08 June 2021

Esoteric cultural appropriation

Where I am coming from

Forgive me a lot of throat-clearing; the cultural politics make it necessary. You can skip ahead to the next section, Kabballah & qabala if you want to get right to the meat of what I am here to say.

I dread resting too much of the legitimacy of this kind of commentary on identity categories, ratification by authority, or scholarship pissing contests. I would rather have this comment read on the merits. But situating myself does inform what I say, so: I am an assimilated American Ashkenazi Jew. I am not practicing, though I have thrown a kickass ritually-correct seder every year for decades. I am also a practicing, though lazy, Hermeticist with modest formal investments from a lodge in the Golden Dawn current. I am a modern Pagan who counts Ha’Shem among the gods of my personal pantheon, as the “god of my people”. Ha’Shem has a place but not an icon on my personal altar, physically above the places of all of the other gods; I hold this to be consistent with Ha’Shem’s first mitzvah, לא יהיה־לך אלהים אחרים על־פני.

I consider myself unqualified to study Jewish kabballah as a practice, though I am an enthusiastic amateur scholar in an academic sense. I have some Hebrew & Torah scholarship under my belt, but not enough. And I am not living a life of Jewish practice.

Hermetic qabalah is integral to my spiritual practice and outlook. My practice is modest and I do not want to overstate my scholarship. But neither is trivial, and after decades of engagement they run deep into my bones.

I also need to articulate my cultural politics. I am committed to the pursuit of social justice. Advocacy is not one of my core personal projects, but I believe I have given it at least the attention which every person should. I admit to some reservations about the particular school of social justice praxis which dominates the culture of social justice advocacy at the moment ... and I count myself allied with it, because social justice advocacy is more important than my quibbles, and that school is much more right than wrong on the merits.

That said, among those reservations about common social justice praxis there is a chunk of the discourse around cultural appropriation. Sometimes it is plain wrong about how culture works. Ownership language — “that does not belong to you” — serves us poorly. And I am mortified by the implications of some discourse about cultural appropriation. The implication that each ethnic people must hew only to the cultural forms of their ancestors courts the worst possible Blut und Boden Cultural Purity “traditionalist” bedfellows.

That does not mean that I dismiss concerns about cultural appropriation. They are vitally important. I believe that we see countless examples of appropriation which we have an obligation to combat.

White people need to stop wearing warbonnets, right?

Modern Pagan culture has a lot to answer for here. Western occultists have a lot to answer for here.

Kabballah & qabala

This post was born as a pair of Twitter threads, the first inspired by a short conversation with another Jewish occultist unhappy with gentiles’ use of kabballah. I said to them:

I have complex ambivalence about all this because I am both Jewish and invested in Hermetic qabalah, but I have no ambivalence in saying that you are 100% right in finding antisemitism woven deep into the history and structure of those magical systems.

Is Pagan & occultist qabalah cultural appropriation of a closed Jewish tradition? This essay is long because the question is complicated. The history is appropriative and the practice easily can be appropriative, but I believe that there is a lot of space for thoughtful gentiles to engage with it responsibly.

First, one need to introduce a distinction between kabballah, cabala, and qabalah; esotericists use these different spellings to reflect the distinctions between these related systems.

Kabballah is a body of Jewish practice & ideas crystallized in the 16th century, grounded in writings from the 13th century, drawing directly on ideas and practices at least a couple of centuries older, with many much earlier antecedents ... including a mythic lineage attributed to Moses. I lack the scholarship to judge arguments about stuff like neoplatonism and other gentiles’ thought & practice influencing proto-kabbalist thought & practice, but it would be naïve to imagine that an esoteric school created by a diaspora people is entirely novel and unique.

Cabala is a little out of scope here, and my expertise on it is weak, but I must mention it to round out the picture. Renaissance-era Christian occultists built symbolism for their own use drawing directly on kabballah, modifying the source significantly to suit their own purposes.

Qabalah comes to us through a clearly-identifiable, narrow door. The Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, a nominally Christian late 19th century English quasi-Masonic organization of occultists invented it. The HO G∴D∴ were like the Velvet Underground of esoteric groups: innovative, strongly informed by past practices, and hugely influential, much like how Brian Eno famously said of the Velvet Underground that “their first album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”.

The HO G∴D∴ had a “magical system” that was a stew of esoteric ideas from all over: Renaissance magic, alchemy, the classical proto-sciences (most significantly astrology), confused thirdhand accounts of Hinduism and Buddhism, neoplatonist theurgy, cabala, Kabballah, and more. Plus the HO G∴D∴ just made a bunch of stuff up, claiming legitimacy for it by attributing it to a mix of “secret traditions” and well-known cultural sources.

They held this mess together using symbolism they called “qabalah”, which drew directly on cabala and kabballah.

I am deliberately describing the HO G∴D∴ system of symbols, ideas, and practices a little flippantly here. It is bonkers. It is a mess. It is full of lies. But I love it. It is awesome. It has been massively influential for a reason. It works.

It should also be apparent from this thumbnail history of the HO G∴D∴ system that it is in many ways as culturally appropriative as anything can be. The HO G∴D∴ deracinated the culture of oppressed people, taking a lot of symbols with rich cultural context and then ignoring or crudely misinterpreting that context, using weighty symbols just because they looked and sounded cool. This is minstrelsy of the culture of oppressed people: not just twisting the source ideas but misrepresenting those alterations as an authentic presentation of the original. This includes when the HO G∴D∴ made stuff up, then claimed it had value and legitimacy because it was sourced from the culture of oppressed people whom they did not actually understand. The HO G∴D∴ constructing their qabalah using the bits and bobs of kabballah which suited them was both reflective of and exercise of antisemitism.

The HO G∴D∴ in London were literally at the seat of a Christian supremacist white supremacist colonialist empire at its apex, playing with the cultures of religious & cultural minorities who had been crushed under that empire’s boot.

Any esotericist who engages with qabalah must reckon with the appropriativeness and bullshittiness of this history. And understand that the influence of the HO G∴D∴ system is everywhere in anglophone esotericism. Bits and bobs of it show up in Wicca and almost all other modern Pagan practices, in New Age culture, in the banal astrology column in your local newspaper.

But one cannot accuse the qabalah of the HO G∴D∴ of being nothing other than the closed tradition of Jewish kabballah. It is not, it is just different stuff, precisely because it is such a mix of different sources and misunderstandings and misrepresentations and outright inventions.

As a Jew who does some of the practices from the HO G∴D∴, I have deep unease with elements of those practices. There is a core HO G∴D∴ ritual which involves pronouncing the divine name יהוה, which violates one of the few Jewish practices I am rigorous about! (I found myself a lodge which substitutes another name.)

So while I am not in the same place they are, it should be evident why I have boundless love & respect for my Jewish cousins who are disgusted by qabalah and gentile esotericists’ use of it. All esotericists who engage with qabalah need to grapple with the knowledge that there are Jews who have a legitimate disgust at these practices.

All of which is laying track for the opinion I came here to offer.


I personally am a Jew who is okay with qabalah. It does not bother me. If you are a gentile, it is cool with me if you work with qabalah.

Which is not to say that all qabalah is okay, or even okay with me. There sure are ways of working with qabalah which are offensively appropriative. If you are not Jewish and pitch your teaching as The True Secrets Of The Jewish Mystics, that is very bad. (It is also pretty bad if you are Jewish, though a different bad, with different cultural politics.)

This places me in respectful disagreement with Jews who say that gentiles need to step away from qabalah — emphasis on respectful. This is an ongoing conversation. I might well be wrong. They might be right. I am presenting a case to a candid world.

I disrespectfully disagree with anyone who claims that qabalah is nothing other than an appropriation of the closed tradition of Jewish kabballah. That is a crock of shit. Qabalah has a bunch of stuff cribbed from kabballah in there, but it is a different thing.

Jazz begat blues. Blues begat rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll begat rock. Rock begat heavy metal. But that does not make Iron Maiden a jazz band. Rock is full of cultural appropriation. White artists and listeners often need to do a lot better at recognizing and avoiding engaging in appropriative moves. But it would be absurd to say we should stop listening to Iron Maiden because of the distant echo of the Bo Diddley beat. In the same way, qabalah is part synthesis, part novel creation. It is living culture. Suggesting that it is just repackaged kabballah is like saying Star Wars is just repackaged Kurosawa. Yeah, there is a ton of Kurosawa in there, but it is also planetary romance and space opera and a western and a flying ace story and and and …

I cannot see an argument that the cultural appropriation in the history of qabalah makes qabalah itself illegitimate which does not ultimately make practically all of culture illegitimate. Noting is created in a vacuum.

That line drawn, I hold that this space contains hard questions.

I ask my fraters, sorors, and nonbinary siblings in the body of Golden Dawn practice to face the aforementioned problem that practicing Jews cannot do the core ritual of the G∴D∴ tradition as written.

Though I am okay with gentiles engaging with qabalah, in my opinion gentiles should keep your goyish hands off of Jewish kabballah. “The rabbi said it was okay” is not okay with me, even though there are plenty of Jews who disagree and find it acceptable. Ten Jews, eleven opinions, which stacks on top of a a whole intra-Jewish conversation to be had about who among us is qualified to work with kabballah (ahem, sexism, ahem) but that is yet another question.

I use the Hebrew names of the sephiroth of qabalah as useful terms of art. Those are the same words used in kabballah to mean things which are similar but not the same. I am cool with that. One word can mean different related things. But we must at least note the distinction.

I do not want people to recruit my words to say that the appropriativeness of qabalah is all in the past, nothing to worry about now. We still need to step carefully in talking about its relationship with Jewish ideas, tradition, and practice. I do not want people to shrug and say “Jonathan Korman said qabalah is A-OK”, or to point to anything I say here as the final word. I am one person with a considered opinion, no more, no less.

Tarot

A while back, an internet acquaintance used some tarot imagery in a game they were working on, and were confronted with a critic who said that this was irresponsible because “tarot itself is a closed practice from Roma people”. I found that surprising and not credible.

I did not see a way to reconcile that with the history I know for the Coleman-Smith deck, the most famous tarot images in the world, which were pictured in the illustration which inspired that comment. That deck is based on deliberate alterations to the secret deck designs invented by the white Brits of the HO G∴D∴, making it a creative obfuscation of a thing they largely invented for their system rather than drew from other existing tarot decks — which itself was indeed appropriative of a number of cultural sources but not, so far as I know, of any real practices of the Romani people aside from the idea that they used tarot cards with different designs for a different method of fortune-telling.

Tarot cards themselves can be traced to card games played in Italy circa 1500. The cards & designs from that era map only sloppily to the “canonical” 78 card deck defined by the HO G∴D∴ based on their numerological and other symbolism. Whether the use of Tarot cards for fortune-telling originates from Roma practices at all remains a hotly debated topic among scholars. Documentation of the practice is tangled up in romantic nonsense invented by non-Roma occultists in the 18th & 19th century.

Some time after that exchange about using tarot imagery, the Romani members of Seems Like Your Spirituality Is Just Cultural Appropriation: The Religion™ circulated an open letter: Your Tarot Card Practice is Romani Cultural Appropriation.

The argument offered by that letter that Roma people need justice and deserve reparations is ironclad. But its claims about the relationship between Jewish kabballah, Hermetic qabalah, and tarot described in that claim of tarot as a “closed practice” is thoroughly confused about the history and the mechanics of those, which I outlined above.

This presents a serious and tricky question. Even if we accept its uncertain claim that tarot fortune-telling was a Roma invention, I don’t know how to think about how irresponsibly appropriative it is to engage in the use of different fortune-telling methods with different cards with different symbolism.

I mean, I have genuine uncertainty. It is not hard to see how a white storefront tarot reader in a “g*psy” costume is engaging in appropriative minstrelsy. But is it wrong to engage in sortilage divination with those particular cards because some Roma have a story about them having Roma origins? Much slipperier.

What obligation do we have to be deferential to oppressed peoples’ ahistorical claims of cultural ownership, as a gesture of respect toward them? I don’t ask that as a way to be dismissive, I consider it a serious question.

Consider how social justice advocates agree that it is a racist gesture for white people in the US to wear their hair in matted ’locs, because doing so is appropriative of Black culture. Historically, that does not hold water. Black Americans are hardly the only people to invent matted hair — indeed, ’locs evidently did not emerge organically from Black American culture but evidently out of imitation of Black Jamaican Rastafarians, which raises hard questions about who is appropriating whom — and there are white historical examples ranging from Polish plaits to Shakespeare’s references to “elf-locks”. But whatever the history and cultural logic, it is surely true that a white person in ’locs knows that Black people will read them as engaging in a racist insult, so they are in an important sense choosing to insult. We have a broad cultural agreement that, given this, justifications white people make from cultural history are less important than the readings of Black people.

How far do we take that? One can easily make a much stronger case from cultural history that the history and structure of rock ’n’ roll makes it cultural appropriation. If some Black people tell white people to stop performing and listening to rock ’n’ roll, must we heed that? How many such critics are required before we would need to?

That last question is particularly pointed in the case of the Roma claim to tarot. I have already seen people reference this as the consensus among Romani people, while it is my understanding that in Europe Romani people overwhelmingly oppose this move. How is a gadjo outsider like me to evaluate that?

I have no satisfactory answers for those questions, only more questions and worries.

I feel queasy finding myself even examining the possibility that oppressed people of color are wrong about their own history or what constitutes a racist insult to them. That is not a good place for a white person to stand. But the nausea I get contemplating the Preserve Cultural Purity implications of this plea is even worse. Anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and folklorists debunked the whole concept of cultural purity ages ago; culture just does not work that way. Worse, advocates of social justice saying White People Need To Stick To White Things court very unwholesome bedfellows. The letter arguing for tarot as a closed practice suggests that white people should instead turn to divinatory methods “that fit with [our] interests and heritage” like ... Norse runes. This aligns with the ideology of “Neo-Volkish” white nationalists who will heartily agree that white people should stick to their noble white heritage of the runes. Surely we do not want to go there.

Figuring out a better praxis

These examples are not peripheral issues. As someone with a hand in the modern Pagan & esoteric movements, I see them as the tip of a large iceberg.

Again, we have a lot of irresponsible cultural politics and confused spiritual practice to answer for. I have seen rituals which invoke Aphrodite, Kali, and Ix Chel as “names of The Goddess”, erasing profound distinctions between these deities and deracinating the source cultures who named them. I have heard white people singing “Native American chants” which were probably fabrications ... not that singing authentic NA chants would be any better. There are countless other such examples of appropriative moves far more cringe-inducingly wrongheaded than qabalah or tarot.

Our tools for thinking about this are far too blunt. I do not have answers; I have worries.

In service of this question, I offer some commentaries to chew on.



Dr. Heidi Hart's paper Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism* looks at implied ideas of Cultural Purity in terms of their relationship with scary populist movements on the right.

Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.

Again, I think Team Social Justice should not want these bedfellows.


Leftist Pagan Rhyd Wildermuth offers the essay A Plague of Gods: Cultural Appropriation and the Resurgent Left Sacred as a skeptical response to common ways of framing these questions. He offers both an analysis grounded in left politics ...

While it may seem a bit harsh to compare social justice arguments for cultural exclusion to capitalist enclosure and private property, this cannot be ignored. Much of the discourse—especially from American activists—has inherited (or has been colonized by) the capitalist logic of property. In their framework (unacknowledged or not), cultural forms are property belonging to a specific group of people, and using those forms without express permission is theft or trespassing.

... and another drawing on an esoteric way of classifying understandings of sacredness.

The left sacred is a transgressive sacred, a sacred that seeks to spread and contaminate the rest of life with its power. The other hand of the sacred, seen in the purity codes of Leviticus, is the right sacred, the sacred that polices the borders between the sacred and the profane with an aim to stop the sacred from spreading to places where it cannot be controlled any longer.

He turns this analysis toward the same letter I referenced asserting that tarot is a closed Roma practice.

Consider again the above cited essay, which essentially claims that the Romani “own” Tarot. The authors argue that, because they believe the Romani are the authors or creators of Tarot, that Tarot is inherently Romani and has an intrinsic Romani property, they therefore have the right to assert an intellectual property right over its use. It is improper for Tarot to be used by others because such use takes it out of its proper place. And people who use it without their permission are therefore violating Romani ownership rights, a point that can be seen particularly in the essay’s repeated statements that, if someone wants a Tarot divination, they must pay a Romani person to perform it for them.

Asserting ownership and attempting to privatize something that has become common parallels the capitalist logic of property, especially during the birth of capitalism. The repeated use of the word “closed” in their essay about Tarot echoes the capitalist logic of Enclosure, the privatization of something that had been commonly used.

Wildermuth does not address the cultural politics of signaling respect for oppressed people, which as I say above I think needs an integral place in our practices, but I find his deep dive into the origins and meanings of the word “appropriation” illuminating. This is the kind of clarity we need.


Esotericist Phil Hine reflects on how the origin of chakras is as messy and strange as kabballah / cabala / qabalah.

Well the simplistic answer would be that chakras are Hindu and stolen by naughty colonial westerners then dropped into virtually every popular occult book written since 1910. That's not what happened of course.

He also observes how historical practitioners’ attitudes do not align with our cultural politics.

The problem for those people who insist that particular traditions can only be followed by those who are of particular cultures is that you can find, in the tantric literature, explicit statements against this view.

Conversations between modern Pagans and indigenous people can be very fraught. Ivo Dominguez, Jr. has a memorable story about how affinities can read as appropriation.

The last person to approach me, approached me with a stern face. I listened as he harangued me for a few minutes, as the room continued to empty, about how wrong I was for appropriating his cultural heritage. He said that as a Native American he was particularly troubled that this should occur at a conference that he expected to be more forward thinking. When he was finished, I told him that nothing in my opening had been borrowed from his culture. [...] I ran through a short list of places and peoples that had developed these sacred ideas on their own. I also said that the use of percussion is global. I stated my belief that there are some things that are perennial and universal and as such will appear again and again in many times and in many cultures. He was not completely convinced, nor did he soften his tone or demeanor.

This is painful to see, because like a lot of modern Pagans I have hopes for alliances between white modern Pagans and indigenous peoples. It is tempting for white modern Pagans to romanticize the natural affinities there, but I do think they are not simply a fantasy. If that is to happen, we will need to overcome how indigenous people have every reason to eye white modern Pagans with distrust.

Don Frew tells a story about this tension unfolding at a big interfaith conference.

In the midst of this, a number of Native American representatives, in the middle of one of their programs, read a “Declaration of War” against all those who would “steal” their spiritual practices. The Declaration named Neopagans among the thieves.

We immediately arranged a sit-down meeting with a number of the Native American Elders. We explained that their information about us was coming from the same news sources that so often misrepresented their spirituality. Why should they trust those sources to be any more accurate about us? We shared information about our practices, how people living on and in relationship with the Earth in different parts of the world will come up with similar practices, how ours are rooted in historic examples of the practices of our ancestors in Europe, and how we shared their disgust with those who falsely pass themselves off as Native American teachers to make money.

Some white modern Pagans have framed at least some contemporary pagan practices as “European indigenous religions”, like Andras Corban-Arthen, who offers A Declaration for European Indigenous Religious Traditions.

We are members of diverse European indigenous ethnic cultures who seek to revitalize and reclaim our ancestral religious and spiritual traditions. We honor those who went before us, who gave us our life and our heritage. We are bound to the lands of our ancestors, to the soil that holds their bones, to the waters from which they drank, to the roads that they once walked. And we seek to pass that heritage to those who come after us, whose ancestors we are in the process of becoming – our children, our grandchildren, and the many generations yet to be born. We send solidarity and support to those other indigenous nations, races and religions who are also engaged in the struggle to preserve their own ancestral heritages.

I have met Corban-Arthen; as a modern Pagan I cannot help admiring both his love for local pagan practices in Europe and the sincerity of his project to support them. But the cultural politics of this approach worry me on several levels.

The term “indigenous people” emerged from shared efforts by oppressed people, living in the consequences of European colonization & genocide, to build a place to ground their political claims and build solidarity among peoples facing similar predicaments. I have to imagine that many indigenous people would object to so many Europeans shouldering their way into that cohort and drawing on that hard-earned legitimacy. There are some peoples like the Saami in the Nordic countries and the Basques in Spain & France who are broadly recognized in the global movement for indigenous people, and there are numerous others fighting for greater recognition, but Corban-Arthen and his European Congress of Ethnic Religions cast a much wider net. One can easily see how that can be read as a form of unwholesome appropriation.

Further, this disrupts the hopes that many modern Pagans have for a Big Tent Paganism as a cultural movement. It distinguishes Pagan practices which are admittedly recent historical inventions from practices which have (or at least claim) a much older historical provenance ... implying that if a tradition has deep historical and geographical taproots, that gives it a claim on legitimacy which the newer religious movements lack. That seems like a bad place to stand, both politically and theologically.

Indeed, that takes us again to Blood And Soil rhetoric with its horrible implications and bedfellows. I will gladly swallow such worries when the Lakota, Aymaras, and Maori people talk about their people and their relationship to the land and bake that in to the choice of the word “indigenous”, because fergawdsake I am a white American and have an obligation to have their backs on anything I can, in the face of a history and a present of horrors and oppression. But white people do not merit the same latitude.

A start on a model of cultural appropriation

I have my own way of thinking about the base principles behind the movement to combat cultural appropriation.

One can understand it as emerging from an ambivalence about both the modern understanding and postmodern understandings of Authenticity and Identity. Postmodern sensibilities see these through a lens of multiplicity & fragmentation. There is no universal subject with an objective understanding of all culture to retreat to. Social justice advocates rightly reject modernist universalism with its colonialist / Western chauvinist / etc implications. But at the same time, oppressed people compelled to inhabit an identity which subjects them to injustices yearn to ground that identity in some kind of authenticity, pushing back a vulgar postmodernism which rejects any stability there. “Culture, Authenticity, and Identity are not slippery mush!” they say, and so turn to the response, “This thing is real and belongs to these people who can be clearly identified!”

But as Wildermuth describes above, countering colonialist modernist universalism with claims like “the chakras belong to South Asian people” still accepts modernist conceptions of property rights and crisply distinct “peoples”. That can act as a convenient shorthand, but does not hold water on close examination.

This frustration with some of the sloppy thinking behind common manifestations of the movement against cultural appropriation does not mean that I reject the entire framework and its project of resistance. There are at least three distinct modes of cultural appropriation which I think can be clearly identified and combatted.

  • Colonialism when people in a privileged position employ their power to deny oppressed people who have a cultural and historical link to a thing access to it, while they exercise or exploit that same thing from their base of privilege. So for example, when white people in a posh neighborhood open an “authentic” taqueria where Mexican immigrants could not.
  • Minstrelsy when people in a position of power engage in misrepresentation of an oppressed people and their culture, for the benefit of the privileged, sometimes even claiming credibity for their twisted version by pointing to its supposedly authentic roots. As the name indicates, the minstrel show is the classic example, but there are plenty of esoteric examples of inventing of bogus ancient foreign lineages and cribbing poorly understood elements of “exotic” traditions, as in the case of qabalah.
  • Deracination when the privileged exercise some cultural elements of the oppressed, stripping them of their context and full meaning. For example, white people with arbitrary bindi marks because they look cool.

Because the objection to cultural appropriation emerges from and serves a social justice politics, we need to apply an awareness of privilege & oppression to understand the stakes. Avoiding at least these three forms of cultural appropriation is righteous in the name of the basic politeness which the privileged owe the oppressed in recognition of the power relationship in which they operate ... that politeness is only one face of a necessary bigger project of correcting injustices.


This article was republished in the July 2021 edition of the Hermetic Library Zine.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I often find myself thinking about this question with the frame of invitation/privilege/trust/good faith. Were everything equal, should good faith abound, any person of any culture could interact with most any aspect of another. Perhaps even adopt it if they found it fulfilling. For example, I am more than happy to share whatever aspects of Judaism I feel competent in with non-Jewish friends, colleagues, and acquaintances when I feel the curiosity or desire for engagement is genuine. This holds even for particularly intimate aspects of Judaism, like Yom Kippur. However, if someone starts being disrespectful, acting entitled, I get less comfortable. For example, in SLC, LDS folks often would ask to sit in on services, just to see. Generally, they were welcome to (except for high holidays) and I ended up fielding questions from them about Judaism and what it means to me when I worked at that synagogue. It felt...fine? But kind of weird considering how much LDS belief hammers the idea that they are the true descendants of the 12 tribes and presume an affinity for Jews that I am pretty sure we did not ask for? Mildly nervous about how they might use that experience to bolster that narrative. Still, they were respectful and interested, and the conversation was all good.

Now, I had other conversations with individuals who were not respectful. Who met my sharing of Judaism with nonsense like, "but Christmas is for everyone, why do you not celebrate?" etc. Those people lost further access to deeper conversations about Judaism with me. Similar things happen all the time among individuals from different cultures. I feel like maybe the question of appropriation has to do with entire groups losing that privilege/access/presumption of good faith because of a long history of being terrible. This is also where those power dynamics come in; very easy to share what is not being threatened. The continuation of that terribleness and/or lack of rebuilding trust on a societal scale means I, as a white, Jewish person, have to be careful with practices that might cross cultural lines (eg, I sometimes wrap my hair and try to avoid styles that are obviously associated with a given group like common loose hijab styles or the Nigerian gele). I generally treat something that might feel like an overstep, perhaps from this post an example might be the drums you mentioned, as people being sensitive to things that rhyme with their historical experiences.

I think this response of "use what your tradition already has and stay away from mine" is rooted in that. Access and invitation was historically abused and considering that so many themes and types of practice pop up in similar variations around the world, why not get to know your own heritage better and connect with it? Why not go looking for the ways to embrace the variety and nuances of your own community's practices that things like colonialism, white supremacy, and christian hegemony erased? Native Americans are not the only ones with deep spiritual relationships with the natural world, for example. I also say this as someone who has trouble understanding the appeal of adopting practices that are not part of my ancestral heritage. I got into Judaism because my family is Jewish and I wanted to explore that part of our heritage (same thing with my Russian degree). It would never occur to me to convert to a religion I have no familial/communal connection to or to adopt practices that I have no similar connection to. Again, doing so is not bad or invalid, it is just not how my brain works and, as such, I might be a bit more sympathetic or amenable to "stick with your own" than is perhaps warranted.

This was long and ramble, so props for reading if you got this far. I did like the post and it is something I think about a lot, so thank you for writing it!

Anonymous said...

Excellent explanation of the subtleties and complexities of this ongoing dialogue.

One critique: your demarcation of Kabbalah vs Qabalah vs Cabala will end up being more harmful than helpful I think… It’s not a standard division but a pop idea arisen in recent Internet forums. Since writers through the Ages do not conform to this (they use the spellings interchangeably) that will end up confusing readers especially new ones. I understand it’s a popular new trend to want to make such a clean division, but not only are the lines between them more fuzzy than clear, The attempt at easy clarification will end up backfiring. I would advise against trying to make it a ‘thing’. Otherwise well done!

Jonathan Korman said...

I first encountered the practice of using the three spellings of c/k/qabalah to distinguish the three distinct broad currents in 1990. I recognize that this qualifies as new pop idea in the centuries-long sweep of the history of this body of ideas, but I think that makes it more than just a fad.

Since one can meaningfully distinguish those three bodies of theory and practice, and it is useful to do so, I cannot imagine what harms you fear, Anon.