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Adin Steinsaltz and the Kabbalah

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-03-19

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

A few weeks ago I chaired a meeting at the very successful Jewish Book Week in London at which Adin Steinsaltz was scheduled to speak about Kabbalah.

For those of you who don’t know of him, he is one of the most creative Jewish scholars of our generation. His translation of The Talmud first into Modern Hebrew and then into English is a major contribution to Jewish scholarship and he established a veritable private industry in Jewish publications of various degrees of scholarship and popularity. His educational broadcasts on Israel radio and television are jewels of content and style.

He is remarkable because he comes from a non-religious background and is largely self-taught. He is incredibly broad-minded. He is not one of those yahoos who refuse to speak to people whom he might disagree with on the stupid grounds that this accords their views his recognition or approval. He has received the one true accolade that confirms both his greatness and originality. He has been rejected by the Ultra Orthodox world and his Talmud excluded from their Yeshivot. But he is also something of an eccentric. His pixie like presence can be incredibly stimulating but sometimes he can wander off in strange directions and get lost in his own genius.

Before we were due to appear to a crowded room, we had a few moments together and that was when he dropped his bombshell.

‘I refuse to talk about the Kabbalah.’ He said.

‘You can’t do that.’ I said ‘There’s a packed audience out there waiting to hear you talk about the Kabbalah.’

‘I did not agree to talk about the Kabbalah, no-one consulted me, and I’m not going to.’ He replied.

‘What will you talk about then?’

‘The Elephant and the Jewish problem. Anything but not Kabbalah.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I do not want to discuss Madonna.’

The organizers were getting frantic.

‘Leave it me.’ I reassured them.

I said ‘Adin, if you don’t, I will have to at least give an introduction. So I will talk about the Kabbalah and then you can go ahead and talk about whatever you want.’

And that was what happened. Except that in my introduction I made sure I put forward some highly contentious theories that I was pretty sure he would be unhappy with. And so it was. As soon as I had finished, he started up

‘Well I can’t agree with a lot of what you have said’ and then proceeded to talk about the Kabbalah! There are many ways to skin a cat.

The Kabbalah is in fact another way of talking about the mystical aspect of Judaism that goes back to Ezekiel in Babylon two and a half thousand years ago, the Dead Seas Sects of two thousand and flourished in Northern Spain a thousand years ago as a very distinct and complex system of mystical thought.

In addition to the theoretical, there is the practical, exercises in meditation, contemplation and ecstatic ways of reaching out beyond our physical and mental limitations to reach God. Sadly it has also acquired various ancillary sub sections devoted to magic, hocus pocus, astrology and all the other forms of delusion and support structures that so many insecure human beings seem to need so desperately.

One of the things I had mentioned was that I had always strongly objected to in the theoretical aspect of mystical thought in Judaism was the idea reiterated in the Kabbalah that only Jews have Divine Souls, all others have Animal Souls. How would he deal with this issue?

His reply, which did not exactly answer the specific problem, was for me the highlight of the event. He said that in life there are different modalities of existence, the physical, mystical/spiritual and the Divine. In Christianity and some philosophical approaches to Judaism, the physical is at the bottom, and then comes the spiritual and then the Divine. This is typically Greek with its insistence on the superiority of mind/spirit over the physical/material world.

In Kabbalah these different worlds, souls, are all parallel and each has its own specific characteristics and summits as well as pitfalls. The physical is no more better or worse than the spiritual. Everything comes from the same source and in the Torah the same word is used to describe both. The animal soul is no lesser than the Divine.  This was such a contrast to the usual clichés about religiosity being automatically on a higher level. It also explained to me why it is that so often religion fails and its leaders seem to embody the opposite of spirituality. We are so used to thinking in vertical terms that we automatically assume that religion is on a higher level. Sadly it isn’t necessarily. Everyone is capable of rising or sinking regardless of weather his or her starting point is physical or mystical. Everyone then regardless of the greatness of his or her minds, bodies or souls has a journey to make. And we all have our starting points regardless of how different they may be. Sadly most humans don’t even begin the journey.

I’ve always disliked Spaniards for being so devoted to inflicting ritualized cruelty on bulls. Crippling an animal and then provoking it to fight whole teams of tormentors and butchers, however elegantly dressed, strikes me as saying something about the psyche of the devotees, much as does fox hunting, hare coursing, dog fighting and bear baiting.

Their response to the latest outrage of Islamic murderers is typical of bullies and craven. Run away. Can you imagine if in Britain after the first Nazi bombing raids we would have all voted Churchill out on the grounds that by declaring war (he didn’t of course but you get the point) he was to blame for the casualties? But then we have never had a Franco thank God.

Shabbat Shalom