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The Kabbalah

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I couldn’t help but notice – try as I might to resist – this story from a few weeks ago in which Madonna, aka Esther, claimed that she’d likely get less grief from the media if she had become a Nazi instead of devoting herself to kabbalah. It made me think of this image from Joseph Dan’s recent book, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, where the original Esther, who represents the feminine divine power (Shekhinah) in kabbalah, seems to be striking her own pose.

In the following paragraphs, drawn from his preface to the Very Short Introduction, Dan addresses his own personal struggle with kabbalah.

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For fifty years I have been trying to respond to the question “what is the kabbalah?” And, in many cases my answer was accepted with disappointment or even resentment: this is not what I believe that the kabbalah is, and certainly it is not what I feel that the kabbalah should be.

The term “kabbalah” has never been used as often and in so many contexts as it is today, yet now, as in the past, it does not have a “real,” definite one meaning. From its early beginnings, it has been used in a wide variety of ways. Every medieval kabbalist gave the term his own meaning, which differed slightly or meaningfully from the others. In modern times numerous Jewish and Christian theologians, philosophers, and even scientists have used it in various, sometimes contradictory, ways. It has been an expression of strict Jewish orthodoxy as well as a vehicle for radical, innovative worldviews. The explanation of the meaning of the term must, therefore, be defined within a clear, historical context, stating the time, place, and culture that used it in the past or is using it today. From the point of view of the historian of religious ideas there is no “true” meaning that is above all others. This short introduction is intended, therefore, to present some of the most prominent characteristics of the different phenomena that were described as “kabbalistic” in various periods, countries, and cultural contexts.

Our libraries contain many hundreds of works of kabbalah, printed or still in manuscript form. And, beside these, there are thousands of works—collections of sermons, ethical treatises, and commentaries on the scriptures and the Talmud—that use a little or more kabbalistic terminologies and ideas. As a result, there is hardly a Jewish idea that cannot be described as “kabbalistic” with some justification, as most of these ideas are found in works that use kabbalistic terminology. How can one distinguish between a traditional Jewish ethical norm and a kabbalistic one? Today, it often seems that designating an idea as “kabbalistic” makes it more welcome to outsiders than if it were described as “Jewish.” The main work of the medieval kabbalah, the book Zohar, contains 1,400 pages that deal with every conceivable subject. There is nothing that cannot be confirmed by a quotation from the Zohar. A friend of mine who was teaching kabbalah at a university in California in the 1960s produced a beautiful quote from the Zohar to confirm that it is forbidden to study the kabbalah without, at the same time, smoking pot, and he demanded that his students do so in class. I failed in my attempt to persuade him to change his attitude; my authority could not compete with that of the Zohar as he understood it at that time. This small book should therefore be regarded as a subjective selection, augmented by my experience as a historian of religious ideas, of the most prominent meanings attached to the term kabbalah through the ages, without designating any of them as more truthful than the others. As for the deluge of meanings given to the term in contemporary culture, only a future historian will be able to distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring ones.

“Esther represents the Jewish feminine divine power, the shekhinah” image reproduced courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America

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