Kabbalah is the name applied to the whole range of Jewish mystical activity. While codes of Jewish law focus on what it is God wants from man, kabbalah tries to penetrate deeper, to God’s essence itself.
There are elements of kabbalah in the Bible, for example, in the opening chapter of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes his experience of the divine: “… the heavens opened and I saw visions of God… I looked and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north-a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of the fire, a gleam as of amber” (1:1,4). The prophet then describes a divine chariot and the throne of God.
The rabbis of the Talmud regarded the mystical study of God as important yet dangerous. A famous talmudic story tells of four rabbis, Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Akiva who would meet together and engage in mystical studies. Azzai, the Talmud records, “looked and went mad [and] Ben Zoma died.” Elisha ben Abuyah became a heretic and left Judaism. Rabbi Akiva alone “entered in peace and left in peace.” It was this episode, the later experiences of individuals who became mentally unbalanced while engaging in mystical activities, and the disaster of the false Messiah Shabbetai Zevi that caused seventeenth-century rabbis to legislate that kabbalah should be studied only by married men over forty who were also scholars of Torah and Talmud. The medieval rabbis wanted the study of kabbalah limited to people of mature years and character.
The most famous work of kabbalah, the Zohar, was revealed to the Jewish world in the thirteenth century by Moses De Leon, who claimed that the book contained the mystical writings of the second-century rabbi Simeon bar Yochai. Almost all modern Jewish academic scholars believe that De Leon himself authored the Zohar, although many Orthodox kabbalists continue to accept De Leon’s attribution of it to Simeon bar Yochai. Indeed, Orthodox mystics are apt to see Bar Yochai not so much as the Zohar’s author as the recorder of mystical traditions dating back to the time of Moses. The intensity with which Orthodox kabbalists hold this conviction was revealed to me once when I was arguing a point of Jewish law with an elderly religious scholar. He referred to a certain matter as being in the Torah, and when I asked him where, he said: “It’s in the Zohar. Is that not the same as if it was in the Torah itself?”
The Zohar is written in Aramaic (the language of the Talmud) in the form of a commentary on the five books of the Torah. Whereas most commentaries interpret the Torah as a narrative and legal work, mystics are as likely to interpret it “as a system of symbols which reveal the secret laws of the universe and even the secrets of God” (Deborah Kerdeman and Lawrence Kushner, The Invisible Chariot, p. 90). To cite one example, Leviticus 26 records “a carrot and a stick” that God offers the Jewish people. If they follow his decrees, He will reward them. But if they spurn them, God will “set His face” against the people: “I will discipline you sevenfold for your sins…” and “I will scatter you among the nations” (26:28, 33). At the chapter’s conclusion, God says: “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them, for I am the Lord, their God” (26:44).
On this series of admonitions, the Zohar comments: “Come and see the pure love of the Blessed Holy One for Israel. A parable: There was a king who had a single son who kept misbehaving. One day he offended the king. The king said, ‘I have punished you so many times and you have not [changed]. Now look, what should I do with you? If I banish you from the land and expel you from the kingdom, perhaps wild beasts or wolves or robbers will attack you and you will be no more. What can I do? The only solution is that I and you together leave the land.’ So … the Blessed Holy One said as follows: ‘Israel, what should I do with you? I have already punished you and you have not heeded Me. I have brought fearsome warriors and flaming forces to strike at you and you have not obeyed. If I expel you from the land alone, I fear that packs of wolves and bears will attack you and you will be no more. But what can I do with you? The only solution is that I and you together leave the land and both of us go into exile. As it is written, ‘I will discipline you,’ forcing you into exile; but if you think that I will abandon you, Myself too [shall go] along with you.”‘
There are many strands of teaching in the kabbalah. Medieval kabbalists, for example, were wont to speak of God as the En Sof (That Which Is Without Limit). The En Sof is inaccessible and unknowable to man. But God reveals Himself to mankind through a series of ten emanations, sefirot, a configuration of forces that issue from the En Sof . The first of these sefirot is keter(crown) and refers to God’s will to create. Another sefira, binah (understanding), represents the unfolding in God’s mind of the details of creation, while hesed (lovingkindness) refers to the uncontrolled flow of divine goodness. Most of the sefirot are regarded as legitimate objects for human meditation; they represent a way in which human beings can make contact with God. Through contemplation and virtuous deeds, human beings can also bring down the divine grace to this world.
The greatest scholar and historian of kabbalah in this century was the late Professor Gershom Scholem of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Scholem, himself a nonobservant Jew, was fond of explaining how he became attracted to so esoteric a discipline: “My decision to study Jewish mysticism came the day I visited the home of a famous German rabbi, a person with a reputation for scholarship in the kabbalah… Seeing on his shelf some mystical texts with intriguing titles, I had, with all the enthusiasm of youth, asked the rabbi about them. ‘This junk,’ the rabbi had laughed at me. ‘I should waste time reading nonsense like this?’ It was then … that I decided here was a field in which I could make an impression. If this man can become an authority without reading the text, then what might I become if I actually read the books?”
As a rule, mekubbalim (people who actively study and practice kabbalah) are skeptical of men like Scholem, who studied kabbalah as a university discipline and not from a personal conviction of its truth. One mekubbal, Rabbi Abraham Chen, declared on one occasion before a seminar of Scholem’s students: “A scholar of mysticism is like an accountant: He may know where all the treasure is, but he is not free to use it.” A precisely opposite view on the value of kabbalah was taken by the late Professor Saul Lieberman, the great Talmud scholar of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In an introduction to a lecture Scholem delivered at the seminary, Lieberman said that several years earlier, some students asked to have a course here in which they could study kabbalistic texts. He had told them that it was not possible, but if they wished they could have a course on the history of kabbalah. For at a university, Lieberman said, “it is forbidden to have a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense, that is scholarship.”
Lieberman’s caustic comment aside, kabbalah has long been one of the important areas of Jewish thought. Ideas that many contemporary Jews might think of as un-Jewish sometimes are found in the kabbalah, most notably, the belief in reincarnation (gilgul neshamot). Between 1500 and 1800, Scholem has written, “kabbalah was widely considered to be the true Jewish theology,” and almost no one attacked it. With the Jewish entrance into the modern world, however-a world in which rational thinking was more highly esteemed than the mystical-kabbalah tended to be downgraded or ignored. In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in kabbalah, and today it is commonly studied among Hasidic Jews, and among many non-Orthodox Jews who are part of the counterculture.
KABBALAH AND HASIDISM
Kabbalah is a term that refers to Jewish mysticism. Judaism has produced many different forms of mysticism that range from deep theoretical speculation to purely emotional experience, or from esoteric secrecy to folk piety. All forms of Jewish mysticism, consistently appeal to scriptural authority, yet no mystical movement ever strayed further from theological orthodoxy that some forms of kabbalah.
One of the early forms of Jewish mysticism is called creation mysticism, which focused on the mysterious methods God used to create the world. It describes the creation of the world through the arrangement of particular letters and numbers. A key text in creation mysticism is Sefer Yetzirah “The Book of Creation” from the 2nd cent CE. A key word here is sefirot, which means “enumeration” and refers to the 10 attributes/emanations of God arranged in a distinct schema that demonstrate the mechanism through which God revealed and continues to reveal itself via creation as well as in the metaphysical realm.
This concept of the sefirot becomes prominent in Kaballah, which is the most famous form of Jewish mysticism. It flowered in 13th century Spain with the writing of a text called the Zohar (meaning “Radiance” or “Splendor”) which is a commentary on the Torah. God is known as Ein Sof and cannot be comprehended by humans but can be known and approached and revealed in the 10 attributes or sefirot. Key figures in the early history and development of the most common branch of kabbalah are Moses de Leon and Moses Cardoveros.
Another branch of centers around Abraham Abulafia (13th cent), and combines Aristotelian philosophy via Maimonides with mystical speculation of the divine names. It involves meditation on the Hebrew letters of names as abstract forms, which gives access to an experience of primal unity. Through this meditation, the soul unties the knots that keep it in the world and multiplicity.
Finally, another form is from 16th century advanced by Isaac Luria and is an intricate creation theology whereby creation originates via a process of self-emptying. In this creation process, God withdraws or contracts from a mystical space within himself to “make room” for creation or establish a possibility for a reality other than his own omniscient being. When God extends again from the contraction, there is a shattering of vessels and a scattering of divine sparks everywhere. Throughout the creation, then, are sparks of divine life.
Hasidism arises in the 18th cent in Poland as a revivalist folk movement. It is more emotional than intellectual, honors charismatic leaders more than rabbis, and emphasizes a joyful spirit and moral living. Hasidism centers around the claim that all people can have an experiential connection with God and can involve themselves with tikkun ha-olam “repairing the world” or recovering the sparks. Hasidism is sometimes called “kaballah for the people” not just the elite.
New Age religion has absorbed certain aspects of kabbalah and even produced its own versions of this form of Jewish mysticism. Indeed, many forms of kabbalah exist today in the West. More truly “Jewish” versions are pitched as a renewal movement within the faith, targeted to non-traditional Jews. The mystical notion of tikkun ha-olam permeates contemporary Judaism, and many see mystical versions of the faith as the best way to keep vitality and energy in the religion.
Other versions of new age kabbalah are controversial because of their syncretism (incorporation of magic, tarot cards, aromatherapy, etc.). They move beyond Judaism into the mishmash of appropriated traditions in “new age” religion.
Kabbalah and Hasidism:
The World of Jewish Mysticism
Growing numbers of Jews have become deeply interested in mysticism, specifically in the medieval Jewish insights, prayer practices, and solitary meditation disciplines (hitbodedut) that comprise the powerful and influential mystical way of Kabbalah (Qabbalah, Cabala). According to scholars led by the eminent Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (“received tradition”) began to be esoterically promulgated in the second half of the 12th century in the Provence region of southern France by a few leading rabbis—e.g., Rabad of Posquières, Ya‘aqov the Nazirite and Moses Nahmanides. Kabbalah emerged publicly in the early 13th century in the work of the Rabad’s son (Yitshaq the Blind) and in obscure texts like theSefer ha-Bahir. In Spain there appeared in the 1280s the most important “canonical” Kabbalist book, the Zohar. This mystical novel, now known to be a compilation of booklets penned and in parts even trance-channeled via automatic writing by Moses de Leòn, combined Torah, Midrash(commentary works), theosophy, homily and mythical fiction. Spanish rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-95), an extremely influential “ecstatic Kabbalist,” traveled through the Mediterranean as far as Palestine, teaching meditation methods, especially recitation of Divine names and visualized combinations of Hebrew letters. After the unconscionable expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492/1497 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Kabbalah’s primary sphere of influence migrated, first to Jerusalem, then to Safed, Galilee, where it flourished under the leadership of eminent spiritual masters Moses Cordovero (1522-70) and the Ari, Isaac Luria (1534-72), and their disciple Hayyim (Chaim) Vital (1542-1620).
Kabbalah combines 1) an early Jewish practice of visualizing theMerkabah or “Divine Throne” (re: Isaiah 6:3 and first chapter of Ezekiel) and Hekhalot or “Heavenly Palace/Hall”; 2) a holy white magic invoking the ten Divine emanations known as Sefirot, and concentrative meditation (kavvanah) upon permutations of the Divine Name, along with “unification” visualizations (yechudim) of these; and 3) a neo-Platonic contemplative meditation on the purely transcendental formlessness ofYHVH, the ‘Ayin (No-thingness) or ‘Ein Sof (Boundless/Infinite). The aim of the kabbalist (plural: m’kubalim), expressed in mythical terms, is to purify consciousness through piety, prayer and sacred intention so that the Divine “sparks” (neshâmah) in all creatures will be redeemed from the “shells” (kelipot) of desacralized existence and enabled to return home to God. Through this “raising of the sparks,” the Immanent Divine Glory or Presence (Shekhinah) is liberated from Her exile back into union with the sefirot-aspect of God known as Tif’eret. (This union is symbolically expressed by Kabbalists in openly sexual images of a bride coming to her husband, to the chagrin of rationalist modern Jews and mystics interested in the formless, transpersonal Divine.)
In other words, Kabbalah represents a radical way of clearing, sublimating and interiorizing attention so that one becomes a conduit (“pipe,” zinor) for a Divine field of blessing love and healing power (berakhah) that helps restore all creation into the radiant “image and likeness of G-d.”
After being covert for much of this century, known only to a few mystics and post-war Israeli scholars, Kabbalah in the last two decades has sprung forth from its hidden recesses through the increasingly public work of these mystics and scholars in conjunction with the curious diggings of Jewish Baby Boom seekers looking for a deeper connection to their tradition. Today Kabbalah, ranging from a purely contemplative practice to a rather superstitious magic (replete with amulets and omen-mongering), enjoys growing popularity among Jews of various camps, in Israel and the West. A survey by Ma‘ariv, the major Israeli newspaper, reported in Fall 1997 that 18% of Israelis, including leading politicians on the right, sought counsel from kabbalistic rabbis, most renowned of whom was Iraqi-born centenarian Harav Yitzhak Kadouri (c1890-2006), a Sephardic rabbi. Many believers carry Kadouri amulets, key chains and blessing cards. (Meanwhile, to rabbis’ chagrin, another 20% of Israelis consult fortune tellers using palmistry, tarot cards or tea leaves; another 11% prefer astrologers). Two months later in 1997, Time magazine identified Kabbalah as a “pop” trend in the USA, with some 200 small-scale programs of experiential Jewish mysticism to be found nationwide. World-renowned pop star Madonna embraced kabbalah—much to the chagrin of old Rabbi Kadouri, who stated “It is forbidden to teach a non-Jew Kabbalah.” With such notoriety, this variegated system received even greater exposure among the youth.
Just as in Christianity the return to a more mystical, meditative path has been in large part stimulated by Christians exploring Eastern spiritual paths, so also much (not all) of the impetus for interest in mystical Judaism has come from Jews who have explored—or seen many of their friends and family exploring—meditation-oriented traditions like Theravada, Zen and Vajrayana Buddhism, Hindu Vedanta and Muslim Sufism. In fact, with the Kabbalistic emphasis among Hasidic rebbes on meditation, reincarnation (gilgul neshamot) and the possibility for sublime union with G-d (devekut), mystical Judaism can strongly vie with Eastern religious traditions for “market share” in the case of Jews, especially younger ones, who might otherwise only be interested to explore these Eastern religious traditions.
Leading neo-Hasidic rabbis of our day bringing a contemplative Kabbalist Judaism to would-be mystics include, in Israel, Rabbi Joseph Schechter, who from the 1960s on led a youthful community in a meditative, purificatory Jewish spirituality drawing on Kabbalah, Hasidism, Hindu and Taoist meditation, parapsychology, etc. Polish-born Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who trained within the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Hasidism line, studied assorted non-Jewish mystical spiritual paths and in 1962 founded his quasi-Hasidic B’nai Or (“Children of Light,” now P’nai Or, “Faces of Light”) Religious Fellowship, headquartered in Philadelphia. Through this organization Rav Zalman introduced numerous American Jews to meditation and has become a leading liberal prophet of the Jewish Renewal movement in America, having ordained scores of rabbis and influenced many others. Rabbi Joseph Gelberman’s “Little Synagogue” Hasidic community in New York has also brought considerable Eastern spiritual influences to American Jews, resulting in a strong appreciation for meditation and mystical depth within a Jewish context. Gelberman, like Rav Zalman, has been quite active in the interfaith movement and in this way has helped fellow Jews to draw on the best of other traditions to enrich their own path of love for G-d. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man is a prominent, eloquent Kabbalist in Los Angeles, and Rabbi David Cooper authored a best-seller primer on Kabbalah; he teaches, along with his wife, a growing group of students in Colorado. More generally, the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel,Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Moshe Idel, Aryeh Kaplan, Arthur Green, Daniel Matt and Rodger Kamenetz have stimulated a revival of meditative Jewish spirituality among countless Jews and edified many of us lovers of Jewish lore who adhere to other traditions.
Significantly, disproportionate numbers of Jews are to be found leading and attending various American Buddhist and, to a lesser extent, American Vedanta and Sufi meditation circles. Some would put this figure as high as one-third, a figure that shocks traditional Jews, who consider any involvement in non-halakhah forms of religion to be avodah zarah, forbidden religious service, or even minut, apostasy.