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The New Age of Kabbalah and Postmodern Spirituality

by Boaz Huss

The Emergence of New Kabbalah

In recent years there is a remarkable resurgence of interest in Kabbalah and an unprecedented revival of Kabbalistic practices. The emergence of the New Kabbalah in the last decades of the 20th century coincides with the emergence of New Age movements, and many New Age themes appear in various contemporary Kabbalah movements. In this presentation, I will examine the revival of Kabbalah, especially in Israel, and will investigate the relation between contemporary Kabbalah and the New Age. I will demonstrate that central characteristics of New Age culture appear not only amongst contemporary Kabbalists who explicitly use New Age themes but also amongst Kabbalists who are perceived of as presenting more traditional forms of Jewish mysticism. I will argue that the similarities and relations between Contemporary Kabbalah and New Age are dependent on the postmodern nature of both these phenomena. Following the observations of Fredrik Jameson and other theoreticians of the postmodern condition, and using an expression coined by Hugh Urban, I will argue that the New Age of Kabbalah reflects the spiritual logic of late Capitalism.[1]

The recent revival of Kabbalistic doctrines and practices follows a period in which Kabbalah was rejected from mainstream Israeli and Jewish cultures. Kabbalah, that occupied an important place in late medieval and early modern Jewish cultures, was vehemently attacked by the Jewish enlightenment movement, and lost its centrality in modern hegemonic Jewish cultures. Although various forms of Kabbalah were still practiced in traditional communities in the modern era, and notwithstanding the neo-romantic interest in Kabbalah in late 19th and early 20th century, Kabbalah occupied a peripheral place in Jewish and Israeli cultures during most of the 20th century. Israeli hegemonic culture, as well as the dominant Jewish movements in America, did not find much interest in Kabbalah, and marginalized the traditional circles ultra orthodox and Mizrahi communities, in which Kabbalah was still revered and practiced. The Academic study of Kabbalah, founded by Gershom Scholem was highly regarded, yet, it was limited to philological-historical research, practiced by a small circle of scholars. 

Starting in the late 70's and early 80`s of the last century a major shift occurred in the place of Kabblah and Jewish Mysticism in Israeli society, in American Jewish communities, and in Western Culture. In recent years, numerous Kabbalistic Yeshivot, institutes and study groups operate in Israel, America and Europe, in which thousands of people study and practice Kabbalah. Thousands of books about Kabbalah were published in the last decades, and hundreds of Kabbalistic internet sites can be found on the Web.

The contemporary revival of Kabbalah in Israel is a wide ranging phenomenon. The interest in and practice of Kabbalah appear in all segments of Israeli Jewish society Ashkenzim and Mizrachim, Ultra orthodox, National Religious, and Secular, native Israelis as well as new immigrants, low income sectors as well as the rich and the famous. It is difficult, if not impossible to try and chart contemporary Kabbalah according to sociological or ideological parameters.  Indeed, it seems that contemporary Kabbalah defies classifications according to social, ethnic or ideological criteria. Most contemporary Kabbalistic movements are eclectic, and combine practices and doctrines taken from different Kabbalistic traditions. The social composition of the Kabbalistic movements is hybrid and there are only partial correlations between social or ethnic groups and the Kabbalistic ideologies they adopt. Thus, for instance, the Kabbalah of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the 20th century Kabbalist who emigrated from Warsaw to Palestine in the 1920's, and developed a highly complex communist-kabbalistic system, is studied today in Ultra Orthodox circles, by new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as by secular Israelis. In National Religious circles there is interest in the mystical aspects of Rabbi Kook writings, as well as in the Kabbalah of R. Isaac Ginzburg, the American born charismatic Ba'al Tehsuva who became a Habad Hasid, and developed an ultra-national Hasidic Kabbalah. Interestingly, amongst his students, one finds not only radical right-wing settlers from the occupied territories, but also secular Jews from the geographic and social center of Israeli society.  R. Yakov Ifargan, known as the X-ray (ha-Rentgen), a young Israeli Kabbalist who operates in the southern development town Netivot, and is best known for his prognostic and healing powers, draws to his midnight Tikkun ceremonies and private interviews a mixed crowd of low in-come Mizrahi admirers from Netivot and other peripheral areas, well-to-do ashkenazy professionals, including high profile business men, politicians and celebrities, as well as a group of Braslav Hasidim. The eclectic and hybrid nature of the New Kabbalah is, as I will soon argue, one of its post-modern characteristics. But, before turning to examine contemporary Kabbalah as a postmodern spiritual phenomenon, I would like to discuss its connection to the New Age movement.


  New Age features of Contemporary Kabbalah   >

This e-lecture is from the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought
        Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

(scroll down to see notes)

 [1] Fredric Jameson, `Postmodernism and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism` Postmodernism (London & New York: Verso, 1993), pp.  1-54. Hugh B. Urban, The Cult of Ecstasy: Tantrism, The New Age, and The Spiritual Logic of Late Capitalism, History of Religions 39, 2000, pp. 268-304.