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The God of the Kabbalists

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.   

Relevant Links
The Path of Arthur Green  Alan Brill, Book of Doctrines and Opinions. Where he once identified his thinking with that of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Green now claims affinity to a near-forgotten theologian of the Age of Aquarius. 
Sacred Attunement  Scot McKnight, Beliefnet. A Christian blogger responds enthusiastically to Michael Fishbane’s “theology of the unsayable.”    
On the Personal God  Avakesh. To the philosopher Jacob Joshua Ross, the faces of revealed Being are inexhaustible, but a personal God is primary and foundational: a face that can speak and command and comfort.    

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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Joe Plumberstein on October 5, 2010 at 8:35 am (Reply)
I find the author's characterization of "The Kaballah" as misogynist genuinely disturbing. Also,"ayin" would be better interpreted as the "unknowable".
Judy Git on October 17, 2010 at 1:51 pm (Reply)
I recently read an explanation of why it is that traditionally you're not supposed to study Kabbalah until the age of 40, and then only if you've studied Torah thoroughly during those first 40 years of your life. I am definitely not a Kabbalist, meaning I haven't studied Kabbalah for all that I've been studying and teaching Torah for more than 40 years. Why? Because I haven't studied Talmud very intensely.

There's definitely a place for "sod" in our comprehension of Judaism, and I cautiously try to learn some of that level of understanding of Torah with the clear realization that there's still much of the background information that I may lack. But I am more than a little bit concerned about recent developments whereby people with absolutely no background in Torah, many if not most of whom aren't even Jewish and thus don't even have the most fundamental elements of Jewish understanding of text, have suddenly become "Kabbalists." My sense is that Kabbalah is being seen by these new age Kabbalists as some kind of numerological, esoteric text of magic.

Mr. Mirsky, states, himself, "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." As minimal as my knowledge of Kabbalah is, I know enough about it to realize that "ordinary people," meaning those of us who are not Torah scholars, talmidei chachamim, cannot.
Joseph Hamadan on October 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm (Reply)
In response to "Judy Git's" comment about not studying kabbalah before you're 40: some of the greatest kabbalists and chassidic masters wrote their major works before 40 - the Ramak, the Ari, Rav Nahman, etc.. The "before 40" thing has a very uncertain basis. Read Haim Vital's "Hakdamah le-Sha'ar Ha-Hakdamot": while affirming the notion that one should study Talmud first, he also says that if you stop at Talmud, you fundamentally pervert the Torah, cause sorrow to the divine, and delay the final redemption. And he also says that if Talmud doesn't speak to you, you should simply go straight to kabbalah. Look it up, Judy - it's printed in the beginning of most editions of the Etz Haim, and is not only written by the principal student of the Ari, but is replete with support from the Talmud, the Zohar, and so on ... .
Judy Git on October 26, 2010 at 8:51 pm (Reply)
To clarify, I did not come up with the age of 40 as a guideline; this was suggested by rabbis and scholars. To further clarify, I understand this guideline to be exactly that - a guideline, the real issue being that the person studying Kabbalah should be thoroughly versed in the written Torah and in Talmud before tackling Kabbalah. There have certainly been scholars who were prepared to study Kabbalah before the age of 40 and many others who were never so prepared even at the age of 80.

Not every rabbinical scholar is a big fan of Kabbalah. The Rambam, himself, voiced criticisms. ( I, on the other hand, voice no opinion about it as I'm not familiar enough with it to have an educated opnion. What I do know, however, is that there's a whole movement going these days in which Kabbalah is being turned into a religion of its own separate from Judaism, and this concerns me greatly. I respect the scholarship and knowledge of the Ari, but with all due respect, I can't digest Madonna as a Torah scholar.
Joseph Hamadan on October 26, 2010 at 9:55 pm (Reply)
To Judy: 1) no one suggested that Madonna was a scholar or has anything to do with anything; 2) the Rambam died before kabbalah in the sense in which we know it today (i.e., the Zohar and its centuries of readers) came into existence; 3) read the sources for yourself, Judy, since you claim to be a student of Torah - specifically, read Vital's Hakdamah le-Sha'ar Hahakdamot. It's very available since it's printed in the beginning of most editions of the Etz Chaim, the most common text of Lurianic kabbalah. Just read it Judy. We're talking about Rav Chaim Vital, one of the greatest sages of all time, not Madonna. (And if Madonna was into the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch, you'd go frei?)
Judy Git on October 27, 2010 at 1:04 am (Reply)
What are we arguing about here? What have I said that you disagree with? What is it you are trying to prove to me? That the Kabbalah is a worthwhile text? I've never in any way said or implied that it is not. Let me put this in bullet points:

* Even though I am not a Kabbalah scholar, I have a great deal of respect for Kabbalah.
* Because I have a great deal of respect for it, I want it to be treated with respect and studied properly.
* Because I have a great deal of respect for it, and more importantly for Judaism as a whole, I do not want it to be commandeered by pop stars and turned into some kind of pseudo-Jewish magic cult.
* If you are trying to prove that one can sucessfully study Kabbalah before the age of 40, I've already conceded that and explained that I see this strictly as a guideline, one NOT created by me; it has been de rigeur in Judaism for generations for all that there were great rabbis who began studying earlier than age 40.
* The only reason I brought up the Rambam is because your entire argument consists of citing various rabbis, and as I said, I don't even know what point it is you're trying to argue nor what I should be looking for if I did look up those rabbis.
* If you are trying to convince me that Madonna and Naomi Campbell (who "converted to Kabbalah," according to the news piece I saw online - Kabbalah, not Judaism) and various other new agers ought to be studying Kabbalah or have a snowball's chance in the hot place of understanding it, we're going to part ways, because that I'll never buy.

I tried Googling for some detailed information, specifically which rabbis determined that age 40 should be the age to start studying Kabbalah and exactly how long ago that was, and guess what I found. In addition to being informed that Naomi Campbell converted to this new religion called Kabbalah, I read an aticle about how kvitels are being sold for exorbitant prices around the country because they're considered good luck charms (compared to a rabbit's foot),saw an article about some shyster doing psychic type readings based on Kabbalah, and about 80% of all internet hits for "Kabbalah" (which I spelled in a number of different ways) yielded links touting the new age Kabbalah center form of Kabbalah and had little if anything to do with normative Judaism. Information about traditional Jewish study of Jewish mysticism contained in the Kabbalah is almost impossible to find because it is drowning in a sea of new agism.

Bottom line, one of Judaism's holy texts is being commandeered by people who know nothing about Judaism and turned into something not much different from numerology or witchcraft, and I have a problem with that. If you do not, we have no common grounds for discussion. That is the entire point I've been trying to make.
Joseph Hamadan on October 27, 2010 at 5:42 pm (Reply)
Dear Judy,
Why are you obsessed with Madonna? She has nothing to do with anything. All I'm saying is that you should turn away from your obsession with Madonna and Naomi Campbell (I don't know who the later is, btw) and read Chaim Vital. If you'd rather spend your time reading about Madonna, zei gezunt. If you're interested in Torah, read some Chaim Vital. Again - you say you've been teaching Torah for 40 years - so you must have the linguistic skills to read rabbinic Hebrew. I strongly recommend the Hakdamah le-Sha'ar Hahakdamot, printed in the beginning of most editions of the Etz Chaim. Stop worrying about pop stars. The Torah is eternal. It's survived much worse. Cancel your subscription to People magazine or wherever you're reading about these non-entities. Only Torah is real.
Judy Git on October 27, 2010 at 8:45 pm (Reply)
Please explain just two things to me:

1 What have I said that you find objectionable?
2 What exactly is it that you're trying to prove to me?

I am in no way "obsessed with Madonna." I only brought her up because she's the most visible of the new age Kabbalists. My entire point, from my very first post through to this one, has been to protest against one of Judaism's holy texts being commandeered and distorted, even turned into what I consider a form of avodah zarah, by new agers. Do you think that Chaim Vital would disagree with that? Do you think that reading Chaim Vital would change my mind about that?

I tend to take up arms against anything I view as a direct attack on Judaism, from overt anti-Semitism, to attacks against Israel, to Messianics calling their form of Christianity Judaism, to new agers turning Kabbalah into a separate religion. That's it. Period. That's all I've been trying to say, and at this point, I think I've said it more than enough times.

(BTW - Naomi Campbell is a super model).

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