Kabbalah for the Masses

In recent years, there have been a number of modest volumes that are aimed at presenting a representative selection of readings from the mystical classic, the Zohar. In such works as Gershom Scholem’s "Zohar: The Book of Splendor: Basic Readings from the Kabbalah" (Schocken, 1995) and Daniel Chanan Matt’s "Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Classics of Western Spirituality)" (Paulist Press 1985) the respective translators judiciously selected a few selections from the 2,000-page Aramaic original in order to portray something of the transcendent ideas and romantic narrative that characterizes the Zohar’s literary nature.

In both of these cases, the authors were guided by concerns that they had already expressed elsewhere in their research. Scholem was largely concerned with presenting texts that had resonance for subsequent kabbalah, or that had become liturgical or represented the romantic or poetic tendencies of the Zohar. Matt was interested in presenting the contemplative elements in the Zohar, as well as capturing that work’s sense of wonder at the phenomenal world.

Matt and Scholem also saw the Zohar as having been written in the 13th century by a single author, Moshe de Leon of Guadalajara, Spain. This view has been rejected by contemporary scholars, who see the Zohar as the work of multiple authors.

Now Rabbi Philip Berg, director of The Kabbalah Centre, has weighed in with his interpretation. In making his presentation, Berg has to transcend his influences. The school of thought, of which he claims to be part of, originated in an obscure Chasidic community in B’nei Barak. There, in the 1920s, Yehudah Ashlag, a gifted writer and kabbalist who functioned as a minor Chasidic rebbe, composed a voluminous exposition of the Zohar. This work, known as "The Sulam" (the ladder), included a Hebrew translation, variant texts and a commentary based on the mystical system of Isaac Luria. Ashlag also wrote a voluminous presentation of the Lurianic system, "The Talmud of the 10 Sefirot" (emanations of God), and was responsible for publishing a complete set of the Lurianic canon. Upon his demise, Ashlag was succeeded by Yehuda Brandwein, who was Berg’s mentor, according to Berg.

The Lurianic kabbalah that was Berg’s spiritual inheritance is, however, a complex, abstruse, obscure, and frankly off-putting, set of ideas. As a result, in explicating the Zohar for the masses, Berg ranges into more general spiritual language. If the work has a weakness, it is in the broadness of the expression. Kabbalah is presented as the doctrine of the coming "Age of Aquarius."Otherwise, Berg avoids the complexities of Lurianic Kabbalah and presents a kabbalistic system based in the doctrines of the "Sefirot," a widely circulated and, since the advent of Chasidism, highly psychological body of doctrine with a strong basis in biblical imagery.

As an introduction to mystical theology, the selections chosen by Berg represent a good overview of many of the Zohar’s central motifs and themes. The role of the Shekhinah, one of the most widely circulated of kabbalistic ideas, is the subject of an entire chapter. Berg presents a number of accounts that illustrate the popular quality of the Zohar’s spirituality.

Berg also preserves the exegetical nature of the Zohar by presenting interpretations of difficult biblical passages, such as the incident of the golden calf, the affair of David and Bathsheba and the tale of Joseph and his brothers. In each case, the interaction of the "Sefirot" is the true reality that underlies the problematic biblical account, wherein all ambiguities and difficulties are resolved. The Talmud states, "Whosoever ponders four things, it would have been better if he had not come into the world: what is above and what is below, what came before and what will come after" (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1). The metaphysical concerns of kabbalah comprise a program of complete defiance of that dictum.

Finally, Berg’s work implicitly speaks to an area of controversy regarding the outreach policies of The Kabbalah Centre and proposes what is essentially a paradigm shift of kabbalistic thought. For it has been long the dirty little secret of kabbalah studies that, according to most understandings, gentiles are not bequeathed with a highest level of the soul, the neshamah. This truth is largely soft-pedaled by contemporary scholars. In fact, an overview of Chabad soul doctrines was published by a reputable scholar from the Hebrew University that neglected to mention this point, which underlies the pregnant query, "Are you Jewish?" that commences so many encounters with Lubavitcher Chasidim. Hence, it is significant that "The Essential Zohar" begins with a defiant declaration that, "Kabbalah and Zohar belong to everyone who has a sincere desire to learn, grow and transform."

In declaring this potential "mission to the gentiles," Berg has dedicated this reasonable and sensitive selection of seminal mystical texts to an affective purpose beyond the aspirations of prior works of this type.

Pinchas Giller is associate professor of Jewish thought at the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, Los Angeles. He is the author of "Reading the Zohar: The Classical Work of Kabbalah" (Oxford University Press, 2000).