Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction
by Joseph Dan
Oxford. 130 pp. $18.95
In the 2005 movie Bee Season, Richard Gere plays a professor of kabbalah who lectures on the mystical repair of the world and employs an obscure technique of meditation on Hebrew letters to train his daughter for spelling competitions. At the Jerusalem premiere, I overheard a moviegoer expressing her amazement at the ease with which one of the world’s most arcane systems of thought has been appropriated by popular culture. “I can’t believe such a thing is coming out of Hollywood,” she said.
Given the vogue of kabbalah among pop celebrities, I was surprised by her surprise. Roseanne Barr has reported that kabbalah “helped me to totally reconfigure my entire being.” In Us Weekly, Britney Spears got herself photographed brandishing a kabbalistic manual poolside. Madonna (a/k/a “Esther”), a devotee of a controversial Los Angeles-based outfit known as the Kabbalah Center, came to Israel in September 2004 to visit a mystic’s grave and on her most recent world tour wore a kabbalistic red string bracelet and a T-shirt with the slogan, “Kabbalists Do It Better.”
Amid all the trendiness, one almost hesitates to ask the essential question: what is kabbalah? Joseph Dan of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has reflected on the subject for some 50 years, offers a fascinating reply in his new book.
Kabbalah, which literally means “that which has been received,” refers broadly to a “hidden” doctrine that (along with the “Written” and “Oral” Torah) is said to have been given by God to Moses at Sinai and to have been privately transmitted ever since, often only in hints and allusions, from master to disciple. Throughout the medieval period and well into the early modern age, traditionalists took these teachings very seriously, although they were also regarded as an inherently dangerous subject matter that could lead all but a select few into heresy or madness. In later, post-Enlightenment times, many scholars and religious progressives came to consider these teachings a form of superstitious nonsense. Only in the last hundred years or so has kabbalah become a subject of academic study.
Dan’s book thus represents the fruit of a century’s worth of research and systematic analysis, much of it centered at the Hebrew University. Exquisitely attuned to the varied schools, streams, and shades of his subject, Dan begins on a note of caution: although the term “kabbalah” has never been so widely used as it is today, even in the past it did not have a single meaning. Having warned us that “there is no ‘kabbalah’ in the singular,” he proceeds to give us a nuanced chronological survey of kabbalah in the plural.
Although both the Bible and early rabbinic literature contain passages of clearly mystical import, kabbalah proper first emerged at the end of the 12th century, at the very moment when Jewish rationalist philosophy was reaching its own height in the writings of Moses Maimonides and others. The golden age of medieval kabbalah followed shortly thereafter, finding its supreme expression in the great Aramaic-language compendium of myth and mysticism known as the Zohar. Composed in Christian Spain by Moses de Leon in the last decades of the 13th century, but ascribed by him to the 2nd-century sage Shimon bar Yochai, the Zohar’s volumes combine a homiletic commentary on the Torah, the Song of Songs, and the book of Ruth with stories of the spiritual adventures of bar Yochai and his disciples as they wander about the ancient Holy Land.
In Dan’s persuasive judgment, this eclectic mélange is “among the most daring and radical works of religious literature and mysticism in any language.” At the center of its vision is an elaborate symbolic latticework made up of the sefirot, the ten divine attributes or emanations. Following Dan’s suggestion, one can think of these dynamically, as representing a progressive unfolding of the unknowable and transcendent God into a knowable, immanent divine presence—God’s layered manifestation of Himself to humanity.
What most intrigues Dan in this scheme, however, is that the sefirot themselves, although they partake of the divine, are susceptible of becoming aligned or misaligned according to the actions of human beings. In the Zohar’s theurgy, Jewish ritual grants to mortals the power to influence the divine realm. Thus, observing the laws of Sabbath with the proper intention is not just a dutiful means of demonstrating a Jew’s loyalty to God’s covenant, let alone an exercise in time-management, but an act that, by bringing harmony to the sefirot, allows divine energy to flow through them and thereby to sustain the lower world. Prayer, to take another example, can be seen as not just an expression of religious feeling, or an institutionalized way of praising God, but as an instrument for actually influencing the divine spheres.
The notion that ritual can make something happen leads to this book’s first major theme. Because kabbalah considered the fate of the higher world to hinge on the strict fulfillment of religious law in the lower, it could exert at once an intensely radical and a deeply conservative force within Jewish life. On the one hand, the kabbalists invented a new Jewish mythology, shaped a new Jewish theology, and, in Dan’s words, gave “the mundane, daily rituals a magnificent new dimension of meaning.” On the other hand, as firm believers in the revelation of those rituals and all the other commandments of Torah at Sinai, they legitimately regarded their esoteric wisdom not as supplanting but as enhancing the exoteric tradition. After all, as one medieval kabbalist put it, “there is nothing new that is not found in the Torah.”
This insistence of the classical kabbalists on strict adherence to Jewish law and ritual would lead to certain historical ironies. In the post-Enlightenment world, precisely this feature of kabbalah would render the entire system suspect, or worse, in the eyes of Jewish religious innovators eager to escape altogether from the orbit of Orthodox practice. In the meantime, Christian philosophers, who began to take a keen interest in the kabbalah during the Renaissance, had already sloughed off such “particularist” aspects of its teachings in favor of something more “universal.” Indeed, the notion of kabbalah encapsulated in works like De Arte Kabbalistica (1517) and Kabbala Denudata (1684) was, in Dan’s view, a direct precursor of today’s New Age dabblings in commitment-free “kabbalistic” spirituality.
Dan’s second theme emerges from his analysis of how later Jewish mystics made kabbalah a commentary not only on sacred texts and religious tradition but also on history. Here the main protagonists are the kabbalists who flourished in 16th-century Safed, a hill town in Galilee. Led by masters like Joseph Karo, Shlomo Alkabetz, Moshe Cordovero, and especially Isaac Luria (to whom Madonna has devoted a track on her latest album), the Safed or “Lurianic” kabbalists reimagined the sefirot as ten “vessels” that, at the moment of God’s creation of the world, were unable to contain the immense flow of divine energy. The seven lower vessels broke, trapping divine sparks in their shards. To the Safed kabbalists, the purpose of human life is to fix these vessels—a process called tikkun whose end goal is to free all the divine sparks to rejoin God and restore the original whole.
The idea of tikkun makes everyone a protagonist in redemption, since every pious act on earth releases a spark. In this sense, the concept is of a piece with the essential conservatism of prior forms of kabbalah. Although, as Dan writes, the concepts and terms of Lurianic kabbalah may seem “strange or even heretical,” the “practical message”—namely, conforming one’s will and one’s deeds to the will of the Creator—“is an ultra-Orthodox one.”
But there is another aspect to Lurianic kabbalah. A reinterpretation of the notion of salvation, it was even more deeply a myth of exile. It asked Jews, still reeling from the geographic and spiritual fragmentation that followed their banishment from Spain in 1492, to recognize their exiled condition not just as a punishment for Israel’s sins but as a necessary scattering of a people that had been tasked with redeeming the world, or perhaps even the “exiled” God Himself. In the early modern period, this cluster of ideas became the (hidden) engine of some of the strongest impulses in Jewish national experience.
Because it offered an explanation of exile, Lurianic kabbalah “did not remain in the domain of small closed groups” like its medieval forebear. Rather, it “penetrated all aspects of Jewish culture,” becoming what Dan calls “the dominant spiritual doctrine of the Jewish people.” But by putting an end to the taboo on teaching kabbalah to all but elite initiates, this move from the private into the public domain also triggered a dangerous proliferation, setting the stage in the mid-17th century for the spectacular rise and cataclysmic fall of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Zvi. Heralded by a Lurianic kabbalist as the long-awaited redeemer of the Jews, and widely believed to be the only man who could achieve tikkun on behalf of his exiled co-religionists, Shabbetai Zvi instead converted to Islam in 1666.
But there remained another turn of the spiral. Within a little more than a century, the idea of a charismatic, indispensable spiritual guide would become a central doctrine of Hasidism—a movement that would sweep like wildfire through the traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and eventually achieve mainstream status. Much as the kabbalah of Safed had been fed by the intensely apocalyptic mood created by the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the revivified kabbalah of Hasidism grew from the wrenching spiritual turbulence created by Sabbateanism.
On this note, with the transfiguration of esotericism into mass religious experience and the effective culmination of kabbalistic thought, Joseph Dan’s narrative more or less ends.
In weaving together the various kabbalahs with a fine attention to “how system into system runs,” Dan has given us the best concise history of Jewish mysticism. This should come as no surprise. Dan is the preeminent heir of the formidable scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), who founded the academic study of kabbalah at the Hebrew University. In many ways, indeed, his brief book follows along the lines of Scholem’s magisterial Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1954). The difference is that where Scholem’s emphasis tends to fall on the revolutionary and even the antinomian implications of kabbalistic thought, Dan, as we have seen, is at pains to show how and where the kabbalists preserved normative Judaism even as they remade it.
Kabbalah is especially valuable for getting us to ask the right questions. Three in particular arise from Dan’s treatment but go well beyond it.
First, there is the matter of kabbalah as a reading of Jewish history. Dan accepts Scholem’s contention that Lurianic ideas were conditioned by the trauma of 1492, that they prepared the soil for Sabbateanism, and that this heresy in turn lent to 18th-century Hasidism its core concept of the rebbe as a superhuman intercessor. Some scholars today, however, preeminently Moshe Idel, deny any strong causal connection between the Jews’ mysticism and their history. Although the arguments of the revisionists are far from incontrovertible, they do alert us to the sometimes treacherous inclination of historians to discern orderly relations where none may exist.
A second question relates to contemporary needs and impulses. It is true enough that Hollywood not only trivializes kabbalah but inverts its singular character, turning it into another, wholly undemanding avenue of “personal growth.” But is this just one more example of an easy American syncretism, a lazy reaching for the low-hanging fruit of whatever religious tradition happens to be at hand? Or is there something about kabbalah as a particular Jewish system that attracts these spiritual seekers? And if so, what is it?
A final question concerns the wider intellectual legacy of kabbalah. Whether or not it is still a living force among Jewish believers—for the most part, it is not—what of benefit can be derived from its vestiges? How are we to go about understanding and taking the measure of the writings, the personalities, and the ideas, large and small, that are at its heart?
This is a question to which no simple answer can be given. To those with a literary or aesthetic bent, kabbalah surely offers compelling witness to what William Blake termed “the Divine Arts of Imagination.” But there is more to it than that. The Zohar, the hasidic tales, the Golem, the legend of the thirty-six unknown just men upon whom rests the fate of the world, the angels and archangels, the demon Samael and his bride Lilith, the Sabbath-eve hymns, the doctrine of divine sparks and of tikkun, the propositions that the Torah is one long name of God, that every biblical verse is capable of infinite interpretation, that language in its purest form (i.e., Hebrew) is the very stuff of creation and revelation—each and every one of these expressions of kabbalah has been host to, and felt the creative impress of, the vital spirit of Judaism. As a “very short introduction” to this sublime treasure house, Joseph Dan’s book is warmly recommended.