Kabbalah: The Whistle-Stop Tour


By Arthur Goldwag
Introduction by Lawrence Kushner
122 pages. Doubleday. $9.95.

What is it about Kabbalah? When I was studying this stuff in grad school ten years ago, no one knew what I was doing, and everyone thought I was nuts. Now, my teaching schedule is as loaded as I want it to be, and everyone asks me if I've met Madonna. Why has an 800-year-old system of esoteric thought, bound to medieval cosmology and traditional Jewish law, become the next big spiritual thing?

The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, disappointingly, doesn't answer this question. Though it begins in the world of celebrity name-dropping (Paris Hilton! Demi Moore!), the book, by freelance writer Arthur Goldwag, quickly (d)evolves into a perfectly adequate historical survey of Jewish mysticism. Its presence—and the fact that Beliefnet chose to inaugurate its series of introductions to religions—is a symptom of the contemporary Kabbalah craze. But it doesn't quite explain it.

I think what's challenging about Kabbalah is that, like other forms of mysticism, but unlike other forms of culture, it demands direct, first-person involvement. You can study French literature, take a critical stance, and go about the rest of your life undisturbed, but if you approach Kabbalah in this way, you've missed the point. To understand Kabbalah on its own terms requires that the self get personally involved—the symbols only come alive when you live them; the meditations only make sense when you do them. Kabbalah is like a book of complicated, obscure recipes, and if you don't actually cook the meal, you can't figure out how they taste.

The problem for books like The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, though, is that too much belief undermines the author's credibility. If, by page five, the author is talking about what he learned on his last visionquest, most readers will put down the book. Yet, most people who actually buy a book like this don't want yet another dry, academic history. So, what to do?

The Beliefnet Guide has an ingenious solution. Goldwag provides the distanced, semi-cynical voice of the mediator. He tells you the history, makes jokes about false messiahs, and provides an "objective" account of Kabbalah's development. Meanwhile, he makes room for Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Rodger Kamenetz, and a Jewish Renewal rabbinical student he identifies as "Eyal" to provide more engaged, first-person accounts of what Kabbalah has meant to them. The result is a balanced, reasonable introduction to a complicated spiritual literature—if that's what anyone really wants.

Kabbalah literally means "receiving." On a simple level, it means esoteric teachings received from a master, as opposed to exoteric teachings you can find in a book. On a deeper level, and Kabbalah is all about deeper levels, the word refers to enabling the soul to open up and receive the truth about God. The truth is simple, on paper. God is Infinite,or Ein Sof, and infinite really does mean infinite: there is no place, no thing, no person that is separate from the One. Yet, truly "receiving" that truth is anything but simple. If God is Infinite, who is thinking these thoughts right now? What are the thoughts, anyway? If all is One, why does the world seem to exist as a random assemblage of a trillion separate entities? And why am I not happier about it?

The literature of the Kabbalah provides a bewildering array of answers to these (and other) questions. Its masterpiece, the 13th-century assemblage of texts called the Zohar, or Book of Radiance, is an intricate exposition of how God relates to the world by means of ten emanations or sefirot—a bit like light shining through panes of stained glass to give the appearance of differentiation. The Zohar is rich with symbolism, erotic imagery, angels and demons, and is written in the form of a massive Kabbalistic jam session, with various rabbis building on one another's insights. It's a life's work, yet it is only one of the many streams of Kabbalah. Other Kabbalistic texts are meditation guides, instruction books for magic, and commentaries on the Torah. Many are still only in manuscript.

Goldwag's approach to this vast array of thought and culture is surprisingly old fashioned: it’s history. After the introductory material, The Beliefnet Guide becomes a conventional, and not particularly novel, historical survey. It adds little to the existing popular volumes by Arthur Green, Daniel Matt, and others, and draws heavily on existing academic work by Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel. It's readable, it's easy, and it's short—but is medieval history really why anyone gets interested in Kabbalah?

The reliance on history often comes at the cost of clarity as to what Kabbalah is really about. For example, when the book comes to the 13th-century origins of classical Kabbalah and the Zohar, Goldwag jumps wildly between the mystical speculations of Isaac haKohen, the meditation manuals of Abraham Abulafia, and the persecution of the Christian heretics, the Cathars. It's hard to keep the dates straight, let alone have any idea why any of this matters to a contemporary student. Wouldn't it make more sense to organize the Kabbalah by topic, rather than by date? What does the Kabbalah say about evil? What's interesting about Hasidic prayer? In The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, you have to fish for such answers in a sea of historical data. There's not even an index.

Goldwag's historical orientation seems tied to the interested-skeptical tone he uses throughout the book. Sometimes the tone falls into mere flippancy, as when Goldwag says that "there are many inconsistencies in the Jewish Bible—that's why the rabbinic tradition came to be." At other times, though, Goldwag is like a valuable ally, as when he reveals how the Kabbalah Centre uses, and often distorts, authentic Kabbalistic ideas. Goldwag is appropriately conservative when he explains how, until the last 30 years, Kabbalah was inseparable from traditional Judaism. Yet he is appropriately liberal-minded when he makes room for the innovations of Jewish Renewal and other contemporary movements.

I think that most people will like the last chapter the best. That's when Goldwag finally takes a break from the facts and dates and sits down with a contemporary rabbinical student to find out why he's interested in Kabbalah. The student, a spiritual seeker named Eyal, has the rare combination of being both open-minded and clear-headed. Eyal is spiritually (and pharmacologically) adventurous, yet having lost his partner of fifteen years to AIDS, he is grounded as well. Goldwag questions him on the value of mystical practice, but listens patiently as Eyal answers him fully, thoughtfully—and ambivalently. This is what Beliefnet does so well on its website (which reaches four million people daily): it combines sincerity with intellectual rigor, curiosity with temperance.

For those looking for the facts on Kabbalah, The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah isn't a bad place to start. It's a bit of a whistle-stop tour, but at least the conductor isn't mad. To really begin to learn this material, though, you'll still need to take a cue from Eyal, get off the train, and have a look around for yourself. Otherwise the scenery just goes by too quickly.