November 19, 2018

Variety of books pave way for understanding kabbalah

Historically, rabbis have proclaimed that in order to study kabbalah, one has to be a learned Jewish man older than of 40. So imagine how surprised those rabbis would be today if they could peruse a modern bookstore: There are now a plethora of tomes on the subject, making kabbalah available to the layperson — male, female, Jew and non-Jew — the dummy and idiot alike (which is it better to be?).

The orange “Complete Idiot’s Guide,” the yellow “For Dummies” and the white “Everything” series all have come out with guides to Kabbalah, contributing to the pop phenomenon of making the topic as ubiquitous as the Ten Commandments.

Four new books (certainly more are on the way) all promote the idea that Kabbalah is now ready for mass consumption, and the old prohibition against the layman’s studying is past its prime. The books, each with their own graphic elements — illustrations, pull quotes, diagrams, glossaries, cartoons, etc. — attempt to explain kabbalah to the novice:

  • “More and more people are reaching out in search of something on the spiritual and emotional level that will make real and permanent difference in their lives,” writes Gabriella Samuel in “The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism” (Penguin, 2007). The handbook, a more than 400-page tome, defines kabbalistic terms to serve as a reference book for those studying and practicing kabbalah.

    The alphabetized encyclopedia provides English, Hebrew and transliterated terms, from “Aaronic priesthood” (one priestly family line) through “The Zohar,” (a holy radiance and the title of the principle text of Kabbalah, circulated in the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who claimed it was an ancient manuscript. Author Samuel is a teacher, artist, musician, clinical psychologist and the founder of the Asheville School of Kabbalah in South Carolina; she has studied kabbalah for more than four decades with her Chabad rabbi.

    While it is intended as a supplemental text, maybe, like the new “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” this encyclopedia can serve as crib notes for those hot kabbalah parties you’ve never attended. Or, conversely, it can help you with actual study of kabbalah.

  • “All of this concern about who should study Kabbalah and who should not arose because people feared that mystical studies could pose a danger to a person, emotionally, psychologically and even physically,” says Mark Elber’s “The Everything Kabbalah Book: Explore This Mystical Tradition — From Ancient Rituals to Modern-Day Practices,” which also includes a technical review by Rabbi Max Weiman. “Since the study of Talmud is a rigorous mental activity, the restrictions mentioned here were essentially ways of ensuring that those engaged in kabbalah studies came to them with a lot of stability in their lives (and being married and 40 years of age might ensure a certain emotional groundedness in the student).”
    This book has 20 chapters, covering topics including the history of early Jewish mysticism, as well as reincarnation (“[Rabbi Issac] Luria [a famous kabbalist from the 16th century known as the “Ari”] believed … a soul would keep reincarnating until it has fulfilled this mission for which it had been brought into the physical realm in the first place”) to (“the sublime holiness doesn’t rest on a person if he’s too attached to the physical”) to Kabbalah in the 21st century. And has graphic elements such as facts (important sound bytes of information), essentials (quick handy tips), alerts (urgent warnings) and questions (solutions to common problems).

    One of the best parts is at the beginning, the “Top Ten Kabbalistic Insights,” such as, “There is no place where God is not. God fills and transcends all universes (No. 1)” to “Where your consciousness is, there you are. Your consciousness (kavana) makes all the difference (No. 5).” These are kabbalah’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments, though we probably won’t find them posted on the wall of any courtroom any time soon — no matter how popular kabbalah becomes.

  • It’s not often you hear someone defending Madonna, especially not for her front-and-center Kabbalah Centre advocacy (and there are many who would link her career’s downfall to her religious transformation as Esther), but Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil includes a boxed-off paragraph near the end of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” one of the best of the introductory books. “She certainly isn’t one of the greatest kabbalists in history, but Madonna, the enormously gifted singer, actress and show business personality, has probably done more than anyone in the world in recent times to make the word ‘Kabbalah’ a familiar one,” he writes. “Madonna doesn’t represent herself as a master of Kabbalah — she’s never claimed that. What she has claimed, however, and what I respect her for, is that she’s interested in Kabbalah.”
    Kurzweil, a kabbalah teacher and author, is a descendant of three revered kabbalah teachers: Rabbi Chaim Yoseft Gottlieb (1790-1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630) and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572).The “Dummies” book is divided into five basic parts: kabbalah basics, the core of kabbalah (the world is in need of repair and the human soul is eternal), the practice of kabbalah, essential skills (study and prayer) and important figures, historical moments and myths in kabbalah. (It’s quite smart to put these factoids at the end, instead of weighing down the opening of the book with all the factual information.) This book has a sense of humor: Each section is prefaced with a humorous cartoon (“Who barbeques in a succah?” a woman yells at her husband near the charred remains).

  • The goal of kabbalah is “to help you make, and sustain, direct contact with the Creator,” writes Rabbi Michael Laitman in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kabbalah,” co-authored with Collin Canright, (Alpha, 2007). “Kabbalah states very simply that when you know how to connect to the Creator directly, without any go-betweens, you will find the inner compass, a guiding light that shines no matter where you are,” he writes. When you do master it, “you will need no further guidance.”
    The “Idiot’s Guide” is divided into four parts: the history, the principles, your personal life and Kabbalah in today’s world. It highlights factoids using “definitions,” “words of heart” and quotes: “You have not a blade of grass below that has not a sign above, which strikes it and tells it, ‘grow,’ Midrash Raba.” “On Track” provides practical tips: “Don’t bother with your next spiritual degree, the Creator has prepared it for you. Work on completing your work at your present degree and the Creator will take you to the next level.”
    There’s also fun “Kab-trivia”: One of the most famous groups of kabbalists, the Kotz group of Poland, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel, once tried switching the days to see how it feels. They “moved” the Sabbath (Saturday) to Tuesday and behaved accordingly. They decided that it made no difference, as long as they all did it together.
    “Red Alert” cautions: “The teacher’s role in kabbalah is very subtle. The teacher must direct the student away from him and toward the Creator. There is no way a person can avoid the attention and admiration students shower on a teacher, unless the teacher has already transcended the ego and entered the Upper World.”

Most of the intro books take pains to debunk many of the myths about kabbalah, such as the use of “holy water,” buying an expensive Zohar set for good luck, the need to wear a red string — practices popularized by the Kabbalah Centre, the Los Angeles institute that is largely responsible for taking kabbalah mainstream.

But here’s the thing about kabbalah for the layman. Even if Kabbalah is packaged for “Dummies,” “Idiots” or “Everyone,” even if these books use cute comics and graphics and sidebars and subheads and catchy chapter heads, they all are trying to explain a very difficult subject. What kabbalists call senior — the 10 essential essences, the soul, the world to come, our relationship to the Creator, the Creator’s relationship to the world — all are heady subjects, challenging to comprehend, no matter how pretty the package.