Volume 20 Number 72
                       Produced: Thu Jul 27 20:43:20 1995

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Kabbalah / Zohar
         [Stan Tenen]
         [Jonathan Katz]


From: Stan Tenen <meru1@...>
Date: Fri, 21 Jul 1995 13:21:23 -0700
Subject: Kabbalah / Zohar

In M-J Vol. 20 #58 Jonathan Katz asks some questions that I would like
to try to respond to.  I say "try" because from my perspective these
questions have been answered by myself and many others repeatedly.

The primary reason why Zohar and Kabbala in general is necessary for our
understanding of our Torah is because without Talmud, Kabbala and the
rest of the Oral Torah we, like everyone who has copied us, would have
only the "Bible" - the Pshat level of Written Torah - at best.

This may not be important to everyone.  In fact, it obviously cannot be
important to everyone.  But for me, it is essential.  I went to what was
then called Brooklyn Polytech (in downtown Brooklyn) after high school
at old James Madison on Bedford Avenue.  I somehow managed to get out of
Poly with a sufficiently decent B.S. in Physics.  I tried graduate
school, but found it too much of a rehash of what I had already studied,
so I split.  I then worked in the defense industries around Boston for
about 10-years.  During this time I befriended and worked with many
technically trained folks, most of them, like me, Jewish by birth.

I discovered that I, like them, thought that Judaism was no more than a
bunch of old superstitions and that Torah was a Bible of stories.  This
repulsed and shamed me (as it did most of my friends and colleagues.)
How and why could so many people have given their lives over so many
centuries for so troublesome a concoction of stories, superstitions and
empty piety?  I am now humbled and ashamed to have felt that way, but
what choice did I have?  The Judaism that I was presented with was, from
my perspective, very effectively "damned by faint praise."  A few of my
childhood friends were sent to Yeshivot.  They reported the rather sick
and disappointing experiences of wild and destructive behavior, then
(over 40-years ago), that others have been lamenting on m-j these past
weeks.  They were not the better for their experiences, as far as I
could see, and neither they nor their behavior recommended Torah Judaism
to me.

So for me, Torah by the numbers is not of any value.  I am not saying
that everyone is or should be like me, but I am saying that for many
secularized technically trained Jews, the sort of Judaism that is
presented as all of Judaism when it excludes knowledge of the
fundamental importance of Kabbalah, excludes me and those like me.  No
matter how highly you or others may be able to sing the praises of Pshat
sans Sod, that will, for me and those like me, "damn by faint praise" a
Torah that is extolled by less than its greatest virtues.  As I have
quoted too many times already, Rabbi Kook said that evil exists when the
part usurps the whole.  IF (I and I do not believe that this is so)
Torah is whole without Kabbalah, then it simply does not interest me.

I am, after all, not looking for a religion.  I am looking for reality,
for a science of consciousness and feeling that can, if I am willing to
work, help to elevate me and my world from the animal-human to the fully
(Torah) human.  For me it is a matter of responsibility to take on the
vessel of halachic Judaism because that is the only proper vessel
available.  I fully support this vessel and I believe that it is
essential, but I cannot forget that it is a vessel and that Torah is
much more.

But, aside from my emotionalism, there is another reason why Kabbalah is
necessary to Torah - if we have been honest with ourselves when we
bemoan the loss of Torah knowledge that our sages of previous
generations had.  It seems clear to me that Torah without kabbalah is
inadequate to the task of regaining what has been lost.  Torah without
kabbalah can sustain itself indefinitely and that is a great achievement
and a blessing and something of a miracle.  But, we cannot move to a
higher plane without kabbalah.  We cannot regain what was lost (the
Temple, the Sanhedrin, etc.) without regaining the kabbalistic
understandings of our sages who based much of their knowledge on these
understandings.  In a way, in each generation, knowledge of kabbalah is
a measure of the spiritual attainment of that generation.  Our
attainment is so low that today many of the best and brightest Jewish
souls are repelled by, rather than attracted to, Torah - while we give
excuses for our loss of knowledge.  Repeated holocausts and, of course,
the Haskalah, from which we still suffer greatly may be the reasons, but
it is still our responsibility to do tikkun and return what has been
taken from us.  An "I don't notice anything wrong" attitude just
perpetuates and adds to the damage done.

With all due respect, you may consider yourself intellectually honest,
but, after all, so does everyone, even those who are not.  The proof is
in the pudding.  I say, if you are honest and diligent, kabbalistic
understanding will open for you.  Kabbalah takes your measure, you do
not take its measure.  (Humility is an essential part of intellectual
honesty.)  But, there is no need to feel that you are somehow inadequate
if you do not understand kabbalah at first glance even if you are truly
intellectually honest.  Real diligence, patience and dedication are also
required - and not everyone can afford to take the time or make the
effort.  It only took me about 20-years and  about 3000-volumes for me
to experience even a modest "aha" - and I think I am intellectually
honest also.  There truly "is no royal road to spiritual understanding."
Before you will know if there is anything worth working to find, a
person sometimes must invest many years of work and study.

This is no different than for the study of mishneh and gemara.  First
you pay your dues, only later do you find out if it was worth the
trouble.  Is it possible that you have been judging the essential value
of kabbalah to Torah by the superficial knowledge of kabbalah that is
commonly taught these days?  Have you been exposed to an introductory
and therefore impotent kabbalah that really does not have much to say
about Torah?  Could kabbalah have been "damned by faint praise" for you
just as Torah Judaism was for me?

I am astounded that you could say that "there have been no deleterious
effects."  We have been decimated; only about 6% of american Jews are
Torah observant, etc., etc.  No deleterious effects?  Maybe someone else
can produce a laundry list for you.  For me, I see a Torah Judaism
defensive and in decline.  There is "a circling of wagons" that
increasingly excludes non-orthodox paths and there is an increasing
"balkanization" pitting one sect against another.  There is also the
"war" between the secular and the observant in Israel.  McDonalds would
not be selling cheeseburgers in Jerusalem if there were no demand.  Do
you need any more symptoms than these to make a diagnosis?  This patient
is not healthy.

I believe that a little more Sod (Foundation) and a little less Pshat
(Story) could go a long way to improving things.  I believe that when
secularized techno-nerds like myself see the "light in Torah" for
themselves, they will begin to study and respect and eventually observe
real Torah Judaism.  - and these techno-nerds are among our best and our
brightest, and their input and energy is just what we need to help
reinvigorate Torah Judaism.  Do you have a better, Torah-based,
suggestion?  Or should we continue to bemoan our condition without
lifting a finger of our tradition (kabbalah) to improve things?

Jonathan, kabbalah is not for everyone.  There are 70-ways of viewing
Torah.  I would not exclude any of those ways (given, after all by
HaShem).  Kabbalah is one way to go deeper into Torah.  That is why it
is essential.

Good Shabbos, B'Shalom,


From: Jonathan Katz <jkatz@wiscpd>
Date: Thu, 27 Jul 95 16:29:57 +0300
Subject: Zohar 


I think we have come to some sort of understanding (or, at least, a
standoff) with our current debate. So, this may well be my last post on
this subject (for a while, anyway...)

>The primary reason why Zohar and Kabbala in general is necessary for our 
>understanding of our Torah is because without Talmud, Kabbala and the 
>rest of the Oral Torah we...

I don't understand this jump (the reason Kabbala is necessary is because
Talmud and Kabbala are necessary): I agree wholeheartedly that we need
Oral Torah in addition to the Written Torah; I just think that what we
need is the _Authentic_ Oral Torah, and not our version of what we think
the Oral Torah must have been (I don't think Kabbala is part of the
authentic Oral Torah; you seem to believe the opposite. Fine).

>I am, after all, not looking for a religion.  I am looking for reality...

That's funny, I would say the same thing about my position. I am not
looking for a "religion" in the sense of a feel-good panacea, which I
"believe" as long as it suits my purpose and makes me "happy". I am
looking for the truth.  The difference between me and you seems to be
this: if I see something in the Torah I don't like, I accept it, since I
believe the Torah is true. Whereas, if you see something in the Torah
you don't like (i.e., Torah without the Kaballah aspect), you refuse to
accept it until it can be re-interpreted (by Kabbala, for example).  I
do not mean at all to put down the way you approach Judaism. I realize
that I am in the minority when it comes to approaching Judaism in this
way. It just bothers me when people say that the only way to approach
Judasim is through Kabbala. It would be as if I told you that one cannot
possibly apporach Judaism through Kabbala, even though you have.

>I am astounded that you could say that "there have been no deleterious 
>effects."  We have been decimated; only about 6% of american Jews are 
>Torah observant, etc., etc.  No deleterious effects?

Come on, now! Are you seriously attributing all of these effects to the
fact that we no longer know Kabbala? Do you think if we start teaching
Kabbala in Yeshiva that all these effects will disappear?! The reality
is much more complicated than that.  Furthermore, you have no "proof"
that the "loss" of Kabbala was even a contributing cause for any of
these effects. If you want to believe that, fine.  But don't expect to
convince me by merely stating it.

>I believe that a little more Sod (Foundation) and a little less Pshat
>(Story) could go a long way to improving things.

This is where I feel that Kabbala becomes dangerous. I am all in favor
of more "Sod" if that's what works for you. But, I think ignoring (even
a part of) Pshat is dangerous and coul easily lead to rejection of the
entire Pshat...

>There are 70-ways of viewing Torah.  I would not exclude any of those 
>ways...That is why it [Kabbala] is essential.

This is what I don't understand. If there are 70 ways, let me take my
way and you take your way. If that's the case, then Kabbala is not
essential (it is essential perhaps to one of the ways, but not to all of

It's funny, but you say that you turned to Kabbala because you are too
"rational" to accept the Written Torah as it stands. I turn away from
Kabbala for the same reason - I don't find Kabbala rational enough.

>Do you have a better, Torah-based, suggestion?  Or should we continue
>to bemoan our condition without lifting a finger...?

Sure I have a better suggestion. Teach _all_ Jews Torah and
Talmud. Leave out the Kabbala (or you can teach them that too for what
it's worth; my point is that it won't make a difference).

Look, we fundamentally disagree, and I don't think there is going to be
any way to resolve this issure between us. And that's fine with me. I
just want to close with my two original points:

 1) Don't berate those who don't accept Kabbala. Yes, it is a useful
tool for some people to approach Torah, but it is not a necessary part
of Jewish belief.
 2) However much Kabbala helped you in your approach to Judaism, be open
to studies about its authenticity. Be open to historical proof that it
was written and formulated well after the giving of the Torah on Har
Sinai. Even if this is true, that doesn't mean Kabbala is worthless -
since it was the product of a great Rabbi of ours.



End of Volume 20 Issue 72