Kabbalah and Communism
November 17, 2020 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Aside from a small circle of students and admirers, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag was an unknown figure at his death in 1954. Today, religious schools and New Age “educational centers” around the world are actively spreading his ideas, and his writings are being analyzed by professors and graduate students. After spending an hour in the rabbi’s stone mausoleum, the pop-diva Madonna emerged with tears in her eyes. Who was this person to whom scores of pious (and impious) Jews and non-Jews are turning for inspiration?--Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag: Scholar of Kabbalah and progenitor of the Kabbalah

  • Latter-day luminary
  • Yehuda Ashlag, the Socialist Kabbalist
  • Communism is an ideal, meaning it is moral. The goal “to work according to one’s ability and receive according to one’s needs” testifies to that.--Building the Future Society
  • The second phase of communism, being Altruistic Communism, must be hurried, since the shortcomings and force used in Egoistic Communism, deter the world from this method altogether. Hence, it is time to uncover the final stage of Altruistic Communism, which possesses all the pleasantness, and has no blemish.--The Solution
posted by No Robots (22 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I though you weren't supposed to study kabbalah until you had read both the Mishna and the entire Talmud (in the original Babylonian Aramaic)?
posted by sammyo at 6:53 PM on November 17

I though you weren't supposed to study kabbalah until you had read both the Mishna and the entire Talmud (in the original Babylonian Aramaic)?

Well, Phillip Berg was successful in popularizing it to a wider audience than very scholarly Jews. But yes, traditionally it was esoteric knowledge. I first heard of it from a footnote in Robert Nozick's book "Philosophical Explanations"; Nozick relates that the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem had declined to study with a leading Kabbalist, if that is the word, in Jerusalem, because he would not accept the condition that he could not ask any questions for two years. That's not how they roll in L.A.
posted by thelonius at 7:32 PM on November 17

(I should add that, as TFA says, Berg was a follower of Ashlag's teachings, and that is where he found the idea of de-esotericizing the Kabbalah).
posted by thelonius at 7:48 PM on November 17

Berg sold red strings that supposedly were in that tomb as the qabalistic equivalent to TV evangelist prayer cloths. Followers of Berg were told to buy an expensive and huge multi volume set of the Zohar, a primary Qabalistic text, in the original Aramaic and Hebrew. You weren’t expected to learn these languages. They were so holy, just staring at an essentially meaningless page bestowed spiritual gifts. You can find these sets for sale in a lot of used bookstores. Berg did more than de-esotericize the Qabala, he turned it into a pop-culture business where all the difficulty of actually studying the Qabala was reduced to buying blesséd red strings, expensive book sets, and more than likely giving money to his organization.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:19 PM on November 17 [19 favorites]

In terms of Berg and Ashlag, the second link has some interesting (and disturbing) observations about that:
They have a point: Ashlag vigorously opposed making money from the teaching of kabbala, while Berg's Kabbala Centers are managed like a modern corporation, and have helped him amass a substantial personal fortune. Ashlag was equally vehement in resisting the popular association of kabbala with magic. Although Jewish mysticism has from its beginnings included a magical component - already in the Talmud there are accounts of rabbis using divine names to create living beings, and the kabbalists' ability to levitate, travel long distances instantaneously and read thoughts is the common stuff of Jewish legend - many kabbalists have also condemned magic as an abuse of holy power for personal gain. Ashlag saw an obsession with the miraculous as a distraction and impediment to the real challenge: the grueling and constant effort necessary for spiritual metamorphosis. He consistently refused to engage in activities such as miraculous healing, blessings or dream interpretation, which for other kabbalists were part of their daily routine. In contrast, Berg's Kabbala Centers sell "kabbala water," posters of divine names and lucky red strings to be worn as bracelets, and also offer courses on subjects such as "kabbala and success," which harness kabbala's prestige to the goal of personal prosperity.

Recently, Berg seems to have crossed another line, further separating him from Ashlag's legacy: the adoption of Christological symbols - he now calls The Zohar "the Holy Grail" - and rhetoric that veers uncomfortably close to classic anti-Semitism. In his introduction to the English translation of The "Zohar" and commentary on "Hasulam" that was written by his son, Rabbi Michael Berg, the elder Berg cites Jewish suppression of The "Zohar" as the key cause of worldwide suffering and of anti-Semitism: "These Jews were and continue to be the underlying cause of anti-Semitism. If the Holy Grail became widespread, there would be no further need of intermediaries. The Jews and all mankind would finally achieve that long sought-after goal of eliminating chaos. The primary factor that festers anti-Semitism is the denial by the Jew, albeit, the authorities, of the fruits of the Holy Grail. While this denial originates with the few leaders, nonetheless the blame of chaos is thrust upon the entire Jewish people, including the innocent ones."
Also, kaballa's adoption by other esoteric traditions and practices predates Ashlag's life considerably. Here's a version of the Tree of Life by Athanasius Kircher, a seventeenth-century Jesuit.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:22 PM on November 17 [15 favorites]

No matter the religion's original pantheon, no matter how austere its original rites, Mammon never has too much trouble getting his own altar set up alongside.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:16 PM on November 17 [16 favorites]

So Evangelion?
posted by zengargoyle at 9:30 PM on November 17 [3 favorites]

So Evangelion?

I've always suspected that Neon Genesis Evangelion is probably closer to the actual teachings of the Kabbalah in terms of how the Kabbalahistic elements are presented in the show than anything that the Kabbalah Center has ever disseminated.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:26 AM on November 18 [5 favorites]

Kabala and Communism? An echo of Walter Benjamin.
posted by doctornemo at 6:57 AM on November 18

The excellent "History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps" podcast covers Kabbalah, putting it in pretty clear context. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages were all part of a community reading Greek philosophy (semi-recently translated into Arabic), and also reading each other's commentaries on that philosophy. Members of all three religions eventually started fusing Neoplatonist ideas with their existing traditions of meditation and scriptural exegesis -- Kabbalah as it is now known came out of this process.

This made it a lot easier to understand what sort of thing Kabbalah is. A lot of religions, both Abrahamic and not, include some kind of tradition like this -- mysticism, meditation, allegorical readings of scripture, a complicated cosmology relating the soul and the divine.

It makes perfect sense that New Age movements would appropriate it in the same way they appropriate aspects of Hinduism or Buddhism. Also makes sense that somebody could turn it into a pyramid scheme cult as has happened with both of those traditions at various times.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:13 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

the thing that really bugs me about most reappropriations of late antique neoplatonism — and by extension, the new-age reappropriations of the reappropriations — is that the reappropriators typically skip over the essential core of late antique neoplatonism: whereas the earlier platonic traditions positioned philosophy as the most worthwhile thing to do, the neoplatonists (especially when you get on to folks like iamblichus) positioned philosophy as the second most worthwhile thing to do. what, then, is the most worthwhile thing to do? the most worthwhile thing to do is theurgy, or "god-making." in practice neoplatonist theurgy involved (for example) casting giant bronze heads of apollo rigged up to belch intoxicating fumes when placed over a bonfire, and then gathering around the head and getting extremely high off of those fumes.

the red-string new age kabbalists — and maybe even the original kabbalists themselves — miss the point altogether. the point isn't to unlock secret mystical wisdom. the point is to get as completely blazed as possible, as often as possible. like, in your down time you can go off and do mystical philosophy if you want — mystical philosophy isn't bad, after all — but the mystical philosophy isn't what it's about. getting super super fucked up is what it's about.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:32 AM on November 18 [6 favorites]

hell yeah pynchon
posted by stinkfoot at 10:58 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

"the mystical philosophy isn't what it's about. getting super super fucked up is what it's about."

There's a Burning Man joke in there somewhere.
posted by Leeway at 11:23 AM on November 18 [2 favorites]

there is absolutely a burning man joke in there, and if there’s any cultural studies grad students here who are looking for dissertation topics, “burning man as a revival of late antique neoplatonist ritual” is a dissertation that’s just sitting around waiting to get written.

anyway! as vogon_poet noted, one thing that pop culture movements about “ancient mystic wisdom” or whatever often miss is that most of the sources of ancient (or “ancient”) wisdom they draw on were in dialogue with various philosophical traditions, and discussing them outside of the context of those philosophical traditions is a great way to misunderstand them.

and the other thing, which i noted — and which i absolutely stand by — is that we can’t understand classical/late antique philosophical traditions without observing that in many cases the people who cooked them up loved to get completely fucked up all the time, either on wine, like plato and socrates loved to get fucked up, or on more exotic substances, like proclus and iamblichus loved to get fucked up.

(i’m honestly not sure if aristotle liked to get fucked up on anything. maybe we can’t know, since what we know of aristotle comes to us through lecture notes taken by his squarest students? or maybe i just haven’t read enough aristotle — as you can probably tell, my i have a strong preference to read philosophers who very obviously loved to get fucked up)
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:31 AM on November 18 [6 favorites]

ugh, missed the edit window. i should be really diligent to avoid typos and editing errors in comments about philosophers getting fucked up...
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:56 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

The ancient Greeks who sat around philosophizing while drinking wine, preferred their wine to be diluted with water. They were not necessarily the boozers you believe them to be.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:12 PM on November 18

My dudes, you can hella do theurgy without getting completely [chemically] fucked up, it just takes more time and effort. A bit of frankincense from time to time does help but I would not describe its fumes as getting you extremely high.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:46 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

> The ancient Greeks who sat around philosophizing while drinking wine, preferred their wine to be diluted with water. They were not necessarily the boozers you believe them to be.

yeah except you read the dialogues and uh all those dudes are druuuuuunk
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 7:36 PM on November 18

> My dudes, you can hella do theurgy without getting completely [chemically] fucked up, it just takes more time and effort.

look you want to make a proper god, if you really want to touch the emanations of the one, you need a large amount of psychedelics. or even better, psychedelics and silicon. frankincense and meditation can barely even get you to the world soul, if even that far.

like do you even bronze head of apollo?
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:32 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

yeah except you read the dialogues and uh all those dudes are druuuuuunk

You do realize that ancient dialogues aren't transcripts, right?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:53 PM on November 18

never thought of that.

anyway, a brief history of greek philosophy

thales: everything is water
heraclitus: everything is fire
anaximander: everything is air
parmenides: everything is one thing and it doesn’t change and it doesn’t move and you’re a dummy if you think otherwise. fine, here, have a dumb story for dummies who can’t understand things.
socrates: everything is wine. and also boys. mmm... boys... and wine....
plato: yes but also sometimes it’s triangles somehow? also it’s atlantis. atlantis is sick. hang on though let me write down all your stuff about boys. boys are great.

but the greeks are some dusty oldness. let’s talk about something more modern, like how guattari would dose himself with ghb every day.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:13 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]

People have always got fucked up on all sorts of stuff of course, but at least there’s no evidence of anyone using cannabis to get high in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 6:18 AM on November 19

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