The author wrote this paper for a course in Kabbalah at the New School for Social Research (New York), submitted on 9 January 1979.
The Kabbalah – A Discussion with Rabbi Louis Jacobs
- by: Robert H. Saltzer
- for: Rabbi Herbert Weiner
- course: 3230-3 Kabbalah – The Jewish Mystical Tradition
- due: 9 January 1979
- New School for Social Research
As the reader may recall, I had occasion during this past semester to be in London, England. While there, I visited The Leo Baeck College for Rabbinical Studies, and at my request Rabbi Albert Friedlander, Dean of Rabbinical Studies, set up an appointment for me to visit with Rabbi Louis Jacobs. I was extremely appreciative of Rabbi Friedlander’s effort since I had read some of Rabbi Jacobs’ works and had a number of questions to pose to one of this generation’s greatest minds.
I met Rabbi Jacobs at his suburban London home for a period of two hours on a Friday afternoon, prior to that evening’s sabbath services. His cordial manner and warmth were overwhelming, since I had expected the stereotype individual of a stern and awesome professorial type to lecture to me. On the contrary, he was most helpful with the questions that I posed and during our discussion suggested many reference sources so that I could follow up on his various points.
I began the questioning by asking a somewhat weighted question. . . “Why would anyone want to study Kabbalah, and is further research really necessary in the field?”
He responded that “any field of Judaic study is good, because it is a mitzvah to study not just Talmud, but anything to do with our religion. . . specifically one must study Kabbalah, because the more one studies it, the less the danger that something will be passed off as Kabbalah that has nothing to do with it.”
My interest, however, was to ask about his point of view regarding the use of Kabbalah in both his day-to-day duties as a teacher and as a pulpit rabbi. Jacobs replied (by quoting Dean Ing, in part) that “in an age where there is a breakdown of organized religion, people who are religious to begin with, are inclined toward mysticism. This, in part, accounts for the interest in the Kabbalah that has been expressed by Jews who are not necessarily orthodox in their religious viewpoint. Reform and conservative Jews want an intense form of religious expression without it being tied to traditional norms which they, or their forefathers, have abandoned.”
Jacobs is a rabbi at a local synagogue in London, which could be termed liberal and progressive by European standards, but conservative by American standards. He mentioned “that I’ve said the above as a sort of background, because while I find that Kabbalistic concepts and ideas are useful in teaching Judaism to a modern congregation, I don’t think it comes out at all in the liturgy of any movement at all.” What about his congregation? “It (Kabbalah) does not come in at all at our congregation because our service is so completely traditional. I would not introduce any (Kabbalistic) material into the service unless it is already there. What might happen, however, and in fact does happen, is that on Yom Kippur, when I do certain readings during the service, I sometimes do readings from Kabbalistic works in English
I mentioned that in the book written by Gershom Scholem, entitled “On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism,” the author had noted on page 139 that:
“It would be no exaggeration to call the Sabbath the day of the Kabbalah. On the Sabbath the light of the upper world bursts into the profane world in which man lives during the six days of the week. The light of the Sabbath endures into the ensuing week, growing gradually dimmer, to be relieved in the middle of the week by the rising light of the next Sabbath. It is the day on which a special penuma, the ‘Sabbath soul,’ enters into the believer, enabling him to participate in the right way in this day which shares more than any other day in the secrets of the pneumatic world. Consequently it was also regarded as a day specially consecrated to the study of the Kabbalah.”
Rabbi Jacobs replied that indeed he does, “on a personal basis,” use the Kabbalah “in the sermons and in my general approach. For example, I have a study group and what we try to do is to extract some of the permanent ideas and values of the Kabbalah and apply them to day-to-day situations.” Rabbi Jacobs cited a book (which has been out of print for many years, called “The Permanent Values of Judaism,” by Israel Abrams), which “although taken in a somewhat superficial way, I think he (Abrams) took the Talmud and the permanent values therein, and stated them as a relevant approach to life for the modern Jew. So I really try to do something of that kind (insofar as Kabbalah is concerned) when I teach my classes. I do this to instill a feeling for the concepts of Kabbalah, as opposed to having the class swallow Kabbalah whole, which I do not do.”
I then asked him if he believed in the essential concept of the Sfirot. He answered, in a positive manner, with a twinkle in his eye, “How do you know that such Sfirot exist? . . . However, in the light of historical investigation, one would, I think, have to say that these are very profound speculations, and that they can be pointers to certain ideas that can be of value. How can one deny that based upon certain experiences, and the intensity of one’s feelings from those experiences, the actual reality of God? There is quite obviously tremendous speculation about how much one can say about God and how much one can not say. And the idea that there is an aspect about which you cannot talk at all, which is the typical mystical idea that has been inculcated for centuries (speaking directly to God and uttering his name), these are what we are constantly exploring and discussing now. There is a very profound relationship between man and God. I often bring these concepts into my sermons, although for the most part I do not use the Kabbalistic terminology.”
So I pursued this line of thought and asked him about the actual study of Kabbalah and whether or not it should be encouraged in an individual who has not fully studied Talmud. “Yes and no are the answers on that one, only because without realizing it, due to historical circumstances, kabbalah has not been taught to younger people, since the emphasis has been on Talmud and Torah study. I would, however, suggest that many of the great Kabbalists were young men; in fact, Luria was only 38 or 40 when he died.” Realizing that, Jacobs chuckled a bit and added “that there might be something in it (Kabbalah) that kills people when they are young, but I don’t know.”
Getting more serious, Jacobs added that “people like Sabbatai Zevi, who supposedly used the Kabbalah, was a relatively young man, and because of all the wrong and grief his movement caused, the study of Kabbalah was relegated to a person’s later years.”
Nonetheless, Rabbi Jacobs continues to use Kabbalistic concepts and ideas and includes them in his everyday work as a rabbi. The rabbi mentioned “that I would look upon Kabbalah as I do anything else . . . there are different levels at which one can study Kabbalah; one can study it from an historical point of view, to see how it worked and how it developed, and one can study it from a point of view dealing with experiences, since it all comes down to the question of how much of it is relevant to you, yourself. I believe it is a mistake to try to understand Judaism in a purely rationalistic way. There are experiences in our religion, and the people that experience these experiences (although they sometimes try to hide it) do base their speculations on their own experiences. So it is not the kind of thing to which one can apply any scientific test. One has to try it out in one’s own life. All we, as teachers, can do is try to explain concepts and ideas . . . it is up to the individual to experience life, either in a mystical manner or not.”
Jacobs continued, “what I mean by a mystical manner, or mystical experience, is not necessarily something like having a table lifted up or having- a spoon bent, etc. What I mean is, if I try to analyze what religion means, what Judaism means, I could not explain these entirely in terms of loyalty to the Jewish people or to tradition. It makes much more sense to me if there is a vertical dimension as well as a horizontal one. I do believe the men (in his book called “Jewish Mystical Testimonies”) were deeply religious and that they had contact with the unseen world. I believe that to some extent it means that they did have such contact. What it comes down to is that some of the people in my book really experienced a mystical situation, and that in some way we should have these people as our teachers, just as rabbis are the teachers of the Talmud, and the authors of the Bible are our teachers.”
I pursued this point and asked what we can learn from these people. He replied “that there is much to be learned from these people. You don’t have to believe in the whole scheme of the sfirot to see great spiritual power, because it is a kabbalistic understanding that anyone can have a mystical and spiritual experience.”
He mentioned, as we concluded our talk, that “the chief value of the Kabbalah and the study of it today, is the answer to the absurd notion that was begun by such people as Holdheim, Geiger and Hirsch, that Judaism is a very sober religion, and that it is very rationalistic. I firmly believe there is a spiritual and mystical side to Judaism, and it is along this line that I teach Kabbalah; I would not try to sell it to someone who has no interest in it, but I think there are a lot of people who so have such an interest, and therefore it is those people who should not be turned off.”
After thanking Rabbi Jacobs for his time, I left his home with a deepened sense that there is so much more to study and learn. There is so much intensity toward this aspect of our religion in this man, that I felt he could have gone on for many more hours. Suffice to say, the two hours that I did spend with him have given me enough to consider, ponder, and think about for quite a while.