From time-to-time, I get asked about Kabbalah, or challenged by those who think it is a form of occultism. I’ve said repeatedly that there’s a lot of benefit to Kabbalistic thinking in explaining the Incarnation in Jewish terms. Today I spotted an article that explains why: How Hasidism Bridges Boundary Between Christianity and Judaism. Just a few excerpts:
In some ways, the boundary between Judaism and Christianity is a boundary about boundaries — specifically, what separates humanity from God, and whether it is ever possible to bridge the gap. Christianity, of course, has among its cardinal principles that God became man, and that Christ is both fully human and fully divine.Mainstream Judaism holds that such a crossing of boundaries is impossible. Humans are mortal, flawed, frail; the Jewish God is omnipotent. The two cannot be reconciled.
Shaul Magid is one of several scholars of Judaism — Elliot Wolfson is another — who have disputed this particular boundary about boundaries. In his previous work, “From Metaphysics to Midrash,” he argued in the context of Lurianic Kabbalah that the “people of the Book” never quite believed their replacement of charismatic leader by literary text. Rabbinic and later forms of Judaism developed under the “Christian gaze,” and thus had to differentiate themselves from Christianity. But incarnation never really went away. . .
And, for that matter, were earlier kabbalists really that worried about seeming too Christian? Many systems of the 10 sefirot, for example, divided them up into three triads plus the 10th sefirah of Malchut, seemingly unconcerned with the obvious similarity to the Trinity. And as many scholars have noted, the Zohar itself makes a messianic hero of its protagonist, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. . .
The same principle seems to apply to Magid’s understanding of incarnation. Yes, it is not a Jewish term. And yes, the way Magid uses it is neither how Christians nor, I suspect, most educated readers would understand it. The question “Hasidism Incarnate” asks us, however, is at once broader and deeper. Is there an aspect of the religious life — even if we step down from the incarnational altar and simply call it the sense of divine inspiration, or the Holy Spirit — that exists in Judaism as well as in Christianity, and that was suppressed by Jewish sages seeking to draw a boundary between two highly porous communities?
If so — and I think it is so — then to whatever extent Hasidism reclaimed it, and for whatever reasons, Magid’s book is an important contribution, for it shines a light on where the drawing of boundaries has the effect of dividing a birthright.
Food for thought for those who want to automatically discount anything Kabbalistic as being occultic. Yes, it certainly can be, especially when we talk about Kabbalah Ma’asit, or “Practical Kabbalah.” However, philosophical Kabbalah does clearly have some value in explaining a Divine Messiah in traditional Jewish terms. Those interested in this area would do well to read Return of the Kosher PIg by Itzhak Shapira, a book that I will be reviewing here as soon as I get it back from the friend I loaned it to.
In short, Kabbalah can certainly be dangerous, especially to those who approach it seeking mystical experiences and worldly power. But there’s also some benefit to studying about Kabbalah (as opposed to studying Kabbalah), at least for those of us who interact regularly with the wider Jewish community.