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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Remarks on Kabbalah

Remarks to the Union for Reform Judaism Executive Committee
September 13, 2004

These are sobering times. Two days ago, on Shabbat, we marked the third anniversary of September 11th. A week earlier, we were witnesses to a terrorist act in Russia of such stunning depravity that, once again, words failed us, and we could do no more than look on in stunned disbelief. As we have heard from David Makovsky, Israel continues to battle terror and to struggle in her search for peace, and here in the United States, a deeply divided nation prepares for a presidential election.

As North American Jews contend with all of these matters, they look to Judaism for comfort, meaning, and a spiritual anchor. But, interestingly enough, what some of them are finding there is not at all what I would have expected if you had asked me a year or two ago.

When visiting a bookstore near my home recently, I wandered over to the Jewish section and found a special display with no fewer than six separate titles on Kabbalah. As virtually everyone now knows, Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism, has become high fashion in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. At one time, Buddhism and other eastern religions were the spiritual paths of choice among the trendsetters of our society. But eastern spirituality has now given way to fascination with Kabbalah, and Kabbalah centers are springing up not only on the West Coast, but throughout North America and in Europe as well. The most prominent practitioner, supporter, and advocate for Kabbalah is Madonna – or “Esther” as she prefers to be known – but many other stars, such as Rosanne Barr and Britney Spears, have also been publicly identified as adherents.

This embrace of Kabbalah by show business celebrities is an extraordinary and utterly unexpected phenomenon, and in many ways a positive one. It demonstrates to even the most fearful and insecure members of our community the extent to which Jews and Judaism have been fully integrated into American cultural life. If prominent non-Jews, including members of the Hollywood elite, can embrace Kabbalah as a path for their own spiritual growth, then surely there is no longer any stigma attached to Jewish practice and belief in our world today. One would expect that when Demi Moore and Sara Jessica Parker are searching for meaning in Kabbalah, Jews might be more inclined to take their heritage more seriously. And indeed, there are indications that the acceptance of various forms of Judaism in American popular culture has prompted at least some Jews to rediscover their own roots.

But there are significant dangers here as well. In the first place, Madonna and many of the other stars who have climbed on the Kabbalah bandwagon are – to put it mildly – hardly a role model for our children. No matter how sincere their attraction to Jewish mysticism, there is very little in their background or lifestyle to suggest that they share the fundamental values that are central to Jewish life. More important still, the Kabbalah that they espouse bears no resemblance whatever to the mysticism that is found in Jewish tradition. The Kabbalah that emerges from Jewish texts is a sophisticated and complex theological system that was reserved by our sages for only the most exceptional and mature scholars. It was never an alternative to Jewish ritual practice, but was intended for those already committed to fastidious observance of the mitzvoth who also yearned to draw themselves closer to God. Our Jewish community is fortunate to have scholars such as Professor Daniel Matt, Professor Arthur Green, and Rabbi Larry Kushner who understand and respect this tradition, and who have undertaken to teach it to committed students in a serious way.

The Kabbalah of the movie stars is very different, however. Taught in some cases by individuals who are well-meaning but ill-informed and in other cases by religious charlatans, it is mostly a simplistic self-help philosophy that makes use of magic strings and amulets and other superstitious practices, while drawing on enough Hebrew words and letters to give it a patina of Jewish legitimacy. Like most self-help philosophies meant for easy mass consumption, it is consoling and non-judgmental and requires no serious religious commitment from those who adopt it. It is interesting as a curiosity, but it is neither Judaism nor Kabbalah as any knowledgeable person would understand these terms.

Is it a threat to us? Some think so, but that is not my view, as long as we keep it in perspective. After all, it is far better that Judaism should be an object of fascination than an object of contempt, and there is nothing that we can do anyway to prevent others from misusing our traditions for their own purposes.

And why do I mention it now? Because we are two days away from the beginning of the Yamim Noraim, the holiest period of our Jewish year. This is the one major holiday period when we do not focus on historical events but concentrate instead on concerns that are personal and spiritual in nature. And the Kabbalah craze, it seems to me, like all the other spiritual fads of our time, should be seen a welcome challenge to us.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we expect more that more than a million Reform Jews will make their way to our congregations. Some, without doubt, are the twice-a-year Jews who come because of family pressure or residual ethnic guilt; and more than a few may want just a little bit of Judaism, but no more than that, and certainly nothing that will make demands or impose obligations. These Jews may be beyond our reach, and it would certainly not surprise me if, in the course of time, they turn to Kabbalah of the Madonna variety precisely because it is stylish and yet asks so little of them.

But the great majority of those who enter our congregations will be there for very different reasons. They will be there to search for the holy, overcome their errant ways, and move to higher ethical ground. Let’s remember: the appetite for spirituality is not created by phony gurus but exists because of the fundamental human need to connect with the sacred. And authentic Judaism has spoken to that need for a very long time. There is nothing simple or easy about this, and we don’t pretend otherwise. During the upcoming holidays our rabbis will ask our synagogue members to engage in serious introspection, immerse themselves in a powerful but complex liturgy, and fast for a full day as part of their annual spiritual checkup. And this is just the beginning. Because now and for the rest of the year our message is this: Judaism is a powerful religious system that requires learning, discipline, and an obligation to help others and reach out to God. But in return it offers many things: sacred community that redeems you from solitude, interpersonal meaning in a sea of impersonal forces, and membership in a people united across boundaries by a shared history and hope. In short, what we say is this: Judaism requires work, but put in the work, and it will transform your life.

Can this approach compete with the spiritual fads and fluff of the moment? I think that it can. When others are speaking of Judaism but offering superstitious nonsense, it is our task and the task of our synagogues to offer the real thing. That it what our rabbis will be doing, and I believe that many of our people will be listening and will be open to our message.

May you all be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.

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