Converted clerics, including those born Jews, were a key force behind the Catholic reforms of Vatican II. That fact in no way undermines the body of faith behind them.
The Pritzker translation of the Zohar into English by Daniel Matt — the fifth volume of which has just appeared — should be greeted as a major cultural event. Yet, the publication of each volume has typically produced tiresome book reviews on the ownership of the word Kabbalah, comparing the academic approach of Gershom Scholem to Madonna’s New Age approach. The reviews do not answer the basic question: Why read parts of Kabbalah like the Zohar? Nor do they explain why the Zohar speaks to our age more than the myriad other kabbalistic works.
Jay Michaelson is well known to readers of the Forward for his column, “The Polymath,” a title well chosen to mitigate the frequent changes in his byline, which varied from dot-com software designer, to doctoral student in Jewish mysticism, to lawyer, to environmentalist, to poet, to GBLT activist. As one of the founders of the journal Zeek, Michaelson was one of the instrumental creators of the new Jewish culture — the hip mixture of ironic and post-ironic aesthetic gestures — which moved Jewish culture beyond baby boomer concerns. Michaelson’s theology is as diverse as his former bylines and reflects the same shift to the values of the new Jewish culture.
Contemporary American religion is filled with quests for inner happiness, a direct sense of presence and charismatic gifts. The quest ranges from spontaneous drum circles to the Dalai Lama’s Westernized talks on happiness, and from Eckhart Tolle’s New Age wisdom to Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal exorcisms. In this landscape of emotive spirituality, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi serves as one of the major guides for contemporary Jews who seek the path of the heart.