In recent years there is a remarkable resurgence of interest in Kabbalah and an unprecedented revival of Kabbalistic practices. The emergence of the New Kabbalah in the last decades of the 20th century coincides with the emergence of New Age movements, and many New Age themes appear in various contemporary Kabbalah movements. In this presentation, I will examine the revival of Kabbalah, especially in Israel, and will investigate the relation between contemporary Kabbalah and the New Age. I will demonstrate that central characteristics of New Age culture appear not only amongst contemporary Kabbalists who explicitly use New Age themes but also amongst Kabbalists who are perceived of as presenting more traditional forms of Jewish mysticism. I will argue that the similarities and relations between Contemporary Kabbalah and New Age are dependent on the postmodern nature of both these phenomena. Following the observations of Fredrik Jameson and other theoreticians of the postmodern condition, and using an expression coined by Hugh Urban, I will argue that the New Age of Kabbalah reflects the spiritual logic of late Capitalism.
The recent revival of Kabbalistic doctrines and practices follows a period in which Kabbalah was rejected from mainstream Israeli and Jewish cultures. Kabbalah, that occupied an important place in late medieval and early modern Jewish cultures, was vehemently attacked by the Jewish enlightenment movement, and lost its centrality in modern hegemonic Jewish cultures. Although various forms of Kabbalah were still practiced in traditional communities in the modern era, and notwithstanding the neo-romantic interest in Kabbalah in late 19th and early 20th century, Kabbalah occupied a peripheral place in Jewish and Israeli cultures during most of the 20th century. Israeli hegemonic culture, as well as the dominant Jewish movements in America, did not find much interest in Kabbalah, and marginalized the traditional circles – ultra orthodox and Mizrahi communities, in which Kabbalah was still revered and practiced. The Academic study of Kabbalah, founded by Gershom Scholem was highly regarded, yet, it was limited to philological-historical research, practiced by a small circle of scholars.
Starting in the late 70's and early 80`s of the last century a major shift occurred in the place of Kabblah and Jewish Mysticism in Israeli society, in American Jewish communities, and in Western Culture. In recent years, numerous Kabbalistic Yeshivot, institutes and study groups operate in Israel, America and Europe, in which thousands of people study and practice Kabbalah. Thousands of books about Kabbalah were published in the last decades, and hundreds of Kabbalistic internet sites can be found on the Web.
The contemporary revival of Kabbalah in Israel is a wide ranging phenomenon. The interest in and practice of Kabbalah appear in all segments of Israeli Jewish society – Ashkenzim and Mizrachim, Ultra orthodox, National Religious, and Secular, native Israelis as well as new immigrants, low income sectors as well as the rich and the famous. It is difficult, if not impossible to try and chart contemporary Kabbalah according to sociological or ideological parameters. Indeed, it seems that contemporary Kabbalah defies classifications according to social, ethnic or ideological criteria. Most contemporary Kabbalistic movements are eclectic, and combine practices and doctrines taken from different Kabbalistic traditions. The social composition of the Kabbalistic movements is hybrid and there are only partial correlations between social or ethnic groups and the Kabbalistic ideologies they adopt. Thus, for instance, the Kabbalah of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the 20th century Kabbalist who emigrated from Warsaw to Palestine in the 1920's, and developed a highly complex communist-kabbalistic system, is studied today in Ultra Orthodox circles, by new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as by secular Israelis. In National Religious circles there is interest in the mystical aspects of Rabbi Kook writings, as well as in the Kabbalah of R. Isaac Ginzburg, the American born charismatic Ba'al Tehsuva who became a Habad Hasid, and developed an ultra-national Hasidic Kabbalah. Interestingly, amongst his students, one finds not only radical right-wing settlers from the occupied territories, but also secular Jews from the geographic and social center of Israeli society. R. Yakov Ifargan, known as the X-ray (ha-Rentgen), a young Israeli Kabbalist who operates in the southern development town Netivot, and is best known for his prognostic and healing powers, draws to his midnight Tikkun ceremonies and private interviews a mixed crowd of low in-come Mizrahi admirers from Netivot and other peripheral areas, well-to-do ashkenazy professionals, including high profile business men, politicians and celebrities, as well as a group of Braslav Hasidim. The eclectic and hybrid nature of the New Kabbalah is, as I will soon argue, one of its post-modern characteristics. But, before turning to examine contemporary Kabbalah as a postmodern spiritual phenomenon, I would like to discuss its connection to the New Age movement.
As I mentioned earlier the resurgence of the new interest in Kabbalah coincides with the emergence of New Age Phenomena. In various New Age movements, especially in Israel, but also elsewhere, there is interest in and use of Kabbalistic themes. Articles about Kabbalah are published in the main Israeli New Age Journal Hayyim Aherim, sections and forums dealing with Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism appear in many Hebrew New Age portals and web sites, and many Kabbalistic services and products are sold in the major annual New Age fair in Israel, `Alternativa`.
Many of the leaders and clients of the new Kabbalah movements belonged previously to New Age movements, and many still participate in New Age activities. Thus, for instance, Yigal Aricha, the author of the 1996 best seller `Kabbalah be-Or Bahir`, published a typical New Age book, entitled `Passport for the time traveler, one year earlier. Rabbi Michael Leitman, the leader of the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah movement, who immigrated to Israel from Russia in the 70's, and studied with R. Yehuda Ashlag's son, Rabbi Baruch, recently sponsored public screenings of the recent New Age Movie, `What the Blip Do We Know`. A center for alternative medicine, called Elima operates in Or ha-Ganuz, a Kabbalistic communal village in the upper Galilee, whose members study and live according to the Kabbalah of R.Yehuda Ashlag. Some of the contemporary Kabbalah movements, including Bnei Baruch and Or ha-Ganuz, participated in the New Age `Alternativa` fair, which I mentioned above.
Several New Kabbalah movements integrate explicit New Age terminology and themes in their doctrines and practices. R. Shraga Philip Berg, who studied Kabbalah with R. Yheuda Ashlag's principal disciple, R. Yehuda Brandwein, and founded the Kabbalah Center after his death, used typical New Age terminology in his very first publications in the 70`s, and identified the messianic era as the Age of Aquarius. Yigal Aricha, whom I mentioned above, used extensive New Age themes in his best Seller, `Kabbalah be-Or Bahir`. The chapters in his book deal with: `Kabbalah and Astrology`, `The Age of Aquarius`, `Kabbalah and Science`, `Soul Energy`, and `Channeling Mystical Energy`. Major characteristics of New Age Spirituality, such as the anticipation of a spiritual cosmic transformation, the use of meditative and healing techniques to achieve such transformation, the holistic perception of reality, and the use of scientific language, are central in the teachings of the Kabbalah Center, as well as in the writings of Yigal Aricha.
New Age themes appear also in the cultural productions of R. Michael Leitman and Bnei Baruch group, who concentrate on the study and dispersion of R. Yehuda Ashlag`s Kabbalah. The belief in consciousness` power to change reality, a typical New Age idea, is central to teaching of Bnei Baruch (as well as to the Kabbalah Center). Like many New Age authors, Leitman (similar to Aricha and Berg) uses scientific vocabulary extensively, and claims that his Kabbalistic teachings are compatible with contemporary science.
The use of modern scientific vocabulary and the claim that Kabbalah and modern science are compatible is also characteristic to the teaching of R. Isaac Ginsburg, the ultra National-Hasidic Kabbalist, notorious for the book he edited in praise of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. Although Ginsburg rejects Yoga, Reiki and Tai Chi, he develops typical New Age meditative and healing practices, and one of his recent books is entitled `Body, Mind, Soul – Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing (2004). The struggle against one's Ego, and the aspiration to connect with one's inner, sanctified self – typical of what Paul Heelas called New Age `self spirituality` - are central themes in the teaching of Ginsburg, as well as of other contemporary Kabbalists. The psychological emphasis of Ginsburg's Kabbalah (which comes to the fore in the title of his book, `Transforming Darkness into Light: Kabbalah and Psychology` 2002), is not derived only from his Hasidic sources, and reflects a typical New Age tendency.
Integration of New Age themes appears also in the teachings of the Ashlagian Kabbalists of Or Ha-Ganuz. Thus, Yuval Asherov, the head of Or ha-Ganuz`s center for alternative medicine, teaches courses concerning `Chinese medicine in light of the Kabbalah`. The recent popularity of Kabbalists with prognostic and healing powers, foremost amongst them Yakov Ifargan, the X-ray, is in my opinion, a New Kabbalistic expression of the centrality of healing in New Age movements. Although the ceremonies of the X-ray may seem distant from typical New Age practices, some of his admirers recognize a resemblance between them. Thus, Zvi Alush, an Israeli journalist who published recently a hagiography of the X-ray, compares a house cleansing ritual performed by Ifargan, to Feng shui, and describes the X-ray's supernatural powers as `alternative medicine`.
The New Age characteristics of contemporary Kabbalah are partially explained by the exposure of the producers and consumers of New Kabbalah to New Age culture. Yet, I believe that the resemblance between the New Age and contemporary Kabbalah is dependent not only on the adoption of New Age themes by contemporary Kabbalists, but also on the postmodern nature of both these phenomena. New Age culture, Contemporary Kabbalah, as well as various other contemporary New Religious Movements, are, as I will turn to argue now, an expression of what Wouter Hanegraaff termed `Postmodern Spirituality`.
Although both terms - Spirituality and post-modernism - are overused, if not misused, in contemporary discourse, the notion of `Postmodern Spirituality` has significant explanatory power. The use of the term postmodern, in reference to contemporary Kabbalah and the New Age highlights their connection to other contemporary cultural formations, and anchors them to the social and economical changes of late, global Capitalism. The use of the term `post-modern spirituality` rather than, `postmodern religion`, emphasizes the difference of the New Age and of contemporary Kabbalah from `Religion` as it was perceived, and constructed, in the Modern era. However, I would like to clarify, that by using the term `postmodern` I am referring to the cultural characteristics of late Capitalism which are expressed in contemporary western Art, Literature, Architecture, Cinema, Popular music and so forth, and not to a postmodernist philosophical viewpoint or ideology. I would also like to emphasize that by using the term `Spirituality` I am not referring to any essential and universal phenomenon, that the New Age and contemporary Kabbalah are expressions of. `Spirituality', like `Religion`, is a modern, western discursive construction. Although postmodern spirituality has connections to various pre-modern and non western cultural formations, the spirituality I am speaking of is manifestly a product of the cultural logic of the second half of the 20th century.
One of the defining features of the postmodern condition, highlighted by Jean-Francois Lyotard is the collapse of the Modernist belief in grand narratives. According to Lyotard the question asked today in the contexts of acquisition of knowledge is no longer: `is it true?` but rather: `What use is it?`, a question that is equivalent to `Is it saleable` and `is it efficient`. Lyotard's observations of the acquisition of knowledge in the institutions of higher education are equally valid concerning postmodern spiritual movements.
In contradistinction to the centrality of `belief` in modern religion movements (which is dependent to a large degree on the Christian protestant perspective), postmodern spirituality is primarily practical knowledge. New Age, as well as Contemporary Kabbalah concentrates mostly on practices, such as meditations, spiritual and physical exercises, proper nutrition, and healing. Postmodern spirituality offers its consumers techniques and spiritual experience rather than articles of faith, myths, or grand narratives.
The collapse of grand narratives in postmodern culture explains also the eclectic and pluralistic nature of many of the New Age, and New Kabbalah groups, who derive their practices and techniques from a large variety of sources. The legitimacy and value of practices in postmodern spirituality is dependent on their perception as efficient rather than on their belonging to a compelling and authoritative religious or ideological system.
Observers of the postmodern condition describe a major feature of postmodern culture by the terms `pastiche`, the imitation without irony of previous styles, and `bricolage`, the combination of previous cultural productions without concealing their origin. These features comes to the fore in the eclectic and syncretistic nature of New Age and Contemporary Kabbalah, that re-cycles and re-combines signifiers and practices taken from a wider variety of sources, without concealing their origin, or trying to integrate them into a melting pot of a unified grand narrative. The blurring of distinction between `high` and popular culture, which is a distinct feature of postmodern culture is expressed in the integration of scientific terminology with popular practices, as well as in the blurring of distinctions between religion and show business which are typical to New Age and contemporary Kabbalah. Thus, we find in postmodern spiritual culture productions a combination of diverse themes such as Tarot cards and Quantums, Sefirot and Chakras, Pop star celebrities and Noble laureates.
Fredric Jameson observed that a formal feature of postmodernism is: `the emergence of a new kind of depth-less-ness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense`. Postmodernism rejects the major depth models of Modernity that distinguish between, and give positive value to, depth over surface, essence over appearance, authenticity over in-authenticity. This feature is expressed in the exoteric nature of the New Age, which manifests themes and practices derived from esoteric and occult movements openly, and sheds light on the intensive revelation and dispersion of Torat ha-Sod by contemporary Kabbalists. The adversaries of New Age and Contemporary Kabbalah denounce the depth-less-ness of postmodern spirituality as superficiality. Yet, it should be kept in mind that the negative perception of depth-less-ness is a modernist value judgment that postmodern culture defies.
A defining feature of the new spiritual movements is the perception that we are standing on the threshold of a New Age, characterized by a radical transformation of human consciousness. This sense of a dawning of new age has a parallel in the notion of academics and intellectuals that we live in a postmodern era, in which radical cultural and sociological shifts occur that alter the way we perceive and construct reality. The notion of the `New Age` expresses, I believe, a similar, reflective, sense of change as the idea of the `Post-Modern`.
The postmodern hyperspace we live in, observed Jameson, transcends our perceptual and cognitive capacities to locate ourselves in the changing external world, and to map the global de-centered communicational network in which we are caught. This new hyperspace, I cite Jameson `stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to a some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions`. The New Spiritual movements, including contemporary Kabbalah, respond to this challenge by offering a variety of meditative and healing practices that promise to expand our minds and bodies to new, unimaginable dimensions.
Finally, I would like to observe the connection between postmodern spirituality and its post industrial, global capitalistic context. The spiritual practices and production of the New Age and of contemporary Kabbalah are marketable commodities, integrated into global Capitalism’s general commodity production. Many Postmodern spiritual movements, including Kabbalistic ones, are successful global business enterprises that market their spiritual services and products for a considerable price, making the most of the advertising and marketing possibilities of late Capitalism technology and communication systems. The commodification and marketing of Spirituality and Kabbalah are ridiculed and rebuked by the opponents of New Age and contemporary Kabbalah. Yet, this negative attitude is dependent on the modernist perspective that aspires to separate the `religious` and `the spiritual` from the economic and political arena. The cultural logic of late capitalism, which is expressed in postmodern spirituality, defies this division, and does not see a contradiction between economic and spiritual value.
The New Kabbalistic movements are local manifestations of global, western, postmodern spirituality. The challenge of the New Kabbalah, as a postmodern phenomenon, to traditional and modernist perceptions stimulates a negative reaction which is sometimes expressed also by scholars of Kabbalah and Jewish studies. Yet, I believe that moral condemnation is not scholarship, and trying to understand a historical phenomenon in moral terms is a categorical mistake. On the other hand, a critical study of contemporary Kabbalah in its historical and sociological context may contribute to our understanding of the history of Kabbalistic ideas and practices and of the cultural logic that shapes our era.
Prof. Boaz Huss, Ph.D. teaches Kabbalah at the Goren-Goldstein Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is an expert of various areas of Kabbalah, including the Zohar and contemporary Kabbalah. His recent publications include: Like the radiance of the Sky: Chapters in the Reception History of the Zohar and the Construction of its Symbolic Value, Ben Zvi: Jerusalem, 2008; ‘The New Age of Kabbalah: Contemporary Kabbalah, The New Age and Postmodern Spirituality’ Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 6, 2007; `"All you Need is LAV": Madonna and Postmodern Kabbalah`, The Jewish Quarterly Review 95, 2005.