DR. PINCHAS GILLER RESPONDS
On April 8, 2011, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Evan Goldstein that made numerous ill-informed criticisms of Kabbalah. Mr. Goldstein’s piece prompted an outpouring of responses from theologians of various backgrounds. In particular, there is a very astute analysis by Dr. Pinchas Giller. Professor Giller is not a member or a student of the Kabbalah Centre.
Please read his Op-Ed piece below:
Kabbalah and the Academy
People don’t get to choose their relatives and academic scholars don’t get to dictate the historical arc of their fields. Evan Goldstein’s intellectually lazy op-ed piece on the Kabbalah center broke no new ground, nor did it make any points that had not been made when the Centre’s activities became widely known thirteen years ago.
The truth is that scholars of Kabbalah recognize that the Kabbalah Centre’s activities form an important late stage in the history of Jewish mysticism. As such, a number of important young Israeli scholars have written respectfully on the history of the Centre, its origins and offshoots. Among the tenured professors of Kabbalah who have written extensively about the Kabbalah Centre are Boaz Huss of Ben Gurion University, Avraham Elkayam of Bar Ilan University, Jonathan Meir and Jonathan Garb, both of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On our shores, a Jewish historian, Professor Jody Myers of California State University at Northridge, has written an important book, “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest (Praeger 2007),” which examines the history and teachings of the Kabbalah Centre.
These people write about the Kabbalah centre because it is organically part of the history of Kabbalah. It is inappropriate for scholars to disparage contemporary movements because they are insufficiently elegant. Academics have been short sighted before. Gershom Scholem referred to the great Kabbalah academies of Jerusalem as “belonging to the Sefardic and Arabized tribes.” I heard objections raised to the Messianic movement in Chabad hasidism, because “Scholem said that Hasidism must be non-messianic.” One gets the feeling that some scholars require that their subjects be dead for at least a century before they deign to study them.
It is paradoxical that kabbalistic ideas, which are very complex and arcane, have often crossed over from Judaism into other cultures. In late antiquity, Kabbalah originated in the welter of esoteric traditions that also produced Christianity and Gnosticism. Ideas in the great kabbalistic work, the Zohar, also appeared in the teachings of some Catholic monastic orders. In the sixteenth century, a student of Isaac Luria, Israel Sarug, sailed to Italy and taught Kabbalah to the neo-Platonists of the Renaissance. So it is the Kabbalah has often been a “cross-over” phenomenon; that is nothing new.
In fact, much of the outcry against the Kabbalah center is based on simple jealousy. The Centre operates off the grid, outside of the hierarchy of the faltering Jewish organizations and Synagogue networks. They have success with two groups, young adults and expatriate Israelis, who have resisted affiliation with the main community. Other groups flourish off the gird, such as the Chabad Movement and the Aish ha-Torah and Or Sameach organizations, but these groups are protected by the Orthodox movement that they serve. The Kabbalah Centre has no such protectors and therefore has been hounded and mocked by the mainstream community since it came to prominence, in the latter part of its eighty-year history. Meanwhile, the Berg family’s activity has been successful at both a popular and a “high” level. In latter terms, their kabbalistic prayer book with kabbalistic intentions Tefilah le-Oni, is a particularly erudite work in that rarified area.
There are things to criticize in the policies of the Kabbalah Centre, as there are criticisms that could be leveled at any religious movement in Judaism by those who don’t subscribe to it. However, the decision of the scholarly community is that the Centre bears scrutiny as an important link in the history of Kabbalah. Responsible scholars will be observing the evolution of the Centre, as they have reviewed its origins, history, practices, doctrines and other “facts on the ground” of the Centre’s role as a late manifestation of Lurianic Kabbalah.
Professor of Jewish Thought American Jewish University, Los Angeles
Shalom Shar’abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
Reading the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000
The Enlightened Will Shine: Symbolization and Theurgy in the Later Strata of the Zohar Albany: S.U.N.Y. Press, 1993
Kabbalah: A Guide for the Perplexed (Forthcoming: Continuum Press)
See SPILLING THE BEANS post to get a harsh glimpse into history here: