Kabbalah, Academia, and Authenticity

Matt Goldish. Tikkun. Volume 20, Issue 5. September/October 2005.

A few months ago I sat down to have lunch at the Ohio State Hillel. I picked up a couple of magazines from the wall rack to read while I ate—the November/December 2004 issue of Tikkun, and the Winter 2004 issue of Reform Judaism. Leafing through Tikkun, my attention was arrested by an article called “Madonna’s Challenge: Understanding Kabbalah Today,” by Or Rose. Rose begins with a critique of the Kabbalah Centre and its links with Hollywood celebrities, questioning the authenticity of the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings. He then recommends a “cadre of American and Israeli religious teachers and scholars, such as Daniel Matt, Arthur Green, Melilah Hellner Eshed, Havivah Pedayah, and Elliot Wolfson, who are engaging in thoughtful explorations of the classical teachings of Kabbalah, asking what of this ancient tradition remains compelling to seekers today and what is better left aside.”

When I finished the article, I picked up Reform Judaism, where I found that Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie’s “Dear Reader” column in the front was titled “The Kabbalah Craze.” Yoffie, too, attacks the legitimacy and authenticity of the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings. He adds that “Today, our Jewish community is fortunate to have such scholars as Professor Daniel Matt, Professor Arthur Green, and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner who, unlike the Kabbalah hucksters, understand and respect this tradition, and have undertaken to teach it to committed students in a serious way.”

Something about these two pieces disturbed me. It dawned on me that the problem of authenticity and legitimacy-the specific statements of whom to reject and whom to rely upon, coming from two such different authors-presents a paradox. Rabbi Dr. Philip S. Berg, director of the Kabbalah Centre, has a concrete pedigree in Kabbalah. He studied it with Rabbi Judah Brandwein, a student of the famous kabbalist Rabbi Judah Ashlag. The scholars deemed reliable by the two articles do not generally have the credentials of kabbalists, nor would they claim to. Their qualifications come from a different source: they are academic scholars of Kabbalah.

I am no defender of the Kabbalah Centre. What I wonder is why Berg, a rabbi and traditionally-trained kabbalist, is perceived as a fraud while these scholars are seen as reliable teachers of Kabbalah. The answer requires some historical background on the relations between academia and Jewish religious practice in the modern world.

The “Science of Judaism,” Reform, and Kabbalah

A cademics played an enormous part in the birth of modern Judaism. The Reform movement is a key example. Reform began in Germany with a group of lay leaders who wanted to make Judaism more palatable for assimilated Western Jews. Their concern was not with theology, but with decorum and appeal. And where would such forward-thinking congregations look for spiritual leaders? They found rabbis with both traditional training and a university education, particularly a group professing Wissenschaft desjudentums—the “science” of Judaism’s historical development. Personalities like Abraham Geiger, Leopold Zunz, and Samuel Holdheim formulated a new Jewish ideology based around the evolution of the Jewish people rather than around the sanctity of canonical texts.

This seemingly anomalous impulse to synthesize a rational and skeptical worldview with Jewish religion has been embraced by all the major movements in American Judaism today. Each has rabbinical seminaries staffed with academically trained faculty. Most of us seem to be satisfied with their attempts to synthesize academic and religious worldviews. It appears, then, that we prefer our religion, like our science and medicine, to come mediated by empirical thought.

The one area in Judaism that the Wissenschaft rabbis could not abide was Kabbalah. German Jewish scholars were embarrassed by the irrational, supernatural, exotic nature of Jewish mysticism. While they had found ways to rationalize and Westernize the lessons of the Torah and Talmud (or jettison what did not fit, since they did not believe in the divine origin of those literatures), Kabbalah could not be assimilated into their scientific Judaism. The solution was to speculate that this was a foreign accretion that had wormed its way into Judaism from Middle Eastern idolatry.

This was the situation until the day of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a German Jew who rebelled against his roots in Wissenschaft rationalism and created the modern academic field of Kabbalah studies. Scholem insisted that Kabbalah is a completely genuine, as well as necessary, part of Jewish life and thought. In fact, he claimed, the very irrationality and occasional heresy of the mystical tradition was what kept Judaism alive over the millennia, preventing its desiccation under the dry sun of rational philosophy and law. The brilliance of Scholem’s work assured the study of Jewish mysticism a permanent place in the academic study of Judaism.

Scholem spoke of Kabbalah as gnosis and myth. The kabbalists tell us about God-how and why God created the world, what God’s nature is, how God relates to the world, what God’s views of Jews and non-Jews are, what God will do in the messianic era-based on the special knowledge that they have received (this is the meaning of the word Kabbalah). “Receiving” has a double meaning that is often obscured: that received from past generations, and that received through mystical experiences. The kabbalists’ knowledge of God, as opposed to Maimonides’ views, for example, is concrete and detailed, not abstract.

Immanence and Transcendence in the Academic Study of Kabbalah

The kabbalists’ belief that they have direct knowledge of God touches on one of the great debates in theology: Is God immanent-present in the world and our lives? Or transcendent-abstract and distant from human experience? In a sense, this distinction seems to be relevant for academic studies in general, and for Kabbalah studies in particular.

Scholem insisted that it was the scholar’s scientific detachment from the subject that makes true understanding possible. When asked whether there was not some personal aspect to his involvement in Jewish mysticism, Scholem (as quoted in Herbert Weiner’s My sties: The Kabbala Today] answered:

Oh, of course. By now I imagine that anything I say or do has the influence of the Kabbalah in it. But the main thing I try to maintain is distance. Without distance, there can be no real scholarship. I must be ready and have been ready to change my views if the facts have proven me wrong. This is the main virtue that I claim for my scholarship.

Scholem wanted to distinguish clearly between the work of the academic scholar of Jewish mysticism and the mystic. While in his writing hints occasionally surface about his personal feelings toward Kabbalah, he was the champion of “transcendent” scholarship that avoids the academic heresy of confusion between the researcher and his or her subject of study.

Immense strides have been made in this field during the generation since Scholem. I had always assumed, however, that his insistence on scholarly transcendence of the mystical subject was almost a dogma of the discipline: academics are not kabbalists. My first indication that this was not the case came about a decade ago at a meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, the organization of academic scholars of Jewish studies. I joined an unofficial evening session of the professors who work on Kabbalah. I was amazed to hear that the main topic under discussion was how the gap might be bridged between their scholarly work and the outpouring of interest in Kabbalah as part of Jewish religious practice. Many stated that on their own time they taught community courses in kabbalistic meditation, mystical prayer, the Zohar, and similar topics.

Since that time I have seen academic scholars of Kabbalah move decisively into the “immanent” mode. Indeed, the articles in Tikkun and Reform Judaism confirm that academics are now near the forefront of popular Kabbalah as a part of Jewish religious practice. It seemed to me that they trailed only behind Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah Centre and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s Jewish Renewal movement. This may have been a misconception of mine as well. As it turns out, both these leaders also come from academic backgrounds. Rabbi Berg holds a doctorate in comparative religion (though his literature does not say from where), while Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi earned a Ph.D. at the Hebrew Union College (the Reform seminary) and was a longtime university professor. Each of the leading figures has an individual style and message, but it can still be said that the entire modern Kabbalah movement is mediated by academics.

What does this tell us? “Reform” Kabbalah?

The most immediate point I derive from this confluence of academic Kabbalah scholarship and mystical Jewish practice is that today’s Jews still follow in the footsteps of their forebears from the period of the birth of Reform Judaism. We continue to look to the academy for our religious leaders, and we still prefer the paradoxical amalgamation of the scientific and the spiritual that they are able to mediate.

It would seem obvious that neither traditional Jewish law and thought, nor the Kabbalah, can maintain the meaning they had for 1,800 years when they are handled by academic skeptical and rationalist inquiry. The most basic tools of academic scrutiny-philology, historiography, form criticism-have long since expressed their determination that the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and mystical texts are all human creations. Most practicing Jews today accept these conclusions, yet they have managed to create a Jewish life based around the first three of those literatures anyway. Is this possible with the Kabbalah? Kabbalah, after all, is deeply grounded in the sanctity of the letters, words, and commandments of the Torah and Talmud.

Scholem thought it was possible only in a very specific way. In a speech called “The Possibilities of Jewish Mysticism in Our Day,” he pointed out that, “we are not able to be shlomei emunah, wholehearted in the faith of our fathers who accepted the Torah as the word of God, as a revelation from heaven.” He stressed that the whole meaning of the Kabbalah was premised on this worldview. Herbert Weiner, reporting on the speech, paraphrases Scholem.

It was this acceptance of a common faith in the divine origin of the Bible that accounted for the continuity of Jewish history. Without such faith, there is danger of anarchy. Scholem said:

For, all of us are anarchists. Is there any hope, then that a generation lacking this kind of faith in divine revelation can produce a kind of mystic ferment so strong that it could form its tools and vessels of communication, and also draw from the past? … Perhaps it would be a kind of mysticism related to [Rabbi Abraham Isaac] Kook’s attempt to find holiness in the secular.

I think Scholem would have been astounded to see a new wave of Jewish practice in our day, fueled not by a mystical appropriation of the secular, but by the same kabbalistic books, ideas, and practices from the Middle Ages that he spent his own lifetime studying. He would surely have been even more surprised to see the wave led by academics trained largely through the study of his own writings!

What we are seeing in our day is the completion (despite itself, perhaps) of the original project of Reform Judaism. Even Kabbalah, that most unassimilable and faith-dependent of Jewish literatures, has now been processed through the mill of academic analysis, and the refined product reintroduced into Jewish practice. This raises the question of authenticity.

Authenticity and Modern Popular Kabbalah

The early Reform ideologues were immediately attacked by traditional rabbis, who were still the vast majority, for teaching an inauthentic Judaism. What could it mean to have a rabbi who did not believe in the sanctity of the holy texts and did not teach his congregation the practice of piety and commandment observance? This was some new invention masquerading as Judaism.

Today the tables are turned. The leaders of Reform and liberal Judaism see only academically trained scholars as the legitimate arbiters not just of Jewish practice, but of Jewish mysticism as well. What appears to make the academic ingredient critical, just as in early Reform, is its ability to identify the various strains of thought in the original literature, discuss them with other specialists in abstruse academic venues, then select those pieces that will resonate with the Zeitgeist to present for public consumption.

Heresy and anarchy, the areas that fascinated Scholem, are not a major issue today; most Jews no longer recognize any orthodoxy or doctrine in Judaism outside the strictly ethical dimension. The elements in earlier Kabbalah that were normative and not radical in the Middle Ages are the only ones that would raise an eyebrow now: misogyny, anti-Christian diatribes, denigration of homosexuality and masturbation, and the like. What was radical and potentially heretical then-physical descriptions of God, multiplications of elements in God’s essence, ritual antinomianism-do not even have meaning for most modern Jews.

So, what does modern “Wissenschaftliche” Kabbalah look like? It does not always reflect the rationalistic academic worldview, but it does fit the Zeitgeist. For example, Jewish Renewal is largely a product of the 1970s. Here is Rodger Kamenetz, no stranger to unusual religious expressions, describing events at a Renewal retreat:

Under Reb Zalman’s influence, Jewish renewal settings became laboratories doing “R and D work in davenology.” At my first kallah some experiments looked pretty far out: one morning some folks in tallises davened kneedeep in the swimming pool for water prayer; another morning, clay smeared on my face, I prayed earth-I slept through fire (Stalking Elijah).

Among Kamenetz’s other experiences was Reb Zalman’s dancing Adam Kadmon-the rabbi assigned each of ten retreat participants a kabbalistic sefirah to represent, and arranged them in the outline of a human body. “From our position among the sefirot, he had us invent gestures, acting out the feeling of heart or strength or mercy as we prayed the morning service.” Kamenetz himself was given the part of yesod and placed at the crotch. “He told me that as a writer I would be generative and get the news out about Jewish renewal.”

Here the 1970s style of personal expression, connection with the earth, and sexual candor are paramount, but a note of academia still creeps in-this is all part of research and development, and the act of prayer has become a science of “davenology.”

Berg’s Kabbalah Centre, though it was created decades earlier, is in its present form largely a product of the 1990s. Its message is also on target for the spirit of the times. The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, a much less sympathetic witness than Kamenetz, reported in a May 2004 article in The New Republic on what he had seen at the Centre:

The Rav leads his disciples in the Kaddish prayer, shouting its words as if in a rage. Then he interrupts the conventional service and begins chanting “Chernobyl” and other names I can’t identify. A devotee explains, straight-faced, that these are all names of nuclear power plants: The Rav is trying to heal the problem of nuclear waste, which the Centre’s devotees believe is spreading AIDS.

Again, the message is targeted to the issues of the day, delivered through the medium of prayer, and marked by a note of concern with science (if not the rational) in the background.

What of the more theological and contemplative modes in modern popular Kabbalah? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s book Honey from the Rock: Visions of Jewish Mystical Renewal offers examples of how this Kabbalah bridges the scientific and religious:

Adam Ha-Rishon, the first man and the last man are one and the same. The one who left the garden in order to continue eating from knowledge will, after all the generations have come and gone, at long last be sated. Even as he will be the same one who will be called God’s anointed one. The Messiah who will return to the garden.

If we had remained in Eden we would have been as one with the universe. But we never could have been conscious of our unity. So we left seeking that unity and consciousness. Leaving the garden is a metaphor for our forgetting that we are one with the universe. Holy awareness is the only way to return.

And by drawing this primordial man, Who is also us, We draw the universe. And by envisioning the heavens, We portray our own Human consciousness.

This is not a simple piece. Kushner begins with the biblical (and midrashic and kabbalistic) image of Adam, explaining that he had to leave the Garden of Eden to continue his quest for knowledge. His descendent, the Messiah, who sets aside Adam’s pursuit of knowledge at the End of Days and returns to the spiritual Garden, is in fact identical with Adam himself. Kushner appears to be saying that the same human spirit that thirsts for knowledge (read: rational, scientific knowledge) will ultimately recognize that this quest leads back to spirituality as well. Here and throughout the book Kushner is speaking particularly of contemporary Jews, using allegory and kabbalistic terminology to communicate his message: the unity of the rationalist and spiritual realms.

The writing of Arthur Green, a professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University, is equally rich with this message. Green articulates clearly and repeatedly his disbelief in the literal meaning of the Bible and the force of the commandments. Here, in a passage about Shabbat from seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, he provides an example of his approach:

I thus find myself living in an active and symbolically deeply connected way with a story that says God created the world in seven days. I know that I don’t believe that story in the literal sense. Neither do I believe in the seven-day Creation, nor am I particularly attracted to the notion that the seven days should be reinterpreted as seven time periods … I also know with all my being that I find this tale both deeply attractive and irresistibly powerful. It draws me to itself, sustains me through the week, and expresses my existence and its meaning. It has become my own so that I choose to live with it in this regular and ever-reaffirming way.

Thus, the simple act of reciting kiddush on Friday night leads me to theological crisis. How do I affirm that which I do not believe?

Green follows with a tale of the mystical Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in which a prince finds the intellectual lessons taught him by his royal tutors lead him to be skeptical of the ancient wisdom in which he was raised. He finds it is only when he listens to his heart rather than his mind that his knowledge of the ancient truth prevails:

By now, nearly all of us have become that prince. Are we, who refuse to choose between modernity and religious language, condemned to live our lives in constant conflict between heart and mind? Or will we be able to give birth to a new tale of Creation, one that sanctifies our rest and our humanity while also satisfying our search for truth and nourishing our scientific imagination? Can such a new tale, told in other words, come to bear the old tale within us? … The real task may be that of integrating our two tales, the one inherited from ages past, and the one emerging from our own spiritual understanding of contemporary science.

Green’s conundrum resembles that of Scholem at first blush. The difference is that Scholem never tried to integrate his academic study with his practice, while that is precisely the goal of certain academic specialists today. But what Green and the other contemporary popular Kabbalah theorists create has a great deal more to do with ancient mystical texts and terms than I think Scholem could have imagined.

And yet, none of these practices and ideological statements, whether from Berg, Kushner, or Green, would be recognizable at all to a traditional kabbalist as a genuine part of his tradition. As radical as Kabbalah often was in the Middle Ages, it has, like all mystical movements that survive past a second generation, become its own sort of orthodoxy. The new popular Kabbalah, like the old medieval Kabbalah, and like modern liberal Judaism, takes the forms and terms it finds from past generations and turns them into something entirely different.

What is ironic is that in just one century the new Jewish mystical movement of Jewish Renewal and the academics have now become an orthodoxy. As inauthentic as their Kabbalah would seem to older kabbalists, the proponents of this Wissenschaftliche Kabbalah now look at Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah Centre as a mystical heresy. It seems to me there are two reasons for this, neither having to do with the bedrock issues of authenticity. One is the crass commercialization and marketing done by Berg’s organization, which embarrasses the Jewish community. The second is that apparently, despite Berg’s academic background, he and his adherents are true believers in the sanctity of the Bible and mystical writings, if not always in a strictly traditional sense. Their Kabbalah, like that of Kushner, Green, and Shachter-Shalomi, is partly about feeling comfortable in both the academic world of Western scientific culture and the traditional world of Jewish ideas. But Berg’s practices and ideas are much edgier and more radical because he truly comes down on the side of mystical intuitions and gnosis rather than of logic-he is of the iconoclastic stamp of the radical medieval kabbalists. That may make the academics uncomfortable, but nothing the Centre actually teaches-feel-good Kabbalah Lite, the inclusion of non-Jews, the completely untraditional use of Jewish symbols, the power of Kabbalah to affect the physical world-lacks a solid precedent in traditional Kabbalah, and the other popular Kabbalah teachers know it.

The clash over authenticity is really about our society’s struggle with gnosis and myth. The story the old kabbalists tell is about wise ancient traditions and revelations illuminating God’s nature and relationship to the universe. The story the Enlightenment tells is about man’s ability to discover the truth within the world, including the human origins of traditional ideas and texts. The story we desperately want to hear is the one that seems impossible: that both of these stories-call them systems of gnosis or myth-are true, meaningful, and most importantly, compatible. Neither medieval Kabbalah nor modern scientific rationalism seems wholly palatable to many people. This is why Western society is fascinated by tales that cross science with myths of the ancient and medieval worlds, like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Codex, and The da Vinci Code. The only explanation for the debate among modern Kabbalah factions is that each stream is convinced it is closest to achieving that reconciliation.

The error in this is a human error. Each person’s truth meter is set at a unique place. Some lean more toward a rationalist gnosis, some toward a more mythical gnosis. Human nature leads us to join with people whose search for truth takes them in the same direction we are headed. We can dissociate ourselves from those who seem to us to be running pointedly in the wrong direction, but before we declare that another person’s search lacks authenticity we had best look around us, and especially, behind us. There are searchers who are dishonest and there are searchers who are lazy, but the only truly inauthentic search is the one not undertaken.