Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Way of Splendor: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology

Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Way of Splendor: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology

Article excerpt

HOFFMAN, EDWARD. (2007). The way of splendor: Jewish mysticism and modern psychology. Updated 25th Anniversary Ed. Foreword by ZalmanM. Schachter- Shalomi. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. xiii + 209 pp. ISBN 9780742552494. Paperback. Reviewed by Glenn Hartelius.

Edward Hoffman's book begins with an excellent chapter that overviews the history of Jewish mysticism from Roman Palestine to its decline in 19th century industrial Europe. ''The Merkabah or ''Chariot'' epoch spanned the length of the first century B.C.E. through the tenth century C.E. and was centered in Palestine'' (p. 10). This fairly stable tradition held the knowledge of how to attain to higher states of mind, and from it came what is considered the earliest kabbalistic text, the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation (3rd-6th centuries C.E.). This short work presented the cosmos as a set of 32 vibrational forces, represented by ten primordial numbers-the famed Sefirot-and the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet. Together and in constant interplay with each other, these essences uphold the world.

The Merkabah period was a precursor to the kabbalistic era proper, which began in southern Europe in the 12th century and flourished until the 17th century in both Europe and the Near East. During this period, the charismatic teacher Abraham Abulafia wandered through what is now Spain, Italy, and Greece spreading his meditative techniques, and, among other adventures, narrowly escaped being burned to death for attempting to convert the anti- Semitic Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. Around the same time Moses de Leon compiled and/or composed the Zohar, the great central text of kabbalah. In later centuries revered masters of kabbalism such as Cordovero, Karo, and Luria converged on Safed, in Palestine, which became a center famed for its kabbalistic scholarship. Several abortive messianic movements by students of kabbalah led its works to be rabbinically prohibited to all but the most advanced Jewish scholars, effectively bringing this flowering to a close.

However, with the 18th century birth of the Hasidic movement in eastern Europe, founded by Israel ben Eliezer-an apparently self-taught kabbalistic master better known as the Baal Shem Tov-kabbalistic Judaism took on a new and wider life. The Jews of eastern Europe were mostly poor, uneducated, often oppressed, and always excluded from meaningful participation in non- Jewish society; they received the joyous and mystically charged teachings of the Baal Shem Tov with great enthusiasm. He and his successor, Rabbi Dov Baer of Metzricht, established Hasidism as a Jewish path that has many adherents throughout the world. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, Rabbi Dov Baer's most influential disciple, founded Chabad Hasidism, a movement that today works actively to bring non-practicing Jews into their mystical tradition. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, rationalist philosophy and industrial society had severely curtailed interest in kabbalah.

After this historical review, the remainder of Hoffman's book takes a quite different turn, focusing more on parallels between kabbalistic thought and the topics studied by transpersonal psychology, such as the interconnectedness of the cosmos, the intelligence of the human body, sacred sexuality, meditation, transcendent states of consciousness, dreamwork, and paranormal capacities. In doing so, he draws some fascinating parallels between this contemporary branch of psychology and the tradition of Jewish mysticism. However, this strength of the book is also its weakness-for transpersonal psychology becomes the lens that constrains its view of kabbalah. Hoffman points to ways in which Jewish mysticism resonates with what contemporary transpersonal psychology already knows, rather than exploring ways in which kabbalah might contribute to its vision. This approach leaves certain central aspects of kabbalah completely out of the reader's view.

Kabbalism is mysticism but it is also, deeply and profoundly, traditional Judaism. …

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