BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Not newage fluff ...

I had some nagging doubts when I picked up Perle Epstein's Kabbalah:The Way of the Jewish Mystic that it might be one of those "new age" Kabbalah books (ala Madonna, etc.) and that I was going to loathe it. Fortunately, this is not the case, this coming (originally published in 1978) well before the current cultish craze. The author certainly predicts it (the epilogue is entitled Personal Musings on a Future Kabbalah) yet while spinning out hypothetical "pop Kabbalah" forms, says: "Today there are no actively recruiting Kabbalists - no posters on college campuses announcing intensive meditation sessions, no encounters, only now and then a scholarly Kabbalist who might drop a hint or two in a lecture on Jewish mysticism." ... certainly things have changed in the past 30 years, and, unfortunately, the author (as "Perle Besserman") seems to have been one of driving forces behind the "celebrity cult" form.

Given that, this book is a remarkably informative over-view of traditional Kabbalah (for example, virtually no mention is made of the "western occult tradition", the likes of Eliphas Levi and Aleister Crowley, and their use of these systems), tracing back through Jewish history and literature. It is divided into three sections, "The Mystic Life" which looks as the Kabbalah as a path, and how it had historically developed, "Kabbalistic Paths" which looks at meditative, scholarly, and ecstatic forms of Kabbalah, and finally a section "Cleaving to God" which deals with prophesy, etc.

One very interesting point is that nearly every major text on the Kabbalah was greeted as an outright forgery, but had substantial (and evidently quite functional) schools of Kabbalistic learning based on them ... this reminds me of Crowley's insistence that you could use the New York City phonebook as your grimoire if you went about your mysticism with sufficiently focused intent!

The author does seem to have an interest in placing Kabbalah in context of the various "new age" movements of the 70's, noting that many (if not most) of the followers of various Eastern gurus were Jewish youth who had fallen away from their ancestral faith. She compares many Kabbalistic practices with those of the Taoists, and there are certainly clear parallels to the visionary aspects of Vajrayana. Even "goddess" worship is introduced here via the aspect of the Shekhina/Matrona, noting "the very presence of the living God in the world is female" (and so providing a link to Catholic Marian devotion).

However, the strength of this book is in it's density, with a vast lot of history and philosophic development being funneled into the middle sections where the assorted "schools" of Kabbalah are walked through. The names, practices, and treatises run thick, and often inter-woven, making it hard for me to provide a brief thumb-nail sketch of the flow, but the process of reading through does provide a sense that you're being provided with a particularly clear window into a rather important (yet frequently ignored) aspect of the human search for the divine.

Epstein, though, refuses to let what could be an arid recitation of names and dates fall into that trap, but keeps her writing lively, with personal details (and foibles) of various figures, and evocative descriptions of such places as Safed, which she introduces as:
Safed is a natural mystic's retreat, the perfect landscape for cultivating Awe, an ethereal town that could just as well have been a tiny Tibetan enclave or the setting for an isolated monastery in the Himalayan foothills; a Jewish Shangri-La. And so it was, once.
She also peppers in dry humor such as the off-hand comment that a particular community where some famed teacher lived was now beneath a runway of Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Certainly if you have an interest in the mystic paths, Kabbalah:The Way of the Jewish Mystic is a book that should be added to your bookshelf, and if your exposure to the Kabbalah is only via the Crowley material, this will provide history, context, and grounding. It is too bad that this seems to be just a prelude to the "Kabbalah craze", but I think that it manages to stand on its own.

Oddly, Amazon has this hardcover edition listed as by Besserman rather than Epstein, while listing the still-in-print paperback in the original name. I am assuming that these are the same woman, but one never knows with Amazon. There are "very good" copies of the hardback available for 1¢ and "new" copies for as little as 24¢ (plus shipping, of course). Despite where this led over the past few decades, I'd recommend this as a primer on the traditional Kabbalah.

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Tags: book review
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