April 06

The Power and the Glory: A Critique of "New Age" Kabbalah
by Dr. Jonathan Garb
p. 2 of 2

It is reasonable to posit that the very same trends of shifting notions of power in Kabbalah in the 20th century have led important Kabbalistic streams – particularly those derived from the school of Rav Kook, emphasizing the unique power of the Jewish nation – to fuel the dramatic rise in "mystical Jewish nationalism." Looking carefully at the development of the school of Rav Kook reveals phenomena of the "privatization of power" very similar to the search for "personal power" noted above.

For example, members of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva (founded by Rav Kook) have followed Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau of the Har HaMor Yeshiva in splitting with the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in protest against its becoming too academic, and, as noted by researcher Dov Schwartz, have moved towards focusing on highly individualized internal spiritual practices, the nurturing of "chosen ones," and rejection of all forms of social, political, and "external" activism. Such streams tend to break with the mainstream modes of living and public life in Israel. These tendencies have recently increased in the aftermath of the "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip. Many of the followers of Rav Kook today, occupied as they are with his previously censored notebooks, emphasize the very personal layers of his writing – material that was shunned in the early period of the development of the school of Rav Kook. These poetic texts, now garnering much attention in certain circles, call for freedom from societal and even halakhic restraints in order to fulfill the goal of personal fulfillment. An additional contemporary expression of the "privatization of power" is the phenomenon of the "Hilltop Youth" [Groups of teenagers and other young people engaged in provocative, and at times illegal, right-wing political action in Gaza and the West Bank - Ed.] whose values at times overlap with tenants of the New Age – personal empowerment leading to anarchic and individualistic modes of behavior while attacking perceived political and religious burdens. In some ways, the "Youth of the Hilltops" represent a more extreme version of the "Jewish Underground" of the 1980s, who promoted autonomous expressions of power against the Israeli government.

At the same time as "power" is increasingly sold as a New Age product, it is ironically disempowering in political terms. The intersection in the rise of the personal model of power in Kabbalah and New Age values of "self empowerment" in recent decades is expressed by a variety of forms of abandonment of mainstream Israeli society. The belief that "peace begins within" can, in some expressions of it, lead to an exclusive focus on internal, individualistic harmony, as opposed to a sense of public responsibility for social or political change. It is precisely because the emphasis on personal power and fulfillment in the New Age blends so seamlessly with the ideologies of late capitalism that I have chosen to describe New Age teachings about individual power as "privatization of power." Privatization of power on an individual level goes hand in hand with the abuse of the movement by commercial marketing of products designed to facilitate access to power by spiritual seekers. The New Age movement has become a major industry with a wide variety of products – festivals, books, cosmetics, medicines, seminars, and more.

In the vocabulary of the New Age, "mysticism" is not only a product, it is a label. In a world where the acquisition of knowledge has definite class mobility and economic value, individuals continually seek avenues for quick access to wisdom or knowledge that results in both recognition and material gain. Within the New Age movement, economic class often determines who is exposed to the highest-value mystical products. People who can afford to travel abroad or are able to purchase expensive items can expect better results in their quest while members of the lower classes must make do with products of lesser value. It is ironic that certain followers of Rabbi Ashlag, a Kabbalist whose teachings edged closer to socialism than those of his contemporaries, are purveyors of expensive products marketed to their most well-off students. Rabbi Ashlag's altruistic, psychological premise of "desire to influence" has mutated into a gospel of an egoistic "desire to receive."

Here we come to full expressions of "external" criticism against the social and economic interests espoused within the rise of contemporary mysticism, as the selling of mysticism becomes part of a global political movement linking the worlds of spirituality and economic power. Social critic Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, a religiously conscious critique of modern society, describes the contemporary Western individual as a "homo economicus" – an economic being – who experiences all reality through terms of prosperity or need. With this critique in mind, it is not surprising to find that the culture of the New Age in our day favors "short cuts" speeding up the long and at times turbulent path towards mystical knowledge and individual perfection with of a range of purchasable miracle cures, offering personal power through magical objects (crystals, holy water, etc.). Or consider the repetition of mantras and sayings, affirmations with the power to change reality. Traditionally, magic was performed by use of "whispering" as part of larger faith systems about holy language – for example Hebrew in Jewish traditions and Arabic in Muslim ones. In New Age practice, linguistic models focus on the search for "magic words" taken completely out of their original cultural-religious contexts. For some of Rabbi Ashlag's followers, traditional Hebrew phrases for the "Name of God" are removed from traditional usages and employed for the sake of gaining power. Consider other "short cuts" such as advanced seminars in which students are given the title "master" in return for a large fee.

In the Jewish context, the rise in the power of the tzaddik equates with a decrease in the power of the halakha (Jewish law) as a system capable of creating meaning in the realm of New Age. In the eyes of many New Age seekers, the power of the chosen one stands above the power of the halakha – a trend obvious in the writings of the New Age but perhaps less obvious in the writings of halakhic figures such as Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg. Ginsburg, a Chabadnik, is a spiritual authority for many in the settler movement. Amongst other works he has written Baruch HaGever ("Blessed Is the Man"), praising Baruch Goldstein, a Jew who murdered over thirty Muslims in a mosque on Purim 1994. As with the similarity between the Kabbalah Centre's emphasis on "personal power" and some followers of Rav Kook, non-traditional and traditional contemporary figures often make use of very similar themes.

Despite much social criticism, there are more optimistic views of concerning the New Age." Social theorist Phillip Wexler sees new streams of social activism and organization embedded in the wave of contemporary mysticism, allowing spiritual language and values to enter the public sphere. In the Jewish context we can note Rav Shagar, leader of the Siach Yitzhak Yeshiva, a center of inspiration for the national religious movement. In his book Broken Vessels Shagar looks approvingly towards the New Age as an opening for spiritual renewal in the Jewish world.

In my own criticism of the New Age, I do not intend to offer a blanket condemnation. It is clear that the revival of mysticism in our days has allowed for the release of many talents and trends pushed aside or ignored in the past. The New Age has also prodded forward the public presence and growth of mystical traditions that were once thought to be merely tangential to general religious culture. (Scholars especially benefit from this!) Still, the rise in mysticism amidst globalization threatens to blur the unique elements of different mystical paths as they become products in the spiritual supermarket. So, for example, in bookstores the works of the great mystical teachers of the past are being pushed aside in order to promote magical objects and self-help guides claiming to teach speedy paths to personal power. In this sense, a trend that was hoped to enrich cultural dialogue actually serves powers promoting commoditization of any content potentially saleable in systems that already distribute material wealth unequally.

Furthermore, the profound nature of the mystical experience, in my opinion, obligates us to protect it from superficiality and the marketplace. As such, the "internal" criticism of New Age promotion and marketing of mystical content is actually more crucial than the "external" criticism of its privatization of power. One the major proponents of Buddhism in the West, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, criticized the idea of "spiritual materialism," a term he used to describe the less obvious ways that spirituality is used for material gain or raising status. His implication was that the use of heightened spirituality to increase the power of the ego and identity conflicts directly with practices meant to decrease the impact of such limiting components, blocking the seeker's openness to unknown mysteries which are the ultimate goal of the mystical path. When the New Age does not sin in the ways of sheer materialism, it more often than not tends toward spiritual materialism in the way that Trungpa implied. As we conclude, it is worth considering the words of Trungpa concerning "sadhana," the preparations for the meditative practice mahamudra, an advanced form of meditation found in Tantric Buddhism: "If we make use of dharma [the Buddhist path] for personal gain, then the river of materialism will rise above us. When materialism takes control, the consciousness is drunk with the follies of the world."



Dr. Jonathan Garb is a lecturer in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article originally appeared in Hebrew in the Israeli magazine Eretz Acheret, January-February 2005 (www.acheret.co.il).

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