The mystical teachings of the Zohar, the ancient book of spirituality guiding followers of Kabbalah, hold surprisingly modern insights for those who know how to interpret them.
“There have been many times in Jewish history where people have questioned the religion,” said Rabbi Lawrence Englander of the difficulty some have in finding a deep connection to Judaism. “But just as the Zohar produced a revolution in its own time, we can use it to produce a revolution in our time.”
Englander, rabbi emeritus at Solel Congregation of Mississauga, Ontario, will be the 2017 Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Emanu-El in Edison. At the March 25 program, he will conduct a study of Torah and mystical texts, “decode” Kabbalah’s secret language to reveal how its writings can be used to meet challenges in Jewish life, and discuss unique approaches to personal experiences in Jewish prayer and worship.
Diana S. Herman died seven years ago; she was a temple member for 38 years and served as president and chair of eight committees. A former president of the Union of Reform Judaism’s (URJ) NJ-West Hudson Valley Council board, Herman also served on the national URJ board and chaired 11 of its committees.
Englander, who was the rabbi at Solel Congregation for 41 years, has written numerous articles on Jewish mysticism and edited and translated the book, “The Mystical Study of Ruth: Midrash HaNe’elam of the Zohar to the Book of Ruth.” Rabbi David Vaisberg, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, grew up as a member of Englander’s synagogue.
“He is the reason I became a rabbi,” said Vaisberg. “He has been inspirational in my life and it’s a privilege to have him come in to teach.”
In addition to his personal connection to Englander, Vaisberg said, “A lot of folks in our community have been asking about Kabbalah, and in that field Rabbi Englander’s the expert.”
Currently the adjunct rabbi at Temple Sinai in Toronto, Englander received a doctorate of Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jewish mysticism and rabbinics. He previously taught in the religious studies department at York University in Toronto and spent a semester teaching rabbinical students at Leo Baeck College in London. Englander is chair of ARZENU, the umbrella organization of Reform and progressive religious Zionists.
“There will be a couple of things we will touch on: the rather unique relationship with God and how God and Torah relate to how we live our lives,” Englander told NJJN in a phone conversation. “We will also be touching on different approaches to Jewish prayer.” Englander cited the late British rabbi, Lionel Blue, who taught Jewish prayer, and always took his students on an annual trip to a monastery.
“He did that because he would say, ‘Judaism teaches about the liturgy, but the Catholics really know how to pray,’” said Englander. “The second point in my program will be taking us beyond the liturgy to the point where we know how to pray.”
Englander said he thinks Kabbalah has gained popularity in recent years for the wrong reasons. He described two approaches to Kabbalah, one is the “magical.”
“That it’s something that will solve all your problems by practicing these special procedures or verbal formuli,” he explained. “That’s not the kind of Kabbalah that appeals to me. The second kind of literary or midrashic Kabbalah that rakes out the liturgical tradition, that kind of Kabbalah, really appeals to me and I will show how it can appeal to others.”
Englander said understanding Kabbalah from a liturgical standpoint makes its teachings, although thousands of years old, seem “eternally fresh to modern times instead of dead words on a page.”