Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Among the Kabbalists

A lovely if somewhat shambolic – or perhaps lovely because shambolic – seder this evening at a colleague’s house. Yesterday we ventured down to Hollywood (FL) to meet up with some family members who’re in town to celebrate Pesach with the Kabbalah Centre (TM); when I got home I found myself sent back to Gershom Scholem, determined after all these years to knuckle down & tackle Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. The medieval Kabbalists about whom Scholem writes would have little to do with Scholem himself, with his own resolutely rationalist and historicizing habits; I suspect the present-day adherents of the Kabbalah Centre would have even less. In turn, I imagine Scholem’s shade is glad that he didn’t live to see what forms his beloved Kabbalah has taken these days.

From what I understand, Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre & his followers regard Kabbalah less as a sort of gnosticism or “mysticism,” an immediate communing with the godhead, than as a technology. “You don’t have to believe in it,” I was straightfacedly told; “that’s the beauty of Kabbalah: it’s not just another organized religion, it’s science, a technology to tap into the spiritual structure of the world. Just to look at the words of the Zohar, even if you don’t read Aramaic, sets beneficial forces in motion.”

The potential of such a faith-neutral spiritual technology is breathtaking – not least its potential as a profit-making enterprise. At the various Kabbalah Centres around the world (there’s a large, new, and very plush one here in B––), you can buy beautifully-bound copies of the Zohar; you can buy those red strings Madonna & Britney Spears famously wear, which have been wrapped around the tomb of Rachel and ward off the evil eye; you can buy “Kabbalah Water” (TM), Canadian spring water that Rav Berg has subjected to a process of Kabbalistic meditation, thereby imbuing it with various healthful, even cancer-fighting properties; you can buy Kabbalah Energy Drink, the familiar caffeine-heavy brew with the addition of Kabbalah Water. (“Red Bull with a Red String,” I call it.) The medieval Roman Catholic Church, with all its trade in indulgences & relics, had nothing on these folks.

As someone who was reared in a fundamentalist Protestant church where the taking of the collection seemed to be viewed as a necessary but embarassing, even slightly scandalous part of the Sunday service, the unabashed, enthusiastic product marketing of the Kabbalah Centre has always struck me as alien and disconcerting. There’s a word for it, with which Joyce was quite familiar: simony.

Scholem’s Major Trends shows elegantly how mystical movements such as Kabbalah arise out of & in tension with the ordinary evolution of major religions – that Kabbalah & Hasidism are both part of & other to “normative” Judaism, just as medieval Catholic mysticism could not exist apart from a more generalized Catholic theology & faith practice. Kabbalah, that is, is not a tradition apart from normative Jewish tradition of interpreting & following Torah, but is a particular mystical or gnostic-like counterpart to those traditions, which takes those traditions as a baseline & extends them in particular directions.

But the Kabbalah (TM) of the Kabbalah Centre, it seems to me, is no longer a form of Jewish religious hermeneutics or religious practice, no longer a form of Jewish mysticism at all. Kabbalah (TM) is spirituality for the first-world global consumer, what the grand traditions of the medieval rabbis have been reduced to under Late Capitalism. Salvation – in the form of little bits of red string, $400 sets of the Zohar, videos of Rav Berg’s lectures & homilies, bottles & pallets of holy – er, Kabbalah – water, cans of carbonated energy drink – can now be easily bought – bought for hard cash, bought thru easy (but expensive) courses of study & Amway-like personal marketing; but never at the price of real spiritual assent, of what the old-fashioned would call faith.

Like Apple’s GarageBand software, which offers one the opportunity to make pretty good-sounding pop records without the hassle of actually learning an instrument – & I’m sorry, all you shiny anti-“Rockists” out there, but learning to play a real-time instrument, from the human voice to the violin, is of a far higher order of qualitative difficulty than mastering a piece of software – Kabbalah (TM) offers an ersatz version of the rewards of traditional religion without ever asking its adherents to make the ultimate commitment: to actively change their lives, and change their world.

[I’m well aware, by the way, that there seems to be a good deal of evidence that what Berg’s Kabbalah Centre organization offers its rank & file members is something much more closely approximating the demands of the “cults” one heard so much about back in the ‘80s – constant financial demands, a regimented lifestyle, a kind of military devotion. (See this Guardian article, for instance.) But for its more well-heeled adherents, the Madonnas & Britney Spearses of the world, Kabbalah (TM) offers a guaranteed spiritual technology, & demands in return neither faith nor a changed life, but the most painless sacrifice of all – the abstract marker of exchange-value we call money.]


Norman Finkelstein said...

"But the Kabbalah (TM) of the Kabbalah Centre, it seems to me, is no longer a form of Jewish religious hermeneutics or religious practice, no longer a form of Jewish mysticism at all." And, for that matter, no longer Jewish!

Steve said...

Excellent post. On a related note, many of Scholem's conclusions about the origins and purpose of the Kabbalah have been revised by his students - Joseph Dan and Moshe Idel. That he isn't entirely right doesn't detract too much from his intellectual stamina, in my humble opinion.

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