A New Age, pop-culture version of the venerable Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah has been fashionable of late, attracting the likes of Madonna and other celebrities.
But if you’re curious to find out what authentic Kabbalah is all about, check out a series of five lectures and classroom discussions entitled Kabbalah to the Big Bang (website) presented by the renowned Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt at a study weekend earlier this year sponsored by The Foundation for Jewish Studies of Rockville, Maryland.
Since 1996 Matt has been translating and annotating the Zohar, one of Kabbalah’s foundational texts. He’s now working on volume 6, with a total of 12 volumes expected.
In the first session, Matt gives an introduction to the Zohar and Kabbalistic thought in general. To get the most out of the first lecture, it’s a good idea to look at the chart included in the recommended readings which shows the Kabbalah’s ten attributes of God known as Sefirot. Subsequent sessions include lots of interaction with the students as they examine and discuss a number of short Kabbalistic texts. The last session is a look at the intriguing parallels between the Kabbalistic creation myth and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
As to why Kabbalah might appeal to people who are not traditionally observant or even Jewish, Matt says,
The Kabbalah is a kind of spirituality that does not reject the material world. The Zohar isn’t saying you should leave the here and now and discover God by going into the cave. You should find God in the everyday. That has a positive and a negative side. You’re not rejecting life on earth which is good. On the other hand you could fool yourself into thinking the material is the spiritual. There’s a possible trap there too. The positive side is that the Zohar is a holistic mysticism. It’s really demanding that you uplift the physical, not reject the physical. So it appeals to people in the West who have a spiritual yearning but they don’t want to sell everything they own and go to India. Also it’s an exotic kind of spirituality. But it’s based on the Torah. It’s based on the Bible. So it’s based on the foundational text of all Western culture. So it has this amazing combination of the familiar and strange.”
If you want an even more rigorous academic introduction to Kabbalah, and you speak Hebrew, check out Introduction to Kabbalah (website), taught by Boaz Huss at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University. At Huss’s website are links to other lectures in English on the history of Kabbalah. The Ben-Gurion University website also has an interesting article by Huss on The New Age of Kabbalah and Postmodern Spirituality, in which he talks about today’s pop-culture Kabbalah and how it represents a
“postmodern spirituality” that emphasizes practices over belief, and makes Kabbalah into a marketable commodity.