Kabbalah has become trendy! It’s on everyone’s mind these days. Frequent sightings in the media have proved fertile ground for both the curious and the sarcastic (i.e., crap-bala). Marketed as “ancient wisdom” and “technology for the soul,” it has tapped into the fears and hopes of modern men and women.
But Madonna is not the first (or last) celebrity to be interested in Kabbalah. In the 1570s, the Prussian emperor Rudolf II invited the famed rabbi, the Maharal of Prague, to converse with him about Jewish mysticism. The Maharal is famous for (allegedly) creating a man from the clay of the river Vltava by Kabbalistic incantation. (Also see the Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b)
The Golem of Prague reputedly did various errands for the Maharal, including thwarting a number of blood libels. If you visit Prague now, you can take a street corner photo with a “golem”. There’s even an X-Files episode about a golem, which is great fun.
Madonna’s gift to the world has been her music and pop career. The Maharal’s gift was a comprehensive philosophy of Judaism that deeply inspired Chassidism and is still widely studied today. Yet both of them have become – in the popular imagination -- icons of Jewish mysticism.
So, what does it mean? Should we be studying Kabbalah? Are we missing out on some thing if we don’t? My friends, it all depends on who you are, what you are studying and from whom you are learning.
Who are you?
Just as string theory is best understood by someone with a strong education in math and physics, Kabbalah is best understood by those who have filled their belly first with normative Jewish learning. The “rules” of Kabbalah study were meant to ensure that a person had time to achieve a level of Jewish knowledge and maturity before, to use another metaphor, embarking on the white-water rapids of Kabbalah. Are you ready for Kabbalah study?
What to study?
I hate to say it, but for most of us, dumbed-down Kabbalah is probably best. There are some legit teachers out there that have popularized basic Kabbalistic ideas into English and connected them with Jewish practice and ethics in a constructive way. (My first recommendation would be books by Rabbi David Aaron, which you can find in any local bookstore.) If you really can’t wait to finish the Talmud before you start learning about Kabbalah, perhaps it would be most helpful to aim toward feeling more spiritual in our mainstream Jewish practice rather than trying to learn how to create clay men or align the mystical forces of the cosmos.
From whom to study?
This is really the kicker. An old Buddhist aphorism says “those who know do not speak and those who speak do not know.” There are lots of people out there who want to teach you Kabbalah… and then maybe they could interest you in a mortgage with no money down. Finding a teacher might be the most challenging part of studying any Kabbalah at all and may also be the best reason to wait.
One last suggestion: Jewish mysticism is not limited to the Zohar or other mystical or magical texts. There’s lots of deep spirituality and mysticism that can be learned from deep analysis of the Torah, from study of the Talmud and from reading some of the classic Jewish texts, like Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, the writings of Rav Kook, the books of the Maharal or the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. You will still want to find what’s right for you and especially find a good teacher, but you may not have to look further than your local beit midrash (Jewish study library) to get started.
Rabbi Avi Heller is the director of Jewish education at Boston University Hillel. He studied at BU and graduated in 1997 with a BA in Political Science and International Relations. Rabbi Heller received his Rabbinic ordination and a Masters in Bible from Yeshiva University, and also studied in the Gush and Sha'alvim Yeshivot.