As part of the World Religion Reading Challenge I decided to grab Joseph Dan’s 2006 book Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction one afternoon while raiding the shelves at my local public library. I’ve been a bit curious about Kabbalah study after coming across a few passing references to it in Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of God, Max Dimont’s Jews, God and History and Niles Elliot Goldstein’s Gonzo Judaism. While Dan’s book wasn’t the most impressive book I’ve read this year, true to its claim it’s a worthy introduction to the subject matter.
Before reading Dan’s book I thought Kabbalah (or specifically “the” Kabbalah) was the title of some work of scripture related to Jewish mysticism. In reality, Kabbalah is a Hebrew word roughly translated as “receiving” and has a much more expansive meaning. It can be seen as a school or movement in Jewish thought inspired by a collection of esoteric teachings and writings, (other than the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud), which explore a number of themes including Humanity’s relationship to the Divine, the existence of evil in the world and the unfolding aftereffects of God’s creation. Similar to the scriptures of the early Gnostic Christians, some Kabbalah writings describe a series of divine emanations descending forth from the Godhead. Many writings and teachings explore the redemptive practice of Tikkun or “repairing the world” by living an ethical and moral life.
Esoteric as Kabbalah study might have been over the years, the influence of its writings and teaching are seen by many as being surprisingly far-reaching. According to Dan, the late Harold Bloom “equates” Kabbalah study with literary criticism and “found its influence throughout modern literature and philosophy”. Some Renaissance Christians were fascinated by it and made it part of their scholarly library, as did the European scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Personally, I think there are echos of Kabbalah’s influence on the “thought experiments” or gendanken of the twentieth century’s great quantum physicists.
So, keeping all that in mind, I guess the book wasn’t half bad.