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  • Teaching the Zohar: A View from the Congregation
  • Justin David (bio)

It is the usual fate of sacred writings to become more or less divorced from the intentions of their authors. What may be called their after-life, those aspects which are discovered by later generations, frequently becomes of greater importance than their original meaning; and after all—who knows what their original meaning was?

—Gershom Scholem1

Rabbis, educators, and lay leaders in America will attest that we live in the era of the “sovereign self.” As understood by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen, the “sovereign self” encapsulates a generational transformation in the way people construct religious identity. Turning away from the authority of religious institutions and their leaders, Cohen’s and Eisen’s subjects find ultimate meaning in the private sphere of individual experience. According to Cohen and Eisen, Jews today forgo so-called normative definitions of Jewishness and Judaism so as to “fashion” their identities idiosyncratically, drawing upon a variety of “repertoires” as part of a “journey of ongoing questioning and development.”2 Borrowing a metaphor, Cohen and Eisen observe that today’s Jews eschew the sacred canopy bequeathed to them by tradition in favor of weaving that canopy anew from homespun yarn.

Predictably, the posture of the “sovereign self” confounds many of us who revere tradition for its own sake and spend our lives trying to persuade others to do the same. Nevertheless, it also presents creative opportunities. As noted above, the emphasis that contemporary Jews place on their journeys [End Page 30] reflects a desire to pursue ultimate questions of God, meaning, and spirituality. In this vein, Eisen and Cohen observe that Jews of even “middle range” commitment “seek an abiding significance in their lives that goes beyond the activities of their daily life and the limits of their mortality.”3 So, while today’s seekers may turn away from the synagogue, we on the inside may be ideally positioned to respond to these individualist seekers in a meaningful way. We offer the texts and rituals, and opportunities for celebration and reflection, as well as a network of community wherein individuals can discover “abiding significance.” The rub lies in how we convey the spiritual potential of synagogue life to those who doubt the vitality of synagogues in the first place.

However, our response to the sovereign self needs to be reciprocal, not only strategic. In the current climate, it is not enough to add spirituality programs to our catalog of offerings, as significant as these may be. As Cohen and Eisen observe, the questions asked by the sovereign self often prompt a long term journey of personal growth and development. Therefore, in order to fully engage the sovereign self, we in synagogues will have to meet seekers with a compatible openness to change, expressed by our willingness to revisit how we teach and conceive Jewish tradition, as well as how we organize communal life.

Our new challenge entails overcoming a suspicion of the self that has penetrated deep into our thinking about collective Jewish life. To appreciate our current challenge, we may revisit a method of interpreting and teaching Jewish tradition from a previous generation. Cohen and Eisen (as well as others) note that in the 1950s, Jews expressed their commitments as a unique brand of “civil religion.” Such civil religion defined meaningful Jewishness as being “part of a people with a proud tradition and enduring values, values which can be embodied in the life of the modern Jew and the modern Jewish community.”4 In the emphasis on a “proud tradition and enduring values,” we hear the tacit surrender of individual autonomy to the norms of the group. The individual “life of the modern Jew” appears secondary in this definition to the overarching authority of the tradition itself. While the tradition “can be embodied” in the life of an individual, it seems that the tradition and its norms justify themselves without the individual’s validation.

One may wonder if rabbinics scholar Max Kadushin arrived at the concept [End Page 31] of “normal mysticism” in part to account for individual spiritual expression in the context of 1950s conformity. According to Kadushin, “normal mysticism” describes the...


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pp. 30-48
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