Read an excerpt from George Prochnik’s Stranger in a Strange Land in the New Yorker
When I was growing up, I saw my father letting the flame of his Jewish identity burn down as low as it could go without extinguishing altogether. He viewed all formal aspects of Judaism with bemused indifference, alternating with sarcastic hostility; practicing Jews, he said, were perfect examples of people who, however smart they might be, “don’t have enough sense to step inside when it’s raining.” But my own experience of the American suburbs, where our family ended up at a moment when the remaining tracts of nature in the area were being steadily bulldozed and converted into new highways, malls, and subdivisions, left me with a lingering sense of spiritual absence. Almost all the history of my father’s family had been lost in the upheaval of their flight from Europe: I could not countenance the idea that our family would just step forever outside the nimbus or noose of Jewish identity as casually as it might step out of the car in a supermarket parking lot. I owed a debt to the dead, and I meant to pay. There was something intoxicating in the notion that I, the son of a non-Jewish mother and a non-observant father, might choose to blow on the flame of our Judaism through the actions of my own life, and so magnify its blaze no end.
I had a sense that this should be accomplished through an identification greater than mere cultural reference points—bageloxy—could supply. This made my actual encounters with observance all the more dispiriting. I hated praying. Orthodox synagogues were endlessly problematic in their intolerances. Reform services were intolerably denuded of authenticity. Either way, the services bored me silly. When I set out to study the canonical texts of Jewish belief, I discovered potent flashes of ideas and imagery, but there seemed, at last, just too much dross to plow through before getting to the sparkly bits. The books of the Bible were one thing, at least minus Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. But the ritualized law seemed for the most part an object lesson in how to nurture obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This is where the writing of Gershom Scholem came in. Scholem, the German-born radical-humanist thinker who moved to Palestine after the First World War as an idealistic, if idiosyncratic, Zionist, is best known as the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah—a category of Jewish thought, prayer, and ritual practice that pursues ultimate truths about God’s nature, good, evil, and humanity’s role in the cosmos. As Scholem himself pointed out in the opening of one of his books, the Hebrew word “kabbalah” literally means “tradition,” and, in the sense that it composed “the tradition of things divine,” Kabbalah fed people’s hunger for a new and deeper understanding of conventional religious forms. Certain Kabbalists indeed extended their speculations so far that they were accused of redefining Judaism’s purpose. With their work, Scholem wrote, “the Torah is transformed into a Corpus mysticum.” At times, he appears to suggest that the intense study of this covert history might function as its own form of worship. For a bookish soul who balks at prayer and loves philosophical-historical reflection, this prospect can be awfully seductive.