Into The Mystic

Avi Weinstein

Most liberal traditions portray Judaism as more concerned with actions than theology. The only time theology may raise its head is when schools have multidenominational panels to discuss the differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Invariably, God is portrayed as the One who either did or did not give us the Torah. The nature of God is usually totally absent from this discussion.

Whereas Lord Valdemort was called “he who shall not be named,” but whose essence was well understood, the Jewish God’s essential Name shall be not only ineffable, but incomprehensible as well. Other than talking in platitudes about a higher power, we are reluctant, and maybe ill-equipped, to speak about the Holy One and what S/He has to do with us. Can we teach about the nature of God in a way that would challenge and engage high school students, or is the subject so alienating it would be best avoided? If the answer is the latter, then I’m afraid much, if not all, is lost.

Kabbalah offers a fresh approach that can provoke students’ understanding of what belief in God can mean, and how empowering that might be for those who seek, and question the purpose and meaning of life.


The Problem of Reward and Punishment

The first introduction the Torah gives when describing the Creator’s relationship to Israel is that He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. If the meaning of this were taken at face value, then life for a Jew who followed the Torah’s precepts would be simple. Good actions would result in reward, and rebellious actions would be immediately punished. But it has never been that simple, and at a superficial glance such a perspective does not reflect reality as most of us know it. This is not a modern problem, but one that has plagued rabbis and mystics for millennia. Because this is such a vexing and critical issue, the literature is rich with complexity and creativity. The God who resembles the corpulent man in the red suit who lands on rooftops and goes down chimneys is a fantasy that suits the needs of small children, but not those of us who want this relationship to make sense.

Engaging High School Atheists About God

When students claim that they don’t believe in God, I always ask, which God is that, and what’s He like? Invariably, they offer a fairly conventional answer that reflects the thought of famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. When I answer, well I don’t believe in that God either, I usually get a raised eyebrow. Renowned atheists often reject the notion of God out of hand because they find the concept so preposterous; they won’t afford it a scintilla of seriousness. Before one can intelligently reject an idea, one must first understand it. Engagement in ideas that one ultimately doesn’t accept allows a person to appreciate the creativity, elegance and complexity of the ideas themselves, and by extension, the people who believe them. Avoiding the subject invariably impoverishes the spirit of both the believing, and the nonbelieving student.

Teaching Spiritual Experience Without Context

The rote nature of our devotional canon challenges the most devout and earnest supplicant. It is supremely difficult to see the same words as fresh every day, and it is unreasonable to expect students to have a relationship with the Creator without having a foundational understanding of the Creator. By design, in this case, the proverbial cart is placed before the horse, and sooner or later the cart needs some guidance. The question is, when and how do we make this a priority, and when we choose to do so, what do we offer? What context do we provide for the text that has become a pretext for the melodies I learned at camp or at youth group conclaves?


As much as we may scoff at the emergence of Kabbalah by all those denizens of popular culture, one has to wonder why this anemic version of Jewish wisdom is so compelling. And to sharpen the question, why is it better than our good old belief in reward and punishment? As noted, reward and punishment promises a reality that is not in evidence: the wicked on earth seem to prosper, and the righteous, too often, suffer. It feels simplistic and almost primitive. There has to be more going on.

Kabbalah presents the theurgic notion that God is empowered by the deeds of humanity in general, but Jews in particular. Not that God won’t reward us if we sin, but He can’t. We are the ones who determine, by our actions, whether we will bask in Her graciousness. It also makes a person responsible, yet humble. Especially when it comes to prayer, the focus on thinking “let me be the light, so that I can be a vessel from the light above” is an idea that resonates for many, and to those for whom it doesn’t, it will provoke thought without offending sensibility. It is a philosophy that demands both action and contemplation at the same time. Giving tzedakah is elevated to an ethereal action. All aspirations that are sincere and pure elevate the person in his connection to the Infinite. In an age where being spiritual is valued but being religious is not, these ideas bridge the gulf between the God they know and the God that would challenge them to be engaged not only in their own growth, but to the betterment of the world at large.

This is a lot to digest. Here is an overview accompanied with several concrete examples of what the study of Kabbalah can offer.

When anyone reads the Torah it is hard to miss that the One God seems to have many Names. The Torah has already indicated that each Name serves as an aspect of God’s power. The Patriarchs did not know the ineffable Name that God revealed to Moshe. The Sages of the Talmud further develop this idea by defining the essence of some of these Names. Elokim is judgment, YHVH is mercy (among other things). From these Names, the Kabbalists articulate ten different emanations of God that are connected to each other by channels. The lowest emanation is the one most accessible, and through our connecting to that emanation, we may ascend the channels until we reach the highest and most inaccessible emanation. The lowest emanation is called Malchut (Kingship) or Shechinah (Indwelling), while the highest is Keter (Crown), and is the infinite source of life.

From Keter, there is an energy, which I neologize as the everflow that connects one emanation to the other. The everflow never ceases, but if the connecting channels are ruptured then the everflow is subject to entropy, and from this evil emerges. It is we who rupture the channels; our misdeeds disempower the benevolence and compassion of God. And it is also we who can repair them.

Each emanation has a Name, an aspect of God, that is connected to both what precedes it and what succeeds it (except for Keter and Malchut, the first and the tenth). The ninth emanation is called Yesod, and the mitzvah of tzedakah is connected specifically to Yesod. The verse Tzaddik yesod olam, “The tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25), is brought to demonstrate biblical origin of this connection. What happens when one gives tzedakah? It reinforces the channels from the emanations that come before it, and causes the everflow to pour into Malchut. Automatically, we are the beneficiaries of God’s bounty through our generosity of providing for others. There is a mystical dimension beyond the utilitarian concept of helping others. By being Godly we enable God to care for us. These ideas allow for spiritual language to be used in regard to fundamental human interactions. In many ways mitzvot that actively engage in the world are more mystical than prayer in their effectiveness.

There is a law that enjoins us to say one hundred brachot (blessings) a day. The Talmud quotes a verse from the Torah that elliptically alludes to this requirement. The Kabbalist Rabbi Joseph Gikitilla found the talmudic interpretation weak and offered one of his own. He said the Tabernacle was constructed with one hundred sockets, in Hebrew ADaNIm. If one socket was missing, the whole Tabernacle would be in disrepair.

The word brachah shares the same root as the word breichah which means pool, and also refers to a natural vessel that receives and contains water. A hundred blessings is a conceptual Tabernacle that needs all of them in order for it to be completely functional. This means that a brachah is not merely a thank you, but a means for Jews to be receptacles for God’s love, compassion, generosity and certainly sustenance. The idea that we open ourselves up to acknowledging the wonder of gifts we take for granted as receivers and transmitters of brachah truly transforms what has either become rote or ignored through the teenage years.

Beyond learning these concepts, one may give students a challenge to create kavvanot, phrases that serve as foci for meditation, before saying a brachah or doing acts of compassion and see how it qualitatively effects their lives.

After I witnessed the film Apollo XIII, I discussed the kabbalistic motifs in the movie, as I saw it, with my students. The first thing that struck me was that the people on the ground were the heroes, while the astronauts were totally at their mercy. They knew that if they did nothing that the astronauts would perish, but they also knew that if they did everything, it may not be enough. In the end, they did everything they could, and then they prayed. A kabbalist might say that through their commitment they opened up the channels and empowered God to ensure that the factors they could not control complemented their intense efforts. The positive outcome was not a foregone conclusion, but when one is truly a vessel for sanctity, one may be responsible for repairing the channels that bring the Shefa, the everflow, in abundance. As a metaphor, it is a commendable way to live a life.

We all know that kabbalistic texts like the Zohar are beyond the understanding of many of us, but once one describes its worldview, it is possible to take snippets from anthologies that vividly illustrate how God interacts with the world, the Jews, and each individual. The Essential Kabbalah by Daniel Matt is a good place to start, as well as his anthology of the Zohar in his Classics of Western Spirituality series. For an overview, any Jewish encyclopedia article might be helpful, but it is the texts themselves that will prove to be most inspiring.

Transforming our students into sacred vessels for receiving the Divine and generously transmitting it to others has the power to make routinized terms like tikkun olam into electric volts of sanctity that may empower students toward greater Jewish commitment. At the very least, they will have encountered a complex and sophisticated mixture of interpretation and philosophy that will challenge even the greatest skeptic.

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is head of Jewish studies at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015