Jonathan Garb. The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Kabbalah. Translated by Yaffah Berkovits-Murciano. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. xi + 218 pp. $50.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-300-12394-4.
Reviewed by Pinchas Giller (American Jewish University)
Published on H-Judaic (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Once and Future Trends in Contemporary Kabbalah
It is a truism of the latter-day interest in Kabbalah that there is a dichotomy between the academy and the kabbalistic “street” in Israel and the Diaspora. Sometimes it seems that fairly serious students of Kabbalah, at least in the Diaspora, could not find their way around a bookstore in Machaneh Yehudah, the public market of Jerusalem, which seethes with popular Kabbalah. The enmity is mutual; many were the times that I heard “Professor” hurled as an epithet in the kabbalistic seminaries of Machaneh Yehudah. So contemporary scholars, such as Boaz Huss (“The New Age of Kabbalah,” published in the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies ), Jody Myers (Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America ), Jonathan Meir (“New Discoveries Concerning R. Judah Leib Ashlag,” published in Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts ), and Jonathan Garb, are performing an important scholarly task by investigating the substantial literature and history of contemporary trends in Kabbalah. Garb’s The Chosen Will Become Herds is an important contribution to the field, with different emphases than other works of the genre. Garb is concerned with the political and social implications of the “New Kabbalah” for Israeli society and in the context of the contemporary phenomenon of the New Age. He sees the surge in Kabbalah in this latter period as forcing many paradigmatic changes in the religious nature of contemporary Judaism.
My colleague Myers called my attention to the distinction between the qualitative and the quantitative as ways of defining and subliminally “rating” the different contemporary movements. This does lead to an unfortunate tendency to downgrade such phenomena as the Kabbalah Center and Chabad. As social and religious phenomena, these movements’ only sin may be that they are somewhat déclassé in the eyes of the academy. Yet they are downgraded as “quantitative” in nature, a view that may be shortsighted in the light of Myers’s work on the Kabbalah Center. In fact, this study serves as a complement to Myers’s writings, and to the recent studies of Huss and Meir, all of which have already elevated the studies of Yehudah Ashlag and the phenomenologies of Philip Berg and his children to a serious role commensurate with their popular impact. And Garb does not necessarily “own” the quantitative/qualitative distinction, only reporting that such figures as Hillel Zeitlin and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook are generally considered “qualitative” (although has not religious Zionism produced a substantial social effect?).
For the lay reader, the first chapter, which reviews the contemporary trends in every corner of the Jewish world, is invaluable. Even so, at the end of the book, Garb rightly laments that it is likely to be outdated by the time of publication. Yet the basic “lay of the land” that he presents ought to hold up for some time and continue to serve as a useful guide for students, doing much to take Kabbalah into the present tense for contemporary students. The obvious context from which Garb emerges is the religious Zionism of Kook, which he brings to the discourse from his own background. This command of the Kook tradition at its theoretical level is a particular strength of Garb’s earlier study on the uses of power in Kabbalah (Manifestations of Power in Jewish Mysticism ). He portrays the evolution of Kook’s original mystical Zionism, a “Messianism without a Messiah,” into the political milieu of the violent expressions of the extremist wing of Religious Zionism, and, by association, the inner mystique of the latter-day settlers’ movement. No doubt Kook’s writings bear the scrutiny; he was a voluminous legalist and social theologian, constantly portraying contemporary history in classical and apocalyptic terms, always employing the biblical and rabbinic tropes in the service of his inclusive vision.
Garb portrays the phenomenon of the contemporary New Age movement as the “breakdown of the modern meta-narrative in the post-modern age” (p. 2). He sees the movement as a response to the dominance of philosophical rationalism in modern society, without assessing the role of a possible decline in mainstream and traditional religions in their various Western host societies. It could be argued that many dominant twentieth-century religions remained “anti-rational” in nature and the rebellion against them should perhaps be couched in other terms. In this respect, as in others, the understanding of the phenomenon is seen through the prism of the Israeli community and its hierarchies. In fact, it is a worldwide phenomenon, not just Israeli. Followers of the New Age and its various religious options are reacting to the perceived impoverishment of Western religious traditions. This impoverishment may or may not be due to their embrace of philosophical rationalism. For example, there might be a widespread perception of inconsistency or moral hypocrisy attaching to certain religious traditions, which could bring about widespread disaffection in favor of recovered traditions that are seen as more esthetic or more tolerant.
For the English reader, Garb’s work will be interesting in its presentation of the contemporary surge of Kabbalah from a distinctly Israeli perspective. That said, I have to say that I miss the innovations of the North African and Middle Eastern communities in this study, which are presented in the first chapter but otherwise not subjected to the same degree of analysis. Still, The Chosen Will Become Herds is enthralling for any student curious about the mysterious phenomena that they see on the streets, markets, and bus stations of Israel, but have been, until the publication of this work, closed to the outside world. It is also necessary for scholars and educators, and may become a required text for our little seminary in the hills above Los Angeles.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Pinchas Giller. Review of Garb, Jonathan, The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Kabbalah.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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