Kabbalah, behind the Headlines

Mainstream (and Jewish) popularity of kabbalah, which got a boost in 1997 when Madonna embraced it publicly and scores of celebrities followed suit, is more than an overpriced fashion statement of red-string bracelets meant to ward off evil eye. Beneath the hipness of the kabbalah craze lies, for many, a genuine search for meaning. Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition, literally means “received”—via a teacher, or through revelation while meditating on every letter, number, word and story contained within the Torah. It is perhaps most appropriate that this trend exists in a culture where materialism has failed to fully satisfy our thirst for meaning. Women—alternatively viewed in Jewish life as closer to God because of their ability to (pro)create and not holy enough to delve into sacred texts—are seeking particular solace in kabbalah, as two recent books reflect.

In A New Kabbalah for Women (Palgravc Macmillan, $21.95), a spunky spiritual seeker named Perle Besserman shares her journey from the Orthodoxy of her youth to her embrace of kabbalah. Rejected again and again in her quest for God at her yeshiva because she is a girl, Besserman eventually turns to yoga and Hindu texts and Zen meditation before a coincidental meeting with the kabbalist Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook in Jerusalem. He encourages her interest in Jewish mysticism, telling her “there is no other practice for a Jew.” Basserman continues to study kabbalah, largely on her own. Though she did study with Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, she conveys a strong sense that most kabbalists didn’t believe a women’s place is to pore over these sacred texts.

Although the book is written and researched well, I found myself wanting to jump ahead of its analysis of misogyny in Torah and kabbalah texts and get to the transcendent part. I was particularly put off by some of the language she used to describe a childhood friend who became a young ultra- Orthodox mother, using terms like “old hag.” But Besserman does a fine job of weaving in the history of kabbalah into her own personal t story of learning and practice as a woman. Kabbalistic-style mediations are included for those who want experiential learning.

In many ways. The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance and Growth (Llewellyn Publications, $16.95) by Rachel Pollack, delves into the “cosmic map” that many kabbalists recommend students familiarize themselves with before delving into its great mysteries.

Pollack, too, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, and found kabbalah after years of exploring Wicca and intuitive tools, such as tarot. Pollack shares multiple ways of looking at one of the kabbalah’s most famous symbol, the Tree of Life, showing readers how the 10 sephirot (spheres of existence) and the 22 pathways that make up the Tree can serve as a universal organizing principle of understanding the world. She invites readers to inhabit Paradise (PRDS, pardes, orchard in Hebrew), which is also the acronym for the the four realms of understanding the Torah— Peshat (literal), Remez (metaphorical), Drash (expository), and Sod (secret). This book has clear references to Jewish texts and stories, as well as mathematics, tarot and astrology. Lilith readers will especially enjoy Pollack’s thoughtful treatment on the sexual imagery of the Tree, and the implications for women’s roles within kabbalah study.

Yael Flusberg is a writer and a yoga, meditation, and reiki practitioner. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she has delved into Jewish mysticism as a way of understanding how her generation can help heal from and transform this powerful legacy.