So what is kabbalah, really?
Is it a spiritual fad that cycles in and out of fashion, catching on in the non-Jewish world, snaring celebrities like Madonna before they discard it for the next thing?
Is it the subject of scholarly tomes that are groundbreaking in the academic world, full of extraordinary historical detail and insight, but far too dry for the mass market?
Is it a spiritual practice that allows unscrupulous practitioners to separate fools from their money?
Or is it possibly a practice that can change hearts, and lives, and that an academic, grounded in intellectual rigor, can teach both as an abstraction and as a spiritual discipline?
Dr. Eitan Fishbane of Teaneck, an associate professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, is a firm believer in the last possibility offered here. He teaches kabbalah both as an academic subject and as a spiritual practice to rabbinical students; he has written books about it and is at work on another, “Poetics of Zohar,” to come from Oxford University Press, and now he’s offering a condensed look at it online, as the third in a series of three-session courses that JTS has opened to the public.
Dr. Fishbane is excited about the format, but he is even more excited about the content. “There is a powerful and renewed thirst for spiritual meaning and understanding in our time,” he said. “There is a new curiosity about what the mystical dimensions of Judaism have to offer — both for our historical understanding of Judaism, but also for the insights it can offer contemporary Jews into their own spiritual lives, theology, and relationships to the divine.
“I very much feel that this body of ideas and literature has a great role to play in offering new inspiration in our day.”
The minicourse “will be designed to offer a window into the mystical tradition, first through setting the stage historically, to where kabbalah in particular and mysticism more broadly fits into the large spectrum of the Jewish experience,” he said. “More particularly, it will show people some of the essential features and characteristics of Jewish mysticism, and will be framed by a broader understanding of it as a kind of spiritual awareness, a way of understanding reality, God, and human nature, a way of interpreting the Torah and the life of the mitzvot. It seeks to discover the ways in which divinity and divine meaning is to be found beneath the surface of ordinary perception. As Heschel” — that’s the 20th-century theologian and JTS professor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — “articulated it, this world is an allusion to the deeper mystery of existence.”
Certainly the Conservative movement, long known for its dedication to rational, logic-based scholarship, has not been a hotbed of spirituality. “But I think that there has been among Conservative synagogues, and at JTS in particular, a new openness and a desire for spiritual meaning and growth.”
Dr. Fishbane is a member of the rabbinical school council, where he acts as a spiritual mentor to aspiring rabbis, “reflecting on their spiritual goals and questions, and engaging in both group-based and individual mentoring about their spiritual introspection and reflecting on ways in which these mystical or spiritual themes can be integrated into their rabbinates.”
He has undertaken similar if less long-term projects when he teaches at synagogues. “I see it as part of a larger mission, to do my part to contribute to the spiritual reinvigoration of Conservative Judaism, and a spiritual renaissance in the Jewish community.”
Dr. Fishbane grew up in the Conservative movement — his family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, he was educated in a Solomon Schechter school, and he spent his summers at Camp Ramah — but he came to his new worldview, where he integrates the academic and the spiritual, when he began to teach at JTS 11 years ago. Before he made that choice, he said, his career could have gone in a more conventional academic direction, although its seeds were planted early in his college life. He earned his doctorate at Brandeis under the guidance of Professor Arthur Green, whose connections to Jewish mysticism, both as a scholar and as a person, are deep. He taught at a secular university — Carleton College in Minnesota — before he moved to HUC in Los Angeles and then to JTS. “My role at JTS, especially interacting with rabbinical students, has cultivated my commitment to the spiritual dimension of guidance,” he said. “At JTS, I can also be engaged in scholarship, teaching in a way that is academically rigorous.
“This is a new chapter in the history of JTS, where the spiritual and pastoral growth of rabbinical students has been deepened,” he said. “And now the seminary has a broader mission of community learning. My contribution is to try to bring the spiritual Torah inspired by the language and ideas of Jewish mysticism to the Jewish community, particularly around the ideas of re-imaging theology and what we mean by God — by seeing God and theology in a more meaningful, relevant way than many contemporary Jews can imagine, using the ideas of the Jewish tradition.”
So what about the webinar? “The first of the three sessions will bring the surprisingly different and even radical theologies of Jewish mysticism to bear on contemporary Jewish experiences of God and faith,” Dr. Fishbane said. “One example of it is the understanding of Jewish mystical theology as a theology of radical oneness, of understanding the whole of being, the whole of reality, as unified and as one with the divine self. That’s as opposed to the framework that’s more common in the liturgy, as God of judgment, of kingship, a patriarchal god who is father — to understand God as the great energy force of life that infuses the entire universe, as the vitality that streams through the world, through the very core of our souls and bodies.
“Early modern kabbalah is very focused on God as the ultimate, endless source,” he said. “The Ein Sof that flows through reality as an endless series of emanations, sometimes as light. Therefore the human experience of God that is characterized as enlightenment and illumination is both metaphoric and literal, and also poetic.”
And that’s just the first lecture…
The webinar series, coincidentally, is a project that Dr. Fishbane’s wife, Rabbi Julia Andelman, oversees in her role as the director of JTS’s community engagement department. Online learning for rabbis isn’t new at the seminary, but this is only the third course aimed at the general public. The first, which drew more than 70 students, was called “Before the Paths Diverged: Encounters Between Judaism and Early Christianity.” Those students came from across the United States, as well as from Brazil, Germany, Israel, Canada, and Chile. The next course, taught by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, a familiar face to public television viewers, was “Aphrodite and the Rabbi: Roman Culture and the Creation of Judaism” That added students from Luxembourg and England to the already broad mix of the first one.
The format shows the teacher and also can focus on text and illustrations, as it did in Rabbi Visotzky’s lecture. “People can choose how much they want to participate,” Rabbi Andelman said. “They can ask questions,” although of course the more people there are watching online, the less opportunity there is for any one of them to do so.
The seminary now has a video recording studio that can produce state-of-the-art videos as well as streaming media. Thankfully gone are the days when a webinar would include long freezes as well as unfortunate up-the-nostrils camera angles. Instead, it has unlimited capacity to offer cutting-edge scholarship to audiences around the world.
What: The Jewish Theological Seminary offers a webinar on kabbalah, Kabbalah Revealed
Who: Taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane of Teaneck
When: On three Thursdays, March 16, 23, and 30, from noon to 1 p.m.
To register: Go to www.jtsa.edu/kabbalah-revealed-2017 or just google “Eitan Fishbane” and “kabbalah revealed”