Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction

Joseph Dan sets himself an imposing task in “Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction.” In a little more than 100 pages, he races through more than a thousand years of Jewish religious texts, explaining a vast, amorphous body of beliefs and practices that have influenced Freemasons, Hasidim, Carl Jung, New Age gurus and, more recently, Hollywood celebrities. It’s quite a performance, carried off with only a few stumbles.

“There is hardly a Jewish idea that cannot be described as ‘kabbalistic’ with some justification,” writes Dan, a professor of kabbalah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The subject is elusive, and kabbalistic thought has taken so many twists and turns over the centuries that it makes more sense, Dan argues, to speak of kabbalahs, in the plural.

To clarify, Dan begins at the beginning, on Mount Sinai, where Moses received the word of God in the Torah. The word kabbalah comes from the Hebrew for receive (in Israel it identifies the reception desk in every hotel and the receipt in every restaurant). For a thousand years, Dan writes, when Jews referred to the kabbalah, they meant the divine truth revealed to Moses.

In the Middle Ages, however, Jewish scholars in Spain and Provence, and somewhat later in Italy, claimed to possess secret scriptural knowledge that originated with Moses and was passed down orally through the centuries. These scholars and exegetes, later known as kabbalists, dealt especially with two sections of the Torah whose public discussion is forbidden by the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition followed by Orthodox Jews. The first, from Genesis, describes the creation of the world; the second, from the Book of Ezekiel, describes Ezekiel’s vision of the celestial chariot.

Over the centuries, the kabbalists, incorporating ideas first expressed in nonkabbalistic treatises dating from late antiquity, worked out a complex interpretation of the divine order and its creation. They described the kingdom of heaven and, in a few treatises, explained how humans can ascend to “face God in his glory.”

Medieval kabbalists envisioned a universe arranged hierarchically in 10 divine emanations, called sefirot, and developed numerical, alphabetical and metaphorical correspondences among them.

Dan helpfully sorts out the most influential kabbalistic concepts, especially the notion that individual human actions can influence the divine order and bring about the tikkun, or redemption.

This idea gained tremendous force, and, Dan writes, “penetrated all aspects of Jewish culture.” It remains central to ultra-orthodox Judaism today.

In “Riddles of Existence,” Earl Conee and Theodore Sider, forming a metaphysical tag team, throw themselves at 10 perennial problems in philosophy. In brief chapters, the authors, both philosophy professors, pose a question (Does God exist? What is time?) and then explain, for a general audience, different ways of answering it. They offer a series of hors d’oeuvres for intellectual diners not quite ready to commit to a full philosophical meal.

There are no answers. Or rather, there are too many answers. The entertainment value lies in picking one’s way through ingenious arguments, encountering along the way basic ideas like the law of the excluded middle and the principle of sufficient reason.

Conee and Sider like to start with a common-sense, real-life question – Why is the person in my baby picture the same as the person I see in the mirror today? – and then pick apart the comfortable assumptions that carry most of us through life.

The questions are big. Do things occur by accident or necessity? Do humans have free will? Why does anything exist? Nothing is resolved, but a lot is discussed, and some famous arguments, like St. Anselm’s devilishly clever proof of the existence of God, are presented clearly and understandably. Each chapter ends with a short reading list for those who wish to travel further. Those who do not will at least know that “Back to the Future” is, metaphysically, incoherent in its presentation of time, while the first “Terminator” movie is a model of philosophical thought.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, USA
Dec. 29, 2005 Book Review
William Grimes

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday January 1, 2006.
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