While the name “Kabbalah” may seem to be evocative of one specific spiritual tradition, recent research shows that there is a considerable diversity of what that name is labeled with, writes Gemma Kwantes (University of Amsterdam) in the latest issue of Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism (Vol. 13, No. 2, 2013). The academic study of present-day Kabbalah has developed since 2002. It has increasingly questioned the supposed opposition between Kabbalah and modernity. Some authors even claim that Kabbalah has actually been used to introduce modern ways of thinking (individualistic cultural values, eclecticism) in sectors of Orthodox Judaism.
Kabbalistic concepts and symbols are found today in various kinds of conventional Judaism as well as in emerging religious movements. It can be used by Zionist and non-Zionist, Orthodox and more liberal Jews—but as well by non-Jewish spiritual seekers who see it as universal wisdom. Most people teaching Kabbalah have a Jewish background, but they cover an amazingly varied spectrum, from traditional to people uncomfortable with institutional religion. Interestingly, specific examples show that Kabbalah can function both as a mechanism to remove one from the strict barriers of orthodoxy, as well as a mechanism for reintroducing people to it.
Many proponents of Kabbalah claim that it can be understood as science, a perspective that makes it more acceptable to modern audiences. Boundaries are varied: some authors suggest that everyone can benefit from Kabbalah, while others feel it is first intended for Jews who have proper grounding in Talmud and Torah. Some authors advocate a concept of religion in which Kabbalah is seen as corresponding to the “inner content” of each religion.
While Kabbalah often used to be associated with secrecy, it is now transmitted across all possible channels and media, with lessons being broadcast on the Internet. “Surprisingly, such modern media are used by the secular as well as the most orthodox,” Kwantes says.