I went to hear Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz speak last week. I was very excited to hear what he would have to say about Jewish mysticism, since I write about Kabbalah and have been a student of Jewish mysticism for some years now. Notice I say a student, not an expert; it matters not that I have written a small book on the subject. I still feel I am far from an expert on anything but the small little piece of Kabbalah that I think I understand.
But Rebbe Steinsaltz…now he is an expert. He wrote the classic book on Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. I read it this past summer. I loved it, and learned much from it.
Anyway, the Rebbe spoke about the fact that Kabbalah cannot be taken out of the greater works of Judaism or out of the way we as Jews live, but that as it has become a popular spiritual (a term he dislikes) path, of sorts, it has been cut out or away from its source. He said Jewish mysticism is part of the whole teaching of Judaism and equated studying it alone to taking a beautiful woman and cutting her into pieces. If we only had her nose or her mouth or her leg, we wouldn’t find that piece so beautiful, nor would it have much meaning to us, he explained. The beauty and meaning are found in context of the whole – the woman in totality. The same is true of Kabbalah. It is part of the whole we call Judaism. He explained that we can find Kabbalah in the blessing we say over the bread, in the prayer, “Lecha Dodi,” that we say on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath, and in the prayer book we use every day. He said Kabbalah can be found in the way we as Jews live and think.
He stressed, however, that we have never lived or thought in a way that could be deemed “popular,” but now Kabbalah has not only been extracted from the whole of Judaism but made popular to boot. This popular Kabbalah, he seemed to say, is not really the Kabbalah of the Jews and shouldn’t be sold like a fashionable dress to anyone who simply wants to get in on the newest trend or be part of a fad that celebrities find appealing.
I’m no supporter of selling Kabbalah water and I don’t care what the rich and famous do, but I don’t have an issue with Kabbalah’s popularity. I have often wondered why celebrities find Kabbalah so attractive, but I believe that people like Madonna actually find that Jewish mysticism does something positive for their lives – adds something, changes them, enhances their perspective – otherwise they wouldn’t bother advocating this particular spiritual path or spending so much time and money supporting one particular spiritual group. If making Kabbalistic teachings accessible to people allows them to learn about Jewish mysticism, even out of the context of Jewish life and Judaism as a whole, offers people something they need and want – something that betters their lives and helps them improve themselves, isn’t that a good thing? I believe it is. So, it’s a fad. Who cares if some people benefit from it – and I don’t mean just those making money off of it. (I could be accused of the same, as could all those writing and selling books on the topic and teaching classes and seminars based on their books – and there are some very well-respected authors out there writing books on Kabbalah, including Rebbe Steinsaltz himself.)
We Jews know the truth; in Judaism, mysticism has always existed. Sometimes even within Judaism it was a fad and became popular. And at other times it was seen as bad and hidden away. But it was always there. It will remain there, but because it has become popular again within and without Judaism, more people will understand it and be able to use its principles and benefit from its teachings. Theymay not be immersed in Jewish life, that is true. Yet, they may get a glimmer of what that might be like. And if that person is a Jew, that glimmer might be enough to send that person seeking a more Jewish life.
I know that I have spoken to many Jews seeking a more spiritual Judaism. When we discuss some of the beliefs that are found within Jewish mysticism, they are thrilled and excited and want to learn more. They are eager to delve deeper and to explore Judaism in a way they have not in the past. Kabbalah brings them home again. It had the same affect on me, bringing me back into the fold of the religion of my birth after many years seeking “something more” elsewhere. It hasn’t made Madonna want to be a Jew, although she did choose a Hebrew name, nor did it make her want to lead a Jewish life. Yet, there might be some other non-Jews out there so influenced by Kabbalah that they are considering becoming Jews by Choice. That’s a good thing, too.
I didn’t agree with everything Rebbe Steinsaltz had to say, but I was glad I heard him speak. I’ll ponder his words for some time to come, I’m sure. And I’ll be happy to have his signature in my well-highlighted copy of his book.