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Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 117-119 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In 1996, Tony Schwartz published his study regarding the work of some seminal figures at the forefront of various North American spirituality movements, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America. It revealed the preponderance in those movements of syntheses featuring traditional religion, elements of other traditions, aesthetics, and/or modern science. Each such instance of intellectual cross-fertilization produced novel insights and fresh pathways to understand and vitalize the movement of “spirit” in this era. Those of us in the Conservative movement should certainly find this dynamic familiar. Our historical-critical approach reveals that Torah has served as a filter, not a barrier, to Judaism’s dynamic interaction with the wisdom of other cultures, which has often yielded innovative, edifying results.

It was in this light that I read Abner Weiss’s Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology. While Weiss deals with various aspects of Kabbalah, including the relation of the Ein Sof to the s’firot, the nature of the Four Worlds, and the five levels of the human soul, the gist of his thesis is that “[t]he ten s’firot are the spiritual equivalent of [our] DNA” (p. 75). Drawing on existent models he divides the s’firot into four groupings according to psychological function:

  • •    How We Think

    • ○    Keter: our higher will reflecting our better nature

    • ○    Ḥokhmah: flashes of insight and intuition

    • ○    Binah: deduction and analysis

    • ○    Da·at: externalized will to translate analyzed insight into a thoughtful plan of action we will execute.

  • •    How We Feel

    • ○    Ḥesed: unlimited, unconditional love

    • ○    G’vurah: restraint and the setting of boundaries

    • ○    Tiferet: development and growth through the synthesis of Ḥesed and G’vurah, which yields a sense of wholeness, balance, and integrity

  • •    How We Relate

    • ○    Netzaḥ: exclusively directed love toward discrete individuals and groups

    • ○    Hod: the restraint of that love in acknowledgement of the other’s boundaries

    • ○    Y’sod: interpersonal connection as expressed through committed loving; embodies the sanctity of sexuality as manifest in the Jewish ideal of marriage as kiddushin

  • •    How We Help Repair the World

    • ○    Malkhut: Receives the spiritual energy from the other s’firot and translates them into acts of spiritual and moral integrity in all spheres of life to further the process of tikkun olam.

Through exposition and case studies he explores how dysfunction arises either as the shadow expression of a given s’firah (i.e., Y’sod energy manifest as promiscuous rather than sanctified sexuality) or from an imbalance among one’s s’firot (i.e., too much Binah and G’vurah without enough Ḥokhmah and Ḥesed can make one detached and overly analytic, devoid of joy and spontaneity). He then demonstrates how the s’firotic system can be used as a diagnostic tool and offers examples of psychological and spiritual interventions, including guided meditations, to help individuals, couples, and families achieve healthy levels of balance and integration.

There was much I liked about Weiss’s book. He is a learned expositor of our tradition and a psychologist who continues to study and integrate a wide variety of therapeutic theory and methodology in his work. Although I found some of his explanations forced (e.g., depicting of Ḥesed’s universal love and Netzaḥ’s directed love as examples of Buber’s “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships, respectively; p. 111), the accounts of his own life and those of his patients are captivating and revealing. His descriptions of the light and shadow sides of each s’firah demonstrate a deep understanding of human nature found in normative rabbinic psychology: our virtues and vices are not the opposite of each other but obverse sides of the same trait (i.e., charitable giving as an authentic expression of loving concern or primarily as a means to bolster self-worth by gaining the approbation of others). While I didn’t try all of them, I appreciated his inclusion of spiritually healing meditations and guided imagery.

My problem with Weiss’s book lies in the disjuncture between his life as a scientifically trained, critically minded psychologist and the uncritical approach he takes, even as a Modern Orthodox rabbi, to Jewish tradition and Kabbalah. I’m not merely referring to his claims that Rabbi Shimon bar...

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