The Torah Before The Torah…A Book Review of The Kedumah Experience

The Primordial Torah by Zvi Ish-Shalom (Albion-Andalus, 2017)

If indeed, as the late great scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, once quipped that “the ‘Jewishness’ in religiosity of any particular period is not measured by dogmatic criteria that are unrelated to actual historical circumstances, but solely by what sincere Jews do, in fact, believe, or—at least—consider to be legitimate possibilities”, then the Zvi Ish-Shalom’s new book Kedumah Experience: The Primordial Torah may be one such possibility for the future of American Judaism. Scholem’s comment emerged from his analysis of Sabbetai Zvi and the Sabbatean heresy. Although this Zvi is not that Zvi, I think the Kedumah Experience is carved out of precisely this creative and generative space to create a deep luminosity for American Jewish seekers for the future.

It is no coincidence that the founder of Jewish renewal, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l sought to keep his distance from the negative and generative space of Sabbeteanism. I agree with Shaul Magid (see Tikkun, XX) that: “Reb Zalman’s willingness to reread these sources outside their interpretive tradition that may be one of Jewish Renewal’s most important and lasting contributions to Judaism”. Magid is right in pointing to the fact that: “the theology Zalman suggests is more constructive than restorative; it attempts to “purify” monotheism rather than abandon it. He abandons what some view as the negative dimensions or consequences of classical monotheism and replaces them with more universalist and tolerant spiritual alternatives while retaining monotheism’s basic superstructure.” By contrast, what is truly radical about the Kedumah theology proposed by Ish-Shalom, is his willingness to abandon and withdraw altogether from “monotheism’s basic superstructure”. Whereas “Reb Zalman argues that communities need ritual but in order to have this new Torah Jews need a radically new metaphysical template that can serve as the engine for ritual devotion,” (Magid) Ish-Shalom is arguing for a Primordial Torah template the precedes the very metaphysical foundations of exoteric Torah, so as to serve as the engine for ritual exercises untethered to any remnant of a monotheistic community.

Once upon time, one could encounter a Jewish mystical seeker with the fusion of scholar-rabbi like Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and like Zvi Ish-Shalom— but nowadays such a rabbi is rapidly disappearing. But even before this moment of decline, there was never really given much thought in American Judaism to the Torah before the Torah. In reading Zvi Ish-Shalom’s The Kedumah Experience I felt transported into the most ancient ripples of a mystical path once known through the Primordial Torah of Judaism called Kedumah which can mean both “before” and “primordial.” Given that Ish-Shalom occupies the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, I was intrigued as to why this book was not taught there—after all, what better place in America to expound on the negative and generative space of Jewish mysticism than Naropa University?  Seeking the space of emptiness that precedes All (sometimes known in Kabbalah as the tehiru),  Ish-Shalom chose to explore his thesis outside the walls of the academy, hosting thirty students for “eleven night-time meetings in an old stone house in the Goss/Gove neighborhood [of Boulder], just a few blocks from Naropa University, where I teach.” (xv) Ish-Shalom explains the intended audience of these excerpted transcriptions in book form is for “both members of our Kedumah community as well as for the broader public.” (xv)

Trained in classics at McGill University along with a Ph.D. in Jewish mysticism from Brandeis, Ish-Shalom biography both transcends and includes academe.  Aside from teaching jewish mysticism, he is a practitioner and sometimes instructor of Rolfing, yoga, tai chi, and the Diamond Approach. Ish-Shalom is ordained as a rabbi by the late Tosher Rebbe of Broisbriand, Quebec in the Hasidic lineage of Ish –Shalom’s great-grandfather and namesake, the rabbinic scion R. Zvi Hirsch Friedman who was the author of the  influential classic Zvi Chemed. So how then did Ish-Shalom arrive in this unique spiritual space between worlds? Born in Israel and growing up in the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York, his initial learning trajectory took him through traditional yeshivot, which at some point which in some way contributed to the basic ideas included in Kedumah. Ish-Shalom’s willingness to be earnest in his own process of “self-inquiry”—a process he refers to as drash— is inspiring insofar as he takes the reader into the inner journey through the embodied struggle to be authentic through and beyond a tradition that may be authentic in principle but often inauthentic in practice.

The rubber hits the road for Ish-Shalom precisely on this issue in his chapter on Free Speech (75-98), where by contrast he shines in his ability to navigate what for an Ex-Orthodox seeker is dangerous territory—how does the contemporary navigate the thicket of Hasidic literature, winnowing the wheat from the chaff? In Kedumah Ish-Shalom redefines ‘emunah (often mistranslated as “faith”) authentically as “trust” in the whole quest for spiritual freedom (84) and seeing “that reality is inherently good and benevolent and will hold us as we move through the pain of our contractions” (90). Ish-Shalom shows us how being present to precisely those moments of vulnerability in our spiritual journeys have the capacity for deeper self-transformation by “sensing into our body-soul and coming to know—and trust—its wisdom from within.” (91). He suggests that we reconsider the power of dialogical meditations which can open us more fully to speaking “with each other—through inquiry—as a spiritual practice” (86). As a sensitive teacher, Ish-Shalom’s sense of humor emerges with some great jokes that opens the reader to the need to reconsider the Jewish side of Freud and his divergent schools of talk therapy and psychodynamics as an important part of the process leading to spiritual freedom.

The Kedumah Experience is not merely a theoretical work. In it, he alludes to a series of exercises, which are not explicitly divulged, thus at once frustrating and tantalizing us as readers into wanting more. The book includes student responses to these exercises which are mixed, some quite salient, others seemingly banal. Reading Kadumah, I felt at times like I was reading a Judaized the modern Sufi master, Idries Shah (1924-1996), insofar as he forgoes explicit dissemination of the exercises that constitute the current Kedumah Experience. It is probable that many in the Jewish world will likely react to Ish-Shalom the way that the Sufi world reacted to Idries Shah—namely, that these apparently controversial teachings position him to be a charlatan to some, and an authentic spiritual-teacher to others.

Ish-Shalom’s footnotes to The Kedumah Experience are a testimony to his vast depth and breadth of encyclopedical knowledge, not just Jewish mysticism but also rabbinic Judaism. This is a rare fusion that Ish-Shalom brings to the “reset” the table of American Jewish spirituality. Whereas in sixteenth century Safed, mystic and legalist, Joseph Karo (d. 1575), sought to reset the table of medieval Judaism by providing his own early modern roadmap via a legal codex called the Shulkhan Arukh, aka, “The Set Table” Ish-Shalom, similar but also different than Schachter-Shalomi is “rebooting” the entire system.

As American Judaism continues to undergo a spiritual renaissance of sorts, it behooves us to pay attention to works like The Kedumah Experience even if we ultimately decide it is not for us. In some way, Ish-Shalom is resetting the table much like the Sabbetaens before him and the openly heretical impulse in this work cannot be overlooked, even though Ish-Shalom is most sensitive to upholding the ethical within the mystical quest. For example, this potentially damaging detour beyond tradition and normative religion is addressed by Ish-Shalom in his chapter on Erotic Awakening. While American Jewry is still recovering from the alleged abuses of recent Jewish gurus from Reb Shlomo Carlebach to the more maligned Mordecai Gafni— Ish-Shalom is unstinting in his courage to seek some middle ground whereby Eros still functions as a source of spiritual growth despite its inherent danger to be abused. Yet he fully understands that mysticism without ethics is a dead-end, and cautions his students that this process of awakening is filled with mine fields.

The Kedumah Experience book is filled with remarkably insightful and deeply sensitive translations of obscure mystical concepts and practices, especially when it comes to the renowned baroque-like moments of Jewish mysticism that sprouted in sixteenth century Safed. We have before us a book within a book. There is the body of the text which contains the following chapter headings: The Primordial Torah which is described as the First Turning of Torah recognized by the rabbinic imagination. Ish-Shalom then explores Intimate Knowing (27-48) reflecting more deeply on the nature of da’at (knowledge)— that pesky divine sphere in kabbalah that continues to elude practitioners and academics of necessity. From Erotic Awakening, Ish-Shalom delves into the need for Free Speech and redresses the deep misunderstanding of ‘emunah (faith) as an act of playing on this need for trust amidst our predisposition to be distrustful (99).In Being True Ish-Shalom articulates the practical implications of “the three orienting postures which correspond to the three triadic centers of consciousness: the belly-center, the heart-center, and the head-center.” The Now pushes further into the territory of living with the reality of truth and stripping away the “superimpositions” that Advaita Vedanta calls adyaropa, but is ever present in the teachings of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, who articulates a similar perspective. This all has ramifications for the teachings on Starlight including a novel notion that “we are all the Messiah in drag.” It feels like Ish-Shalom is pointing back to the necessity of channeling the Sabbatean impulse here without really spelling out the practice.

I frequently winced as Ish-Shalom relied on the awkward translations of mystical texts by Orthodox rabbi, Aryeh Kaplan. Perhaps Ish-Shalom sees himself continuing the unfinished work of Kaplan who did not benefit from critical manuscripts and the fruits of the academe but remains a pioneer in bringing Jewish esotericism into the lived experience of meditation practitioners in the 1980s, along with Rabbis Allen Lew, Jonathan Omer-Man, Avram David and others during the Bay Area renaissance of Jewish meditation in the 1990s.

But just how different is this primordial path of Torah compared to other laudable experiments in post-denominational American Judaism? And what does it add? The difference is that from the outset Kedumah tries to let go of all existing conceptual frameworks of traditional Jewish metaphysics. Ish-Shalom articulates as much in the  Appendix: Kedumah and Judaism that Torah Kedumah no longer needs to be tethered to the “three central principles: 1) the acceptance of Jewish law (halakhah) as religiously binding, 2) the authority of sacred texts, and 3) allegiance to Jewish tribal identity.” In some way this is a constructive critique of neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal insofar as it is an authentic contemporary expression of Torah lineage while forgoing both rabbinic and classical kabbalistic principles. In particular Ish-Shalom critiques neo-Hasidic and Renewal’s continued adherence to ethnic and tribal identity—a critique very few have been willing to voice. Kedumah is unapologetically willing to move beyond the metaphysical underpinnings of both Green and Schachter-Shalomi. He builds upon Schachter-Shalomi’s Buddhist analogy, whereby Torah is always perceived according to the turning moment of its time. Every generational zeitgeist or yana offers its own moment of wisdom for that age. Just as the Wheel of Dharma is spinning in paradigmatic turns, so too, Judaism, from its ancient biblical First Turning before 70 CE, to its rabbinic and medieval Second Turning post-70CE, to its current Third Turning that constitutes the spiritual person and pathless path pointing to that which precedes the beginning – Kedumah. Ish-Shalom argues for a path that is at once primordial yet primed for future downloading now. He provides charts that allow for a more visual way of identifying the steps along the journey, including a comparative summary of the roots and the branches of this approach called, “The Five Journeys and Their Correlates in Kedumah and in Classical Kabbalah”

But how does the Kedumah journey begin if it is described as a pathless path? Is it possible to attain the primordial level of Torah before the beginning of Genesis?  By mapping out a non-coercive path, Ish-Shalom provides spiritual ways towards the truth that can only be found by the individual seeker. Moreover, what are the criterion to extrapolate the wisdom of practice from other paths? For example, in the book there is the recurring voice of nondual master, Nissargadata Maharaj (b. 1897), who posited that the purpose of advanced spirituality is to simply know who you are. As I read Ish-Shalom’s extrapolations of Nissargadata Maharaj’s many talks about becoming aware of one’s original nature, I could almost feel him searching for a direct way in which one could practice this truth. How do we get to the place whose beginning eschews any beginning? In asking this question, I am reflecting specifically on the intended audience of this book and the context of sharing these teachings outside of Naropa or ish-Shalom’s small circles of students. Will the broader public of American spiritual seekers, neo-Hasidic, Renewal or otherwise, find and digest this honeycomb of teachings? In attempting to “transcend and include” the Orthodox Judaism of his twenties, Ish-Shalom invites like-minded seekers to follow him into the deeper recesses of one of his own personal (unnamed) masters of Kedumah, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

Navigating a post-ethnic America that is rapidly losing its democratic compass, it is not always a given that such revolutions will lead to personal spiritual awakening as in the case of Ish-Shalom. And if, as Scholem once said, Judaism is “solely by what sincere Jews do,” then there is nothing as sincerely generative as this opening to a new vision of Primordial Torah, that promises to expand the horizons of those who chose to take it as a personal road map to the future.


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