Kabbalah and Jewish Orthodoxy

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Re: Kabbalah and Orthodoxy (3/30/04)

My wife, Bracha and I (Sheldon Stern) enjoyed hearing you speak last Friday night at the Park Slope Jewish Center.  I do have a question from your talk...  Your mentioned how Chasidus uses Kabbalah in its orientation.  Are you limiting this to Lubavitch or are you talking about Chasidus in general and includes most sects or all sects of Chasidus from the Belz, to Satmar, Munkash, Bobover etc?  What is the relationship between Chasidus and Kabbalah and did this emerge as part of Chasidus?  Should we all not become Chasidim?  I've met many Chasidim and find them most hospitable ....  I'm just curious how Kabbalah enters into their lives or do they think of it.  The emphasis has always been on Gemorrah and Torah Learning.  This emphasis creates the foundation upon which probably Kabbalah can be understood.  I'm sure you’re aware of the tradition that only Rabbi Akiva came out unscathed from its study while Alisha Ben Avuyah the teacher of Rav Meir became known as Acher and left the fold after learning Kabbalah, and another went insane.  So the tradition was that you had to be at least 40 years old, have learned all of Shash (entire Talmud) and married.  My impression of learning Kabbalah before learning Aleph Bet namely a rich Jewish Knowledge of Torah or Tanach and Gemorrah is like learning Calculus before learning how to add two and two.  I' m interested in your response.




Sheldon B. Stern, Psy.D.


Sanford Drob’s Response

With regard to your questions I'll try to answer them briefly to the best of my capacity. Clearly, the Chasidim, beginning with the Baal Shem and the Maggid were all influenced by the Jewish mysticism that preceded them, including the early Chariot (Heikhalot) Literature, Sefer Yetzirah, the early Kabbalists, the Zohar, Cordovero and especially Luria and his disciples. While not all Chasidic practices can be traced directly to Lurianic sources (e.g. devekut, hitbodedut) much of the vocabulary and conceptual framework of the Chasidic masters is borrowed from the Lurianic Kabbalah; though in some instances the Chasidim altered and even seem to have reversed the significance of the Lurianic conceptions. Joseph Weiss, in his book "East European Jewish Mysticism and Chasidism,” points out, for example, that while for Luria, the notion of Tzimtzum indicated G-d's withdrawal from the cosmos, for the Great Maggid it indicates  G-d's indwelling in the cosmos. My own attraction to Chabad/Lubavitch thought stems from its "double movement" approach, an approach that suggests a coincidence of such opposing views, depending upon one's perspective. For example: Schneur Zalman writes: "(Looking) upwards from below, as it appears to eyes of flesh, the tangible world seems to be Yesh and a thing, while spirituality, which is above, is an aspect of Ayin (nothingness).  (But looking) downwards from above the world is an aspect of Ayin, and everything which is linked downwards and descends lower and lower is more and more Ayin and is considered as naught truly as nothing and null" (Schneur Zalman Likutei Torah, Devarim, fol. 83a ).  As for the question of whether all of us should become Chasidim, this is obviously a very personal question, but I can imagine a far worse fate for the world.

With regard to study of Kabbalah prior to learning Gemorrahh and the rest of "Torah," I think that several reasons have been offered for this: (1) The Kabbalah provides an explanation of the hidden significance of the mitzvoth; how then can one understand the hidden explanation without first understanding the mitzvoth themselves, (2) The Kabbalah can lead to dangerous results and ideas unless it is understood within a traditional Jewish context (it can lead to heresy even death, as your reference to Akiva illustrates), (3) a certain personal and psychological maturity is necessary in order to assimilate the profound significance of the Kabbalah, and one (at least traditionally) obtains that only through an education in Shas etc. I would be interested in hearing more on this topic.

I myself do not feel very strongly one way or the other on this issue. In this day and age with so many books, teachers, spiritual masters, Jewish Kabbalists and non-Jewish Kabbalists available and peddling their versions of Kabbalah, the idea of limiting and/or sanctioning study can no longer be enforced. Further, if those with level heads and Jewish backgrounds desist from speaking about Kabbalistic matters, there are plenty who will fill the void with popularizations, etc. My own background in philosophy and psychology has led me to the view (and I admit this is controversial) that our comprehension of the Kabbalah can be greatly enriched through understanding it within the context of western philosophical and psychological thought; that the Kabbalah itself had a profound if indirect impact on that thought (e.g. upon alchemy, German philosophy--e.g/ Boehme, Schelling, Hegel,  Freud and Jung), and that the Kabbalah has many points of contact with the mysticisms of other traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism) that can make for interesting and fruitful dialog. I am a universalist at heart, and while I have a deep love for Yiddishkeit I see my Judaism as a means for extending myself not only to Jews, but to all people, and beyond to the environment and world as a whole. I believe that each of the species, peoples, and individuals of the world should be actualized in their essences and united in a common purpose and that it is our spiritual duty to facillitate this actualization. In this I follow the Chabad thinker R Aron in his dictum that it is the fundamental divine purpose that the world should be differentiated and revealed in each of its finite particulars and yet united in a single infinite source.


It was very nice meeting you and your wife on Friday night.


Sandy Drob

Sheldon Stern responds:


Years ago when I became "frum" at the age of 15/16 after meeting Steve Riskin, "Stevy Wonder" I call him, of course it is now Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.  I heard him discuss the revelation of G-d on Mt. Sinai and along with my own concerns about death and dying, waking up with cold sweats just out of my own fears of finality, and what he said was quite important at the time.  Through Halacha from Holaych, one walks and gets close to Hashem by the mitzvahs just Moses saw the "Back" of G-d.   However, as I matured in college to an extent, I took on the study of psychology because I really saw it as a parallel to Judaism.  Just as Judaism looks at the Holy of Holies the most sacred of places, so also I look at dealing with patients and the human mind as the Holy of Holies and one must treat it as a sacred allowance to deal with the inner dynamics, thoughts, behaviors, feelings etc the patient presents.  I see no contradiction between the two.  Ultimately between psychology, Judaism, Talmud and Kabbalah there appears to be a unity of spirit in terms of coming to terms with the sacredness of life and all things regardless of their triviality as in your displayed example on Friday night of the styrofoam cup having Chesed.  But the ultimate goal appears to be what Maslow called, "Self Actualization." but in a spiritual sense that pervades one's relationship to the "all."   I do not consider myself as a Talmud Chochom and that is for sure!  The minutia of Gemora can be quite taxing and boring and the way that Orthodoxy is going today to the far right is very distressing for me.  Because just as the Talmud is an ongoing discourse on the Law with arguments and counter arguments with on ongoing respect for opposite opinions with a thesis (Mishnah) and antithesis (argumentation) and finally the thesis V'Chain Halacha just as in Hegel's dialectical materialism.  But I do not see the same respect with the right of Orthodoxy.  We Jews are minority let alone Orthodoxy being a minority within a minority and its quite sad to me that we always appear to do quite well and alienating ourselves from each other let alone the non-Jews of the world.  Maybe its time for Orthodoxy to deal more effectively with the Midos inherent in Talmud such as in Pirkei Avoth and also review the Kabbalah as a core of faith and spirituality in the doing of the Mitzvahs and that the duality should be inherent and synthesized in Judaism's practice.  The Midoth have been missed in terms of translating the Halacha on an interpersonal level.  I see constant judgments made of others observance…This is the pilpulism you talked about wherein the person  as a person is bypassed with its place being the minutia of observance.  I know the Vilna Gaon was quite the enemy of the Chassidim but there was a need for them because Jews were alienated from Judaism then precisely for the same reason they are alienated from Orthodoxy.  


Sanford Drob responds:

I found your description of your path within halakhic Judaism very interesting and inspiring. I was particularly moved by your characterization of psychology, along with Talmud and Kabbalah as each a means of coming to terms with life's sacredness. The difficulties of maintaining a genuine commitment to halakhic Judaism in the context of an orthodox world that has moved increasingly towards an obsessive, almost competitive, view of observance, is one of the things that troubles me about some people's "frumkeit." My observation is that such principles as shalom bayit, guarding one's tongue (re: Loshen hara) and what one rabbi once described to as the sixth book of the Shulkhan Arukh (The Book of Common Sense) need greater emphasis, and things like the degree of one's kashruth and the color of one's suit, could become outer trappings that lead one to miss the point of Torah. Still, I have a great deal of respect for those who strive to live both within the halakha and contemporary life and thought.


The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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All material on New Kabbalah website (c) Sanford L. Drob, 2001-4.


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