I once attended a joint lecture at a prominent Reform Jewish congregation in New York by a well known scholar of Jewish mysticism and an author of mostly fiction who used Kabbalistic themes and teachings in his writings. The topic was Kabbalah and it was only three minutes into the gentlemen being introduced before someone’s hand shot up in the back, “Can you just tell us, what is Kabbalah?” An obvious question, however it took the two men the entire two hours to not even get close to a satisfying answer. By the end of the evening half the audience had already left in frustration.
Why is this such a difficult question to answer? Perhaps because if you ask two Kabbalists for their opinion, you get at least ten different versions of this mystique. It’s true, there is not A “Kabbalah.” If you happen to hear someone use the phrase, “THE Kabbalah says…” or “according to THE Kabbalah…” they are most likely speaking to their own personal take on it or their own private experience. To be clear, there is not just one Kabbalah. There are as many different versions as there have been Kabbalists who have left their teachings behind. There is the Kabbalah of the Zohar, having within it many different and contradictory ideas, the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero, and of Isaac Luria, the Kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia, and of Joseph Gikatilla. There are numerous interpretations and re-appropriations of certain common concepts, terminology, and symbology and even the aspects of a teacher’s particular method, that are completely original, are still considered Kabbalah. Which leads back to the question at hand, what is it?
Perhaps we should examine who were the first Jews to refer to themselves as Kabbalists. Most scholars agree that the Classic Kabbalah period is what was taking place between the 12th – 13th centuries in Spain and France and is comprised of writings from such Kabbalists and their circles as Rabbi Isaac the Blind and Rabbi Moshe De Leon. De Leon is believed by some scholars to be the leader of a group of Kabbalists who authored the writings that are collectively known as the Zohar. Circulated at the turn of the 14th century under the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second century C.E. talmudist and student of Rabbi Akiva, the Zohar is a massive midrashic meditation on the qualities of the Creator, the nature of creation, the wanderings of God’s presence, the origin of evil, and how God can be both the Infinite and definite simultaneously. The Zohar is certainly the most famous text that originated from this time and place but there were many other styles of Kabbalistic teachings that existed at the end of the 1200’s C.E..
Maybe, to answer the question, “what is Kabbalah?” we need to expand our perspective to include all forms of Jewish mysticism. After all, that is how the word is currently used, as a blanket term for all of the spiritual traditions within Judaism. We would then consider the mystics known as the yordei merkavah (the descenders of the chariot) those engaged in meditative practices to attain the vision of Ezekiel’s horrific hallucination. Or we might want to include the extreme ascetics of the Chasidei Ashkenaz, a pietist movement within the Rhineland Jewish community in the mid 12th century – mid 13th century. And we certainly would include all Prophets and Patriarchs, Messengers and Matriarchs who, according to scripture, experienced God as naturally as they would experience their next door neighbor. What they all have in common is an attempt to access the Divine by elevating their consciousness.
But, perhaps the best approach to determine the nature of Kabbalah is to explore what one could get out of studying or practicing Kabbalah. In traditional Judaism, after the Bible and the Talmud, Kabbalah is the third corpus of literature to be studied and absorbed. Maybe the question shouldn’t be, “WHAT is Kabbalah?” but rather, “WHY Kabbalah?” This can be summed up by the Lurianic idea that we are in partnership with our Creator in repairing a broken world, the macrocosm of the human soul, in which we are aimed at refining. Kabbalah is a spiritual science of sorts that when practiced properly it can help bring balance to ourselves, find equality between opposite extremes, and bring the practitioner to experience Divinity in the world, in the sacred and the secular, and to constantly be engaged in elevating Human consciousness. We can do this with and in combination of 3 approaches, or categories of Jewish mysticism: the Theosophical, investigating the esoteric nature of God and creation through deep contemplation, the Prophetic or Ecstatic, a practice of chanting and meditating on the names of God and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order to attain the state of prophecy, and the Practical, a magical and alchemical approach complete with amulets and incantations designed to change nature and manipulate the workings of the Creator.
It seems to me that today, there are really two approaches to Kabbalah; that of pure scholarship and that of pure practice.The experience of scholarship and practice within Kabbalah can be put on a continuum between these two extremes. Certainly the scholars following the research of Gershom Scholem, of the 20th century, have contributed in creating an academic approach, worthy of study in universities. For many secular or progressive Jews this is their initial access point. While in Chasidic and certain Ultra-Orthodox communities Kabbalah has never ceased to be studied and practiced, as it is intertwined with their strict observance of Jewish law and ritual. As in any continuum we find people in between who embody the qualities of both sides in varying degrees.
So, one may ask, “does one need to be orthodox to learn Kabbalah?” Certainly there are traditional Jews that incorporate Kabbalistic teaching into their worldview but there are also Jews with moderate to minimal ritual observance that have also integrated mystical doctrine in their practice of ritual and experience of the world. It’s likely that the Ultra-Orthodox will never embrace popular secular culture and this works for them. But, it seems that the secular world could use an embrace of Kabbalistic ideas to elevate consciousness and bring humanity closer to its evolutionary destiny, to work in perfecting a broken world under the loving care and supervision of the Creator.