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Kabbalah and the Bankruptcy of Legalism

Kabbalah and Legalism

Two Sides of the Ego's Coin...


Spiritual pride is insidious, seductive, self-flattering, and therefore dangerous. Indeed, the term itself is an oxymoron (e.g., like "bittersweet"), since genuine spirituality is always rooted in humility.  The humble soul understands its finitude and radical contingency -- and therefore understands its absolute need for God's help.  Spiritual pride is really a disguised mode of intolerance, a cocksure smugness regarding matters of infinite significance, and therefore represents a state of negation toward others... It is impatient to listen, spurns self-questioning, and refuses to accept uncertainty about some of life's deepest questions. Such pride often pretends to "have the answers" regarding all the riddles and mysteries of life.  Humility, on the other hand, confesses that it does not always know and is not always so sure. It is a state of openness, of listening, of being teachable.  It is aware of our insufficiency, our frailties, and our limitations...

A lot of what is passed off as "Messianic Judaism" today appears to be based on spiritual pride... If you listen to some of the big-name Messianic teachers out there today, you'll hear that the Christian Church is either an entirely self-deceived social institution or else how "Christians" are woefully deficient regarding matters of spiritual truth.  In short, these teachers insist that something more needs to be added, some additional knowledge, practice, awareness, insight, and so on. And of course these teachers position themseves as the ones who can "disabuse" you of your pathetic misconceptions, etc. We see this trend in both the "Torah observant" schools of Messianic Judaism as well as in the "new wave" of "mystical Messianic Judaism" that is beginning to become more and more commonplace.

What is this "new wave" of Messianic Judaism?  Well, since it's becoming more and more difficult to convince people to become Torah observant legalists, then why not appeal to some kind of Jewish mysticism? After all, in either case there is an appeal to esoteric knowledge, and that flatters the egos of all those who are initiated.... The legalist concerns himself with the abstruse study of halachah and ritual law, which, of course, is a form of esoteric knowledge. The mystic, on the other hand, engages in metaphysical speculations or "depth psychology," and this likewise is a type of esoteric knowledge.... In either case, then, both traditional Judaism and the rise of popular Kabbalah (חסידות) are therefore philosophies of gnosis (γνώσις) that maintain that true spirituality is a matter of unlocking some secret -- whether that regards performing the correct ritual behavior or apprehending the correct insight of the soul....  Hence you have on the one hand the rabbinical ideal of the "sage" and on the other hand the Chassidic ideal of the "rebbe."

What is troubling is that some "Messianic" teaching ministries now appear to be advocating Kabbalah (or "Messianic chassidut") as the way to properly understanding the Jewish roots of the Christian faith...  Perhaps this represents a concession on their part that they have lost the battle over the question of "Torah observance" (or "Torah submission"). After all, there is no possible way to be "Torah observant" today without embracing the authority of the Oral Law -- and this, of course, means embracing the traditions of those who reject Yeshua as the promised Messiah of Israel.  As I've written about elsewhere, post-Temple Judaism reinvents the idea of Torah so that the ideal of the (Yeshua-denying) sage replaces the function of the priests.

Since arguing for "Torah submission" is a losing battle, some Messianic groups have developed a new strategy to retain their sense of spiritual elitism. The way to "really understand" the message of the New Testament, they now claim, is through the lens of Jewish mysticism... Therefore we see some Messianic teachers speaking reverently about the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) as if he were a sort of "mediator" or "little Moses" between the people and God...  We also see the same sort of fawning reverence given to the teaching of Paul Phillip Levertoff (aka the "Fieval"), a Chassidic convert to Christianity who later translated the Zohar (the classic text of Jewish kabbalah) into English (1933, Socino Press).  Levertoff was a maskil (an "Enlightenment" teacher) who was later appointed to the position of teacher of Hebrew and Rabbinics with the Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum (IJD), a postgraduate institute for Jewish missions founded by Franz Delitzsch in Leipzig, Germany. Throughout his career Levertoff sought to retain Jewish distinctiveness in liturgy and theology -- even at the expense of the "middle wall of partition" (literally, the "fence") that was intended to be broken down by the love of the Messiah (Eph. 2:14). His aim, apparently, was to integrate mystical interpretations of Judaism (particularly Chassidism) with the theology of the New Testament.  Like many Messianics today, he seemed to show little interest in establishing genuine rapprochement between Gentile Christians and their Jewish brethren.

As I've said before, the idea of the "hidden Torah" is essentially a Jewish reworking of Neoplatonic philosophy, that is, an attempt to synthesize Hellenism (i.e., the Greek thinking of Plato and Aristotle) and Gnosticism with Judeo-Christian revelation.  As such, it is a "panentheistic" (God-is-in-everything-yet-is-above-everything) system, and much of what is passed off today as Kabbalah comes from the Haskalah (השכלה) period of Jewish thought....  The Neoplatonic idea of "the One" as utterly transcendent and beyond "Being" is renamed as "Ein Sof"; the divine emanations are renamed as "sefirot"; the descent (and ascent) of the soul and the role of gnosis as a means to salvation is refashioned as various meditative techniques, and so on.

Neoplatonism and Kabbalah

Many Christians regard Kabbalah as something dangerous, though it should be pointed out that there are different kinds of Kabbalah, some of which are decidedly occultic (e.g., so-called "hermetic Kabbalah"), while others resemble the theological speculations and discussions of Medieval Christian theology. To say that all Kabbalah is dangerous (or deceptive) is therefore a bit misleading, though a case can be made that much of it is spiritually distracting.

We need to be careful, chaverim, to use the discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit. Test the Spirits (1 John 4:1). God has not revealed all of His secrets to us in the pages of Scripture, and there is much that remains a mystery. "The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever" (Deut. 29:29). For many people, Kabbalah is becoming more and more of what a personal relationship to Yeshua the Messiah is to genuine Christians. Instead of calling upon the Name of the LORD and experiencing salvation, these people are being seduced into thinking that they are in a personal relationship with God through mystical channels.

May God give to us wisdom and grace to serve Him in the Torah of our Messiah Yeshua, the Living One, blessed be He...

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