Some Books Just Shouldn’t Be Written: Kabbalah for Dummies

Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Special to the Jewish Week

Like anyone who accepts the responsibility of saying Kaddish seriously, I spend a lot of time running to and from various minyanim.  Luckily, my own synagogue has a daily minyan morning and evening, and when my schedule allows for it, that minyan is always choice number one.  But there are more than a few times when appointments or other commitments have me away from Forest Hills when that minyan meets, and that’s when I go a-hunting.

Truth to tell, it’s not too much of a hunt.  Just about five minutes away from me by car, in Kew Gardens Hills, there are more minyanim within a few short blocks than just about anywhere in the United States outside of maybe Brooklyn.  My afternoon mincha minyan of choice is at a Jewish bookstore there on Main Street.  It meets at 3:30PM every day, and it is rock solid dependable, with a core of regulars and another variable core of those saying Kaddish.

I’m one of those types who is early to everything, so I got to the bookstore the other day at around 3:20, and spent ten minutes browsing happily amidst the extensive collections of sacred texts.  As I was doing so, I happened upon an English section that had a variety of texts that were geared to Jewish “beginners.”

Ever on the hunt for good texts to use with those in my own congregation seeking to come closer to tradition, I noticed a text that froze me in my tracks.  The title?  Kabbalah for Dummies.

I’m sure you’ve seen other volumes in this series; I certainly have, and I actually have used a few.  Things like Adobe Photoshop for Dummies, Gardening for Dummies, Excel for Dummies… There are lots of them, in their distinctive black and yellow covers.  It’s a very successful series, and often quite helpful.

So what froze me in my tracks?

The whole idea of “Kabbalah for Dummies” is so absurd as to virtually be an oxymoron.

Tradition has long maintained that one does not engage in the study of sacred esoterica like Kabbalah until at least the age of thirty-five.  And even then, the study of Kabbalah was never considered to be for everyone.  Quite the contrary; historically, Jewish mystics were never part of the mainstream of the Jewish community, and their study was deemed dangerous (in terms of faith and understanding) for those not mentally and spiritually equal to the challenge.

Now, of course, with Madonna an accomplished Kabbalah student and so many Jewish women wearing red threads around their wrists (and Bloomingdale’s sells a much pricier version of that bracelet, of course), Kabbalah is big business.  There are Kabbalah centers in major American cities, people hawking books on Kabbalah on the street, and for the longest time there was a huge billboard off the Long Island Expressway advertising “Kabbalah Water,” with its special spiritual and healing powers.

Ah, yes, where’s W. C. Fields when you really need him?  There really is a sucker born every minute.

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