On Kabbalah and Modern Orthodoxy

Perhaps Kabbalah can serve as both a model and inspiration for Modern Orthodoxy to continue to think ‘outside of the box’ and still remain grounded to its traditional past and to Halacha.

THE KABBALISTIC Tree of Life, with the names of the 10 sefirot and 22 paths. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE KABBALISTIC Tree of Life, with the names of the 10 sefirot and 22 paths.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Modern Orthodoxy is a slave to two masters: ancient Jewish tradition and contemporary thought. As we all know, one who is a slave to two masters ends up serving the stronger one. Too often, the pull of the contemporary scene is just too strong and threatens to swallow our Judaism. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits was fond of saying that the question isn’t if we are going to be Jewish and modern, we are modern; the question is if we are going to be modern and Jewish?
Perhaps the paradigms offered by Kabbalah can serve as both a model and inspiration for Modern Orthodoxy to continue to think ‘outside of the box’ and still remain grounded to its traditional past and to the Halacha.
Kabbalah had been ignored for too long by modern Jewish scholarship because it clashed with the principles of the Age of Reason and suffered no easy recourse to the apologetic attitude prevalent during early modern Jewish scholarship. In the 20th century, thanks in large part to Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah was rediscovered.
Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on its university education and its rationalistic approach to Judaism. It would seem then that Kabbalah is antithetical to Modern Orthodoxy or its stated goals. But as Gershom Scholem has shown, the case is not so simple. While Kabbalah has its debts to Neo-Platoism and Gnosticism, it successfully merged them into a Jewish weltanschauung, far more successfully than Jewish philosophy was able to merge its non-Jewish influences.
I point this out as a model for Modern Orthodoxy to take in its integration of the non-Jewish world.
Many believe that Kabbalah is an unintellectual retreat into the world of superstition and magic. Others believe that Kabbalah is a road to heresy. And while this may be true for some, Modern Orthodox Jews should make the same allowances for Kabbalah as they do for the possible danger of secular studies. In other words, Modern Orthodoxy freely admits the spiritual dangers of secular culture but makes the implicit, if not explicit, point that the good engendered by our pursuit of them far outweighs the bad. I would like to apply that idea to Kabbalah as well.
In a great article about this very subject, Ariel Evan Mayse writes, “Regardless of the accusations of its detractors, the study of Kabbalah may indeed be a potent force in the revitalization of Modern Orthodoxy, for it will only foster rigorous intellectual engagement, further strengthen traditional halachic commitment, and profoundly broaden our own religious experience.” Mayse believes that there is a common sense of intellectual creativity that both Modern Orthodoxy and Kabbalah share.
Like the Zohar and later hassidic masters who offered brand-new and often contradictory interpretations of the Bible as a springboard to teach new ideas, Modern Orthodoxy as well can take a fresh look at centuries- and sometimes millennia-old texts and find fresh new approaches to their Judaism and the world at large. Contradictory explanations would feel at home in the culture of Modern Orthodoxy where there is such a myriad of opinions, ideas and an embrace of a postmodern idea of truth.
This is where Kabbalah can offer Modern Orthodoxy a helping hand. As Moshe Idel writes, “Far from being a total innovation, historical Kabbalah represented an ongoing effort to systemize existing elements of Jewish theurgy, myth and mysticism into a full-fledged response to the rationalistic challenge.” Modern Orthodoxy has its challenges and perhaps Kabbalah can offer a model to help.
One of the most fertile places for Modern Orthodoxy to look is how Kabbalah reinterpreted language and ideas to serve as vehicles for newer and more individual religious expression.
Kabbalah offered a means of individual worship that disconnected itself from a sense of covenantal relationship with God. Instead of Israel following God’s commandments as a symbol of, or in fulfillment of, a contractual obligation, Kabbalah placed a cosmic significance to mitzvot. This made observance of the commandments very individualized and divorced it from this world. By casting the mitzvot as a tikkun, a correction of something wrong with the universe, and not a covenantal obligation; Kabbalah robs the mitzvot of their physical purpose and places all the emphasis on a spiritual one.
I think the most important advantage of introducing Kabbalistic thought into Modern Orthodoxy is that it can allow for an expression of religious feelings, conceptions about God and a relationship with God that is not (yet) part of the halachic terminology. Unlike most non-halachic expressions of religiosity, the kabbalistic expression is almost universally accepted by the Orthodox world as authentic and “kosher.” I would suggest that what the hassidic movement did in eastern Europe to revitalize Judaism can and needs to happen in the Modern Orthodox world. They need to learn how to take modern ideas and clothe them in ancient Jewish ideas and by doing so, “kasher” them and integrate them into Judaism as if they were always there to begin with. (Religious Zionism is another model for how they culled ancient texts to support a radical new idea of self-redemption and then presented those texts as proof that these ideas were there all along.) Gershom Scholem saw in the modern hassidic movement “Kabbalism turned Ethos.” It was the genius of hassidism that they took their esoteric knowledge and turned to the people with it and democratized it. In other words, hassidism succeeded in revitalizing Judaism by mining the Kabbalah for ideas, tensions and venues for the masses.
One of the most startling things I have noticed in my limited study of Kabbalah is how the tension between the high-minded esoteric ideas of Jewish mysticism can be so well reconciled with the mundane experiences of being human.
This is the avodah sh’b’gashmiyut, serving through the material that the kabbalists are talking about. They saw the human condition as a road map for serving God. The senses of smell, taste, sex, can all be channeled into a serving God. And if the centrality of the human being is a hallmark of modernity, then Kabbalah can have lots to say to the modern Jew.
The fact that we live in a “me-generation” characterized by materialism, fear of boredom, instant gratification and narcissism should be used as an advantage in our Judaism. Thus, in a generation as self-empowering as ours I believe that Kabbalah can offer a sense of empowerment that can serve as a bridge to the other ideas that Judaism has to offer. Instead of playing video games in which the player can create empires and master them, Kabbalah allows the player to create universes and serve as a critical player in theurgic activities that affect the world around us.
The Modern Orthodox Jew should be asking the same questions that prompted Gershom Scholem to start his study of Kabbalah: “Does halachic Judaism have enough potency to survive? Is Halacha really possible without a mystical foundation? Does it have enough vitality of its own to survive for 2,000 years without degenerating?” Modern Orthodoxy’s embrace of Kabbalah can help midwife the modern Jew through these questions and help it find answers that satisfy us both as human beings as well as Jews.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.