Read an Excerpt
What Is Kabbalah?
Be prepared for thy God, oh Israelite! Make thyself ready to direct thy heart to God alone. Cleanse the body and choose a lonely house where none shall hear thy voice. Sit there in thy closet and do not reveal thy secret to any man. . . . Cleanse thy clothes, and, if possible, let all thy garments be white, for all this is helpful in leading the heart toward the fear of God and the love of God.
--Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (ca. 1240-1291)
The very word Kabbalah implies something sinister and furtive. Cabals (see page 2) hatch conspiracies behind closed doors; cabbalistic matters are by definition dark and obscure. But what exactly is Kabbalah? If you have a smattering of religious literacy, you know that it has something to do with Judaism (though it is not a denomination or movement, like Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist). If you've spent any time browsing the shelves in the New Age section of your local bookstore, you'll know that it pertains to magical beliefs and practices, everything from palmistry, numerology, astrology, time travel, and reincarnation to summoning demons and raising the dead, but mostly to mysticism--the felt conviction that there is a sacred, underlying unity to the world and that the divine presence can be experienced directly, rather than through the intermediary of organized religion. To that end, Kabbalah involves meditation, ecstatic dance, chanting, and other practices that are reminiscent of Sufism (the mystical form of Islam) and many Eastern religions.
Are Cabals Kabbalistic?
Some people claim that the word cabal (meaning a small group of secret plotters) originated in Restoration England as an acronym for Charles II's hated inner circle of advisors: Clifford of Chudleigh, Ashley (Lord Shaftesbury), Buckingham (George Villiers), Arlington (Henry Bennet), and Lauderdale (John Maitland). Indeed, this group was referred to by that name, but the word had already acquired its meaning. It entered the English language in the early sixteen hundreds by way of the French, who took it from cabala, the Latin spelling of the Hebrew word Kabbalah, which means "tradition" or "receiving."
Type the word Kabbalah into an Internet search engine and you'll be directed to hundreds of websites expounding halakhic (meaning it's in strict conformity with biblical law), Chassidut (meaning it's in conformity with Hasidic beliefs and practices), feminist, and modern Kabbalah, speculative and practical Kabbalah, Christian and Gnostic Cabala, and Hermetic Qabala, to name only a few of the available varieties and spellings. Bearded, black-hatted rebbes teach "kosher Kabbalah" as an essential facet of strictly Orthodox Jewish observance; other teachers--Jewish and non-Jewish alike--explore Kabbalah in the context of Buddhism, Tantric meditation, political activism, and even ecology. Practitioners of Qaballah are as likely as not to be pagans or Wiccans. Kabbalah Centres all over the world teach Kabbalah as a "spiritual technology" that "creates order out of chaos," while healing the body and soul. The "New Kabbalah" endeavors to integrate the teachings of the medieval Jewish sage Isaac Luria (1534-1572) with modern secular thinkers like Freud and Derrida; a tiny organization in California is attempting to revive Shabbetainism, the seventeenth-century movement that believed that a kabbalistic rabbi named Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) was the Messiah.
Kabbalah looms large in high and low secular culture. It figures in literary classics like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (which was probably inspired by a Jacob Grimm story about a Kabbalistic sorcerer) and the visionary poems of William Blake (who would have learned about it through its Christian permutations, particularly in the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg), and in popular contemporary novels like Myla Goldberg's Bee Season. In 1997 a bestseller, The Bible Code, purported to use state-of-the-art computer technology wedded to kabbalistically inspired algorithms (see page 4) to derive terrifying apocalyptic prophecies from the Bible. A few years ago Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek's Mr. Spock, created a small scandal when he published a book called Shekhinah (after the Hebrew appellation for the divine presence), which featured his gauzy photographs of scantily clad female models wrapped in tefillin (leather boxes containing quotations from the Bible that Orthodox Jews strap to their arms and head for morning prayers) and talliths (prayer shawls). And of course there's Madonna, whose embrace of Kabbalah has drawn so much controversy and who has adopted a Jewish name, "Esther." The former Material Girl uses kabbalistic symbols in her videos, has written a series of children's books based on kabbalistic themes, and sends her daughter to a Kabbalah after-school program. We've all seen those ubiquitous red string bracelets (page 5) sold by the Kabbalah Centre, jewelry stores, and other purveyors of fine religious and fashion accessories--and worn by Madonna, Paris Hilton, Demi Moore, and Britney Spears in photographs.
The characters used for Hebrew letters are also used to represent numbers. When biblical words and passages are read as numbers instead of words, another level of meaning can be revealed. This has inspired an entire school of biblical exegesis known as Gematria. This practice long predates Kabbalah--its origins, in fact, are not even Jewish. The first recorded number-letter substitution was an eighth-century b.c.e. inscription of the Babylonian king Sargon II, which declared that a wall had been built a certain length to correspond with the numerical value of his name. One of the most famous Gematria can be found in the Christian Bible, in Revelation: When "Nero Caesar" is written in its seven Hebrew consonants, they yield a value of 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200, which adds up to 666, the so-called "Number of the Beast." The medieval German Kabbalists (Hasidei Ashkenaz) made great use of Gematria, in prayers and meditations, in commentaries on laws--and for making amulets and performing magic.
Many Jews regard Gematria with discomfort as something more ingenious than profound--if the numerical codes are elaborate enough (à la The Bible Code) the interpreter can derive almost any meaning at all from a given Hebrew text. In general, numerology plays a much more central role in Christian and Hermetic versions of Kabbalah.
What's with the Red String?
Stars like Demi Moore, Winona Ryder, Madonna--and even Madonna's daughter Lourdes--wear a braided "Kabbalah bracelet" made out of red string to protect them from the evil eye--"the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us," as the Kabbalah Centre, which sells the string for twenty-six dollars a length, defines it.
The evil eye is a common superstition throughout the Mediterranean region. It is believed to be a sort of curse that is transmitted, often inadvertently or unconsciously, when someone looks at you or your possessions (or especially your children) with envy. The Italians call it mal occhio, the Spanish mal ojo. It is jettatore in Sicilian, and bla band in Farsi. In Yiddish the red string is called a roite bendel. One nonsupernatural explanation of its efficacy is that it reminds its wearer to bear himself or herself with humility, so as not to attract envy.
There are biblical traditions associated with the red string as well. In Genesis, when Tamar was in labor with her twins Pharez and Zarah, the midwife tied a red string around Zarah's wrist to identify him as the firstborn. A red string was tied around the horn of the scapegoat on Yom Kippur; after the animal was killed, tradition tells us, the thread would miraculously turn white.
And there is an ancient tradition of wrapping a red string around the matriarch Rachel's tomb seven times. Properly blessed, this string is supposed to have powers to protect pregnant women and, indeed, to ward off the evil eye. In the Zohar, Rachel's tomb is explicitly associated with the Shekhinah, the Kabbalistic term for the divine presence.
Which of these Kabbalahs is authentic? Although there are important kabbalistic texts, there has never been one canonical "Book of Kabbalah," nor are there synagogues or temples that practice it exclusively (though Kabbalah plays a large role in all Hasidic sects). There is no formula of faith, no credo that boils it down to a well-turned phrase.
So what is Kabbalah? It is not simply Jewish mysticism. There have been many Jewish mystics who were not kabbalists; there have even been a few kabbalists who weren't mystics. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word kabbalah is "tradition" or "receiving." The name suggests doctrines that were received by revelation in the ancient past and handed down through the generations; also that its teachers transmitted it one-on-one to select students. Joseph Dan, the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, offers a fairly precise definition: "The
Kabbalah is a Jewish esoterical tradition of contemplation of divine secrets, believed to have been given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which includes spiritual expressions of a variety of disciplines and characteristics."
Kabbalists believe that if we learn how to open ourselves up, to think beyond the surfaces of things, if we master meditative techniques that allow us to break out of the daily world, we can experience the presence of God. By far the most important Kabbalistic practice, just as in traditional Judaism, is study of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses). Kabbalists believe that Moses' revelation at Mt. Sinai--the greatest of all "receivings"--is still going on today. Kabbalah teaches us how to read the Torah in the deepest possible ways--literally, to decode it. In the words of the great scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), who did more than anyone to bring the Jewish Kabbalah to the attention of the secular world:
[The Torah] does not consist merely of chapters, phrases, and words; rather is it to be regarded as the living incarnation of the divine wisdom which eternally sends out new rays of light. It is not merely the historical law of the Chosen People, although it is that too; it is rather the cosmic law of the Universe, as God's wisdom conceived it. Each configuration of letters in it, whether it makes sense in human speech or not, symbolizes some aspect of God's creative power which is active in the universe.
Kabbalists not only believe that we can commune with God; they believe they can tap into His divine powers. This is heady stuff. Misunderstood or applied inappropriately, this notion can also be quite dangerous. Whether or not you believe in the supernatural, the ideas behind Kabbalah can lead the unwary or the impulsive to heresy, grandiosity or insanity; if you do believe in the supernatural, then it's self-evident that the powers Kabbalah unlocks are potentially deadly. For centuries kabbalists, no matter how much they disagreed among themselves about other matters, were united in the belief that their ideas were not for general consumption (see below). Only stable, mature, educated men of unimpeachable faith and character were permitted to learn Kabbalah's secrets--some teachers required their students to be married men of at least forty years of age (age twenty was sufficient for others, provided the young aspirants had attained a sufficient level of learning). But that still doesn't answer the question: What is Kabbalah?
Kabbalah Is Not for Everyone
According to Rabbi Dennis Gura of the Kehillat Ma'arav, the Westside Congregation in Santa Monica, California: "G-d intoxication is dangerous. . . . The divine can, must be scary, frightening, dangerous." A parable in the Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 14b) is frequently cited as a cautionary tale about the dangers of mystical speculation: Four rabbis, Simeon ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya, and Rabbi Akiva, entered pardes or paradise (also translated as "the garden" or "the orchard"). According to the tale, Ben Azzai looked and died. Ben Zoma looked and was driven insane. Avuya "cut the shoots" (meaning that he despoiled the garden--the historical Elisha ben Avuya adopted the heresy of Gnostic dualism and abandoned rabbinic Judaism). Only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.
The interpretation: The four rabbis were meditating; the garden they entered was psychic rather than physical. Nonetheless, the dangers were real. Only the great Rabbi Akiva, a towering figure in rabbinic Judaism (born in 50 c.e. and martyred by the Romans in 135 c.e., Rabbi Akiva is regarded as perhaps the greatest Talmudic scholar who ever lived), was learned, mature, and stable enough to survive unscathed the direct encounter with the divine presence. Interestingly enough, Akiva, who started out in life as an illiterate shepherd, didn't even begin to study Torah until he was forty.
A Brief History
Narrowly defined, Kabbalah is a Jewish tradition that flowered in Provence and the Rhine Valley in the eleven hundreds, with roots extending as far away as Palestine and Babylonia and at least as deep in time as the second century c.e. Kabbalah sought to explain how the universe was created (and how it will end), how God is manifested in creation, and most important, how to experience the divine presence for oneself. By the twelve hundreds, the vital center of kabbalism had moved to Spain, where the great book the Zohar was "discovered." After Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in the 1490s, Palestine became the locus of kabbalism, especially the town of Safed in the Galilee, where the great Rabbi Isaac Luria taught.
By the seventeenth century, Kabbalah was so influential it had virtually become the standard Jewish theology. But in the second half of that century it suffered a major setback when a brilliant twenty-year-old kabbalistic rabbi known as Nathan of Gaza (1643-1680) prophesied the sultan of Turkey's imminent surrender of his throne to the Messiah, whom he had identified as an emotionally unstable, Smyrna-born rabbi named Shabbetai Zevi. When the sultan offered this would-be Messiah a choice between execution or conversion to Islam, Zevi chose the latter, devastating and disappointing those adherents who didn't follow him into apostasy.
The fallout from the Shabbetain heresy, as it was called, was shattering, but Kabbalah continued on, thanks to Hasidism, which began as a mass movement in Germany and Eastern Europe in the seventeen hundreds. Though once considered revolutionary, the Hasidim, with their Old World black outfits and separatist traditions, are now thought of as the most traditional of traditional Jews.
As the Enlightenment took hold in the eighteenth century, most of organized Judaism began to distance itself from the more exotic manifestations of mysticism. Reform Judaism was born and took on many of the trappings of Protestantism, frowning on the superstitions and excesses of Kabbalah. Jews who were gifted at numbers occupied themselves with physics and mathematics instead of Gematria (finding meanings in the numeric qualities of Hebrew words in the Bible--see page 4); the visionary passages of the Bible and Talmud were interpreted as parables and metaphors for ethical and moral teachings and the yearning for the literal Messiah was transformed into secular Zionism and a generalized sense of social responsibility. Not until the advent of the Jewish Renewal movement in America in the 1960s (a movement that melds communalism, feminism, political radicalism, and Jewish mysticism) did Kabbalah begin to reassert itself as a force within the mainstream of Judaism.
From the Trade Paperback edition.