Tuesday, October 28, 2014


In the morning, in a light-filled upstairs room of our old church building, I sat down with some of the kids of my church and began our confirmation class.  Our chatter was about confirmation itself, but I'd wanted to hear from them about how some of the pre-classes had gone.  Specifically, I was curious what they'd thought of the Nooma vids they'd watched.  These videos were old Rob Bell schtuff, nicely produced, thoughtful, and inviting, although pressing close on occasion to the edge of Velveeta.

They'd liked them, and had clearly retained information from them.  I shared, because it strikes me as odd, that the same Rob Bell who created those very helpful vids is now on tour with Oprah, part of her The Life You Want To Be Best Right Now This Weekend tour.

The class, as one, rolled their eyes in teen disdain.  "Oprah?"  Clearly, Ms. O is not regarded as the font of authenticity by the young.  They're not her target demographic, of course.  Few fourteen year olds can pony up $200-$500 bucks for a big stadium event, after all.

I pitched out another trial balloon, I mentioned the title of his forthcoming book.  My church has given out Bell's books to graduates in past.  They're solid, simple, accessible, and gracious.  This new one is a relationship book, co-authored with his wife:  The Zimzum of Love.

There was giggling.

I moved on, but filed that giggle away.  Reminder to self: if in the radiant yarp of this wild multiverse I ever find myself asked to tag along with Oprah on a tour, politely demur, lest the teens of thy congregation giggle at thee.

It got me thinking, though, about the word "Zimzum."  I'd not bothered looking into that term when I'd first encountered it on the cover of the Bell's book, assuming--erroneously--that it was some cutesy nonsense relationship word.  "The Dibbledop of Parenting."  "The OochGah of Growing Old."  Something like that.

But then I encountered it again providentially, in a science article about the dynamics of Many Worlds theory, of all places.  There, it was not presented as "Zimzum."   It was Tzimtzum, a term from Lurianic Kabbalistic theology that attempts to articulate how God makes space in being for that which is not God's own self.

So I looked into it further, as one should when serendipity serves up her peculiar harmonies.

As theology, tzimtzum is fascinating, and within authentic Kabbalistic practice and rabbinic conversation, it's a pretty sophisticated and heavily debated idea.  How can God be both present and not-present?  What are the self-imposed boundaries of that which is infinite and aware?  It's meaty, heady, non-trivial stuff, the kind of theology that bleeds over into scientific cosmology in ways I find pretty nifty.

And it's being repurposed, by a Christian, as a means of meting out relationship advice.  "Make space for your partner," it'll go, I'm sure.

I wonder at this.  I mean, it's not bad advice, generally.  It may well be a helpful book for some folks.

But the tzimtzum is an immensely complex, nuanced, challenging way of trying to understand the work of the Creator.  Will that complexity be honored?  Will the centuries of conversation about that idea be referenced?  We'll see.  I have not, after all, read the book, which isn't out yet.

I wonder further, though, at the co-opting of such theology by both Christians and pop-theology.  That wondering comes from my peculiar place as both a teacher of the Way of Jesus and the husband/father of a Jewish wife/sons.

The rabbi of my family's synagogue is a teacher of Kabbalistic understandings of Judaism, which come out in his storytelling.  He knows the language, and the stories, and the debates, the deep richness of that remarkably intricate and ancient way of understanding.  There is a dizzying, whirling, interwoven elegance to authentic Kabbalah.  It's a wild dance of ideas before the throne of God, as you lose yourself in concepts that swirl together like Sufis in qawwali ecstasy.  There is a depth to it that I honor.  But I also recognize that while it is a valid path, it is not the path I know well enough to teach.

If you don't have the depth and history and the complexity, it becomes something else.  It can become Madonnabalah or Oprahbalah, a shallow smorgasbord me-magick that is as removed from Kabbalistic practice as that fat golden prosperity Buddha at your takeout Chinese place is removed from the Noble Eightfold Path.

That's the challenge, whenever we take things from traditions that are not our our own.