on August 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm (Reply)
This article presents a one-sided view.

The debate between those who would reserve the Torah, or certain aspects of it, to the Select Few--be it the Jews, the Scholars, or a small esoteric circle of Illuminati--and those who would rather spread it far and wide to whomever can be interested, is one that existed since the very start of Judaism in general and Kabbalah in particular.

I need only cite as an example Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz who, defending Chassidism's approach of teaching Chassidus--a form of Kabbalah not unlike that of Ashlag--to all snd sundry, compared Kabbalh to a King's most precious stone. In normal times, it is carefully guarded in the King's innermost, most protected treasury. But when the King's son falls ill, and the Doctor offers as the only possible remedy an elixir made with that precious stone ground into powder, the King spares not even this most precious Jewel. Even though the resulting elixir needs to be forced through the young Prince's resistant lips and most is spilled uselessly on the ground, it is all worthwhile if a few drops get into the ill Prince's mouth and heal him.

The debate is still ongoing, and will neither be decided by an article such as yours nor by comments such as mine. We need to accept, however, that "Eilu va'eilu divrei Elohim Chayyim" and that "Yehsarim darkei HaShem, veTzaddikim yeilekhu vam uphoshe'im yikashelu vam" (_These and these both are the words of the Living God_, TB Gittin 6b; _The words of HaShem are straight, and the Righteous shall go ahead through them, but the Negligent ones shall stumble upon them_, Hosea 14:10).
Yisrael Medad on August 9, 2010 at 10:43 am (Reply)
If we're into books and publishing, I would suggest the almost 900-page Kitvei Baal HaSullam of the Ashlag Research Institute at as a handy if hefty compendium.

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