Posts Tagged 'Kabbalah'

Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self

2014-07-24_14453922An academic article of mine was published yesterday in the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ed. James R. Lewis), titled Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self. To quote the first paragraph, I try "to explore the rise of what can be called ‘the utilitarian self’ in the contemporary spirituality arena in Israel. This social reality, which has its origins in the religious field of late nineteen century America, is in Judaic social circles quite a recent development, and has begun to play a significant part of Israeli contemporary spirituality only since the 1990’s. I would like to suggest that the proliferation of certain Neo-Kabbalah and Neo-Hasidic movements since the 1990’s is indicative of its rise. By examining these we can better understand the utilitarian self, which lies at their background and presents the cultural conditions for their popularity."

I use the works of current Orthodox Neo-Hasidic popularizes of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Rabbis Israel Isaac Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron, to understand how the adjustments and modifications they had made to Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbodedut practice reflect the growing prominence of the utilitarian self as a religious reality. I then continue with the non-Orthodox Neo-Kabbalistic movements – Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre and Rabbi Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch – which fashion an up-to-date version of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s socialist Kabbalah, and also display such an interpretation of the spiritual path.

The article ends with an attempt to place the above analysis within a theoretical framework that seeks to understand the roots and development of the utilitarian self. I see it as a particular hybrid of the Romantic spirit and Enlightenment rationalism, joined together by the auspiciousness of capitalist instrumental reason. It represents the current fascination with finding ways – indeed "methods" or "techniques" – which will allow one to actualize and exercise her or his “hidden” or “unrealized” capabilities in order to undergo an inner transformation and maximize the external conditions of her or his life.

The article is part of a special issue of the journal dedicated to Israeli contemporary spirituality, edited by Shai Feraro. You can fine the entire issue here. My article can be downloaded here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its final vertion and full text are here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

Death of a Neo-Kabbalist: Philip Berg passes away

The note on Berg's death (his wife Karen to the left) from The Kabbalah Center's site - click picture to get there

I haven’t written for a while, all due to an academic paper I am toiling at and absolutely must finish soon, which deals with a certain aspect of current spirituality in Israel. Just as I was writing, and just as I reached the part dealing with Neo-Kabbalah (Bnei Baruch, The Kabbalah Centre), came word of the passing of Phillip Berg, founder of The Kabbalah Centre. If I were into Kabbalah I would of course have deduced that this is no coincidence, but rather a sign and an omen and message and a signal, but I’m not really into that, and so I won’t deduce. What I will do is write, because ignoring this occasion isn’t an option.

It is not an option, because Phillip Berg is probably the greatest popularizer of Kabbalah ever. No man in human history showed such tenacity and creativity in spreading “the wisdom of Kabbalah” in every direction possible, including the addition of women and non-Jews to the circle of Kabbalah. Berg built an empire of Kabbalah that numbers tens of thousands of members, who are active in over forty centers worldwide, from Hong Kong, through Tel Aviv and Berlin to Buenos Aires.

The fiscal value of ‘The Kabbalah Centre’ is currently estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars (some two and a half years ago an investigation against the center was launched by the IRS), at it serves as a magnet for Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the echoes of The Kabbalah Centre reach far beyond its registered (and paying) members, and Berg’s phenomenal success in getting multitudes of people interested in the Jewish teachings of the occult brings Jewish content into the spiritual field of our times, which is mostly dominated by variations of Christianity and imports from Oriental religions.

Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah

Rabbi Yehuda Leib AshlagLike other branches of the neo-Kabbalist explosion since the 1990’s, Berg is the spiritual offspring – spiritual bastard, some would no doubt say – of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag. Rabbi Ashlag (1885-1955), one of the greatest Kabbalists of the twentieth century, was born in Warsaw to an upper-class Hassidic family and was exposed fairly early in life both to Kabbalah and the scientific and ideological developments of the fin de siècle. In 1921 he arrived in mandatory Palestine and spent the rest of his life in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv developing his interpretation of Kabbalah and in attempts to disseminate it.

Ashlag presented a modern interpretation to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah, combining a Hegelian historical perception, a Marxist vision and psychological insights. One can say that he “stood Marx on his head,” for although he borrowed from him the vision of an egalitarian, collectivist society, he added to Marxism the Kabbalist exegesis regarding the inner structure and logic according to which the world works, including the necessity of divine influence on human transformation that must occur in the course of achieving a model society. For Ashlag, general salvation meant a collective transcending of man over his egotistical needs.

To elaborate, the shift from egocentric life to an altruistic existence can occur, according to Ashlag, only by the spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah and its mass study. When the denizens of the world realize that Kabbalah gives them the only key to understanding the universe, they will clearly see the need to erect an egalitarian society that cares for the needs of its individuals. Then they will be free to observe the commandments and concentrate on “bestowing” – bestowing plenty on others – which will bring about their metamorphosis from egotistical beings to altruistic ones – that is, for Ashlag, divine ones. This will launch a new era of peace and brotherly love. (For further reading, see “Altruistic Communism – Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah” by Boaz Huss, here [Heb, PDF].)

The Extended Ashlag Family

click to enlarge

Although he tried, Rabbi Ashlag failed during his lifetime in breaking through the walls of the ultra-orthodox society and spreading his teachings further. But he had students whose followers do so today with great success, even if they are hostile to one another. In the above diagram (and also here) you can see the distribution of the tree of sons and students of Rabbi Ashlag to this day. Legend: Vertical – generational sequence; Straight lines connect fathers and sons; broken lines connect teacher and student; the dotted line connects husband and wife; To the left of the broken vertical line are the followers of Ashlag whose view of Halakha is unorthodox. It must be stressed that these are only Ashlag’s central followers. If anyone spots an error, I shall be glad to be corrected.

And so, on the right are various Ashlag brothers and ultra-orthodox Ashlag students (The Ashlag brothers fought amongst themselves over the copyrights to their father’s writings). A little to the left, Adam Sinai and Yuval HaCohen Asherov represent two different organizations for the dissemination of Ashlagian Kabbalah: Sinai with HaSulam and Asherov as the student of Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, who himself heads the ultra-orthodox/Ashlagian village Or HaGanuz. Other students of Sheinberger not mentioned here are Moshe Sharon and Rabbi Arik Naveh.

Among the “Left Ashlagians,” if I may call them such, there are currently two very large neo-Kabbalistic movements, and several others of lesser scope. Rabbi Michael Laitman, who studied with Berg early in his career, went to study later from Ashlag’s son, Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, apparently due to criticism he had regarding what he saw as Berg’s overly liberal interpretation of his master’s teachings. After Baruch Ashlag passed away, Laitman founded Bnei Baruch, where he offers the same liberal interpretation, more or less. I have written about Bnei Baruch previously on this blog.

On the left we also find Shaul Youdkevitch, a student of Berg’s who recently left The Kabbalah Centre and started a Kabblah center of his own. The sole woman in this diagram is Karen Berg, who currently runs The Kabbalah Centre, and her sons from Phillip, Yehudah and Michael, who also run the Kabbalah empire at present, and look certain to keep running it in the future.

Neo-Kabbalah and pseudo-science in the land of endless opportunities

Neo-Kabbalistic red stringBerg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in 1927 (or 1929) in Brooklyn. He was ordained as an orthodox rabbi at age 22, worked as an insurance broker and made quite a fortune in real-estate. In the 1960’s he began to study Kabbalah, first from Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Krakovski, a direct student of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag (who also received his permission to leave Israel and spread Kabbalah among US Jewry, placing his children in orphanages for the purpose). Then he lived for a while in Israel, and studied under Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Brandwein. He became Brandwein’s right-hand man, and went to the US to raise funds to spread Ashlagian Kabbalah. In 1965 he established the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah in New York, which would later become his Center for Kabbalah.

Brandwein passed away in 1969. Berg, after getting divorced and remarrying the current Karen Berg, embarked on an independent path and began attempting to spread Kabbalah in his own. At first he distributed books by Krakovski and Brandwein, but as of the 1980’s began writing Kabbalah books on his own. In her excellent book (although somewhat too favorable to my taste) about The Kabbalah Centre, Jody Myers follows the evolution of Berg’s teachings (for instance, by tracking changes in different editions of his books): At first we find popular Kabbalah intended for Jews, which emphasizes its connection to the Halakha. From the 1990’s onwards it becomes a universal wisdom intended for all mankind whose connection to Halakha is tenuous at best. Unsurprisingly, from the nineties onwards The Kabbalah Centre experienced phenomenal growth.

It was not only the targeting of non-Jews which produced the impressive business growth. As of the nineties the Kabbalah offered by Berg underwent a general re-branding. It was then that Berg began to emphasize the utilitarian nature of Kabbalah for the individual: Kabbalah, he taught, enables each of us to achieve spiritual development, peace and serenity, finding true love, economic prosperity and physical well-being. All this goodness will certainly come to us, for Kabbalah according to Berg is after all a science. The Kabbalistic science also enables the production of “Technology for the Soul” (a Kabbalah Centre trademark) in the form of red laces ($26), holy water ($2) or a set of The Zohar books ($415). Thus, quite ironically, Berg used Rabbi Ashlag’s altruistic Kabbalah in order to sell utilitarian, egocentric self-help spirituality to the masses.

This was the background for Rabbi Professor Arthur Green attacked Berg fiercely two years ago, arguing that he took the dregs from Kabbalah, rather than the cream. Instead of spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah, he exploited the fears and dreams of his students to sell them a package containing pop-psychology, superstition and magic, all wrapped in a greedily-priced string of red wool. The tradition of Kabbalah deserves better, Green concluded. One may say that Berg turned Kabbalah into a Jewish version of Yoga, or the various forms of Oriental meditation – that is, a universal “method” expropriated from its traditional context and repackaged for the Western capitalist market.

But let us return to Berg himself. In the year 2000 the Kabbalist Rabbi announced that Kabbalah, in essence, guarantees eternal life. In his book Immortality: The Inevitability of Eternal Life published in that year, he ties the unison of awareness of Kabbalistic Messianism with the unison of body cells and their transformation into embryonic stem cells, which guarantees not only the blissful union of our awareness with the divine spirit but also the prolonging of our physical lives for ever and ever. This neo-Kabbalistic, pseudo-scientific, hyper-capitalistic spiritual babble took a frying pan to the face when Berg himself suffered a brain stroke in 2004. The disillusion caused several members of the Centre to withdraw, but most accepted the explanation that Berg was needed for holy endeavors in heaven, and was therefore neglecting his corporeal body on earth. His death no doubt completes his summons to heaven. As befitting a Kabbalist, he was buried in Safed.

Modern Kabbalah, Post-Modern Neo-Kabbalah

Hebrew Kabbalistic name of God tattooed on Britney Spears' neckWhat is the difference, then, between Kabbalah and Neo-Kabbalah? As mentioned briefly above, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag’s Kabbalah was already a modernist Kabbalah (I have written about this (Heb) regarding Rabbi Sheinberger’s “Ummah” movement). So, for instance, is Rabbi Kook’s Kabbalah, as he was also greatly influenced by modern philosophy and even more so, by the zeitgeist of his time. Thus it would be incorrect to compare Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah (or Rabbi Laitman’s) to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah and find great differences, since the Kabbalah of Ashlag and Kook is also very different from Luria’s. And yet, we can easily point out several important differences between Berg’s Kabbalah and that of his teacher, Rabbi Ashlag.

First and foremost, of course, would be the connection to the commandments and the commitment to halacha. With Berg there is no necessary connection and no commitment. Second, and no less significant, the focus on the individual and his or her spiritual development rather than on the higher worlds and their correction. The openness towards non-Jews and women is also an important difference, as is the turning of Kabbalah into the centerpiece of a religious movement that is deliberately and consciously not part of Judaism as a religious tradition or a nation.

All this does not mean, despite all the reservations that many of us apparently feel toward it, that this is a Kabbalah that is not a legitimate offspring of Jewish tradition. It should also be said that alongside reports of financial exploitation, many report that the movement has helped them bring order into their lives and has done them good. And yet, it is likely that The Kabbalah Centre will continue its current trend of being more of a business than a spiritual movement, and as Arthur Green has written, Kabbalah deserves better.

Sources

How Kabbalah shaped the Mormon faith

Joseph Smith

Mormonism is a subject of fascination to Americans and the rest of the world. Its unusual sets of beliefs were widely discussed and studied long before U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney strode onto the national stage. Less well known and studied is the way the doctrine is shot through with kabbalistic beliefs.

In a book from the early 1990s, "The American Religion," literary critic Harold Bloom mourned the transformation of respectable American Protestantism into a Gnostic dispensary of fundamentalism. To Bloom, the religion of Europe’s Puritans had grown wild and unrestrained in the liberated soil of America. This, he said, led to the flowering of all sorts of strange religious movements, like Christian evangelism, various New Age movements and, of course, Mormonism.

Bloom was particularly interested in Joseph Smith, the religion’s founding prophet. He had created a truly “American religion,” writes Bloom, which taught religious devotion to family, community and financial success.

In addition to being a talented and original theologian and a highly charismatic figure, Joseph Smith was the source of many of the esoteric theories pervading the North American continent in the first half of the 19th century. And, his theories were colored by the supernatural-theological worldview of the kabbala.

Citing the many points of similarity between Mormonism and kabbala, Bloom posits the “more direct influence of the kabbala on Smith than what we know.”

This would help explain the extreme divergences between Smith’s views and those of the conventional Protestant denominations that were his jumping off point.

The opening page of 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700), from which Joseph Smith studied Kabbalah

God’s wife

According to Smith’s theology, the God who controls our world was once a human like us. He had a spouse and the two of them had corporeal bodies of flesh and blood. God is a model for men on earth in that every Mormon is also capable of becoming a deity of his own star along with his wife. This, of course, implies that there are many gods who rule over many stars.

Smith held that his doctrine was the recounting of the esoteric knowledge revealed to the first human, Adam, by the deity of our star. From Adam, God’s wisdom was passed down through the generations, passing through Noah, Abraham, Moses and the ancient Hebrew priests and finally, was revealed to Smith’s followers.

The purpose of the doctrine is to facilitate the realization of human potential by transforming men into gods. This notion is not just foreign, but in fact, antithetical to the Puritan Christianity from which it emerged.

Puritanism saw man as a vessel full of guilt and disgrace. Born into sin, the best this wretched creature could hope for was to claw his way toward salvation through shamefaced submission to the Son of God. Man was light-years away from being some sort of galactic deity.

What Smith was offering his followers was a stark alternative to the severe and ascetic Christianity of Puritanism. He promised them the renewal of prophecy, the building of paradise on Earth and ultimate personal empowerment. As an added bonus, he threw polygamy into the deal.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

Jesus’ second coming, in America

Joseph Smith was born in 1805, the fifth of 11 children from an impoverished family in Vermont. When he was 14, following a period of severe mental distress, Smith had his first vision where the deity himself assured him that his sins had been forgiven. Along with this, God warned him not to join any of the churches in the vicinity because they all distorted the true word of the Bible.

In 1823, three years after his first vision, Smith fell to his knees again and called out to God for guidance in the depths of another mental crisis. This time the angel Moroni appeared before him and told him that he was the last survivor of an ancient Hebrew civilization that arrived on the shores of North America at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These ancient Israelites did what Jews always do and fought amongst themselves until one sub-group among them (henceforth known as the evil ones) put to the sword the members of the other group (the good ones) and annihilated them.

The evil ones, after being cursed by God, developed over time into the different tribes of American Indians. All that was left of the good ones were the tablets of gold upon which were engraved their history in the ancient Egyptian language.

The angel Moroni directed Smith to the spot where these tablets were buried and instructed him to dig them out of the ground. After Smith laid his hands on the tablets he immediately began translating the ancient Egyptian writing on them. The result was an impressively broad volume containing hundreds of pages of narration that told the history of the bad ones and good ones.

Perhaps even more importantly, this narrative also included the second coming of Jesus Son of God to humanity – an event that occurred on American soil before these very same ancient Hebrews who had reached America. This was “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as was proclaimed in the sub-heading of the Mormon’s holy book. Clinging to his holy book, Smith went out to acquire believers. He succeeded well beyond his expectations.

In order to understand the secret of Smith’s success – and the success of his bible – it is worth taking a step a back and gaining a bird’s-eye view of the above-mentioned occurrences and placing them in their proper context. This period was the peak of the Second Awakening in the United States, a period of religious revival during which many Americans joined various Protestant denominations. Around Smith, the religious muses were ubiquitous, with new prophets popping up seemingly from under every tree.

Not far from the home of Smith, Jemima Wilkinson exhorted sexual abstinence and fidelity to the Ten Commandments. Handsome Lake, a Native American prophet, preached fiercely against alcohol, witchcraft, gambling, violence against women and homosexuality. There was Joseph Dylkes, who announced that he was the Messiah who had come to rebuild Jerusalem; George Rapp, who established a community of religious hermits and announced the approach of the Second Coming of Jesus; Bernhard Muller, who dubbed himself the "Lion of Judah" and declared himself the messiah; William Miller who founded the largest messianic movement in U.S. history and declared that Jesus would return to this world by March 1844; John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the early socialist Oneida Community, who preached about sex without ejaculation as means of achieving spiritual elevation; and of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left his position as a reverend of the Unitarian Church and commanded, “Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with the Deity!” He was a clear precursor of New Age spirituality.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

An age of prophets

The age was ripe for prophets and their followers, and Smith was no exception. His was an attempt to create a new society in which sexuality served as an important source of spirituality. He preached neither sexual abstinence nor sex without ejaculation, but polygamy. Instead of a faint promise of the future coming of the messiah, Smith’s prophecy was a megalomaniac attempt to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in the present, on Earth.

Where did Smith derive his inspiration? He was undoubtedly an exceptional person, with a vivid imagination and enormous creativity. But every creative spirit needs raw material. Smith found his in the esoteric literature of his era, which led him to the Kabbalah.

As a curious teenager, Joseph Smith was able to read a fair share of Western esoteric literature at his neighbor’s homes or in different public libraries. The esoteric literature of the period included the legacy of the Renaissance, Hermeticism, the Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, alchemy, astrology and Magic.

Hermeticism was an esoteric practice based on ancient texts that were apparently written by a god/king/prophet/ master sorcerer named Hermes Trismegistus. This Hermes was, apparently, a contemporary of Moses and revealed to humanity the secrets of the universe at the exact same time that Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites. The historical source for the more ancient parts of the hermetic corpus is found in the early centuries of the Common Era, in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria, and therefore contains a mixture of Greek and Egyptian myths.

In contrast to many Western tracts, the Hermeticism emphasized the greatness of man and the ability for the complete synthesis of spirit and matter. Based on this doctrine, the soul is a refined type of matter, and therefore this materialist and sordid life is not a thing unto itself; there is even the possibility of achieving divinity without separating from life.

"You are the light and the life, as God the Father from which man was born," states Hermes, echoing similarities with Mormon theology.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

Kabbalah for Christians

With respect to the Kabbalah mentioned here, this wasn’t the same Kabbalah diligently pored over by the students of the Vilna Gaon or the Lubavitch Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism, during this time period, but rather the Kabbalah translated into the vernacular for a Christian readership. In the eyes of the Christians who were interested in it, the Kabbalah was thought to be the secret Torah that Moses gave to Joshua, and from him to the elders of Israel, and from them to the prophets. But unlike traditional rabbinic Judaism, the Christians believed that the Kabbalah was also given to the Israelite priests. The inclusion of the ancient Israelite priests was likely due to every story about the Temple in Jerusalem being seen by Christians as having some esoteric and mystical value (this was also true for the Freemasons, another movement that flowered around the same time). The Christian Kabbalah included different translations of the Hebrew texts into vernacular with additional commentary that presented it as a universal bible that in practice was philosophically Perennialist (meaning, that it stands at the base of all human knowledge).

Smith’s interest in the Hermeticism and the Kabbalah alone are enough to shed light on the sentence found at the beginning of the Mormon cannon, in the Book of Nephi, the first volume of the Book of Mormon. After the first verse in which the narrator presents himself, the second verse states: “I will make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” The Jews were a muse to Joseph Smith. The use of “the language of the Egyptians” ties the Book of Mormon to Hermeticism.

The comprehensive research of Michael Quinn — a historian of the Mormon religion and follower himself whose research findings led him to be kicked out of the Mormon church — paints a portrait of Smith as a fairly committed esotericist, despite his eclectic and autodidactic education. The world of the young Mormon prophet included astrology, Magic, the preparations of talismans, trading in holy relics, remote viewing and especially, prophetic visions.

Quinn demonstrates different links between Smith’s prophecies and the book, “Traditions of the Jews," written by the anti-Semite Johann Andreas Eisenmenger that was translated from German into English in the 18th century. It appears that this book taught Smith that the Hebrew word for God (elohim) is actually written in plural form, an understanding that aided the development of his anti-monotheistic theology, which explicitly acknowledges a plurality of gods.

Other books in Smith’s environment hybridized the kabbalistic meaning of “original man” (the first emanation of the divinity after its contraction) and the biblical meaning of “Adam” (as the first human, in the Garden of Eden). This compound meaning was passed onto Smith, apparently leading him to view the first human as a being with godly powers, and Adam’s descendants – that is, today’s humans — as having a latent potential for godhood.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

A Jewish convert to Mormonism

Above and beyond the books Smith read, it appears that much of his education on the secret Jewish Bible was acquired from a Jew named Alexander Neibaur, who arrived on the shores of the U.S. from London and converted to the faith of the Mormon prophet. As Moshe Idel writes in his book “Olam Ha’malakhim” (“World of Angels”), we have in our hands a list of Neibaur’s books, which include several important works of Kabbalah. The encounter between these two figures occurred in 1841, and between 1842 and 1843 the official Mormon newspaper published articles on Kabbalah, some of them written by the Jewish convert, mentioning, for example, the book “The Sohar” (referring to “The Zohar,” widely considered to be the most important book of Kabbalah.) It seems Smith learned from Neibaur to take the first verse of the Bible, “At first God was created” and to interpret it in one of his last teachings as the invitations issued by the chief god to the other gods to a supreme council in which the creation of man and the transfer of the secrets of eternal life to him and his descendants were discussed.

Smith had one purpose, to renew the Israelite nation of yore. For this purpose, prophecy was renewed, priestly orders were established, and temples (not churches) were built. Even the polygamy of the Patriarchs was renewed. Smith wanted to build "Zion" on American soil. Smith spoke of a new society, where people would share their property, and were faithful to the true Bible coming from the lips of their leader. The same leader, Smith, pretended to rule this utopia as a “prophet, priest and king” entrusted by God to be responsible for the fate of his subjects.

In 1844, after they were chased out and expelled from Missouri, tens of thousands of Mormons moved on to Illinois. There, Smith established the city of Nauvoo, which grew rapidly and soon numbered more than 10,000 inhabitants, approximately the size of Chicago at the time. Smith himself was the city’s mayor, and when the harassment of the Mormons began again he announced his candidacy for the U.S.presidency. in elections scheduled that year. His secret plan was to annul the separation of church and state after his election and to establish a kingdom of priests, with himself at its head. Several months later, he was killed in a lynching.

In his book, Harold Bloom writes that “If there is already in place any authentic version of the American Religion then, as Tolstoy surmised, it must be Mormonism, whose future as yet may prove decisive for the nation, and for more than this nation alone.”

Bloom perceived with his sharp senses that the esoteric path to godhood (or at least to economic success) in our days added up to much more of an ethos than penance for Original Sin.

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Published in Haaretz, 5.10.12


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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