The Kabbalah


When I was in my mid-teens, my mother gave me my first book about Kabbalah. It was “The Book of Letters” by Lawrence Kushner. You have to see this book: it’s bound in natural colored cloth, printed on cream-colored paper; it’s not typeset, but written in the author’s hand in plain and elegant English and Hebrew calligraphy. There is a copy of the book on my lap, next to my computer keyboard, as I write this. I cannot imagine being without this book.

“Alef is the first letter. It has no sound ...” So begins the book, quietly, like the first letter. “Open your mouth and begin to make a sound. STOP! That is Alef.” At once, intuitively, you know where Kushner is taking you. You’re going to go to the beginning, the place before sound, the place before thought. You’re going to learn new words – and not just the words themselves, or even just their meanings, you are going to learn a new way of thinking.

Over the next fifty-five pages (it is a short book) we learn more than 200 Hebrew words: words like echad (one), bayit (house), hinneni (here I am), sefer (book), and tzedek (righteousness). We also learn that “you cannot pronounce the letter Tet until you go out early in the spring morning and see the dew (tal). Only when you secretly confess to yourself that you really do not understand how the tiny droplets of water have come to be, are you permitted to be cleansed in them.”

Growing up in Rabbi Kushner’s New England, I knew well the chill of the dew on bare feet in the morning, at that time in spring when school is not quite over, but you can at least forget about it long enough to watch the shimmer of the early sun on those droplets. And maybe you weren’t happy in school, and maybe your home life wasn’t so good either, but could put it out of your mind when you saw the dew glistening on the blades of grass.

What was I feeling at those moments? I don’t know. I know that at other times, I was feeling “Shevirat ha-Kelim. The discord and confusion which is the beginning of growing. And then trying to get it all back together again.” So life was not meant to be easy: this much was clear. But what could be broken and shattered could also be mended: “Tikkun. Mending. The repair of the universe.” I didn’t understand what it all meant, but I wanted to find out.

Now there’s another book in front of me: big, square, and slick, printed in eye-popping day-glow colors and metallic silver. The title is “The 72 Names of God – Technology for the Soul (TM)” and the dust jacket informs me that the book is a “National Bestseller”. Its author, Yehuda Berg, is “an ordained Rabbi and is internationally-renowned as a leading authority of Kabbalah.”

The Forword informs us that “the 72 Names are a technology for asserting the power of human consciousness over physicality.” The book is quite emphatic about the “technology” aspect, in fact, using the word ten times in the two-page foreword (and four times in the first paragraph alone).

So it is a technology. Well. If it is a technology, then it must be practical, efficient, and reliable. I certainly hope it works better than my AOL dial-up or Windows Millennium Edition.

But if it is a technology, then it must also be inscrutable. Anything technological has already been theorized, understood, studied, researched and developed, and is now in full production, ready for consumer use. Science – or what used to be called “natural philosophy” – belongs to the conjoined realms of understanding and experience. Technology, by definition, does not ask to be understood or even thought about; only used. Did your computer come with a brochure explaining the fine points of silicon doping and photolithography? Neither did mine.

What are the 72 Names? They are combinations of three Hebrew letters each, derived from Exodus 14:19-21 by a simple algorithm (one letter from each verse, in order, reading the middle verse backward). The book promises that by meditating faithfully on the various letter combinations, certain specific effects can be achieved. Of course, there is a stipulation: the Names will not do anything for you unless you commit to “proactive behavior” and renounce “ego games”.

Well and good: the 72 Names of God help them who help themselves. But these little tricks – being proactive and dealing with that nuisance called the ego – does the book offer us any practical advice regarding these things? Is it not astonishing that whole shelves of self-help books, even entire religions, have been devoted to these tasks, yet Berg offers us not so much as a handful of pointers for keeping the mind and body still during meditation, or winning friends and influencing people?

And conversely: once we’ve got will and ego under control, what will the 72 Names do for us that mere meditation, prayer, study, and action alone will not? On this point, too, the book is resolutely silent.

But let me stop nitpicking over the book; now I want to visit Yossi Kein Halevi’s article on Yehuda Berg and his Kabbalah Centre.

(End of Part 2)