What Kabbalah can teach the new Jewish world

In an extract from his new book, Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok argues that no Jewish movement today can claim uniquely to possess the truth


Judaism Today
Dan Cohn Sherbok
Continuum, £14.99

None of the major movements – Orthodoxy, Chasidism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism or Jewish humanism – is adequate for the modern age. What is now required is a new interpretation of Judaism that acknowledges the depth of Jewish diversity and embraces the various and diverse forms of modern Judaism, including Jewish Buddhism, Jewish Renewal, Kabbalistic Judaism, Jewish feminism and Jewish vegetarianism and ecology. The central feature of this new conception – which I will refer to as Pluralistic Judaism – is the principle of personal autonomy.

Pluralistic Judaism would allow all individuals the right to select those features from the Jewish heritage that they find spiritually meaningful. Unlike the major branches of modern Judaism, this new conception of the tradition would espouse a truly liberal doctrine of individual freedom, seeking to grant persons full religious independence. Adherents of Pluralistic Judaism would be actively encouraged to make up their own minds about religious belief and practice. It might be objected that such extreme liberalism would simply result in chaos – such criticism, however, fails to acknowledge the state of religious diversity already existent within Jewish society.

Within the main branches of Judaism, there has been a gradual erosion of centralized authority; although many rabbis have attempted to establish standards for the members of their communities, there is a universal recognition that, in the end, all Jews will define for themselves which aspects of their heritage are personally relevant. In short, today there is a conscious acceptance of the principle of personal autonomy, even if in some quarters it is only grudgingly accepted. Pluralistic Judaism would hence be in accord with the spirit of the age. Its endorsement of personal decision-making would be consonant with the nature of modern Jewish existence.

Grounded in an acceptance of the nature of the contemporary Jewish community, its philosophy reflects the realities of everyday life, in Israel and the diaspora.

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For over two millennia Jews have maintained that the Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Such a belief served as the basis for the conviction that the Five Books of Moses – including history, theology and and legal precepts – have absolute authority. As a result, Orthodox Judaism and Chasidism refuse to accept any modernist interpretations of the Pentateuch. Arguably, however, what is now required is a new theological understanding that will provide a framework for Jewish existence for the next millennium.

What is needed is a theological structure consonant with a contemporary understanding of Divine Reality. In recent years an increasing number of theologians have called for a Copernican revolution in our understanding of religion. In their view, Divine Reality as it is in itself should be distinguished from Divine Reality as conceived in human thought and experience. Such a contrast, they point out, is in fact a major feature of many of the world's faiths.

As far as Judaism is concerned, throughout the history of the faith there has been a conscious awareness of such a distinction between God as He is in himself and human conceptions of the Divine. Scripture, for example, frequently cautions against describing God anthropomorphically. Thus the Book of Deuteronomy states: "Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire" (Deuteronomy 4:5). Again, Exodus 33:20 declares: "And he said, 'You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me, and live.' And the Lord said, 'Behold there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.'"

In rabbinic literature there are comparable passages suggesting that human beings should refrain from attempting to describe God. Thus the Palestinian teacher Abin said: "When Jacob of the village of Neboria was in Tyre, he interpreted the verse 'For thee, silence is praise, O God' to mean that silence is the ultimate praise of God. It can be compared to a jewel without price: however high you appraise it, you will undervalue it."

In another talmudic passage a story is told of the man at prayer who was rebuked by the scholar Hanina. This individual praised God by listing as many of his attributes as he could. When he finished, Hanina asked if he had exhausted the praises of God. Hanina then said that even the three attributes The Great, The Valiant and The Tremendous could not legitimately be used to describe God, were it not for the fact that Moses used them and they subsequently became part of the Jewish liturgy.

This text concludes with a parable: if a king who possesses millions of gold pieces is praised for having millions of silver pieces, such praise disparages his wealth rather than glorifies it.

The latter development of such a view was continued by both Jewish philosophers and mystics. In his treatise Duties of the Heart, for example, the eleventh-century philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah argued that the concept of God's unity involves the negation from God of all human and infinite limitations. According to Bahya, if we wish to ascertain the nature of anything, we must ask two fundamental questions: (1) if it is; and (2) what it is. Of God, however, it is possible to ask only if He is. And once having established his existence, it is not possible to go on to enquire about his nature, since it is beyond human comprehension.

Arguing along similar lines, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides focused on the concept of negative attributes. For Maimonides the ascription to God of positive attributes is a form of idolatry because it suggests that his attributes are coexistent with him. To say that God is one, Maimonides contended, is simply a way of negating all plurality from his being. Even when one asserts that God exists, one is simply affirming that his non-existence is impossible. Positive attributes are only admissible if they are understood as referring to God's acts. Attributes that refer to his nature, however, are only permissible if they are applied negatively. Moreover, the attributes that refer to God's actions imply only the acts themselves – they do not refer to the emotions from which these actions are generated when performed by human beings.

Like these Jewish philosophers, Jewish mystics advocated a theory of negation in describing God. For these kabbalists, the Divine is revealed through the powers that emanate from him. Yet God as He is in himself is the En Sof (Infinite). As the twelfth-century kabbalist Azriel of Gerona remarked: "Know that the En Sof cannot be thought of, much less spoken of, even though there is a hint of it in all things, for there is nothing else apart from it. Consequently, it can be contained neither by letter nor name nor writing nor anything."

Similarly the Zohar (Book of Splendour) asserts that the En Sof is incomprehensible. It is only through the sefirot (divine emanations) that God is manifest in the world. Yet Jewish mystics were anxious to stress that the Divine is a unity. Hence a prayer in the Zohar, ascribed to Elijah, stresses the unity of the En Sof and the sefirot: "Elijah began to praise God saying: Lord of the universe! You are one but are not numbered. You are higher than the highest. You are above all mysteries. No thought can grasp you at all."

According to the Zohar, even the higher realms of the Divine – the stages represented by God's will, wisdom and understanding (Keter, Hochmah and Binah) – should be understood negatively. Thus, God's will, which is represented by the sefirah Keter, is referred to as Ayin (Nothingness) – it is so elevated beyond human understanding that it can only be represented by negation. Concerning divine wisdom, represented by Hochmah, the Zohar declares that one can ask what it is but should expect no answer.

Likewise, the eighteenth-century scholar the Vilna Gaon stated that one can say so little about the En Sof that one should not even give it the name En Sof.

Here then is a new theological framework – deeply rooted in the rabbinic, philosophical and mystical tradition – which can serve as a basis for a new vision of Jewish theology today. Acknowledging the limitation of human comprehension, such a way of unknowing reveals that there is no means by which to ascertain the true nature of Divine Reality as it is in itself. In the end, the doctrines of Judaism must be regarded as human images constructed from within particular social and cultural contexts.

Thus the absolute claimsabout God as found in biblical and rabbinic literature which were surveyed in the first chapter should be understood as human conceptions stemming from the religious experience of the Jewish nation. Jewish monotheism – embracing myriad formulations from biblical through medieval to modern times – is grounded in the life of the Jewish people. In all cases, pious believers and thinkers expressed their understanding of God's activity on the basis of their own personal as well as communal encounter. Yet, given that Divine Reality as it is in itself is beyond human comprehension, this Jewish understanding of the Godhead cannot be viewed as definitive and final.

Rather, it should be seen as only one among many ways in which human beings have attempted to make sense of the Ultimate. In this light it makes no sense for any of the various Jewish movements to believe that they possess the unique truth about God and his actions in the world. On the contrary, universalistic truth-claims about the Divine should give way to a recognition of the inevitable subjectivity of religious convictions.

The implications of this shift away from the absolutist of the Jewish past to a new vision of Jewish theology are radical and far-reaching. Judaism – like all other religions – has advanced absolute, universal claims about the nature of God, but, given the separation between our finite understanding and Ultimate Reality, there is no way of attaining complete certitude about

the veracity of these beliefs. Divine Reality as it is in itself transcends human comprehension, and hence it must be admitted that Jewish religious convictions are no different in principle from those found in other religious traditions.

All are lenses through which the Ultimate is conceptualised. The Jewish faith, like all other major religions, is built around its distinctive way of thinking and experiencing the Divine. Yet in the end Jews across the religious spectrum must remain agnostic about the correctness of their religious beliefs.

    Last updated: 8:55am, June 21 2010