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December 18, 2014 | 26th Kislev 5775

Hidden Light

April 28, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

The other day we “did” a day on Kabbalah for the Habonim-Dror kids we are teaching in Karmiel. These are 18-year-olds, most of them middle class kids taking a year off between high school and college, for what the youth movements call a shnat hachshara, a training year. Traditionally, this meant a year of kibbutz training, to prepare the young socialist Zionists to take their places as pioneers. It is still a year of learning and exploring, but in most cases not a direct prelude to aliyah. Part of the year is spent working on a kibbutz and attending ulpan; part is spent in urban volunteer work and study of Israeli culture and history. Two such groups, one from Australia/South Africa and one from the US and UK, are doing their stint of volunteer work and study under the tutelage of our seminar center while living in Karmiel. They may be active in a socialist-Zionist movement, but many have a healthy interest in exploring all aspects of their own identity as well as that of Israel. Hence, a day on Kabbalah by popular demand.

First, an outstanding lecture by A., a young orthodox rabbi and graduate student, a recent immigrant from the US, who succeeded in setting forth a sympathetic yet rational and clear explanation of fundamentals of Kabbalistic thinking for the uninitiated.

Then, a few hours in Safed, exploring the old city using a simulation activity we developed a few years ago, in which participants try to solve a fictitious mystery which leads them to visit sites and discuss texts relating to spiritual search - in the 16th century and now. The crisis of tourism is everywhere in evidence. The old city is like a ghost town. Those souvenir vendors who haven’t closed sit in front of their shops playing backgammon with each other. In any case, as usual, most of the kids get into the spirit of the activity, while some pursue their own agendas, appreciating the opportunity to be on their own.

One of the reasons, it seems, that Safed became such a center of Kabbalah is its proximity to the village of Meron, site of the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who is said to have written the Zohar, the central work of Kabbalah. Our next stop was the grave, a major pilgrimage site for those who take the Kabbalah seriously (e.g., Hasidim) and those who take the graves of “holy men” seriously (many North African immigrants). The peak comes at Lag B’omer, Rabbi Shimon’s yahrzeit, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive. Today, the complex is pretty empty, just a few dozen yeshiva students, passers by, and hangers on. The [alleged] grave is a stone sarcophagus-shaped marker in a large structure that has accumulated over the years, containing study rooms and synagogues and store rooms and offices and open air plazas, all divided into a women’s side and a men’s side. Everything feels foreign, grungy, alienating - to the kids as well as to me (but I knew what to expect). This is one of the places that makes me realize how culturally distant I am from a large segment of the Jewish people who define themselves - as I define myself - as religious.

Finally, a few miles away, we visit the kabbalist village of Or Ganuz (“hidden light”). We are met in the synagogue by Y., a naturopathic healer and one of the leaders of the community. He cuts an impressive figure in his clean black kapote and his neat, thick beard. He speaks a clear, literate, Israeli-accented English. After setting forth some general ideas about the teachings of Kabbalah and his expectations regarding the Messiah (in just a few years...), he describes Or Ganuz - a community in which income is pooled and families receive “according to their needs.”

One of the kids asks, “isn't that socialism?” Y. answers that Marx’s socialism was based on the ego - everyone wanting to get his/her share, while “our system is based on the teaching of the Kabbalah, according to which we are obligated to help each other. That’s why the kibbutz failed but we will succeed!” A kabbalistic kibbutz. Who would have thought it? Interesting, this new venture arising just as the classic kibbutz is struggling to survive.

For me, this was a fascinating end to the day. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the daily dose of doubt and fear and hassle in Israel that we lose sight of the amazing experiments in tikkun olam going on all around us.

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