New Books Blend Kabbalah, Psychotherapy and Self-Help

Mysticism and Mortgages

By Jay Michaelson

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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The Secret Life of God: Discovering the Divine Within You

Rabbi David Aaron

Shambhala, 192 pages, $21.95.

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Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing And Inner Wholeness

Estelle Frankel

Shambhala, 332 pages., $24.95.

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As everyone seems to know by now, Kabbalah has broken into the mainstream. Thanks to Esther, née Madonna Louise Ciccone, the mystical teachings of medieval Jews are now fodder for talk shows and for jewelry boutiques.

But this is, in fact, Kabbalah’s third revival in the past 100 years. For centuries a central part of Jewish religion — later tainted by scandal, finally nearly buried by those who would rationalize and modernize the Jewish religion — Kabbalah was rescued from the dustbin of history in the first half of the 20th century by Gershom Scholem, the Jewish scholar and political thinker who found within Kabbalah his own counter-Judaism, a nonrational, messianic system of thought and expression that — though widely denigrated by the Enlightenment — seemed authentic, vibrant and mythically powerful.

For several decades, Kabbalah remained primarily an academic interest. But as the 1960s wreaked their own anti-rationalistic revolution in the Jewish community, Kabbalah enjoyed a “second wave” of revival, and began to spread outside academic walls and into popular Jewish culture. Scholars like Arthur Green, teachers like Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the chavurah movement — all these drew on Kabbalah not as an academic interest, but as a source for personal transformation. Academic Kabbalah was like reading the recipe; these people wanted to taste the meal.

What they found — and half-created — was the antithesis of the stultified Judaism of the American suburbs: Kabbalah was rife with ecstatic spirituality, sexual symbolism, and myths of angels, demons, reincarnation and magic. Eventually, many “spiritual seekers” left Judaism to pursue esoteric and contemplative practices elsewhere. Others stayed and drew on the equally esoteric and contemplative Kabbalah for inspiration.

Today, Kabbalah is on its third wave. No longer the province of pious rabbis, scholarly academics, or hippie obscurantists, it is being put to use today in self-help, the New Age and other outgrowths of the “Me Generation.” Kabbalah’s themes and structures have long given shape to Jewish ritual, on the margins and in the mainstream. Now, the barriers that were once in place — religious, linguistic, cultural — are falling rapidly.

Of course, the most widely known of the contemporary popularizers is the Kabbalah Centre, whose books were reviewed in an earlier issue of the Forward. But the entrepreneurial center is not the only entity teaching Kabbalah to the masses. Shambhala press, a well-respected publisher of spirituality, religion (especially Buddhism) and meditation books, has two new entries in the Kabbalah book market.

Estelle Frankel’s life, recounted in the preface to “Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness,” is a microcosm of the recent history of Kabbalah-influenced Judaism. Raised in a conventional Jewish American home, she gravitated in the late 1960s toward Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. In the 1980s, after she completed her studies in psychology and became a therapist, Frankel began seeking ways to integrate the spiritual teachings of mystical Judaism with the psychological practices she had learned — even as she alienated many colleagues in the psychotherapeutic community, who thought that spirituality was hokum. “Sacred Therapy” is one of the results of this search.

The book can seem either usefully down to earth or annoyingly self-absorbed, depending on one’s perspective. The first three chapters, for example, utilize the symbols of the “broken vessels” of creation, the broken tablets of Sinai and the broken glass of a Jewish wedding as ways to accept and experience our own brokenness. For many readers, this is a wonderful way to make these symbols relevant to our lives today, and grounded in our daily experience. For many others, I suspect, it will be an exercise in narcissism. Quotidian problems (the marriage, the mortgage) are writ large on Frankel’s cosmic scale. She jumps effortlessly from Luria’s myth of the broken vessels to Michael’s midlife crisis. Is this the adaptation of myth, or the cheapening of it? To be sure, Frankel’s teaching is not about inflating the ego — it is, in fact, the opposite. But the marriage of Kabbalah, which is about God and the world, and psychotherapy, which is about the self, is nonetheless an uneasy one.

To give Frankel credit, she is far more adept than most spiritual-psychological writers at the distinctions between those two disciplines. Her treatment of teshuvah and therapy, for example, recognizes that there are as many differences between those two modalities as there are similarities. And unlike many published writers on Kabbalah, she has done her homework; her treatment of Kabbalistic doctrines is first rate, and doesn’t skimp on detail.

But does symbolizing and mythologizing our emotional trauma do justice either to the pain or to the myth? There is an awful lot of terminology and myth in Kabbalah, and I wonder if it sometimes leads one to dress up one’s neuroses in clothes that are neither a good fit nor a necessary one. On the other hand, I have found that when some (though not all) Kabbalistic ideas are put into practice, they can be surprisingly valuable spiritual guides. Map is not territory, and the recipe is not the meal. As Frankel herself says, the only way to evaluate her ideas is to try them out.

Rabbi David Aaron’s new book, “The Secret Life of God: Discovering the Divine Within You” almost lost me within its first 10 pages. Right as the book begins, Aaron commits one of the deadly sins of contemporary spirituality: drawing vague psychological conclusions from a poorly understood synthesis of quantum mechanics and relativity. For the record, Einstein did not say “Everything is relative to our human perspective” in any way that is meaningful to the spiritual quest. I wish writers would just stop this sort of thing.

But at least Aaron, who founded the popular Isralight program several years ago, does not mince words. On page 13, he explains “why you and I exist,” which is: “God created imperfect human beings who struggle to become better… it is through us that God fulfills His desire to express and participate in a process of becoming perfect.”

For Aaron, the secret life of God is your life. Your struggles are God’s struggles, even more radically than in Frankel’s work. And each individual on Earth has a unique mission, a unique way in which God manifests and experiences this process of becoming. Thus, Aaron says: “Our job is to contribute to the creation of ourselves, to improve this world, to rise to the challenges, to choose goodness and grow.”

Notice how pliable this concept of “mission” really is. If you’re cheated by an unscrupulous business partner or, for that matter, by a spouse, is your mission to rectify the wrong, or to accept that God, acting through your partner, has taught you a much-needed lesson? Are we to be stoics or activists? Lovers or hermits? Do we follow the law, or our bliss?

Aaron’s theological language is often inspiring, but it doesn’t really teach us what to do. Eventually, he resorts to an almost fundamentalist position: “Only the commandments, the expressed will of God… enables the human being to bond with the Divine.” That’s when I almost put down the book a second time. Aaron’s theology creates a situation of moral anarchy, and so, as if in a panic, he falls back upon a fundamentalist reading of history to somehow anchor us back in the world of normativity. Follow your truth — but your real truth can only be found in the Torah.

What saved “The Secret Life of God” for me came only toward the end, with Aaron’s vision of life as a Divine play of hide-and-seek, of hiding and revealing — an erotic love poem with the Other God projects for Godself. Aaron renders the often-abstruse doctrines of pantheism — that God fills every atom of the universe, including those in your brain as you read these words, and yet also “surrounds” the universe itself — in a patient, readable prose that makes the last few chapters of his book an excellent primer on Kabbalistic theology. He works out the details, provides examples and analogies; he does the job better than any other book I’ve read.

To be fair, many Kabbalists before David Aaron reached the same impasse: If God is everywhere, and living through me, what is the purpose of the ritual law? What can “sin” mean in a world in which everything is Divine? When Aaron raised such questions, I found him inspiring. When he answered them — depressing.

Ultimately, both books suffer from the limitations inherent in adapting Kabbalah for a contemporary reader: They end up having to say that you can partake of the mysteries of the Godhead right within your own lifestyle. Well, that may be true, cosmologically; if God fills everything, then God definitely fills your job and home. But it takes a huge amount of skill — more than I’ve mustered, certainly — to be able to remain as focused on Divinity as Aaron suggests, or as in touch with the Divine play as Frankel invites us to be, when we’ve chosen a lifestyle of business, negotiations and hassle.

The reality is, to fully open up to God takes work. It’s easy to practice ordinary Judaism while holding down a job and raising a family; that’s how it’s meant to be done, and Judaism as a religious system is as much about self-preservation as it is about self-transformation. Mystical practice, though, is destabilizing, expanding, enlightening. It doesn’t fit neatly within the boundaries of psychotherapy, or self-help or traditional religion. On the contrary, it tends to erase them.

Jay Michaelson ( will be on a meditation retreat in November and December. He teaches Kabbalah at City College, the 14th Street Y, Makor and the Limmud Conferences.

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