New Kabbalah books take divergent approaches to mysticism

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What hath Madonna wrought?

Over the past few years, the pop icon-cum-Kabbalah acolyte has brought international attention to Jewish mysticism, like it or not.

And with that increased profile, Kabbalah has become a subject of great interest to spiritual seekers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Is it any surprise that an avalanche of Kabbalah-themed books followed suit?

Two recent entries in the Kabbalah publishers’ clearinghouse are “The Kabbalah Tree” by Rachel Pollack, and “Kinesthetic Kabbalah” by Mill Valley-based rabbi Daniel Kohn.

The two authors cover similar terrain, particularly regarding fundamental kabbalistic tenets. Yet ultimately they diverge, both in approach and clarity, with Kohn producing the more satisfying volume.

With so many books on the subject, authors need a twist, and Kohn delivers one: He writes of his devotion both to Kabbalah and the Japanese martial art aikido.

A second-degree black belt, Kohn is less concerned with the physical benefits of aikido than the spiritual. The founder of aikido, O Sensei, was a militaristic-minded Japanese martial artist who underwent a dramatic transformation. After the bombing of Hiroshima, he strove to make aikido a purely defensive art and pathway to inner peace.

Not unlike the aim of Kabbalah itself.

Kohn’s book is partly autobiographical, and some of his stories are gripping. At one point during his aikido training, he takes on several opponents at once. Kohn reports his mind went blank as he successfully fended off all of them. In that moment he achieved a measure of mastery he never again duplicated, and he credits the blankness for his triumph.

The kabbalistic principle of ayin fosters such blankness. But Kohn doesn’t stop there. The breathing techniques of aikido, he says, have counterparts in Jewish mysticism. The author even links the aikido concept of “blending with the attacker” with the Sh’ma, Judaism’s ultimate expression of oneness, and with devekut, the kabbalists’ term for the quest for unity.

If only author Rachel Pollack had something as clear-cut as martial arts to work with in “The Kabbalah Tree.” Instead, the New York-based poet heads into New Age territory, using above all else a painting by German artist Hermann Haindl as her kabbalistic Rosetta stone.

For the book, Haindl painted the Kabbalah’s best-known symbol, the Tree of Life. It’s a murky montage of images ringed with German and Hebrew terms, incomprehensible at first or even second glance. Yet for Pollack, the painting is the key to all mythologies. The book comes with a full-color poster of the painting.

Though Jewish herself, Pollack has a more ecumenical view of spirituality. She is a devotee of tarot and cleaves to a de-Judaized interpretation of Kabbalah typified by Madonna and Philip Berg of the controversial Kabbalah Centre.

Pollack does a good job of unpacking the complexities of the Tree of Life and its 10 sephirot, or circles, but she has an annoying tendency to refer back constantly to Haindl’s painting for supporting data.

It’s reminiscent of that TV commercial for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, circa 1975, in which a Jimmy Carter look-alike is peppered with questions at a press conference. The president proceeds to tie every answer to Jeno’s Pizza Rolls.

The Haindl painting just ain’t that deep.

Or is it? No doubt, there is much wisdom embedded in a thousand spiritual traditions throughout the world, and anyone might benefit through exposure to that wisdom. Pollack has made the search for such wisdom her life’s work, and she eagerly shares it in “The Kabbalah Tree.”

It used to be that Kabbalah study was reserved for those no younger than middle age and only for the most pious Jews. But with gentile pipsqueaks like Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher now full-fledged “kabbalahteers,” who can deny that the centuries-old tradition of Kabbalah has been trashed?

Books like Kohn’s and Pollack’s have the best of intentions: making clear a subject too complex for most curious readers. Kohn has the advantage of personalizing his story and backing up his insights with rabbinical training. However, Pollack wanders all over the spiritual map leaving Judaism as just another brand on the shelf. The long-departed sages of Kabbalah would not approve.

Still, while neither book may cause readers to wrap the red string around their wrists, they may add to the growing global respect for Kabbalah, and by extension Judaism. In a time of increased anti-Semitism, that can’t be bad.

“Kinesthetic Kabbalah” by Daniel Kohn, (160 pages, BookSurge, $14.99).

“The Kabbalah Tree” by Rachel Pollack, (170 pages, Llewellyn Publications, $16.95).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.