Local | Religion & Jewish Life

CAI scholar-in-residence to explore Kabbalah’s power, mystery

Hartley Lachter, Ph.D.

When medieval Christians claimed that Jewish history and religious practice was in decline, the Kabbalah, a mystical school of thought in Judaism, provided a powerful reimagining of Judaism, says Hartley Lachter, Ph.D., associate professor of religion studies at Lehigh University.

“Kabbalah argues that there is this secret way in which Judaism is not only a relevant religion, but the central religion — thanks to which, the entire universe itself continues to exist,” says Lachter. “And that it’s by virtue of Jewish religious practice that the unity of God is maintained.”

Kabbalah is an esoteric and secret language that attempts to explain the relationship between the divine and human worlds. 

Lachter is the 2017 scholar-in-residence at Congregation Anshei Israel, who will lead multiple community events from Nov. 9-11.

One of the strategies employed in the Kabbalah is the notion of its secretive nature, which ironically elevates its social and cultural capital, making it more desirable, says Lachter.

“If you ask people about Kabbalah, the No. 1 thing they know is that it’s a secret,” he says. “Of course this is the secret that isn’t kept. But it’s a secret that serves a really powerful social function.” 

Lachter’s field of expertise is medieval Kabbalah, with a focus on Jewish history and the development of Kabbalistic discourse. His work explores how medieval Jewish and Christian debates shape Jewish mystical literature and how these texts serve as a form of cultural resistance for some pre-modern Jews. He’s also analyzed the disruptive impact of violent outbreaks between Christians and Jews, and the cultural liabilities of forced conversion.

He started off with a general interest in studying Kabbalistic literature. Over time, he became more interested in how Kabbalistic texts are formulated in a particular country and during a specific era, which shows how Jews sought to understand themselves and their place in the world.    

“Kabbalah has been a really powerful mechanism for that, because it’s developed a bold, new understanding of the nature of God, and the relationship of Jews and Jewish religious practice,” he says.

Lachter holds the Philip and Muriel Berman chair in Jewish Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; he also serves as director of its Berman Center for Jewish Studies.

His recent book, “Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain,” shows that these ancient mystical texts flourished during this particular era, and were designed to combat religious oppression. The book was published by Rutgers University Press in November 2014.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, Lachter is the featured guest lecturer at the Duchin Campus Lecture Series hosted by the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. His discussion, “Kabbalah in a Surprising Place: Joseph Smith’s Engagement with Jewish Mysticism” will be held at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation from 4-5:30 p.m.

Lachter’s talk at Congregation Anshei Israel’s Friday Shabbat service, “Spreading Kabbalah: The Surprisingly Public Story of the Secret Jewish Tradition” will focus on the dichotomy between the Kabbalah’s surreptitious nature and its overwhelming public impact. He will also examine how Jewish mysticism blossomed in medieval Spain in response to anti-Jewish Christian missionaries. A Shabbat dinner starting at 6:45 p.m. will precede his lecture.

During Shabbat morning service at Congregation Anshei Israel, he will present a lecture, “Destiny at the Well: Finding Rebekah and Fulfilling the Covenant,” which discusses the search for Isaac’s wife and the nature of this covenantal relationship.

On Saturday afternoon, Lachter will teach a class at Congregation Anshei Israel, “Joyous Words from Sinai: Readings from the Zohar on the Weekly Parsha,” that will attempt to demystify the Kabbalah’s chief text.

See community calendar on page 24 for additional details.