notes from the lecture ‘Let my people know’, held on May 23d t.y. in American Corner, Podgorica in the framework of Jewish American heritage month
Kabbalah , that ancient mystical worldview, at the same time, paradoxically, is the most interesting contemporary philosophical phenomenon.
When it comes to the mystical traditions in the framework of Judeo-Christianity, we can say that since Victorian England and A. Crowley’s Thelema, not a single school of philosophy has caused such a stir as postmodern Kabbalah did. (Not to forget that Crowley’s Qabala is also rooted in Jewish Kabbalah, albeit way more liberal and adjusted for those who aren’t religiously observant.)
Postmodern Kabbalah is a phenomena that developed in two directions: first religious Jews during 60es imported Jewish Kabbalah to America; which is, in 1965 rabbi Filip Berg and his teacher, rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, founded outpost of the prestigious Yeshiva Kol Yehuda in USA; from there, couple of decades later, liberalized and emancipated triumphant Kabbalah returned to the Holy Land, where many – including names like Gershom Sholem, had written it off.
This very lecture is based on the positions of the Department of Philosophy of Ben Gurion University – academically the highest rated university in Israel – and it’s leading Kabbalah scholar, professor doctor Boaz Huss.
Root of the word “Kabbalah” comes from Hebrew verb le kabel – to receive, it’s a kind of knowledge that can not be acquired individually, from books only, but requires a teacher who has appropriate Kabbalistic lineage.
(My own teacher is a student of Yehuda Berg, son of rav Berg who founded Kabbalah Center.)
Back on the topic of Kabbalah. Today, some 13% of American Jews are traditionally observant (“orthodox”); they lead the same way of life as their grand grand fathers did in the old world; by choice they refute secular education, modern culture and media, while living in insular and self-sufficient communities. Personally, i find it a positive occurrence, because in that way traditional Judaism is preserved – but to me such way of life is alien and unacceptable.
Here we arrive to the biggest challenge of the contemporary spirituality – organized religion’s popularity is declining everywhere in the free world, religious institutions with educated parts of the society cause almost exclusively contempt and disdain – yet the need to find meaning in life probably has never been bigger.
In that “no one’s land” between dogma and atheism – Kabbalah is reborn, as an American phenomena, child of the intermarriage of Orthodox Judaism and American liberalism – all together with the red string, whistling Madonna’s “Im nin alu”.
In US, western civilization is generally referred to as Judeo-Christian, which is the most obvious indicator of the acceptance of the common source of both traditions – such attitude and KC’s fundamental position that Kabbalah is appropriate both for Jews and non-Jews, contributed to the popularity of the movement and of the wisdom itself … that is – the science itself.
Ben Gurion University does define Kabbalah as science, albeit in this definition some methodological challenges are acknowledged – the only available method for academic research of Kabbalah – is linguistic.
As we know – Kabbalh is basically gematria – Hebrew letters have numerical value – and total sum of all numeric values of individual letters in a word is compared and juxtaposed with other words with same numerical value; that grants us the possibility for an indepth reading of the Torah.
Thus, for example, the numerical value of Hebrew word for vine, yayin, (spelled:yud-yud-nun, equals 70) is identical to that of the word for secret (sod); thus, on the forth, deepest level of reading of the Bible, the infamous Egyptian Pharo becomes our own ego made of uncertainty and fears, and Israel – the individual soul craving freedom and love.
When it comes to the teaching itself – Hillel, a wise man who lived at the very turn of the era – formulated its essence in the following manner: Love the neighbor as yourself, now go and learn.
The main text of Kabbalah – Zohar, which is a commentary on the Torah, is of Encyclopedia Britannica’s volume; except that – Kabbalah is a way of life which includes adherence to a different calendar, dietary rules, special praying books and numerous holidays; what matters the most is the particular intention one has, the consciousness if you wish (kavvanah), while performing these rituals and observances.
Calendar which Kabbalists use is the traditional Jewish calendar, dietary rules as well, and so are the holidays – it’s the approach itself that is very different. Traditional approach is historical – religious holidays are the celebration of some ancient events, important for the history of the Jews; kabbalistic approach is mystical – every single holiday is viewed as a possibility to connect to the Light of the Creator and thus to achieve both spiritual and worldly progress.
Here we arrive to one of the most bitter arguments against Kabbalah – that it is not suitable for non-Jews; professor doctor Boaz Huss deconstructs the former position as follows: kabbalistic premise is that the Light of Creator is undifferentiated, how could there be such separation in the first place?
Not to forget that the strongest opponents of neo Kabbalah and KC itself are some orthodox rabbis who have their own schools of Kabbalah – albeit by far not as successful as KC.
Oftentimes, the argument of “authenticity” is used – firstly, there isn’t a definition of authentic Kabbalah, secondly – scanning of Zohar, red string, devoted studies of astrology and belief system based on reincarnation are typical of all Kabbalah schools; regarding the canonical adherence, in KC the traditional Sephardic canon is observed, so these accusations are insubstantial.
From the other side, it is this very traditionalism that some liberal American thinkers find outdated and reactionary, even cult-like; when it comes to the latter, we do know from history that the difference between a cult and a religion – is merely a hundred years.
Presumed commercialization and involvement of entertainers with the movement are also often used as contra arguments – i believe it goes without saying that life was very different once upon a time in Ukrainian and Polish shtetls, than it is today in contemporary north America in the times of liberal capitalism; to judge one by the measurements of the other i find ridiculous.
Yehuda Berg himself, the leader of KC, last decade or so is inevitably included into the NY Times list of the most influential rabbis – and always somewhere close to the top of the list.
All of it is quite an unexpected turn both for the religious fundamentalists and for the academic scholars, followers of Gershom Sholem – not to forget that the latter claimed Kabbalah to be absolutely irrelevant once the Zionist project came to be and the state of Israel was founded.
Postmodern Kabbalah, speaking in Hebrew with thick American accent and proudly wearing the red string on the left wrist – has denied him irrevocably.