[NB] Clever and Misleading


I chuckled a little when I first saw this, because it is a charming bit of wit to play the contrasts here, but almost immediately I also noticed the titles of the book of book on the Kabbalist’s lap. They don’t reference any specific Kabbalistic texts, they are just an assortment of the sefirot names, which sort of misses the point, almost as badly as the trend-chasing fauxballah student parodied in the strip. While the fauxballist’s ideas are transparently silly, as is their ignorance of the roots of the practice, the way in which the cartoon frames the contrast diminishes Kabbalism proper, too.

(Yes, I know, it is just a cartoon. And this is just a blog post using it as a jumping off point to make some basic points.)

The focus on the sefirot alone distracts us from Kabbalism proper, because while the sefirot are important, a good many Kabbalist texts do not take them to be central. I’m hardly a Kabbalah expert, but it doesn’t take much wading to realize how deeply integrated the Kabbalistic materials are with texts like Genesis, with the alphabet used to record those texts, and with the concrete experiences of people undertaking the Kabbalistic work.

The Zohar, for example, is incredibly dialogical. Much of what it presents is presented as dialogue of characters who contradict and refine each others’ positions. The characters are all engaging in intense spiritual discipline and close textual analysis. I know I can be a bit obsessed with Job, but the Zohar owes something to Job, to the interplay of philosophic discourse and spiritual understanding.

I do think there is something contagious about that sort of work, that once you have kindled the fire, it can spring from language to language, text to text, but there remains something essential about the source, about the hearth from which the fire was born.

By focusing only on the texts, though, the comic also undermines the mystical practices that provide an important vector for spiritual understanding to take root. On this point, the comic is actually downright misleading. The fauxballah student is being tacitly mocked for his engagement in silly practices, while the Kabbalist is being praised for being bookishly devoted. This misses the important fact that Kabbalism requires what many would deem ‘silly’ practices, whether that is chanting, rocking in prayer, seeking after visions, the crafting of talismans, or what have you.

Beneath the critical laughter, we are being asked to drink the poison cup of seriousness.

Don’t take the fauxaballist’s side, but be careful what you are buying into if you want to take the cartoonist’s side. The same lessons can be played out across the meme-happy world of the modern internet. While it is easy to take sides with someone who shares our critical attitude toward someone else, we ought to be careful at what else we’re agreeing to with our laughter.

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