Latter-day Luminary

Micha Odenheimer
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Micha Odenheimer

One day in Jerusalem of the early 1950s, Shlomo Shoham, later an Israel Prize-winning author and criminologist, set out to look for kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. "It was Prof. Gershom Scholem who sent me to see him," Shoham told me. "Scholem disagreed with what he thought Ashlag was doing with kabbala, but he thought I would find him interesting - a curiosity." Ashlag at that time was trying to print "Hasulam" (literally, "The Ladder"), his Hebrew translation and commentary on "The Book of Zohar," (the ancient, seminal work on Jewish mysticism). Whenever he would raise a little money, from small donations, he would print parts of his "Hasulam."

"I found him standing in a dilapidated building, almost a shack, which housed an old printing press. He couldn't afford to pay a typesetter and was doing the typesetting himself, letter by letter, standing over the printing press for hours at a time, despite the fact that he was in his late sixties. Ashlag was clearly a tzaddik (righteous man) - a humble man, with a radiant face. But he was an absolutely marginal figure and terribly impoverished. I later heard that he spent so many hours setting type that the lead used in the printing process damaged his health.

A few years later, on Yom Kippur evening in 1954, Ashlag passed away, less than two years after the publication of his monumental "Hasulam" commentary on the "Zohar." Tradition attributes the latter to the second-century Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, while modern scholars believe it was written or compiled in the 13th century. By all accounts it is the pivotal work of Jewish mysticism, a canonical opus whose acceptance as sacred is almost as widespread as that of the Talmud or the Torah itself. Loosely structured as a commentary on the Bible, the "Zohar" records the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his disciples, who wander through second-century Palestine while revealing the deepest secrets of creation, reincarnation and the redemptive pathways of the divine light. Written in idiosyncratic Aramaic, the "Zohar" was poetic, enigmatic, elliptical and at times dreamlike, and meditation on it formed the basis for much of the kabbala that followed its publication, including the intricate and authoritative teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Safedian kabbalistic master.

Like his earlier books - commentaries on the Lurianic kabbala - Ashlag's "Hasulam" articulated a precise, original and systematic interpretation of Judaism's mystical corpus. Ashlag's version of kabbala promised individual transformation and even personal redemption for those who devoted themselves to its study and practice. Called "Hasulam" because it provided a step-by-step passageway between heaven and earth, like Jacob's biblical dream ladder, Ashlag believed that his commentary, by unlocking the secrets of the "Zohar," would enable adherents to attain successive levels of spiritual illumination including, for a select few, the transformation of their physical body itself from a gross material into a vessel for divine light.

Dying in obscurity

But Ashlag himself was even more passionately committed to the far-reaching social vision that emerged from his understanding of the kabbalistic tradition. He grasped humanity as a single entity, both physically and spiritually interdependent, and believed that only an economic system that recognized this could liberate humankind and catalyze an era of collective enlightenment. In his diary, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, describes meeting Ashlag "numerous times," and being struck by the fact that "while I wanted to talk to him about kabbala, he wanted to talk to me about socialism and communism."

Yet despite the powerful fusion of mysticism and social ideas that his work presented, Ashlag remained a fringe figure, his personality and ideas barely registering on the radar screen of Jewish collective memory. Too revolutionary for the ultra-Orthodox world of which he always remained a part, too abstract and universalistic for the religious-nationalist world which was preoccupied in any event with the thought of Ashlag's close friend, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashlag was also largely dismissed by academic scholars, who took their cue from Gershom Scholem.

Scholem, the predominant academic scholar of kabbala until his death in 1982, believed that Ashlag's project was a misguided attempt to unify Luria's system with the "Zohar." Scholem was a scholar for whom historical context was a key to interpreting thought: He believed, for example, that Luria's kabbalistic thinking was in large part a response to the Jewish exile from Spain. As a Zionist thinker, Scholem was intoxicated by the power of history to unleash new spiritual forces. He was thus opposed to what he saw as Ashlag's effort to harmonize Luria and the "Zohar," though each had emerged from a different historical period. What Scholem apparently did not understand was the radical originality of Ashlag's own reading of the tradition, and the "Hasulam" commentary's success in marshaling both the poetics of the "Zohar" and the Lurianic processes in support of his new interpretation of kabbala.

Ashlag's kabbala survived thanks to the efforts of two of his sons, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag and Rabbi Shlomo Benyamin Ashlag, and his disciple and brother-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, who served for a number of years as the chief rabbi of the Histadrut labor federation. All three devoted their lives to spreading his system, all three founded yeshivas where Ashlagian kabbala was taught, all three continued to publish and disseminate his works. And all three disciples, like their master, lived and died in relative obscurity, scrounging for funds to publish books of Ashlagian kabbala, and teaching small groups of dedicated students in the wee hours of the morning.

Geography of spirituality

And then something changed. Over the last few years, Ashlagian kabbala has become a force that is increasingly hard to ignore in the geography of contemporary Jewish spirituality. I first fully realized the scope of Ashlag's new prominence in the New Delhi airport this September, when I came across an article in The Hindustan Times reporting that Madonna, the supreme icon of postmodern stardom, had paid a midnight visit to Ashlag's grave in Jerusalem during her trip to Israel this fall. Madonna is a student of Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbala Center, which has numerous branches in Israel, Europe, the United States and South America. Berg, who was a student of Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, traces his spiritual lineage to Ashlag, although his opponents argue that Berg has deviated from his master's path.

They have a point: Ashlag vigorously opposed making money from the teaching of kabbala, while Berg's Kabbala Centers are managed like a modern corporation, and have helped him amass a substantial personal fortune. Ashlag was equally vehement in resisting the popular association of kabbala with magic. Although Jewish mysticism has from its beginnings included a magical component - already in the Talmud there are accounts of rabbis using divine names to create living beings, and the kabbalists' ability to levitate, travel long distances instantaneously and read thoughts is the common stuff of Jewish legend - many kabbalists have also condemned magic as an abuse of holy power for personal gain. Ashlag saw an obsession with the miraculous as a distraction and impediment to the real challenge: the grueling and constant effort necessary for spiritual metamorphosis. He consistently refused to engage in activities such as miraculous healing, blessings or dream interpretation, which for other kabbalists were part of their daily routine. In contrast, Berg's Kabbala Centers sell "kabbala water," posters of divine names and lucky red strings to be worn as bracelets, and also offer courses on subjects such as "kabbala and success," which harness kabbala's prestige to the goal of personal prosperity.

Recently, Berg seems to have crossed another line, further separating him from Ashlag's legacy: the adoption of Christological symbols - he now calls the Zohar "the Holy Grail" - and rhetoric that veers uncomfortably close to classic anti-Semitism. In his introduction to the English translation of the "Zohar" and commentary on "Hasulam" that was written by his son, Rabbi Michael Berg, the elder Berg cites Jewish suppression of the "Zohar" as the key cause of worldwide suffering and of anti-Semitism: "These Jews were and continue to be the underlying cause of anti-Semitism. If the Holy Grail became widespread, there would be no further need of intermediaries. The Jews and all mankind would finally achieve that long sought-after goal of eliminating chaos. The primary factor that festers anti-Semitism is the denial by the Jew, albeit, the authorities, of the fruits of the Holy Grail. While this denial originates with the few leaders, nonetheless the blame of chaos is thrust upon the entire Jewish people, including the innocent ones."

Radical social vision

Despite his increasingly bizarre divergence from Ashlag's ideas, there is no doubt that Berg is devoted to one of Ashlag's primary goals: the dissemination of kabbalistic texts and ideas. Furthermore, his coterie of celebrities - Madonna, Demi Moore, Mick Jagger and the latest, Sarah Ferguson the Duchess of York - have raised Ashlag's fame to an unprecedented level. The Kabbala Center, though, is not by any means the only vector through which Ashlagian kabbala is spreading.

Groups studying Ashlag now meet regularly in dozens of cities and towns across Israel. In Petah Tikva, a nondescript building in the industrial area comes alive at 3 A.M. as 150 dedicated students arrive for a daily kabbala class led by Rabbi Michael Laitman, a Russian immigrant who was a close disciple of Rabbi Baruch Ashlag. The building is the headquarters of the Bnei Baruch group founded by Laitman, and its drab exterior opens into a sparkling new beit midrash (study hall) lined with hundreds of copies of Ashlag's books and a broadcasting studio with state-of-the-art equipment, through which kabbala classes are beamed to an international audience - consisting of many non-Jews - in Hebrew, Russian, English and Italian. While they have no exact gauge, Bnei Baruch says that they have indications that several hundred thousand people worldwide view their internet broadcasts or visit their extensive Web site on kabbala every month.

About 15 years ago, students of Jerusalem kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a disciple of Brandwein, founded an Ashlagian commune near Mount Meron called Or Ganuz, which combines kabbala study with efforts to realize their master's radical social vision. For the last several years Or Ganuz has been providing kabbala instructors to largely secular audiences in various locations throughout in the Carmel and Galilee. In Bnei Brak, one of Rabbi Ashlag's grandchildren, Rabbi Yehezkel Ashlag, has built a yeshiva together with Rabbi Akiva Orzel, a student of Yehezkel Ashlag's father, Rabbi Shlomo Binyamin. In the ultra-Orthodox community of Telshe Stone and in the Old City of Jerusalem, there are Ashlag centers that are also active and growing.

Suddenly, the academic world has begun to notice Ashlag as well. Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death this year by hosting the first ever-academic conference on Ashlag this December 26. The conference will bring together top academics in the field of kabbala, such as Prof. Moshe Idel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with Ashlag disciples, including Laitman and members of the Ashlag family. The first doctorate on Ashlag's thought, written by Tony Lavie, was accepted by Bar-Ilan University last year (Lavie previously published a book of dialogues with the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz), and a book of dialogues between Lavie and Rabbi Orzel is forthcoming this year. Several more doctorates are in the works.

Prof. Avi Elkayam of Bar-Ilan, which is cosponsoring the conference, sees the awakening of the academic world to Ashlag's importance as the righting of a historic wrong. "It's clear already," says Elkayam, "that Scholem was shortsighted in not perceiving Ashlag's originality. There is a renewed interest in kabbala in the West, and much of it is based on Ashlag." Elkayam believes that the inner life of the religious public in Israel is at a crucial juncture today, and that Ashlag may have a key role to play.

"Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as interpreted through the prism of his son's philosophy, created a mysticism of land and settlement. But with the foundations on which Gush Emunim stands crumbling, Ashlag can provide an alternative - a kabbala whose focus is not on settlement, but on individual consciousness, and the mending of society and the world. Ashlag can provide the basis for a concept of social justice founded on a spiritual science of kabbala. Of course, we are only at the beginning. We have to be cautious. It takes a huge effort - four years studying from morning until night - to really understand Ashlag's kabbala. We - the whole academic world - are just at the very beginning, still infants, so to speak, in regards to Ashlag."