From the Periphery to the Center: Kabbalah & Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

A story is told – a visit by the world’s pre-eminent scholar of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) to an academic bastion of Conservative Judaism half a century ago. His introduction was to be given by that center’s pre-eminent scholar of rabbinics, himself a great man. For his introduction of the Kabbalist, the Talmudist famously quipped, “Nonsense is nonsense, but the study of nonsense is scholarship.”

Such an introduction would be impossible today. Kabbalah is all the rage, in popular and in scholarly circles, among spiritual seekers and those traditionally observant, among Jews and even among non-Jews (some of them quite prominent!) At the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Schechter Rabbinical School, it is now possible to enroll in not one but several courses in Kabbalah, and at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies there is a full-time tenured professor, Dr. Pinchas Giller, whose appointment is in Kabbalah and Hasidut, and a Jerusalem Hasid, Reb Mimi Feigelson, who teaches Rabbinics, holds a monthly Rebbe’s Tisch for Rosh Hodesh, and teaches Hasidic sources in the School’s Shiur Klali. Times have changed, and Kabbalah’s move from the periphery to the center demands our attention.

Why the Resurgence?

From antiquity throughout the medieval period, mysticism was an integral part of Jewish thought.  The Bible pulsates with mystical imagery, from Moses’ radiant encounters with God in the Ohel Moed to Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel. Rabbinic tradition continued this daring dance of imagery, and the Talmud speaks of a mystical Sefer Yetzirah that the Talmudic sages would read, tells us of the great halakhic master, Rabbi Akiva, who would routinely travel to the highest spheres of heaven (there to commune with angels and to delight in visions of God). Great medieval commentators were also often mystics (one thinks of the Ramban (Nachmanides), Shlomo ibn Gabirol, and Rabbi Abraham ben Maimon – son of the Rambam).

As we entered modernity, many western Jews insisted that their future and their freedom required shedding what they perceived as parochial orientalism. They fashioned a Judaism that was decorous and strictly rational (according to 19th Century European standards), denigrating Kabbalah as backward, superstitious, and marginal.

Now, a few hundred years later, we have reaped a bountiful benefit from their openness to modernity – access to fine universities, careers in any fields, homes in any neighborhoods. Jews have participated in modernization with gusto, and have contributed well beyond our numbers. But we have also paid a high price for the chill secularism and the straightjacket of an arrogant rationalism that presumes it can identify the objective base upon which to quantify and analyze the world. Our scientific materialism has produced miracles of technology, medicine, and physical comfort, while also devastating the environment, reducing productivity to a commodity, eroding a sense of community, alienating mankind from the rest of creation and each person from our selves and from every other. We are more busy, more lonely, more terrified than our ancestors were.

The inadequacy of scientific materialism to account generously for those aspects of our lives that matter most – love, loyalty, values, art, music, spirit – coupled with the serious dangers which have emerged in materialism’s wake, have caused a new generation to look once more to ancient fountains of insight, not to deny the value of reason and science, but to supplement those ways of knowing with other, more intuitive ways of perceiving, connecting, signifying. Ours is an age hungry for meaning, for a sense of belonging, for holiness. In that search, we have returned to the very Kabbalah our predecessors scorned. The stone that the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone (Ps 118:22).

What is Kabbalah?

Along with attention to serving God through obedience to halakhah and the mitzvot, to devoting the service of the mind through the study of Torah, rabbinics, and philosophy, Judaism has a long tradition of nurturing the interior aspects of our souls, of directing our consciousness beneath the surface distractions of material reality, to an underlying unity of which we are both a part and an expression. The Hebrew word “Kabbalah” means “What is received,” a transmitted tradition. There is a continuing tradition of Jews looking beneath the surface of Torah for glimmers of the cosmic wisdom encoded in its stories and laws. There are millennial efforts by Jews to peek behind the parokhet of material creation to glimpse flashes of a deeper, embracing truth. There have always been Jews who have seen world, text, and social convention as the outer garments that both reveal and conceal the Divine. This hokhmah nistarah, hidden wisdom, expresses Judaism’s depth perception, allowing what was flat and bland to emerge into radiant color and nuanced depth.

Just as the world both reveals and conceals a more encompassing reality, so words can point to a deeper unity they can never fully express. Not only God, but also God’s creation proves to be ineffable – impossible to verbalize, requiring intuition, poetry and paradox to tease into speech. For those reasons, the harvest of the great Kabbalists – Sefer Yetzirah, the Zohar, the works of the Ari, the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nahman, the Alte Rebbe, the Esh Kodesh – revel in the dance of metaphor, contradiction, wordless song, and hidden code. Like every arena of Jewish achievement (Halakhah, midrash, philosophy, literature) Kabbalah has a history. It requires an investment of time and study before Jewish mysticism will array its riches as a feast. There is no single, timeless “Kabbalah,” but rather many dynamic and distinctive kabbalahs reflecting the many times and places of Jewish living. As with every other Jewish enterprise, the watchword remains: Go and learn!

Kabbalah and Conservative Judaism

In some ways, Kabbalah never left us; we just weren’t paying enough attention to notice it. A favorite worship service has always been the beautiful Friday night collection of psalms and songs known as Kabbalat Shabbat. That service is a direct bequest of the Kabbalists of Safed, who used to prepare for the Shabbat Arvit service by going out to the apple orchards of that beautiful city in Israel’s north. The singing and dancing of psalms, the words of Yedid Nefesh (itself a kabbalistic recapitulation of Creation and our mystical attachment to God’s light) continue to find a place in the hearts of Conservative Jews the world over. Candle lighting on Friday nights, a ubiquitous Jewish symbol of womanhood, family, and holiness, was also shaped and formulated by the Kabbalistic tradition (in kabbalistic lore, the candlelight offers a pathway for Jews to restore the energy gathered by their mitzvah observance to Divine unity through the Shekhinah – God’s indwelling Presence. Even as generations of Conservative Jews maintained those traditions, we did so without reflecting on their kabbalistic context or meaning.

Today, those meanings are at the forefront of our spiritual quests. Kabbalat Shabbat remains a powerful entryway into the holiness of the Sabbath, but its explicit embodiment of a Kabbalistic vision finds expression in Ani’im Z’mirot, the poignant prayer attributed to Yehudah he-Hasid, a 12th century kabbalist now included in Siddur Sim Shalom:

Melodies I weave, songs I sweetly sing;
Yearning for your presence, to You I long to cling. …
They spoke of You with parables, in visionary thought,
While ever did Your great oneness inhered in all they taught. …
May You find sweet and pleasing my prayer and my song;
My soul goes out in yearning, for You alone I long.

This magnificent paragraph explicitly develops the idea that God is beyond human portrayal, but that somehow our devotion forms an adornment for God’s glory. Other kabbalistic prayers, such as Lekha Dodi develop the idea that God’s unity is somehow sundered during the week (can you imagine a more bold and shocking metaphor for the brokenness of our world and our hearts?), but that Shabbat is a day of restored unity, when Shekhinah unites with Tiferet (God’s female with God’s male manifestations), when the world is once again whole at every level. At Camp Ramah, from California to Georgia, campers dress in white for Shabbat, another Kabbalistic embodiment of spirit and joy.

Another reclaimed Kabbalistic tradition is that of the Ushpizin. According to the mystical metaphor, the Sukkah is a symbol of Shekhinah, God’s womb (so to speak!). We dwell within God’s womblike protection, and since we are permitted to “glimpse” God’s manifestations (Sefirot) through the prism of Shekhinah, we invite biblical symbols of those other Sefirot each day of the festival of Sukkot. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David are each highlighted on particular days, and there is a kabbalistic prayer inviting these holy guests to join us in our booths. That tradition has now found its way back into Conservative liturgy, and Siddur Sim Shalom has not only restored Ushpizin to our spiritual reservoir, but in brilliant fashion has also added Biblical women, Ushpiziot, so that the female aspect of our humanity, our history, our community is elevated to visibility. Now, in addition to inviting patriarchs, prophets, and psalmist, we also invite matriarchs, the judge Deborah, and Miriam, and the prophet Huldah.

Beyond specifics, however, there is a pervasive shift in Conservative congregations, camps, and schools. Not only are kabbalistic rituals returning to connect us to God and Torah in a deeper way, not only do these particular practices push us beyond a rich intellectual tradition to embrace raw emotion and mindful spirit. Beyond particular practice, Conservative Judaism has become open to Kabbalist and Hassidic theologies and commentaries. Starting with the insistence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on God’s immanence and his use of hasidic tales and aphorisms, Conservative rabbis and thinkers have been mining this neglected aspect of our Masorah (tradition), filtering its literature, tales, and practices through the methods and strengths of Conservative Judaism at its best.

From the beginning, Conservative Judaism has insisted that a Judaism which accepts illiteracy of our sacred texts, which dichotomizes prophetic ethics and ritual punctiliousness, one that props itself up by ignorance of our people’s history or chooses to be blind to the tools of critical scholarship is unworthy of the name “Judaism,” and is incapable of the fullness of God’s service. Reclaiming Kabbalah does not mean abandoning these hallmarks of Conservative greatness. Indeed, understanding Judaism as a historical, dynamic unfolding means appreciating the contribution of every manifestation of historical Judaism. Kabbalah was the last universal theology adopted by the entire Jewish people, hence faithfulness to our commitment to positive-historical Judaism mandates a reverent receptivity to Kabbalah. Indeed, attentiveness to the legitimate spiritual needs of today’s Jews fairly ushers us into the courtyard of the Ribbono Shel Olam (the Majesty of SpaceTime), to shed the modernist pretensions that reason has no limits, that humans are somehow self-sufficient and separate from the rest of creation, that a hardnosed take on reality is one lacking meaning or holiness.

Kabbalah invites us to attend to the truth we know from within – that goodness is a heartbeat away, that the world is an expression of love inviting our own love, that our deeds and mindfulness can tip the scales between good and evil, that for God to dwell with us in the world, we must invite God in (and let God out). That we dare to hope.

Kabbalah invites us home, and with its reclamation, Conservative Judaism is, again, coming home.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design). He writes a weekly email Torah commentary with almost 12,000 subscribers, available through his website.