Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Rabbi Harold White on the Allure of Mysticism

Rabbi Harold White on the Allure of Mysticism

Rabbi Harold White, Georgetown University’s Senior Jewish Chaplain and Lecturer in Theology, delivered a CIRS Monthly Dialogue lecture on “The Allure of Mysticism: Kabbalah as Pop-religious Culture or Serious Religious Practice?” on March 8, 2011.

White relayed his experience during his seminary schooling and said that it was not common at the time to be taught anything other than traditional religious thought. It was only later that he took a keen interest in the study of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah. In Hebrew scripture, he said, the existence of divinity is presented as an existential reality and not something that should be proved through theoretical ponderings. Kabbalah is derived from Hebrew meaning “to receive,” the Rabbi said, and is the act of emptying oneself of narcissistic tendencies and opening oneself up to the divine.

The Rabbi discussed the ways in which Kabbalah has recently entered into the public vernacular. It is currently being popularized and embraced by a variety of public figures and celebrities, including Madonna and Britney Spears who, he said, engage with the teachings on a superficial level. This popularization of Kabbalah has occured through marketing of the teachings in commercial merchandise and simple sound-bites. The Rabbi argued that this has trivialized the mysticism because to truly engage in Kabbalah one must be a scholar of scripture and familiar with the history and traditions of religious practice.

In conclusion, Rabbi White argued that even though we are products of the modern world, religion allows us to live a life that is still filled with mystery and Kabbalah in particular is a celebration and enjoyment of that mystery. He ended the lecture by saying that “The world may not be comprehensible, but it is embraceable.”

The Rabbi was also invited to give a lunch lecture to Georgetown faculty, staff, and students on the history and ethos of Georgetown’s diversity programs.

Rabbi Harold S. White has been associated with Georgetown University for 43 years. He currently holds the position of Senior Advisor to the Program of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. He has occupied rabbinic pulpits at Temple Sinai in Washington and Temple B’nai Israel in Easton, Maryland. He serves as the Co-Spiritual Director for the Interfaith Family Project in Takoma Park, Maryland. 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, CIRS Publications Coordinator