This summer, I visited Iceland, a beautiful and magical land. While I was there, I saw the Kerid Crater, which is a caldera: a volcanic crater with a lake inside. My family and I hiked around the edge of the crater and then down close to the lake. The perfect roundness of the crater-lake gave the impression of a circular container—a jewel-box shaped by some immense hand— or else a massive eye looking up from the earth. My daughter and I sat by the lake’s waters and anointed one another, having the sense we were in a sacred place.
Later that summer, I grappled with a story that reminded me of the crater. In Numbers 27, five sisters—the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad—approach Moses with a question. Their father had daughters, not sons, and it seems this means his family will receive no land allotment in Canaan. The daughters ask that they be given land allotments: “Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4). Moses takes their complaint to God and brings back an answer: the daughters have spoken rightly, and will receive a land allotment as they request. However, they must marry men of their own tribe so that the tribal land is not lost— if the women married men of another tribe, their heirs would belong to that other tribe and so the land would change its tribal designation. Thus, patriarchy is mitigated but not ultimately contradicted—the women become heirs to their father, but primarily for their father’s sake, not their own.
Tomorrow is Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, or their birthday. It is the day of the year when all trees, regardless of when they have been planted, turn another year older. The rabbis standardized this day in an effort to minimize complexities, since in the land of Israel, fruit can only be eaten from trees that are four or older (Leviticus 23-25). Tu B’Shevat, then, on a practical level, marks how old fruit bearing trees are.
The holiday has evolved since then. In the 16th century, Kabbalistic mystics developed a seder to celebrate the holiday, which involved eating certain fruits, drinking both red and white wine, saying blessings, and reading certain mystical texts. Each type of fruit one eats has a specific mystical meaning whether the fruit is completely edible (i.e. apple), has an inedible pit (i.e. olive), has an inedible shell (i.e. pistachio) or has a covering one generally wouldn’t eat, but could (i.e. orange). To this day, many congregations observe the holiday by hosting their own Tu B’Shevat seders often ripe with such kabbalistic overtones. Continue reading “When Every Day Will Be Tu B’Shevat by Ivy Helman.”
Never has it been more difficult for me to affirm that “love trumps hate” as during this unprecedented United States election season. After watching the Republican Convention last July in mute horror, I took to bed for several days, overwhelmed by the presentiment that everyone–blacks, women, Jews, Latinos, Muslims, queers– other than a certain breed of white American males was doomed to shameless malignment and persecution. The palpable hatred in Donald Trump’s acceptance speech seared me, arousing my ancestral memory of various persecutions of Jews, Muslims, and others–not something I usually think about or choose to foreground. For several months now, I have been haunted (and almost paralyzed) by fear.
Hence Ani Tuzman’s The Tremble of Love: A Novel of the Baal Shem Tovhas come as an especially welcome, healing antidote, affirming as it does the power of “unshakeable faith even in the presence of inhumanity” (473). I cannot say that I fully have such faith, but this novel, if anything can, leads me towards it. Page after page is filled with compelling examples of love’s power to disarm hatred and assuage pain.
Early on, a tale is told of a young man fearlessly facing three would-be highwaymen who have stopped the wagon in which he is riding with a rabbi’s wife and her three children, one of whom is disabled:
I first started delving into both Jewish Kabbalah and Hermetic Qabalah in the 1990s, after friends told me these forms of mysticism included both female and male representations of divinity and therefore were gender equitable. They were right about the first part: Kabbalah/Qabalah contain both divine masculine and feminine imaging and male and female images. But as far as gender equity goes, to use today’s slang, not so much!
Though they are both transliterations of the same Hebrew word, as is common I use “Kabbalah” for the Jewish versions, and “Qabalah” for the Hermetic version, best known through its association with the British Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which began in the 19th Century. The word means “that which is received,” with the understanding that it was “received” from ancient times. Though there is one tradition that says Adam was given Kabbalah in the Garden of Eden, the first written material for Kabbalah, Sefir Yetsirah (Book of Creation), is dated to between 200 and 500 C.E. Kabbalistic concepts changed over the centuries, with writings becoming more significant in the 13th century and even more popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Beginning with the Sefir Bahir (Bright Book) in late 12th century France, Kabbalah is represented by the Tree of Life, which has round areas transliterated sefirot (Heb. pl.; sing. sefirah) that I think of as fruit and others call “spheres,” but which in the Bahir, are more accurately translated “sapphires.”* These “divine emanations,” as they are often called in English, are gendered. How equal is the gender representation? Continue reading “Gender in Kabbalah by Judith Laura”
Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.
If Kabbalah has frequented the media’s gaze in the past decade, the name Madonna has most likely infused the headlines, along with perhaps Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, and “A-Rod,” among others. Unsurprisingly, most of the media coverage on Kabbalah and its famed celebrities tends to conceal its central teachings, focusing on only one contemporary Kabbalah movement: The Kabbalah Centre. Valorized as one of the most financially successful movements of its day, The Kabbalah Centre began in the early 1970s by Rabbi Philip Berg and his wife Karen Berg. The movement exists alongside many of the contemporary groups that seek to renew and reinvigorate an ancient Jewish tradition.
Kabbalah, which literally means, “to receive,” is an umbrella term for a particular set of ancient Jewish mystical practices and ideas, dating as far back as 13th century Spain, and possibly even farther. It is commonly noted that Kabbalah was an esoteric, and thus exclusive practice, studied by only highly educated Jewish men over the age of forty. Like most religious categories, the limits and boundaries of its definition of Kabbalah differ in the various historical and geographical contexts in which it flourished. Jody Myers, author of Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America, notes that one of the central tenants of the Kabbalah Centre is that while Kabbalah is useful for anyone and everyone, one should not be coerced into belief or practice, and it is solely up to the individual to choose it as his or her personal path. Another tenant in Berg’s teachings is a central belief that God is a form of energy, called “the Light.” This loving and spiritual light fills infinite space, and seeks to share its positive energy with anyone who desires it. Berg’s noncoercive model is part of an overarching egalitarian structure that posits religion as authoritarian and conformist, and spirituality as individual and liberating. Continue reading “Feminist Imaginings in the Contemporary Kabbalah Movement By Amy Levin”