Kabbalah for Dummies really a smart look at Jewish thought

“Kabbalah for Dummies” is hardly for the intellectually frail. It introduces and explores a system of Jewish thought and living which has existed for six centuries.

For any primer to do justice to the complexities and nuances that elaborate that history would be difficult. Kabbalah (“the received tradition”) has come to be identified with an intense spirituality, one which author Arthur Kurzweil reveals is for both great sages and ordinary people “who integrate into their lives the beautiful Jewish tradition and an explicit connection to Jewish theology.”

A sharp distinction between Kabbalah and obligations of other mystical traditions is the deep commitment to law. Study of the law guides practitioners in their behavior. Thus Kabbalah isn’t just an abstract philosophy but provides a way of life that depends on three things: study of the holy teachings, prayer and acts of lovingkindness.

Another priority for kabbalists is the nature of the human relationship with God. In a chapter titled “Knowing the Unknowable God,” Kurzweil explores the basic paradox that it is impossible to conceive of God. For kabbalists, God is the center, goal, and source of everything. Yet “there’s no comprehensive way to understand, know, or conceive of God, nor can one fully describe, imagine, or encounter God.” This paradox lends an exotic mystery to Kabbalah. Certainly no one is critical because Kabbalah doesn’t have all the answers.

But how does a person think about or discuss something beyond understanding? Kurzweil suggests the very acknowledgement that something is beyond knowing is a giant step in the direction of understanding the very thing that can’t be grasped. Sort of like Socrates’ “know thyself,” where he is the wisest man because he knows what he doesn’t know. He knows the extent of his ignorance.

Kabbalah is therefore surrounded by enigma and puzzlement, which are likely to be major attractions. Younger followers in particular may revel in the mystique created by this paradox, which rejects any easy or formulaic answers. Seeking more spirituality in their lives in general, kabbalists surrender themselves to the mystery and pursue it, while never holding out the expectation that their queries will be fully answered. But the quest itself yields a form of life-enhancing meaning, of striving for knowing God.

The path to this enlightenment is not necessarily dark and distant. As they become familiar with the object of their study, kabbalists may “get glimpses of God” in various ways, such as through study of the Holy Scriptures, or by meditation before morning prayers. Despite the gulf between God and humankind, dedicated kabbalists never give up trying to know God, who may not be remote from their lives even as He is beyond matter, beyond time, even beyond infinity.

For Jews who are questioning their faith, Kabbalah offers a keen awareness of its limitations. This conveys an aura of honesty and tolerance. Also, the acceptance of reincarnation draws Kabbalah closer to that of other world faith traditions.

Readers who enjoy lists will find “Kabbalah for Dummies” replete with offerings, such as “The Ten Fundamental Forces that Sustain the World,” “The Soul’s Journey of Five Levels,” “Ten Myths about Studying Kabbalah, “Ten Places that Kabbalists Visit,” etc.

However, one suspects that books of this kind that purport to provide at least an introduction to a large topic invariably simplify in order to facilitate access.

For example, Chapter 5 is titled “Everything (Even a Traffic Jam) is for the Best.” This is “cute,” but may obscure the more complex and nuanced aspects that that chapter title misses. Even with such language only as a pedagogical approach, there is still a large measure of cogitation required to extrapolate the high points of Kabbalah.

Kurzweil has provided a helpful toe in the water. Nevertheless, the writing is largely a consequence of the “Dummies” series idiomatic style and not a reflection of the topic addressed. And, oh yes, Madonna. Her widely publicized interest in Kabbalah created a misperception that Kabbalah is a “New Age” pop culture phenomenon. It’s not!

“Kabbalah for Dummies” by Arthur Kurzweil (366 pages, Wiley Publishing, $19.99).