The Atlantic

Restoring Kabbalah to Mainstream Judaism

A new translation has made the Zohar—Jewish mysticism’s key work—accessible at last. Is that a good thing?
Source: Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

About 200 years ago, a Jewish scholar in Germany wrote a work called Judaism in Its Main Streams (or Hauptstroemungen, in German). In doing so, he created a new term, one that had never existed before: “Mainstream Judaism.” The intent of proclaiming a mainstream, of course, is to exclude. What is it that is not “mainstream Judaism,” and therefore can be dismissed or swept under the rug? In this case, it was primarily the vast mystical tradition within Judaism, a source of great embarrassment to that first generation to emerge from the ghetto, who sought to present Judaism as a rational, enlightened form of ethical monotheism of which any reader of Immanuel Kant might be proud. Kabbalah, with its esoteric doctrines about everything from the world’s creation to the unique Jewish soul, threatened this Enlightenment effort and needed to be buried. Hence the emergence of “mainstream Judaism.”

The hegemony of that view, at least

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