Saturday, May 29, 2004

KABBALAH "EXPERT" INTERVIEW: Rabbi Yehuda Berg, associate director for communications of The Kabbalah Centres, interacts with readers of USA Today. A few thoughts on this.

1. Rabbi Berg's ideas are pretty much unobjectionable in themselves � they mostly consist of moral platitudes that most people would agree with � and I imagine following his principles does some people a lot of good. Still, his New Age Kabbalah has almost nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah.

2. This doesn't bother me quite as much as you might expect. Massive revision of an ancient tradition is nothing new. Moses de Leon radically reinterpreted rabbinic Judaism when he wrote the Zohar � although he did keep it Jewish and halakhic � and he came up with something of lasting interest and value. The Apostle Paul may be a better historical analogy: he went further and dispensed with both Jewish ethnic identity and halakhah in his � soon very successful � new religion. I rather doubt that New Age Kabbalah will have the staying power of either Paul or Moses de Leon, but we'll see. Rabbi Berg is also clearly trying to make money from his Kabbalah, but, then, so was Moses de Leon.

3. Rabbi Berg makes some preposterous historical claims: Kabbalah was written by Abraham 4000 years ago; Plato, Jesus, and Muhammad were Kabbalists. Again, one can point out that Moses de Leon did the same: he had Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and other Tannaitic rabbis teaching Medieval Platonistic ideas in Medieval Aramaic. But the world has moved on since then and I would like to think that we expect religious teachers these days to be responsible in the history they teach. Maybe that's being naive. But for me, if someone gets it wrong in areas I know about, I'm not going to trust them to tell me about things I don't know about, let alone about cosmic truth.

4. The thing that really does bother me about the new Kabbalah � something that is a major departure from the tradition � is its superficiality. Moses de Leon was tremendously learned and he produced a mystical canon that has exercised some of the most brilliant Jewish (and other) minds for many centuries. The superficial New Age platitudes of the new Kabbalah, harmless and perhaps even helpful in themselves, stand in tremendous contrast to the learned complexity of traditional Kabbalah. Although the idea of Kabbalah for the masses is appealing in principle, it really should have something to do with the teachings you actually find in traditional Kabbalah.

5. I think it is very misleading for USA Today to present this piece as an interview with a "Kabbalah expert." Rabbi Berg is doing his own thing, which is fine, but people who don't know better, and most people don't, are going to take his comments to be representing traditional Kabbalah, and they most certainly do not. Why couldn't USA Today have gotten, say, Daniel Matt, who is a high-profile scholar who really is an expert on Kabbalah? Sigh.

If you want to learn about traditional Kabbalah, here are some bibliographical resources:

Joseph Dan, Ronald C. Kiener, Moshe Idel, The Early Kabbalah (New York: Paulist, 1986). Excerpts from pre-Zoharic Kabbalistic texts, along with a useful, user-friendly introduction.

Daniel Chanan Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist, 1983). Excerpts and introduction, both by Matt himself.

Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3rd ed.; New York: Schocken, 1954). Now out of date, but still very useful and reasonably user-friendly.

There are also, of course, the first two volumes of Matt's Zohar translation and commentary, but these are more oriented toward specialists.

For pre-Kabbalistic Jewish mysticism (Merkavah Mysticism or Hekhalot Literature) see:

Peter Sch�fer, The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Jewish Mysticism (Albany, N. Y.: SUNY, 1992). Excellent introduction, accessible to nonspecialists, but not available on Amazon, so I take it to be out of print.

Also (shameless self-promotion alert):

James R. Davila, Descenders to the Chariot: The People Behind the Hekhalot Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2001). A scholarly monograph presenting a particular interpretation of the Hekhalot literature, but should also be helpful as an introduction and overview for serious nonspecialists. Very expensive (sorry).

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