There is so much to ponder here and so little space to do it in. Which honestly renders Freedman’s bold attempt to do so an act bordering on the heroic. That he should manage to perform this service soberly and respectfully while creating a palpable sense in the reader of how extraordinarily fragile the transmission of spiritual knowledge can be, is trebly impressive. Mystery, it transpires, is mysterious. And that’s authentically intriguing.
In a secular age such as our own, when popular theological literacy is at an all-time low, Freedman has undoubtedly done a great service by rescuing Kabbalah from the pile that a sceptical world labels “mumbo-jumbo”. Yet by the end of his account, there is no real sense of having nailed down his subject. Perhaps the impossibility of defining it is, in fact, the real reason for Kabbalah’s continuing appeal.
This is the kind of erudite, witty, empathetic and sceptical book which gladdens. It also has moments of genuine profundity. Freedman recounts a story about Rabbi Israel, son of Eliezer, who, through Kabbalistic meditation, eventually approaches the gates to the Garden of Eden. He is warned that if he passes through, he must stay there eternally. In Poland, his wife touches his ice-cold body and weeps. At that point, he turns back from Eden and goes back to “the life he was placed on earth to live.