An Antidote to Fundamentalism

3 November 2010

(This is an article I wrote for TIKKUN magazine)

An Antidote to Fundamentalism

Richard Zimler

About 20 years ago, while I was looking through bookshelves at my parents’ house in New York, I came across Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Reading this fundamental work changed my life. For the first time, I realized how shallow my understanding of Judaism was. It was as if I had been seeing only the surface of a vast ocean, and now – after learning a bit about kabbalah – I could see a few feet down into its great depths.
Over the past two decades, I’ve read all I could about kabbalistic philosophy and practice. The symbolic reasoning of the Jewish mystics, and, in particular, their poetic approach to the Torah, has enhanced my understanding not only of Judaism, but of myself and the world as well. Their writings have also had an enormous impact on my novels, often in subtle and unexpected ways.
One of my favorite kabbalistic insights comes from Moses de Leon, the author of the Zohar, and it is paraphrased by Gershom Scholem in Kabbalah as follows: “Had the Torah simply been intended as a series of literal narratives, he and his contemporaries would have been able to compose a better book!”
Moses de Leon’s seemingly heretical claim is a reference to the kabbalistic belief that the most perceptive, profound and useful interpretations of Torah verses have little to do with their literal and most obvious meanings, but rather with their philosophical content and, above all, their mystical significance.
In my opinion, this approach is precisely what we need to focus on in our era of fundamentalist fervor. Indeed, the mystic’s search for revelatory and insightful interpretations stands in sharp contrast to the traditional fundamentalist belief that there is only one true meaning to each verse or teaching in Torah (or in any other work of sacred literature), and that those who disagree with that interpretation are wrong or misguided. Kabbalah leads us to conclude the opposite: that no one religion, clan, political party, group or individual has a monopoly on the truth. Should we make the error of focusing exclusively on literal interpretations, and should we encourage a narrow-minded approach to the Torah and other holy books, we only end up limiting the vitality and import of such works. And we end up leading more superficial lives. To discover the full power and scope of the great works of sacred literature, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, we must look beneath the obvious meaning to what is written below.
This emphasis on the search for creative and perceptive – and individual! – interpretations of the holy books can also serve as a reminder for us to strive toward the deeper meanings in everything: in our own behavior, in our work, and in our relationships with family and friends.
In a book of Jewish haiku that I recently completed, I’ve tried to express my own belief that kabbalah can serve as an antidote to fundamentalism as follows:

Beware of those who
ensnare each Torah verse in
a single meaning!

Michael Fieni