New Jewish mysticism appears on U campus

by Tammy Tucker

For many years, Americans have dug through the recesses of world religious heritage seeking an ancient, yet relevant, truth.
Jewish mysticism — like Buddhism, paganism and Hinduism before it — is the new religious trend in pop culture.
“Passion, desire, eros, the quest for union with God, the desire to see and to assist the reunification of a masculine god with his female side, represented as a bride, is precisely the issue in the case of Jewish mysticism,” said Bernard Levinson, classical and Near Eastern studies professor.
While the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, seeks to de-eroticize the life of God, Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah as it is traditionally known, seeks to restore eros to the life of God, he continued.
“I think that many of the more traditional forms of religious experience leave people empty, and for several decades now, people have been seeking alternative forms,” said Elliot Wolfson, Hebrew and Judaic studies professor at New York University who spoke at the University of Minnesota on Friday.
“People have been searching for a spiritual language that is deeper, and the interest in Kabbalah is part of that phenomena,” Wolfson said. “Also, the sense of mystery has a great attraction to people. There is something mysterious about (Kabbalah).”
Eroticism and Jewish mysticism was the topic of Wolfson’s discussion Friday. In Folwell Hall, more than 40 people — a group as eclectic as the building — gathered to hear one of the world’s foremost authorities on scholarly Jewish mysticism.
At the heart of traditional Kabbalah is an erotic, spiritual relationship with God, as written about in Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, in the Hebrew Bible, Wolfson said.
Jewish mysticism celebrates the spiritual union of God (the man) and an individual’s soul (the woman) as a nonphysical yet erotic relationship, he continued.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” the Bible book begins.
In this verse, the soul (the woman) is longing for God (the man), Wolfson said.
Many religions have mystic aspects that emphasize relationships between god and humans. The New Testament portrayed Paul’s mysticism as he sought unification with Christ. Today, ecstatic Christianity sometimes takes an evangelical form.
Classical Hinduism celebrates both the male and female aspects of Brahman, and Tantric Hinduism focuses on the role of sexuality as a path to and expression of God’s (Brahman’s) love.
Modern Jewish mysticism is very different than its original form, dating back to 12th-century Spain, Wolfson said.
For hundreds of years, only Jewish elites were allowed to study Kabbalah and only then after years of training.
Today, it is entirely different, Wolfson said. The texts are available to Jews and non-Jews alike and are available in many languages. A simple Internet search finds more than 14,000 references to Jewish mysticism.
The teachings were traditionally only available to men, Wolfson said.
Kabbalah consists of a very complex body of literature, and today’s version has been radically simplified and glamorized, Wolfson said.
Point in case: The 1997 movie “p” portrayed “an ancient aspect of Jewish mysticism dating back to the time of Moses. The principle root of Kabbalistic tradition is a belief in the divinity of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and that by studying it, one can unlock the secrets of creation,” according to the movie’s Web site.
“But, on the other hand,” Wolfson continued, “(Kabbalah) is responding to real spiritual needs of the moment. And if the material can somehow help people work through those issues, then it’s a positive thing.”
Religions and beliefs are always evolving. From Catholicism came Protestantism, from Hinduism came Buddhism. People take traditional texts and re-interpret them to fit modern life and modern beliefs.

Tammy Tucker covers religion and welcomes comments at [email protected]