The two faces of Kabbalah

September 19, 2008

INWARD BOUND - A GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING KABBALAH By Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubow, Devora, £13.25

INTRODUCTION TO THE WORLD OF KABBALAH By Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi, Kabbalah Society, £18

Reviewed by Daniel Jonas

The vast literature available nowadays on Kabbalah displays a number of ideological trends, corresponding to the predilections of the various schools down the centuries. But across both academic and religious spectra, two esoteric positions consistently emerge, as they have in the various denominations and sects within exoteric Judaism.

The universalist outlook, that Kabbalah represents a way to understand the fundamentals of all existence, is understandably popular with people without a commitment to Orthodoxy or even to Judaism itself. By contrast, the particularist stance, which focuses on Kabbalah as purely and simply the Jewish mystical tradition, concerned with the inner dimension of Torah and the mission of the Jewish people in the world, is the line taken by traditionalists.

These two authors - London-based teacher Z'ev Shimon Halevi and Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov of Wimbledon Chabad - occupy positions at the two poles.

Halevi provides a fascinating, if densely written, reading of kabbalistic history, interspersed with numerous technical analyses based on the Jacob's Ladder configuration of the sefirot and Four Worlds, and drawing on what he calls the "Toledo tradition" and, in particular, Cordovero's Pardes Rimonim. Interestingly, Halevi censures the emotive influence of Lurianic Kabbalah, in favour of a more theoretical, analytical method which he considers to be more authentic and credible. Unsurprisingly, he offers a typical critique of traditionalism based on the "spirit v outer form" trope.

Dubov clearly aims to demonstrate Chabad (Lubavitch) to be the natural fulfilment of previous kabbalistic  approaches. Abruptly progressing from Torah to Eastern Europe via Safed, the whole of Jewish esoteric history comes across as a prelude to the writings of the Besht and the Alter Rebbe. Despite the somewhat marketing-driven agenda, a systematic presentation and enough nuggets of information about practices and frameworks are offered to make this a worthwhile introduction to esoteric Chasidic spirituality, if not a comprehensive account of the complete spectrum of Jewish mystical thought.

Both show a frustrating reluctance to footnote their work, making it difficult to evaluate whether their positions draw on precedent or opinion. Fortunately, Dubov provides a bibliography and it is generally easy to discern his sources as the obvious Chasidic ones. Halevi, on the other hand, clearly intends his book to be read in conjunction with a comprehensive programme of study of his complete oeuvre.

The practical programmes they advocate differ as much as their theoretical stances.Halevi naturally emphasises the universality of Truth and defines a method of engaging with it accessible to all, regardless of background. Equally predictably, Dubnov emphasises the uniqueness that traditional, ideally Chabad, Judaism, brings to kabbalistic theory and practice. Each of them claims "authenticity", yet both are ideological, relying on assertion and appeals to authority, whether traditional or autonomous, rather considering the full picture. Although thorough in their own ways, both are notable for what they omit as much as what they choose to include.

Daniel Jonas is co-founder of the online forum, New Jewish Thought

Last updated: 2:11pm, September 29 2008