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A People's Revolution of Enlightenment: Kabbalah

Ancient mysticism hits the bigtime at the Kabbalah Centre
by Maura R. O'Connor


I put the phone back on the receiver and turn off the tape recorder. A sickening emotion begins to flood over me. “So, this is what utter defeat and humiliation is like,” I think to myself, almost marveling at how excruciating the feeling is. I have just conducted what was, unarguably, the worst interview of my entire, albeit rather short, journalistic career. In and of itself, this may seem rather un-noteworthy, but this interview happened to be with, by all accounts, one of the holiest sages alive in the world today: the great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

This is the man that Time magazine called a “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” the man who is the Duchovny Ravin—“spiritual leader”—of the entire Russian Jewry, the man who has published thirty-seven volumes of translations and commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and still has more to go—a task that, when completed, will have taken nearly the entire span of his life. Rabbi Steinsaltz's understanding of the spiritual principles of Kabbalah is almost preternatural, and I had just sabotaged, with shallow question followed by shallower question, the honor of speaking with him.

During the interview, as my seeming incapability to engage in an intelligent dialogue with him was becoming uncomfortably apparent, I began to realize that it was not my lack of research into this ancient spiritual tradition that was the problem. After all, I had just spent the last three months eating, sleeping, and even dreaming of nothing but Kabbalah. I had soaked up every book I could get my hands on and fallen in love with the wonderful and compelling revelations they spoke of.

No, the problem was far worse. Face-to-face with the living embodiment of ancient wisdom itself, I found myself confronting, for the first time in my life, my own inherent lack of depth. This lack of depth didn't stem from any one thing. On the contrary, it seemed to be the product of a number of conspiring elements: my generation, my youth, my education, my birth at this particular “postmodern” moment in history, my very “American-ness” itself. And beyond these circumstances that some might argue I have little control over, I realized something else that was rather appalling: this insidious shallowness has been nourished by my own endless attraction to it, by a lifetime of intoxication with surface and sensationalism.

As I spoke with Rabbi Steinsaltz, all of this became exposed and vividly highlighted. Reaching for words, for a vocabulary, for a way to respond to the timeless spiritual and intellectual stature of this venerable man, I came back with thin air again and again. Try as I might, I couldn't even conjure the kind of fraudulent depth that had gotten me through college, that so many of my friends and I use as common currency to get through life itself, and that I now see—with the shock of true recognition—permeates the culture I live in. As I returned to my office and stared at the unfinished article on the computer screen, a strange mixture of shame and irony began to overwhelm me.

[ continue ]


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This article is from...


October–December 2004


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