Friday, December 16, 2011

Vayeshev (Wanderings)

Yaakov and David as Fathers

The first Rashi I ever learned, or rather heard, is the opening one of this parashah. My parents had a friend named Isaiah who, like most of my parent’s circle, New York–Jewish progressive intellectuals, was a non-observant Jew who had grown up in a traditional home. But unlike most of their friends, who had either been born in America or come as small children during the early decades of the last century, Isaiah had spent enough years in the Old Country to receive a Heder education somewhere in White Russia, and still remembered his Rashi. This particular Rashi spoke to him in a deep way. At the time of my story, in my teen years, he was already well into middle age, and hoped to see his two daughters “settled,” so that he could spend his sunset years in peace and quiet, “shepping nakhas” from grandchildren. Instead, as my elder brother phrased it rather cynically, one of the daughters was too pretty for her own good, and the other too homely. Hence, our Isaiah identified with the patriarch Jacob when Rashi said: “Vayeshev Ya’akov. ‘Jacob dwelled’—Jacob wished to dwell in tranquility; yet there descended upon him the trouble of Joseph and his brothers.”

Thinking of Yaakov’s troubles with his children calls to mind some interesting parallels between the figure of Yaakov and that of King David. Both occupy roles of central importance in the Jewish imagination. On the Midrashic-Kabbalistic level, Yaakov is conceived as the “third leg” of the Kisei ha-Kavod, the Divine Throne, a figure who somehow harmonizes the strikingly opposing pulls of Abraham and Yitzhak: the expansive generosity of Avraham, expressed in unlimited hospitality, welcoming and reaching out to strangers; and the rather closed, introverted, somewhat harsh and even judgmental figure of Yitzhak. Moreover, unlike Abraham and Yitzhak, who also sired a Yishmael and an Esau, Jacob was the patriarch of the entire nation, Yisrael Sabba, after whom the nation as a whole is called: Israel. As for David: he epitomizes Jewish kingship. He is the founder of the eternal royal dynasty in Israel, the father of the future King Messiah, who will one day ingather all of Israel to restore our days as of old. In Kabbalah, he is identified with Malkhut / Shekhinah: the feminine attribute, representing God’s earthly sovereignty over the concrete, corporeal world, which unites with Yaakov-Tiferet.

Yet on the human level, that of simple, straightforward reading of the text, both were very problematic figures, at least in their role as fathers. Yaakov’s favoritism towards Yosef sparked a round of jealousy, conflict, and near murderous hatred. Yaakov was taken aback when Joseph told everyone around him about his dreams, with their obvious message of his imagining—was this fantasy or prophecy?—himself ruling over all the others. Yet he himself planted the seed when he favored him blatantly by giving him the striped coat—or, some say, the long-sleeved coat, going down to the palm of his hand (reading the word passim as derived from pas, palm)—so unlike the shepherd’s jerkins of his hard-working brothers, which symbolized his chosen, even aristocratic status within the family.

King David had it even worse. Two of his sons—Adoniyahu and Avshalom—tried to replace him on the throne during his lifetime. Another son, Amnon, raped his half-sister Tamar, and was murdered (the first “honor killing”?) in revenge by his brother Avshalom. When Avshalom, who led a violent uprising against David, was killed in a grisly accident while chasing wildly through the forest, David was not relieved at the death of his mortal enemy, but weeps Avshalom bni, b’ni b’ni Avshalom—“Woe, my son Absalom, my son Absalom; would that I could have died in your stead” (2 Sam 19:1; a phrase used in the title of one of William Faulkner’s novels). In the case of Adoniyahu, we are told (1 Kings 1:6) that David “never in his life told him: why are you doing such-and-such a thing?”—that is, he never attempted to discipline or teach him right and wrong. The overall picture that emerges is of a sentimental, indulgent father, utterly lacking in a clear notion of what was really happening within his own family.

Some thoughts on the situation of fathers and children: There is a classic image of the pater familias on old age, surrounded by a large, harmonious, loving family. But it is rarely thus in actuality. Parents tend to be blind to the weaknesses of their own children. Thus, Yitzhak loved Esau blindly—a pattern repeated in Yaakov, who loved Yosef. Why? Was he preferred because he was brighter and more resourceful than his brothers? The text, at the very beginning of this week’s parashah (Gen 37:3), tells us that this was because Yosef was his ben zekunim—“the son of his old age,” a phrase that usually denotes the youngest child. But this verse is somewhat strange: what about Benjamin, who was much younger, the only one born in Eretz Yisrael, and whose mother died in birthing him? Midrash Tanhuma says Yosef was “the son who supported him in his old age,” a role we see clearly in Egypt, where he enjoyed great political and economic power—but that is clearly not the simple sense of the verse. Yaakov no doubt favored Yosef because he was the son of his beloved Rahel, for whom he worked so many years, who was initially replaced in the bridal bed by her weak-eyed sister, and who died tragically young.

But was he the most fit to be the leader of the clan? It’s not at all certain; the functions of primogeniture, taken from the immature and impetuous Reuven, were divided among Judah (ancestor of the Davidic dynasty), Joseph (who received a double portion of territory), and Levi (the priestly tribe). But Yehudah was in his own way a powerful figure: he was a natural leader, who knew how to lead his brothers without giving himself airs of superiority (unlike the narcissistic and somewhat effeminate Yosef) or arousing hostility. He was what the Israelis call a “khevreman”—someone who was down-to-earth, who knew how to be a peer and a leader at the same time (some say this was the secret of Arik Sharon’s success). Inability to do so is a fatal flaw in many politicians; perhaps some of the criticism Obama is getting today is because he seems somehow aloof, not a “regular guy,” having grown up very much as a loner, in limbo between the two worlds of white and black in America.

One more interesting parallel between the two, which occurred to me while writing this: both Ya’akov and David were led to favor that son which they did because of their love, or even lust, for a woman; to put it simply, even coarsely, these stories illustrate the great power of sex. Yaakov fell in love with Rahel at first sight, when he met her by the well, because she was “fair of figure and fair of appearance” (Gen 29:17); after her death, he favored her son Yosef, who no doubt resembled her. David’s connection with the voluptuous Batsheva began when he saw her bathing on the roof and he sent to bring her to his palace. In due time, after the fruit of their adulterous liaison died, a second child was born, Solomon. Although by this time he had had many children by many different wives and concubines (see 2 Sam 3:2-5; 5:13-16), it was Solomon whom he chose to continue his royal line. Batsheva, in turn, enjoyed the dignity of being the dowager queen both during David’s lifetime (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 1:11 ff.) and after his death, when she is shown sitting on the throne next to her son Shlomo (2:19).

What are we to make of all this? Why dwell upon the human quirks and shortcomings of our illustrious forebears? A conventional answer is that the Torah, and the other books of the Tanakh, constantly stress that even the greatest figures are human beings, that they are not “plaster saints,” but men of flesh-and-blood, with all the passions and foibles and mistaken judgments implied by the human condition. There is no perfection save that of the One and unique God.

But beyond that, there are two more important points. First, that we learn something about human life from these stories—in these cases, inter alia, of the mistakes parents make—of over-indulgence, of blind spots, of favoritism. While not written as a handbook for parents each of us, in his own life situation, may draw significant lessons from these stories. Secondly, our Jewish tradition holds that the guiding hand of Providence acts in the world through the noble and ignoble motivations of real human beings, even if these be of the basest sort. In another incident told in this week’s parashah (Genesis 38), Judah sees a woman dressed as a whore and, his desire being kindled, he goes to her. But the Midrash tells us that, while the brothers were busy selling Joseph; Reuven, Yaakov and Yosef himself were bewailing the latter’s fate, and Judah was seeking a tumble in the hay, “the Holy One blessed be He was bringing down the light of King Messiah” (Gen. Rab. 85.1). The woman was in fact Yehudah’s mistreated and widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and one of the children born to her, Peretz, was destined to continue the line that was to culminate in King David.

* * * * *

A Brief Postscript to Vayishlah: Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisrael—first by the spectral figure he meets at the Yabok crossing, and then by God Himself. But notwithstanding the words, “your name shall no longer be called Yaakov,” repeated twice (Gen 32:28; 35:10), and unlike the other figures in the Torah whose name is changed (Avram to Avraham; Sarai to Sarah; Hoshea to Yehoshua), who from then forth are called by the new name alone, in this case the Torah constantly switches back and forth between the two. What pattern, if any, is there here? A close reading of the chapters following the name change shows little consistency. Indeed, God is often referred to, and describes Himself, as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob”—e.g., to Moses at Mount Horeb (Exod 3:15), in the opening phrase of the daily Amidah prayer, and in many other places (one striking exception is Elia at Mt Carmel: 1 Kgs 18:36). The only pattern I see is that, in most scenes involving Yosef, he is called Yisrael. But why? What does it all mean? The matter requires further study.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to thsi blog for December 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010

Vayishlah (Wanderings)

A Dialogue About Ego Death

The early part pf this week’s parashah contains one of the strangest events in the Torah—Yaakov’s nocturnal encounter with the mysterious, almost spectral figure of a “man” who struggles with him until dawn, injures his thigh muscle, and then blesses him and gives him a new name (Gen 32:24ff.). Rather than Ya’akov, a name redolent of crookedness, even dishonesty, he becomes Yisrael—he who struggles with God and is able; and/or, he who is upright with God (yashar-el). Was this figure an angel of God? An avatar of his brother Esau, whom he is about to encounter again after twenty years, and from whom he parted with most bitter feelings? Whatever the exact nature of this figure, and whether it is to be read as an actual occurrence or a dream–vision (thus, e.g., Rambam in Guide II.42), we may surely read it as a “dark night of the soul,” a deeply transformative, inner experience which somehow consolidated the changes Yaakov underwent during the twenty years he spent in Haran. It seems to me that, in the spirit of Hasidism, it would not be too far-fetched to read this as a paradigm “for very person, in every time and place”; surely all of us, at some point or another, must undergo deep inner struggles with whom we are and whom we need to become.

These thoughts are elicited especially strongly in light of a significant dialogue I wish to share with readers with Stan Tenen (on whom more below). This discussion began with his reaction to my essay for Vayera about the Binding of Yitzhak, and ultimately touches upon important issues relating to the nature of what we mean by religion, the meaning of life and death, self and the cosmos. expressing some of our questions and conundrums about that event. In his first letter, Stan wrote:

The willingness to sacrifice one's only child, and thus also one's entire future, is the epitome of the ego-death experience. If Avraham Avinu had not been willing to sacrifice all he had, all his life and all his future, he would not have reduced his ego sufficiently to merit inheriting the future.

There is a direct relationship between the depth of one's nullification of ego and the potential for growth and miracles. If one completely nullifies one's ego by awareness of the infinite and transcendent nature of God, then the future has infinite possibilities. The depth of nullification is proportional to the height of possibilities.

At this stage, I found some of what he said very troubling. In my reply, I wrote: “Perhaps I misunderstand you, but I have deep reservations about the whole concept of ‘ego-death.’ In brief: as I see it, the real problem is not ego vs. negation of ego (what Hasidim call bittul atzmi), but inflated ego vs. healthy ego.” At this point, I understood him to be advocating “self-nullification”—a concept found in many early Hasidic texts—as a serious, actual option for the religious life of the Jew. I strongly questioned whether there is such a thing as a person who has truly negated his ego, and suspect that those who think that they have done so are in some sense deluding themselves; hence, to hold it up as an ideal encourages either hypocrisy (conscious or unconscious), or various kinds of craziness. Hence, I cannot accept the Habad notion (found in Chapter 1 of Tanya) of a Tzaddik gamur, a “perfect” or “completely righteous person” who has no ego, no will, and no desires, but lives entirely to help others and to serve God. It is at best a useful theoretical construct, a foil against which to poise real, living human beings.

The alternative to this, which I see as the “high road” of Judaism, is to guide our ego in a healthy but modest, humble way. A central part of this is what I call a “life project.” By this, I mean some activity—which may be intellectual, artistic, practical-social in nature, or even building a family—which engages the person’s energies and imagination to the fullest, and involves creating or building something beyond the self and its own immediate satisfaction and pleasures. Those of us who have found a serious and worthwhile life project in which to pour our ego–energies are fortunate—but it is important to realize that such a life project is ultimately in some sense a function or offshoot of the ego, not its negation; it is, in some sense, an expression of the self and its uniqueness. Albeit, on another level, to use religious language, its ultimate aim is to magnify God’s Name and make it present in the world.

I know from myself, that my writing— in piecemeal fashion, through the medium of these weekly essays and studies, and perhaps ultimately through some more systematic presentation in book form—have been a source of deep satisfaction to myself. If I may be so bold, Stan, my dialogue partner here, has been engaged for several decades in a very exciting and unique intellectual enterprise to which he has devoted his best energies (more on that below). I would go so far as to say that the life of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom Habad doctrine describes as a tzaddik gamur, may be understood by us ordinary mortals in terms of a very audacious and far-reaching life project—to bring the entire Jewish people back to Torah and mitzvot, and to create the world-wide network of emissaries needed to do so; at a certain point in his “career” as Rebbe this was even conceived as messianic project. I of course know nothing from “within” of the personality of the late Rebbe or how he thought about his own life, but simply by virtue of the mere fact that he was a human being I believe that he was in some senses imperfect and clearly had an ego—and to all evidences a very strong one.

Two more comments at this point. One, that just as our Sages say that no person dies having fulfilled half his desires—a saying usually understood as referring to grossly carnal or corporeal desires—may also apply to the spiritual and creative life. That is, there is always more to learn, more books to write, or more music to compose or paintings to paint, more people to help, more to understand. Thus, life projects are rarely or never completed in full.

A second aside: Perhaps Rabbah, when referring to himself as a beinoni, even though, as noted there, he never walked four ells without wearing tefillin and without speaking words of Torah—i.e., he was as close to perfection as a Jew can be —implies that the idea of tzaddik gamur is a fiction, or a theoretical yardstick, not a reality.

Stan replied to my above comments as follows:

There's a deep paradox here, and it relates to the alternative-universes theory in physics…. I don't think it's possible for a person to stay in an ego-death state, except for a short period. I think the majority of people who have ego-death experiences don't integrate them very well. Some become egomaniacs, and some think that they're the Messiah.

The true ego-death experience can be initiated spontaneously, as part of a disease process (heart attack), in very deep meditation, and/or as facilitated by psychotropics. It is my understanding that regardless of how the circumstance comes about, the results are pretty much the same….

A person undergoing an ego-death experience must not be able to tell that it's an ego-death experience rather than their actual death. This is because the ego would have to be active in order to realize that its death was psychological and/or psycho-physiological, but not physical.

Thus, a person undergoing an ego-death experience believes that they are actually dying. In this experience, a person has a choice either to fight the experience and try to stay alive, or to surrender and yield up their soul. At the moment of surrender, at the moment of letting go, at the moment of ego-death, a person is turned inside-out and transformed.

Others observing a person undergoing ego-death might see them actually die, or might be aware that it's an ego-death experience and not see them die. This leads to a bifurcation of reality and/or alternate realities. The greater the self-abnegation, the wider the window of opportunity for the “action of heaven.” Complete self-abnegation thus leads to the greatest possibilities for future life and growth.

Stan’s answer put things in a totally different perspective. It’s clear that what he is speaking of is a very powerful, probably singular, once in a lifetime transformative mystical experience. In this light—not as a normative demand, nor even as a hypothetical ideal as the highest level of living one’s life, but as something which happens through a kind of Divine grace—it takes on a totally different significance. Nevertheless, I think that my own above remarks, based on a certain misunderstanding, are of value in their own right as clarifying certain issues.

What Stan writes here is reminiscent of what has been described in certain mystical experiences, in which a person feels himself totally nullified in union with God. I once read that certain medieval Jewish mystics used to make their souls take an oath that, following the Heavenly ascent, they would return to the body and not stay “up” there, as otherwise the person would die. Perhaps “death by the Divine kiss” was a mystical ego-death which, if the person was ready, became a bodily death as well. To continue:

A person who wears their humility on their sleeve is an egomaniac. Intense, forced (or over-practiced) piety and/or humility are actually the exact opposites of real piety and real humility. … Of course, I don't know everyone or every condition, but I'd say that people who think they've burned out their Yetzer Hara [lit., “the Evil Urge”—but really also the source of life vitality, of eros] have really just burned out their creativity…. The Yetzer Hara is necessary for life. It refers to all activity on the “earth plane,” and to a Newtonian reality where everything circles “Ra,” the Egyptian sun-god [I don’t know if I agree with this etymology—but that is a very minor point-yc]. The Yetzer Hara is the wheel of karma, and the cycles of the planets and the seasons, and the cycles of living beings.

The scholars (Wolfson, et al.) think that Kabbalah is about sex magic, because -- not having experienced the grand mort of ego-death, they mistake the descriptions of ego-death for le petit mort of the sexual experience. There is a relationship: le petit mort is le grand mort writ small, and le grand mort is le petit mort writ large. {Is that why the Kabbalah uses the metaphor of sexual union to describe unification within the Godhead divinity? I hope to write an essay on this in the near future. YC]

There are also real-world opportunities to engage the principle of self-abnegation. This is the subject of my old essay "The Three Abrahamic Covenants and the Car-Passing Trick" at … Abraham's complete self-abnegation, in his voluntary willingness to yield up his future (Isaac), opens the world of infinite growth and possibilities, numbering greater than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand.

Because it's very rare for academic or religious scholars to have actually experienced ego-death for themselves, the bulk of scholarly discussion on the matter is uninformed (by lack of experience) and confused and confabulated with le petit mort, near-death, and other quasi-ego-death experiences that can't be distinguished. And the world of conventional (Newtonian mind-think) doesn't help, because it insists on excluding the conscious experience of the experimenter—which is of course crucial to any understanding of the ego-death experience, which is impenetrable from the outside.

One concluding comment about the Akedah: everything Stan has written on this relates to the ego-death required of Abraham: to give up his future, his progeny, and thus also the continuity of his own life-project of spreading knowledge of God’s oneness —singularity and uniqueness, combined with His rulership over all—beyond his own death. But there is another, equally serious problem with the Akedah: the ethical issue, what Kierkegaard calls the awful paradox of the “theological suspension of the ethical.” How could God command Abraham to sacrifice, i.e., to kill, another human being, to violate what we are told elsewhere is a basic, innate ethical rule? Here, I envision Abraham living every moment of the three days journeying from Beer-sheva to Mount Moriah with a kind of double consciousness: simultaneously believing that God required this of him, and being prepared to obey blindly out of his great love for Him; and the equally great certainty that God could not demand this of him, and that in some way he could not comprehend that it would in the end prove to be so.

* * * * *

A few words about Stan Tenen. Stan has devoted his life to studying the idea that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are not merely a group of conventional signs, but a kind of hand signal whose meaning is intuitively understood by human beings without any further instruction. To this, he adds a wealth of insights from the worlds of mathematics, geometry and physics. He has recently published a book in which he presents his ideas: The Alphabet That Changed the World. For details, visit his website,

Vayetze (Wanderings)

“… and Its Top Reaching to the Heavens”

This week I originally thought of writing “A Tale of Two Sisters” to complement last week’s essay about the two brothers, Esau and Yaakov, and noting the similarities, parallels, contrasts, etc., between them—and there are such. But then I realized that, as a man, and as one who grew up in a family with three sons and no daughters (even though in my adult life I’ve been connected to mostly female families), I feel that I don’t really understand women’s interaction with one another. Add to that the fact that the subject in this week’s parashah is the competition between two sisters to bear children within a bigamous or polygamous household—a reality alien to just about everyone except for certain schismatic Mormons, Black Israelites, pre-State Yemenites, and followers of Goel Ratzon and such-like cults—I decided instead to focus upon the opening scene in the parashah.

Jacob’s vision or dream of the Ladder (Gen 28:10-22) is one of the paradigmatic visionary scenes in the entire Bible, certainly in Genesis (albeit Rambam has suggested that the reason Yaakov saw this dream–vision was because at this point in his life he was on a lower stage than the other patriarchs, who engaged in direct, ordinary-seeming conversations with God). The account of the vision is divided into three parts:

1. The Vision: vv. 10-15. Yaakov arrives at a certain place, lies down to sleep after gathering some stones together as a rudimentary pillow, and sees in a dream-vision a ladder or staircase ascending to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. God, who is standing at the top, offers him words of personal blessing, comfort and assurance in his difficult situation (fleeing his murderous brother and leaving behind family and everything he has ever known). There is something very immediate and striking about this picture. Jungians might say that the imagery of the ladder connecting heaven and earth is a kind of eternal symbol, intuitively understood by the human unconscious: the reality of the ascent to God, and the availability of the Divine, alongside the seemingly mundane journeys in the physical world.

2. Jacob wakes up: vv. 16-17. The Hebrew word used here, va-yikatz, is an unusual one, used specifically to refer to someone who awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, often from a dream (compare the description of Pharaoh’s two dreams in 41:4, 7, and 21), differing from the words usually used to describe waking early in the morning to begin one’s day, vayashkem (appearing two verses later, as well as in Gen 19:27, 21:14, 22:3, 28:18 and in many other places) or vayakom. Va-yikatz has a connotation of something sudden, even shocking, and is perhaps related to such verbs as קצה, קצץ, and קצר, which relate to cutting, harvesting, or coming to an end.

Ya’akov’s reaction is one of awe, wonder, astonishment: “Indeed, there is God in this place and I did not know! How awesome is this place; this is none other than the house of God and this is the Gate of Heaven!” He was struck by the numinous quality of his experience, which carried over to the nature of the place itself. Surely, he seems to have felt, any place where God reveals Himself must be special, must be holy.

Was this place uniquely or innately holy? Did Jacob become aware of a preexistent holiness and Presence inherent in this place, or are his words a reaction to the vision per se? A simple reading of the chapter suggests that he came to an ordinary place, and was surprised by the vision. The implication (or am I imposing my own modernist theology on this chapter? Radak seems to propound a similar reading) is that God is potentially present in all places. The Omnipresent, the Creator and Master of the entire world, makes Himself known to those who need to know Him, wherever they are, and Jacob’s statement that “this is the House of God” means that it shall henceforth be honored as Beit-El, the “House of God,” reflecting the sense of presence he felt there—but it could be anywhere.

On the other hand, there are those midrashim which suggest that this place Beit-el, which we know as a location some 20 km. north of Jerusalem, was really Jerusalem, or that it was a place where one of his ancestors had previously worshipped. I even once heard a Samaritan say, consistent with his theology, that Beit-El is really Mount Gerizim. (!!) (For a discussion of the tension in Judaism between holiness of place and God as being beyond place, in the midrashic context, see HY III: Vayetze [=Midrash].

3. Jacob awakens in the morning: vv. 18-22. He now makes an orderly, well-articulated vow, almost a quid pro quo with God: if God will sustain me and protect me, give me food and clothing, and return me safely to my birthplace and homeland and family, then I will erect a shrine here.

In these two scenes we see a kind of tension between two aspects of or kinds of religion. The one is direct religious emotion and experience; the powerful sense of being in the presence of the Holy, of knowing—not through received teaching or dogma, not through holy books, not through family or parental tradition, but through direct, immediate experience—the reality of God. Such an experience is very rare, it is fleeting, and is overwhelming personally. Jacob’s words are brief, and express direct feeling, the sense of the numinous—of that which is alien, totally outside the realm of the familiar or the expected. “There is God here, and I did not know!”

The second kind of religion is the more usual kind, and somehow seems more fitting to the clear light of day, as opposed to the terrors, but also the insights and deeper perceptions, of the nighttime: he vows to build an altar, perhaps even a shrine, on this site. In our language: fixed forms: religious institutions; halakhah, ritual, liturgy, perhaps a priesthood of some sort. If you will: Devotion vs. Commandment.

Two Kinds of Mysticism

The subject of mysticism is a very popular one these days; books, lectures, courses in Kabbalah flourish like mushrooms after the rain. But people are often unclear as to just what they mean when they speak of mysticism. In writing the above, it occurred to me that there are in fact two very different phenomena that go under this name, corresponding to the two types of religion mentioned.

The one is the sense of the holy, the sense of direct, immediate contact with God, of religious or spiritual experience unmediated and unmitigated by any formal institution. One definition that has been given is: “The pursuit of communion with or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality… through direct experience, intuition, or insight.” Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, and his spontaneous reaction, “So there is God in this place, and I did not know,” seems the quintessence of such mystical experience.

On the other hand, there is a form of mysticism associated with magic, with the manipulation of unseen cosmic forces or, its correlate, the sense of certain places, person, or objects being innately holy. This popular usage is demonstrated, for example, by a TV program on Israel’s Channel 10 called “Time for Mysticism,” which features a numerologist, an astrologer, a tarot card reader, and a “channeler”—all of whose talents are marshaled to help people with various personal problems. About a year ago, due to difficulties in walking long distances, I began to regularly attend a synagogue just up the hill from my home, which seems to have a high proportion of very rational and sceptical, albeit religiously observant, Jews. In at least two recent conversations there I encountered people who object to mysticism and Kabbalah precisely because of its identification with such phenomena, and all my efforts to show that both Kabbalah and mysticism have more to them than this were to no avail. And indeed, it often seems that much of the popular interest in Kabbalah is focused on such things as gematria (numerical values of words and verses in the Bible), letter mysticism, holy places, and the intricacies of the Sefirotic system. And indeed, between the early Spanish Kabbalah of the 13th centuries (Sefer ha-Bahir and Sefer ha-Zohar) and the Lurianic Kabbalah of 16th century Safed, Kabbalah seems to have become progressively more complex and convoluted. Some say that Hasidism was a much needed simplification of this system. (I once knew a woman who studied Kabbalah at the university and said, half in jest, that she was prepared for this career by the fact that her mother is a psychiatrist and her father ran an automotive parts dealership—requiring detailed attention to a high number of permutations and combination of models, makes, and specific parts.)

Add to this the seeming ubiquity in current Israeli life of “Kabbalists”—people who claim a special channel to the hidden realms, offering the credulous amulets, bottles of holy water, candles, red strings from Rachel’s Tomb, and various other palliative devices—and being paid handsomely for their supposed intercession on their behalf in the supernal worlds. Such people give a bad name to both Kabbalah and Judaism generally.

Even some academic scholars seem to emphasize this aspect of Kabbalah. Moshe Idel’s book, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany: SUNY, 1995), as its title implies, stresses that, alongside the ecstatic prayer, joy, and communal solidarity found in Hasidism, there is also a strong element of magic, theurgy, manipulation of objects and symbols, and extravagant attribution of powers to the Tzaddikim. I cannot fault him for this, as historically he has much ground to stand on.

More disturbing is a quotation from Gershom Scholem, which serves as a kind of motto in a book about a certain aspect of Hasidism which I’ve recently been editing. He claims there a certain dullness, even lifelessness of non-mystical, mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. He speaks of:

… the special problem of ritual in Rabbinical Judaism, which can perhaps be formulated as follows: on the one hand, we have here a way of life based entirely on the performance of ritual, a tendency to absorb life itself into a continuous stream of ritual, and not merely to extract ritual acts from its flow at particular climaxes and turning points. But in this Judaism, on the other hand, the performance of sacred actions, of ritual is largely divorced from the substrate that has always been the mother of ritual…

After noting the transition, early on, from nature ritual to historical ritual, he continues:

… the primordial history that is here recollected was no longer regarded by the celebrants as a mythical history… but as the real history of the Jewish people. Thus this history-saturated ritual was accompanied by no magical action. The rites of remembrance produce no effect…. The ritual of Rabbinic Judaism makes nothing happen and transforms nothing. Though not devoid of feeling, remembrance lacks the passion of conjuration, and indeed, there is something strangely sober and dry about the rites of remembrance with which the Jew calls to mind his unique historical identity. Thus this ritualism par excellence of Rabbinical Judaism is lacking precisely in the ecstatic, orgiastic element that is always somewhere present in mythical rituals. The astonishing part of it is that a ritual which so consciously and emphatically rejected all cosmic implications should have asserted itself for many generations with undiminished force, and even continued to develop. -- “Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists,” in his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 120-121

What Scholem desires, so it seems here, is magic, is theurgy, is ritual “that changes things” (that moves things On High?), is myth in its most primitive, primal, orgiastic sense (and orgies, we know, are popular in contemporary culture—as an image in theory, even if practiced by only a daring few). Was Scholem, the sober, precise, Yekke scholar, at heart a neo-pagan, longing for a quasi-idolatrous Judaism, which he seems to have found, at least in a certain measure, in Kabbalah?

I feel I have touched upon some very serious and profound issues in contemporary Judaism, and the meaning of the revival of Kabbalah and “New Age” spirituality, in terms of both popular and “higher,” intellectual and academic culture, which requires far more elaboration than I can give it at this time.

I also hope, very soon, to present here a dialogue with one of my readers which touches precisely upon the issue of mystical experience from another perspective—that of mysticism and liminal experience, the meaning of death and life, of self and others, of personal growth, etc.