Popular Kabbala

Relying on the famed writings of the rabbis Ashlag, an author tastefully renders mysticism as a universal discipline.

311_Tapestry for the Soul (photo credit: Courtesty )
311_Tapestry for the Soul
(photo credit: Courtesty )
Rabbi Yehuda Lev Ashlag (1886-1955) was one of the most famous Jewish mystics of the 20th century. Popularly known as “the master of the Sulam” (ladder), after his commentary on the Zohar, his works are studied in a variety of settings, from esoteric groups of hidden mystics to the glitzy commercialized Kabbala centers where, for the right fee, anyone can engage in the hidden knowledge of the Kabbala. In recent years Ashlag has received much attention in academic circles as well.
Against this almost schizophrenic backdrop, Yedidah Cohen’s unique and refreshing work, A Tapestry for the Soul, makes its appearance. Cohen studied with a student of Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, son and primary student of the original Rabbi Ashlag, who made aliya from Warsaw in 1922. This work includes a translation of Ashlag’s Introduction to the Zohar, with an extensive commentary as well as suggestions for “inner work,” such as journaling.
The unique aspect of this project is that most of the commentary is not Cohen’s own composition, but is made up of selections from other works of the two Ashlags, woven together (like a tapestry) in an inter-textual dialogue to elucidate the main text, divided into 18 lessons. In Cohen’s words: A Tapestry for the Soul is a compilation of Ashlag’s work taken from a wide variety of his writings, arranged to accompany the ongoing text of the Introduction to the Zohar, such that Ashlag himself is teaching the Introduction: “It is really Rabbi Ashlag who is the teacher. Here is authentic Kabbala.”
What is Ashlag’s system as presented here? Key kabbalistic concepts such as the four worlds, the 10 sefirot and the parts of the soul inform Ashlag’s unique system, in which the ideas of Jewish mysticism are harnessed for human perfection, paving the way for the redemption.
In his view, the primary human movement is the development from egotism to altruism, from the desire to receive to the desire to give. During this process one develops from a created being whose primary function is to receive God’s influence, to a more godlike creature who desires to give for the sake of giving. He thus transforms himself from “difference of form,” which separates him from God, to “affinity of form,” by which he comes closer to God, and a meaningful life, while simultaneously improving the world.
Cohen’s translation is clear and readable and her apparent mastery of the Ashlagian corpus enables her to bring parallel texts from the father and the son to flesh the Introduction. Occasionally the quotations are lengthy and could have been edited, but by and large the topics under discussion are thoroughly clarified. Cohen also attempts to keep the reader focused on “what all of this has to do with me,” as we are reminded to think about the personal issues, recall similar experiences and to write in our journals.
The book, enhanced by a biography of Ashlag and “kabbalistic art” by Avraham Lowenthal, would have benefited by including the complete text of Ashlag’s Introduction, or at least the full chapter at the beginning of each lesson. I would have preferred to read the entire chapter straight through before beginning to compare it with parallel works.
To return to the issue of the “authenticity” of the Ashlagian teachings presented here: As described above, there exists a great discrepancy in the presentation of his teachings, partly as a result of Ashlag’s own belief in the open dissemination of elitist kabbalistic teachings. The crass commercialism of the Kabbala Center is this process taken to its extreme. Other scholars continue to teach this material only to select initiates.
Where does Cohen fit in on this continuum? In stressing the “authentic” nature of her presentation, which relies primarily upon the writings of the Ashlags themselves, she positions herself within the orthodox rendition of the material. And yet, here and on her Web site, www.nehorapress.com, she stresses the universal nature of the approach; “Rabbi Ashlag addresses all of us, Jew and non-Jew, religious and secular. His concern is universal, being the establishment of the world of love for all humankind.”
She changes the masculine gender of the original texts to read “he or she” and she strongly downplays the difference between “religious” and “secular” Jews, explaining that even “religious” Jews don’t keep all of the mitzvot, whereas “secular” ones keep more than they are aware of. Thus her policy is to teach Kabbala to all without regard to level of observance. The obvious question is what would Ashlag himself have to say about this. Rabbi Avraham Gottlieb, a leading student of the younger Ashlag, whom Cohen herself quotes in her work, seems to take a different approach. In a lengthy letter apparently written in response to the Kabbala Center phenomenon, he writes with great passion that both of the Rabbis Ashlag felt strongly that the study of Kabbala when unaccompanied by strict mitzva observance was a blasphemous distorted approach attempting to perfect the soul while ignoring the body, and that any experience of spiritual growth on the part of a nonobservant Kabbala student was simply an illusion.
In light of the above, it would seem that Cohen is walking a thin line of popularizing the teachings of Ashlag while still situating herself within the orthodox position and avoiding the vulgarization to which they have been subjected. The question of boundaries in an area such as this are quite sensitive, and while Cohen may be faulted for pushing the envelope a bit in the direction of openness, her work is nonetheless a very valuable alternative to the vast amount of spurious “Kabbala” that is available, and for that as well, she deserves to be commended.
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 Hassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals.