About 200 years ago, a Jewish scholar in Germany wrote a work called Judaism in Its Main Streams (or Hauptstroemungen, in German). In doing so, he created a new term, one that had never existed before: “Mainstream Judaism.” The intent of proclaiming a mainstream, of course, is to exclude. What is it that is not “mainstream Judaism,” and therefore can be dismissed or swept under the rug? In this case, it was primarily the vast mystical tradition within Judaism, a source of great embarrassment to that first generation to emerge from the ghetto, who sought to present Judaism as a rational, enlightened form of ethical monotheism of which any reader of Immanuel Kant might be proud. Kabbalah, with its esoteric doctrines about everything from the world’s creation to the unique Jewish soul, threatened this Enlightenment effort and needed to be buried. Hence the emergence of “mainstream Judaism.”
The hegemony of that view, at least among Western European and American Jews, lasted nearly two centuries. When I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1960s, my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel was not permitted to teach a regular course on Hasidism, the mystical Jewish movement that formed a main area of his research, because Hasidism was not “mainstream Judaism.” But that has all changed in the past quarter century, and Jews are now scrambling to recover that which was once so firmly rejected. Witness the large number of books—both good and bad—published in this field, the great number of courses now offered at all the rabbinical schools as well as universities, and the dubious edge of this recovery in various commercial enterprises that claim to offer up the true secrets of Kabbalah to those willing to pay for them.