Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Secret Kabbalah of Mensa

We live in an age of unprecedented Kabbalah consciousness. Jewish esotericism is immensely popular. This month I was invited to speak on the topic of the esoteric in Judaism at the Texas regional Mensa conference. It was a very nice experience. I frankly had no idea what a Mensa conference would look like. Would it be a crowd of severely and profoundly gifted people? Would there be a surfeit of intellectual acumen and social maladjustment? As it turns out, a Mensa conference most resembles an Elder Hostel; wide-ranging programming for lots of ordinary people in sneakers and relaxed fit jeans, munching pretzels.

So to test their pop genius, in my introduction I asked the assembled to see if they could identify the ascendant Kabbalah master who uttered this insight:

"[Kabbalah] helps you confront your fears. Like, if a girl borrowed my clothes and never gave them back and I saw her wearing them months later, I could confront her."

I was about to give them multiple-choice options: A) Madonna, B) Paris Hilton, or C) Britany Spears, but I was gratified that several people knew the answer without prompting - it was Paris. These folks certainly have a very high pop-Kabbalah IQ.

I shared with them my opinion that Kabbalah is a lot like a favorite family-owned restaurant: the more success it enjoys, the more danger there is that it will go into serious decline, quality-wise. It doesn't have to be so, but the risks are great, as the Hollywood fad for Kabbalah amply demonstrates.

But I also shared with them how the authentic practitioners of Jewish mysticism are themsleves partly to blame for this. When it comes to Kabbalah, there are secrets and then there are secrets. And many Jewish mystics seem to experience an irresistible urge to put their secrets down in writing. Oh, occasionally there is a genuinely occult teaching that remains a mystery to this day. A few secret teachings, such as the meaning of the priest-king Malchizedek or the symbolism of Boaz and Yachin, the two pillars in front of Solomon's temple, remain concealed from us. Today, we have only hints of what these things signify. On the other hand, most of the sodot and razim, the great secrets of Kabbalah, are readily available to the diligent researcher.

See, the problem for people with secret revelations is that Judaism has basically put the kibosh on new revelations for the past 2300 hundred years. Since the end of institutional prophecy around 300 BCE, the power of revelation has been, as the Talmud puts it, "given over to children and madmen." Judaism has a "parenthetical" theology - though we are bracketed by the past experience and future promise of direct revelations from the Blessed Holy One, we now live in an era when God chooses not to speak to us. So when a Kabbalist gets a new insight (by means of a bat kol, a visitation of Elijah, or a vision) into the supernal realms, the divine plan or the cosmic order, how does he convey it in a way that will be taken seriously?

The solution is to publish - but not in his own name. Thus Jewish esoteric texts have a long tradition of pseudepigraphia, of the authorship of a work being credited or ascribed to a worthy figure of the past. Examples are legion: Enoch, a book composed in Late Antiquity, is credited to the anti-deluvian patriarch of the same name, Sefer Yetzirah is credited to Abraham, Sefer Raziel to Adam (who got it through the angel Raziel) and Sefer Zohar to Shimon bar Yochai. By crediting the authorship to a time and place where revelation was commonplace, the teaching has a greater chance of getting a serious hearing from its readers. The end result, however, is that whatever secret knowledge you may holding on to is now accessible to anyone who is literate. Admittedly, in the ancient and medieval world that meant that it was still inaccessible to the bulk of the population, but as literacy spread, so did any "secret." By the Renaissance, everyone and his brother was privy to the secret teachings of Jewish Kabbalah, giving rise to Christian "Cabbalah" and, later, spiritualist and theosophical "Qabbalah." And now we have things like the Kabbalah Centre, with offices on three continents.

Is having the secrets out good or bad? What can I say? I've got a book and a blog devoted to such mysteries, so I guess on balance I think it's a good thing. I just recommend caution. Kabbalah has teachings that are certainly useful to us today, but one has to be a thoughtful consumer. Authentic insight still requires more than just a search engine and the fee for a weekend seminar. There is no lazy man's path to enlightenment in Jewish tradition.

Learn more by consulting Prophecy, Pseudepigraphia, Secret and Vision in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[Illustration: The priests offer the birkat kohanim. Die Buch der Bibel by E.M. Lilien]


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