(Kabbalah; Jewish Mysticiam)
Among the many comments at Judy Mandelbaum's terrific and ironic Tuesday post about how best to handle some ultra-orthodox Jewish sects' continual and vile derision of Jewish girls and women in New York and Jerusalem, one or more readers mentioned Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah, and, unwittingly, in a misleading way. I thought to share, here, what Kabbalah is and isn't because what becomes clear is that people have absorbed recent, pop-culture/new-age articulations of Kabbalah, ideas about it that are simply inaccurate and have about as much to do with genuine Kabbalah as Manischevitz 'wine', that $5.95/bottle shoe polish, has to do with very old, fine wine or excellent, antique port or aged brandy.
I share this here as a secular Jew nonetheless devoted to the Wisdom Texts of Judaism (and to the regular study of Christian religious texts as well.) I have taught courses in the religious split between Jews and the earliest Christian movements at Jerusalem. I have no religious or ideological axe to grind aside from accuracy. My hope is that what I share here will contribute to your broader understanding.
We must be clear about this from jump:
No rabbi, no Jewish teacher of any standing and education regards the so-called 'Kabbalah Centers' that have cropped up online and throughout the world as anything but bunk.
That's not so much a matter of opinion; it's about the nature of genuine Kabbalah and the prerequisites for its study. As most Jews know, no rabbi worth his or her degree and training will (if steeped in kabbalistic study) will even welcome a student to study Jewish Mysticism until the potential student will have studied Talmud--the Oral Law--...not simply Torah (the Five Books of Moses)...for twenty years or so. That's the kind of preparation and knowledge necessary.
It would be as if a graduate school physics professor were to offer quantum theory seminars to students whose top preparation has been a high school general physics class.
This is to say, in fact, that the overwhelming majority of even Orthodox rabbis are not Kabbalists and are not prepared to teach Kabbalah.
I want to make two ideas clear.
First, as to Kabbalah itself: Kabbalah is not a branch of Judaism, nor is it a sect within Orthodox Judaism. The standard and traditional branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and, beginning in the early part of the last century, Reconstructionism. Kabbalah is a complex content study-area, a discipline; it is a highly-layered mystical set of teachings and understandings whose purpose is to bring a person to a deeply intimate knowledge of the ways of God. It cannot be usefully cherry-picked for nifty sayings and turned usefuly into Enlightenment. I cannot successfully compare it to any other discipline or study that you may know, such as, say, Zen, or Christian Mysticism. It is sui-generis, that is, it is of its own nature, unique.
Second, since at least one of the commenters in Judy's thread talked about, again sincerely, being 'part Jewish', I want to address that.
Every religion gets to make the rules about who qualifies as a member of the religion and who does not.
Who Is A Jew is a fairly simple matter but the question has caused enormous misunderstanding. Put briefly, being a Jew under Jewish Law (or 'halacha'--Jewish Law) is for most purposes straightforward.
. A Jew is anyone born to a Jewish woman.
. That person is forever a Jew regardless of religious practice, institutional affiliation, or stated or inward belief. This is why Judaism is, at times, seen as both a religion and as a culture, and even as a kind of ethnicity.
. There is no belief-requirement. I said above, for instance, I'm both a Jew and secular in my outlook. There is no contradiction whatever.
. This, along with the fact that Jews do not seek converts, has caused confusion not only within the non-Jewish world but among those Jews not adequately educated in Jewish law's basics.
. In other words: according to Jewish Law, a person born to a Jewish woman is a Jew and will die a Jew whether or not s/he believes in God, converts formally to another well-known religion, believes God is a Sheep in Sheboygan, curses God...or even if he thinks the $25,,000 "Kabbalah Kourse" he took alongside Madonna is real. The person remains a Jew. (How other Jews regard his character and commitment and reliability is another matter...but he's a Jew.)
. Judaism, while it does not seek to convert non-Jews to Judaism, does rigorous offer pre-conversion study and conversion to those seeking it. The various branches approach conversion to Judaism in their own ways. A convert to Judaism is considered fully a Jew, as if s/he were born to a Jewish woman.
. As to the idea of Jews being "Chosen": The "chosen people" idea has, too, created confusion, if not consternation, both within the community of less educated Jews and, of course, among non-Jews. Put simply, being chosen has nothing whatever to do with imagining that we are better than others. It means that traditional Judaism holds that God chose Jews from among numbers of ancient Near East tribes and clans to be required to adhere to 613 Commandments, ten of which are very well-known and which serve almost as category-titles for the remaining 603. That's pretty much it. And that a Jew is to feel privileged that s/he has these obligations.
For a more complete explanation of the guts of Kabbalah than I could ever hope to give over to you here, try the topic at www.judaism101.com. The classic book on the subject, if you're interested, is by the gifted writer, Gershom Scholem, simply called KABBALAH.