Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Scandal of Kabbalah

Not infrequently, people ask me if I can suggest to them a good Kabbalah class in the neighborhood. As I have yet to find one, I usually attempt to gently suggest something more mainstream. But the question itself bespeaks a kind of inner longing.

The notion of the mystical always carries with it a certain allure - as if there are shortcuts or quick fixes to the great philosophical and religious quandaries of the human condition. Needless to say, there are not. But since its inception, the spell cast by Kabbalah has never quite lost its potency. Unfortunately, because of its popularization and even sensationalization in our generation, Kabbalah has been assigned to the margins of our communal conversation. This is unfortunate because Kabbalistic literature is replete with ideas and teachings that are both accessible and relevant to our contemporary moment. What readers of these sources too often lack is the context in which they should be understood.

The Scandal of Kabbalah is an excellent book. Rigorous and scholarly, it emanates from the highest echelons of the academy. Yaacob Dweck is among the fastest rising stars in a small constellation of outstanding Jewish historians to come onto the scene of Jewish Studies in our day. In this exceptionally well-researched and beautifully written treatise, Dweck gives us a window into the reception of Kabbalah in 17th century Italy. By telling the story of Leon Modena, one of the first and most important critics of Kabbalah, Dweck provides a context for understanding the great debate between those proclaiming a fealty to Maimonidean rationalism and those who argue for what they believe to be an ancient mystical tradition.

If the sweep of the book in its entirety seems too ambitious, read the introduction. It will (re)-orient your understanding of Kabbalah - it's meaning, reception, context and place within both the historical and religious canon.

If after reading his book you are interested in learning more about Kabbalah, I can recommend a good class at Princeton.

Dweck is also the translator of Haim Sabato's The Dawning of the Day, which I hope will be the subject of a future posting.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reading the Jeremy Lin Story

The Jeremy Lin phenomenon has spurred more than enough virtual and real conversation. Amazingly, it even brought out David Brooks' heretofore unknown affinity for Rav Soloveitchik. I wish only to add one footnote of Jewish interest.

I think part of what makes the Lin storyline so compelling is something beyond the triumph of the underdog. Of course that is a big piece, but what Brooks and others have picked up on is Jeremy Lin's refreshing humility. And this humility is all the more notable when held up against the backdrop of a sport that has made self-aggrandizement its governing ethic. Almost without knowing it, we've been waiting for this moment - a moment in which a Jeremy Lin comes along and raises us out of professional sports epoch that suffers from such a tragic role model deficit.

It is no accident that the Torah's greatest man is also its humblest. In Judaism, the value of humility cannot be overstated. It is a quality best begotten experientially - either through lived experiences that remind us of the yawning chasm between who we are and who we are capable of becoming - or through exposure to people who are genuinely humble. If Jeremy Lin is such a person, his contribution to our generation will be a great one.

I hope the Jeremy Lin phenomenon is powerful enough to shake up the entire sports world. What a boon to society it would be if the heroes whose names adorn the jerseys of so many sports fans were actually possessed of qualities worthy of being called heroic.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Brainstorming Doesn't Work, But Shuls Do

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of a shul and the ever-increasing need in our generation to bring people together - not just virtually - but in real time and in real life. Of course the notion of Beit Knesset speaks directly to this point. What we sometimes under-appreciate is the value of being together with people who are unlike us.

I highly recommend Jonah Lehrer's recent article on Groupthink in the New Yorker for two reasons. First, it makes a fascinating and compelling argument against the coventional wisdom of brainstorming. And second, it argues for expanding the opportunities for vibrant human interaction and even healthy friction. Rather than coming together simply to be mutually supportive, it's possible to come together to share ideas and challenges that push an agenda ahead faster and more effectively.

When Steve Jobs was planning Pixar's headquarters in 1999, he insisted the building be arranged around a cenral atrium so that all kinds of people would bump into each other. For Jobs, it was about maximizing creativity. For shuls, I think it's about maximizing humanity. Our lives are so silo-ed. We form little networks and sub-networks around people who are just like us. They're at the same life stage, they have similar interests, or they work in our field. This is a natural and healthy phenomenon. But it also leaves us short-changed, limiting our opportunities to interact in real ways with people who aren't exactly like us.

Shuls are a treasure trove - a safe and known space where every member has access to an extraordinarily diverse group of people doing extraordinary things. The normal barriers of rank and status dissolve the moment we walk into a sanctuary. Each of us is just a davener. There's nothing stopping the first year associate from striking up a conversation with the senior partner. And there's nothing stopping the veteran from striking up a conversation with a beginner. It's rare in life to have this kind of access. But too few of us take advantage of it.

You can find a slightly more developed piece on this on here. I invite you to think more about how each of us can maximize the shul-going experience and bring people together in ways that simply aren't happening at other times or in other venues.

John Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works comes out in March. If it's as good as his article, you will enjoy it.