Demystifying Kabbala

Demystifying Kabbala

By ZVI LESHEM
November 26, 2009 15:11
the chsen will become herds book 248.88

the chsen will become herds book 248.88. (photo credit: )

The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Kabbalah By Jonathan Garb Translated by Yaffah Berkovits-Murciano Yale University Press 218 pages $50 Allow me to begin my review of this remarkable volume by quoting from its end: "Gershom Scholem anticipated that Jewish mysticism would resurface, and he therefore wrote at the end of his monumental work Major Trends [in Jewish Mysticism, 1941], 'The story has not yet ended, it has not become history, and the secret life it enfolds may surface tomorrow in you or me.' Today we are witnessing the realization of this prophecy." Jonathan Garb, senior lecturer in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, first told the story of this multifaceted resurgence in Jewish mysticism in the Hebrew version of this book in 2005. Garb is considered by many to be the leading student of world-class Kabbala scholar Moshe Idel. He emerges not only as a great Kabbala scholar, but also as an expert in the wide variety of mystical disciplines that have interfaced with the resurgence of Kabbala in the late 20th century, including Buddhism, Sufism, meditation and "New Age" practices. Garb is also a keen observer of social trends, and he deftly brings the techniques of post-modern sociology and cultural studies to his work. Since Garb deals with both "high" and "popular" culture, the range of topics addressed in the book is wide. He admits to an Israel-centered bias, in which Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and his circle play the central role. Garb devotes much of the book to analyzing the mystical and personal side of Kook's writings, a side that was suppressed by some of his followers, but burst into the public eye with the publication of his uncensored notebooks in 1999. He discusses Kook's prophetic consciousness and mystical aspirations, as well as those of his closest students, R. David Cohen ("the Nazir") and R. Ya'acov Moshe Charlap. Garb continues his survey with Kook's continuing influence in the national religious world, which to a large extent has divided into two camps. The mainstream nationalist narrative was continued by his son, R. Zvi Yehuda and his successor, R. Zvi Tau. The mystical trend was taken and combined with neo-hassidic trends by a whole range of national religious thinkers, such as the late Rabbi Shagar, and applied in their yeshivot. As a devotee of sociologist Michel Foucault, Garb is also acutely aware of the issue of power, and here he analyzes the question of the influence of Kook's mysticism, as well as that of other kabbalistic streams, on some of the members of the "Jewish Underground" of the 1980s, as well as the condemnation of their actions and interpretation of Kook's ideas by the mainstream of his followers. Garb also focuses on Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ashlag, who authored the famous Sulam commentary to the Zohar. Ashlag and Kook believed that the return to the Land of Israel constituted a radical departure from Jewish history and they urged the wide dissemination of esoteric kabbalistic texts that in earlier generations had been considered to be appropriate only for a scholarly elite. In Ashlag's case there is a certain irony, as his work is today disseminated via the highly commercial Kabbalah Center, a mix of pop-mysticism and capitalism that the socialist-leaning rabbi would have considered a perversion of his ideals. The other major trend surveyed is that of hassidic teachings that have become popular in recent years, most noticeably in the mystical group within the national religious world. Garb discusses trends within Chabad, including the controversy surrounding the messianism of the last rebbe, as well as current teachers with tremendous influence, such as rabbis Yitzhak Ginsburgh and Adin Steinsaltz. He also looks at the tremendous popularity of Rebbe Nahman of Breslav, as evidenced by the wide study of his works, as well as the annual pilgrimages to his grave in Uman, Ukraine. Garb is well-aware of the influence of other hassidic works, such as the Mei Hashiloah, famous for its seemingly antinomian passages, and the writings of the martyred Piaseczner Rebbe, whose Warsaw Ghetto sermons, Esh Kodesh, and mystical meditative writings enjoy wide popularity. IT ISN'T easy to find much to criticize in this book in which actual errors are almost nonexistent, and if Garb can be criticized for anything, it might for be matters of emphasis. At times he attributes importance to marginal figures (Breslav maverick Avraham Zagdon), yet more mainstream thinkers could have received more treatment. The great American Orthodox leader, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, is mentioned in passing as a thinker regarding Halacha and modernism. Yet he is also an example of one who, in a complete departure from his teachers, infused kabbalistic and hassidic thought into his theological writings, a topic that deserves a fuller treatment. Garb also laments the lack of research on the writings of some great kabbalists, yet in the case of Kook and the Piaseczner Rebbe, important doctoral work has been completed since the Hebrew edition was published, and this should have merited at least a footnote. There are interesting trends that Garb has overlooked. He puts great emphasis on antinomian trends in contemporary mystical circles, particularly in the neo-hassidism popularized by rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Shlomi-Schachter. Yet the antinomian trends that sometimes accompany spiritual revivals do not tell the entire story. One who enters certain leading neo-hassidic synagogues, such as my congregation, Shirat Shlomo in Efrat, or Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, may be surprised to find higher mehitzot, stricter gender separation and other signs of a more "right-wing" Orthodoxy than in some of their neighboring congregations. The rabbis of these synagogues, whose teaching is based largely upon kabbalistic-hassidic discourse, also stress the importance of meticulous halachic observance in the mystical path, and this conservative trend within neo-hassidism is significant in providing a more nuanced picture. Another development is the entrance of neo-hassidic Jews into academic Kabbala study. It is no longer unusual to find Jewish men with beards and sidelocks in courses in Jewish mysticism. At the recent World Congress of Jewish Studies, I lectured at a packed session on "Hassidic Meditation." Attendees had the unusual experience of listening to four bearded "rabbi-doctors" deliver academic papers on the meditative techniques of the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Piaseczner Rebbe. Chairwoman Haviva Pedaya, herself a poet and spiritual figure as well as a top Kabbala scholar, hailed the session as a major turning point in the "spiritualization of academia." Garb writes, "It is somewhat frustrating, although also exciting, to write a book that is already out-of-date even as it is being written." While the reader does share the feeling, this volume is still an indispensible prerequisite to understanding what is happening around us in Jewish religiosity. We look forward to more of Garb's insightful studies in the future. The writer is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Shlomo in Efrat. He holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy and is the author of Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals.


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