I've never been a big fan of kabbalah or other parts of the mystical side of Judaism. For one thing, I'm very much a rationalist and stuff that intrinsically doesn't make physical sense isn't something I latch on to easily. For another, I've always been bothered by the Zohar. Never mind the controversy surrounding its origins. It's just that having struggled with the complexities of learning Talmud for so long, it bugs me that there's another "Talmud" out there, one infinitely more complex and that for many people it's the real thing while the Talmud I'm learning is just for us simpletons who haven't reached that exalted level yet. These assertions make me wonder why the Chazal would go to the effort of making an incredible book like the Talmud when they knew that "real" halachic practice wasn't in accordance with it but with the Zohar.
Having said that, I do recognize the incredible importance and legitimacy of the mystical part of Judaism. When explaining it to people, I analogize it to neurosurgery. Kabbalah, I tell them, is the neurosurgery of medicine. Most doctors aren't neurosurgeons, nor do they have the skills or aptitude to be, but that doesn't mean neurosurgery isn't really important and that neurosurgeons aren't top-flight doctors. It's the same with Kabbalah. Real kabbalah isn't for everyone although everyone is aware that it exists and to become a real practitioner of it requires training and respect for the material that not everyone has an aptitude for.
I think what's also hurt my impression of Kabbalah is the contradiction between the description I've just given and the way "popular Kabbalah" has spread throughout Jewish society. It's annoying to be told something is forbidden, to reply "But the Shulchan Aruch says it's okay" and be told "Yes, but the Zohar says it isn't" or "The Arizal said it's not allowed". Real kabbalists are not like this, of course, but kabbalah isn't restricted to them anymore. It seems, for example, that it's a standard grade 9 course in every Chabad yeshivah. That allows them to say stuff like "Well maybe that's what 'X' says but the Rebbe said only the sod matters". And let's not bring up Madonna/Esther. Please, let's not.
Having said all that, it occurs to me that one of the biggest difference between Chareidism and Modern Orthodoxy is the learning and utilizing of kabbalah in the Jewish life. Both Misnagdim and Chasidim incorporate it into their studies and behaviours while MO's, perhaps because of the more rationalist bent of the movement, are aware and maybe have learned some kabbalah but in general it isn't as prevalent or influential. And I think that should change.
No, I'm not implying that MO should develop chaburot where people sit in a circle in the lotus position and scan the universe for the mystical energy sent out from Shamayim by the holy neshama of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. (Yes, I once met someone who claimed it was an important ritual, more important than davening but he also seemed unaware of the existence of nail clippers) However, understanding the role of Kabbalah in Jewish practice and promoting a greater awareness of its proper role in halachic decision making, appreciating the concepts of pshat, drash, remez and sod in Scriptural interpretation and encouring its study at the highest levels of MO institutions is a change the movement should make.
The reason for that I will bring in my next post.