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A Book on Kabbalah for "Dummies" Like Me

A review of Kabbalah for Dummies by Arthur Kurzweil (Wiley, 2006).

I consider myself exceptionally uninformed about Judaism, especially considering that my great-grandfather was a rabbi, and many of my close relatives are Orthodox Jews. But if you take into account that, although I identify as Jewish, I am actually a half-Jew with almost no religious education, my ignorance makes more sense. It also makes me the perfect candidate to review this book.

Kabbalah for Dummies, by Arthur Kurzweil, is intended for readers like me: Jews or non-Jews who are curious about Kabbalah, but who know nothing or almost nothing about it.

Like many people, I first heard the word Kabbalah a few years ago (on Oprah, perhaps?) and acquired a few sketchy ideas about what it meant. I thought it had something to do with mysticism, which sounded cool, but actually, I had no idea what that meant, either. I was glad for the opportunity to devote some time to the subject.

I was a little doubtful about consulting a "for Dummies" title for a subject as serious and complex as Kabbalah. It seemed a little like reading the Cliff Notes of the Bible or Googling "meaning of life" and hoping for inspiration. On the other hand, I appreciated the "for Dummies" series' ability to make intimidating concepts more approachable.

Kurzweil's book taught me a lot about Judaism, which was really satisfying. I learned which books comprise the Torah, what Hasidism is, and why Jews say a special blessing before eating bread. I was intrigued to learn that religious Jews view their many laws as gifts rather than restrictions because the laws allow them to maintain a constant connection to God.

In general, however, the book did not really clarify my understanding of Kabbalah. Kurzweil never quite answered the question: How is Kabbalah different from religious Judaism? For example, the author explains that Kabbalists believe that "everything is for the best." Even when bad things happen, they do not attempt to understand God's logic, which is beyond understanding. I wondered: Don't all religious Jews believe this or something like this?

The first chapter, titled "What Is Kabbalah," presents several definitions, such as: "Kabbalah is the part of Judaism that deals with the understanding of God, Creation, the relationship between God and God's Creation, and the nature and way of the soul." While I don't associate the concept of the soul with the Jewish faith, although perhaps that is due to my ignorance, the other parts of this definition would seem to apply to most deeply religious Jews.

The first semi-clear definition of Kabbalah is on page 13: "…Kabbalah is a theological process central to Judaism. That is, Kabbalah is the way in which Jewish tradition tries to grasp the Infinite and tries to communicate to each generation the ways that the sages have understood that human life--in relation to the creator--should be lived" [emphasis his].

The list of "key Kabbalah concepts" on page 17 is helpful. It introduces some of the more complex ideas of Kabbalah, including the 10 sefirot or "Channels of divine plenty," which relate to the 10 "qualities of God," the 10 elements of the human soul and of the entire universe.

Kurzweil also describes as Kabbalist the idea that when God created the universe, he "poured infinite divine light into vessels." The vessels were unable to hold this light, and they shattered. Kabbalists believe that tiny pieces of these broken vessels are contained in every part of creation. A related concept is the notion of Tikkun (repair). For Kabbalists, each person is responsible for helping to repair the world through social action and "acts of lovingkindness."

Another concept Kurzweil addresses is the belief that "God creates the world through the ten utterances [the Kabbalist term for the ten commandments], which form, by their infinite combinations, all the details of existence." To me, this last concept is one of the most fascinating parts of Kabbalah. Unfortunately, Kurzweil rarely mentions it again in the book. Not until page 221 does he explain what this means, and then only in one perfunctory paragraph.

Is the author being intentionally oblique, or is this topic so complex and vast that beginning students can only handle generalities? Perhaps this is the correct approach. Kurzweil lays out the basics "for Dummies" like me, who do not have the background or faith required to be true Kabbalists.

Kurzweil is a bit caught up with debunking the myths about Kabbalah (see chapter titles "Magic, Mishegas, and Other Things Kabbalah Isn't" and "(Almost) Ten Myths about Studying Kabbalah"). Perhaps this is why he skips over many of the less mainstream aspects of the tradition. The problem is that most people who pick up this book are looking for exactly those juicy details that Kurzweil leaves out.

To be fair, the book does discuss the Kabbalist belief in angels, souls and reincarnation, three concepts that I did not associate with Judaism. And the idea of the 10 sefirot was definitely new to me. These explanations gave me some understanding of what sets apart Kabbalah from other forms of Judaism.

There are several potentially useful resources in the back of the book, such as "How to read the Talmud" (which includes a labeled diagram of a page from the Talmud), a list of weekly Torah portions to help the beginning student, and numerous recommendations for further reading about Kabbalah.

Kabbalah for Dummies did not make me want to crack open the Five Books of Moses, but it taught me a bit about Judaism and made me curious to know more about Kabbalah. What more can a dummy ask?

Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rebecca Gopoian

Rebecca Gopoian has written poetry and prose for elimae, the Denver Quarterly, Taint, Tarpaulin Sky, Sleeping Fish, Margie, the Avatar Review, Bombay Gin and VeRT. She was born in Teaneck, N.J., and now lives in Queens, N.Y., with her husband, the cartoonist David Heatley, and their two children, Maya and Samuel.

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