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WHAT IS KABBALAH?
THE CODED MESSAGE
What is Kabbalah? Nothing short of an answer to the questions of our universe and the ages. More specifically, Kabbalah is the mystical, esoteric side of Judaism that delves into a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) beyond its literal interpretation to provide us with information about the soul; the nature of God, Creation, and the spiritual world; and about our individual relationship to God and each other.
Kabbalah has received much attention in recent years, often in conjunction with the highly publicized spiritual journeys of celebrities or in magazine articles about hot topics and trendy movements. But despite the bantering about Kabbalah at cocktail parties and on talk shows, not many people know what it is.
Note on the language in the text: Although it is understood by Kabbalists that God is nongendered, for the sake of brevity and simplicity, I have used He and His to refer to God.
While from its recent popularity it might seem that Kabbalah is a fad, it has actually been around for centuries. The Hebrew word kabbalah (pronounced kah-bah-LAH) means, among other things, "that which has been received." It refers specifically to secret teachings about the universe and Creation that Moses received from God on the summit of Mt. Sinai some 3,000 years ago. According to Kabbalists, what God revealed to Moses was not merely the Ten Commandments and the story of Creation (Jewish tradition holds that God dictated the five books of the Old Testament — from Genesis to Deuteronomy — to Moses on Mt. Sinai), but a hidden blueprint for the universe: a kind of map depicting the source and the forces of Creation, as well as an explanation about the relationship among human beings and everything else in the universe, all hidden within the text of the Bible. Thus, Kabbalah is a mystical belief system about the world and God that goes far beyond the traditional theological teachings about the divine being and Creation. And, given that Moses was the person who received this knowledge and passed it on to us, one could say that he was the original Kabbalist.
All the questions that have plagued civilizations for centuries (Who are we? How did we get here? Why are we here?) are detailed in the Bible, according to Kabbalists. The Bible, essentially, is a code of the universe. The bestselling book by Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code, which finds prophetic predictions buried within the text of the Bible, is a sensational distortion of the concept, but it touches on the basic Kabbalah belief that the Bible is in fact a coded text containing the keys to the universe. It is, one could say, the original hitchhiker's guide to the universe, which answers all the mysteries that have baffled scientists, philosophers, and theologians for generations, and also provides a how-to guide for living in the day-to-day world. For anyone who would lament that "life doesn't come with an instruction book," the Kabbalists would say, "Look again." The Bible contains all these secrets, as well as instructions for personal development and growth.
The tasks, then, are to decipher the code and unravel the esoteric message within and, with the understanding gained from this message, to apply it to daily practice. Luckily for us, the early Kabbalists have already accomplished this first task. There are dozens of core texts and teachings, written by Kabbalists between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, that are the basis for Kabbalah learning today. In these texts, the authors have detailed for us their understanding of the world and the forces of Creation based on their careful reading of the biblical texts.
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
In addition to kabbalah referring to the secrets received at Sinai, the word also means "tradition," as in the customs, stories, and teachings that a people passes down through its generations. Therefore, when we use the word kabbalah, we mean not only the initial words or teachings that God gave to Moses, but all of the interpretations and practices that arose thereafter and were passed down over the ages from Kabbalah master to disciple in an attempt to decipher and comprehend the original teachings and achieve an understanding of God.
While the tradition of Kabbalah goes back for centuries, it has, for the most part, remained a relatively unknown and mysterious theosophy to outsiders. This has been due partly to the secretive nature of many of the original Kabbalists themselves, and, later on, to some mainstream Jewish leaders who alternately embraced and reviled Kabbalah over the years, regarding it as a slight embarrassment to Judaism — something akin to the Jews for Jesus movement — with all its unsettling talk of other worlds, God forces, and harnessing the powers of Creation.
For many years the study of Kabbalah was restricted to men over the age of forty. In some Jewish communities, other restrictions were added: Only fortyyear-olds with rabbinical training could study it, or only forty-year-olds with rabbinical training who were also married. The Kabbalah was considered to be too sacred and important for mere dilettantes, too powerful and mind-boggling for the innocent and unschooled, and potentially too dangerous in the hands of the undeserving. Without the benefit of life experience and maturity, the masters believed, one could find oneself adrift in Kabbalah's mind-expanding concepts.
Kabbalah is not a straightforward system like the Ten Commandments, which tell us succinctly to "Do this" and "Don't do that." It's a convoluted system of interconnecting parts similar to the universe itself. The ideas expressed in it weave and spin around each other, and it's easy to get lost in all the concepts that it encompasses. The structure of Kabbalah has often been compared to that of an onion. On the outside, you have the surface skin — the simple story of Creation, presented in a linear fashion. But as you delve deeper, you discover more and more layers beneath the narrative, until you see that it is actually composed of many complex parts and meanings. The story of the seven days of Creation and the Garden of Eden is the starting point. But from there, Kabbalah takes off to touch on everything in the universe — from vegetarianism to subatomic particles; from love and human relations to the union of God.
An attempt to maneuver through the maze of Kabbalah alone and without proper training, the sages believed, could lead to madness. The dangers of getting lost in Kabbalah can be seen in a famous story from the Talmud about four sages who went out to the Pardes (literally "orchard," but figuratively it refers to Kabbalah and the realm of the divine): One of the sages gazed at the divine and went mad, another one gazed and died, the third one became an apostate, and only one — Rabbi Akiva — emerged the wiser and more experienced; actually, it says, he "departed in peace."
Furthermore, to embark on a spiritual journey, to go in search of the soul without grounding or a guide, could make it hard for one to return and function in the everyday world. Therefore, a family and extensive training in traditional Jewish practice were believed to keep the feet of the Kabbalist on the ground. Groundedness is essential to Kabbalah, because there is no glory in getting lost in oneself, in taking flight in the spiritual world and leaving the physical one behind. Unlike some religious practices, Kabbalah does not denigrate the physical realm and urge followers to reject the pleasures of this world; rather it teaches that true elevation to the spiritual can only occur in the physical world. Paradise doesn't exist in the hereafter or in a far-off time and place; it exists here and now. Spiritual development occurs when we elevate the physical to the spiritual level by experiencing the presence of God in the world He has given us.
Another important factor in restricting the study of Kabbalah was the belief that the code of the Bible essentially revealed the workings of the forces of nature. Genesis, the Kabbalists believed, provided a recipe for Creation. Theoretically, anyone who studied the words closely could find knowledge of how to create life forms. In the wrong hands, such a recipe could be used for evil purposes, to manipulate the forces of nature or to manipulate other people. Indeed, at least one misguided soul by the name of Shabbetai Zvi, also known as the false messiah, did distort the ideas of Kabbalah in the seventeenth century, and thereafter he and some of his followers contributed to the cloak of distrust that was woven around Kabbalah, which has only recently begun to be thrown off.
WHY STUDY KABBALAH?
At a time when life seems to overwhelm us and we feel little control over the events that mark and direct our lives; when the scope of what we don't know about the world only seems to widen with every new discovery we make; when we conquer one disease, end one war, overcome one natural disaster, only to be faced with others, it is only natural that we would begin to question our most basic principles about existence and wonder why we are here.
In the last thirty years, many people in the West have been turning to the East for answers to these questions. In fact, many of the spiritual concepts and Eastern practices that people have embraced in this quest can be found in Kabbalah. Kabbalah's ancient and esoteric message rings surprisingly true in our universal age of searching and contains many of the beliefs that have been part of our understanding of the universe for years — beliefs about the existence of other levels of consciousness and reality, about the soul and the spiritual world, and about the presence of God in every person. Within the teachings of Kabbalah, we find aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, the I Ching, and Tantric yoga; we find teachings that touch on meditation practices, breathing exercises, numerology, astrology, reincarnation and resurrection, the energy system of chakras, and even the Zen art of experiencing the moment and finding awe in the everyday. But Kabbalah's concepts aren't limited to spiritual practices. Kabbalah has had a symbiotic relationship with philosophers such as Pythagoras, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and Derrida; indeed, as scholars like Gershom Scholem have pointed out, much of the cosmology of Kabbalah has been borrowed from Aristotelian and Neoplatonic principles. Traces of Kabbalist ideas can also be found in the works of Renaissance and modernist thinkers, artists, writers, and poets, as well as the fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
While it is fascinating to examine the crosspollinations that exist between Kabbalah and other systems and to delve into questions about who borrowed from whom, it is not our purpose in this book to decide which system originated which ideas. Many scholarly books have already addressed these questions in detail. Suffice it to say that Kabbalah did not emerge in a vacuum; it was a product of the times in which it arose, and the Kabbalists couldn't help but influence and be influenced by those around them and those who came before them. What these similarities might tell us, though, particularly those that appear in different times and different places, is that there are certain universal and inevitable truths that we all eventually find. If various people from various cultures arrive at similar conclusions independently, Kabbalists feel, this can only tell us that they are on the right track. Kabbalists believe, in fact, that we all have different paths to the same truth; despite subtle variations in the route, ultimately we all arrive at the same destination.
SCIENCE AND KABBALAH
Perhaps it is no coincidence that in this time of shifting theological borders, when Bu-Jews (Buddhist Jews) are growing in number and seeking a more mystical understanding of their existence and relation to the universe, we've arrived at a time in which the beliefs of the Kabbalists are ready for mainstream acceptance. Indeed, Kabbalists have long believed that a time would come when the world would be evolved enough to comprehend their teachings. It seems the signs are here. Faith and reason, in the guise of religion and science, have been at odds since the Age of Enlightenment. For decades, scientists and religious fundamentalists have butted heads over their theories of Creation, taking great care to never let science and religion merge. But we have arrived at a point in history in which the gap between science and religion seems to be narrowing. In the last few years, national news magazines have begun touting headlines such as "Science Finds God," and divinity schools have begun offering courses in "Theology and the Natural Sciences." It seems only obvious, then, that a change regarding our view of the universe and the meaning of life is in the works.
Science teaches us that the world is governed by forces and laws of physics over which we have little control, and we have made great progress in learning how to work with these forces to give us a semblance of control over our world and to make our lives comfortable. But what is the point of all this knowledge if all we do with it is create a better coffee or sport utility vehicle or make potato chips that we can eat without getting fat? Is this the divine plan? Olestra and Nutrasweet? The Sports Channel and Batman?
This is where Kabbalah comes in. Kabbalah teaches that we play an integral role in the universe, that we indeed do have great purpose and have great power to affect change. Everything we do has a consequence in the world and every act we commit in the physical world produces a parallel act in the spiritual one. Indeed, Kabbalists say that everything in the universe is interconnected: the universe is a whole, and we are an important part of that whole. As we evolve, so does the universe. It is an ancient spiritual belief that scientists have only recently begun to discover. A paradigm shift in the scientific world has at last awakened researchers to the idea that everything in the universe is part of a related and necessary whole. Scientific relational theories propose that everything, from the immense planets in the universe down to the small microbes in our bathroom sink, are connected in some way; that everything in the universe is dependent on other things around it for its existence; and that there are millions of sub-"communities" that support one another.
To Kabbalists, the discoveries we are making today are simply examples of science catching up with Kabbalah. Furthermore, science is beginning to acknowledge what spiritual practitioners have known for ages: that all the empirical facts about the world will never satisfy our human need for meaning and purpose in life in the way that simple faith does. Albert Einstein once said, "All who seek the truth in the sciences of nature eventually come to understand that there is a power above that is reflected in the laws of the universe." In the end, all our efforts to uncover the cause and effect of the universe will lead us to one conclusion: that God is the essential cause of all. Some time toward the end of his life, looking back on his entire career and everything that he had studied and discovered, Einstein was apparently asked, if he were just starting out, on what mystery he would now focus his talents and energies. What question would he now pose if he were beginning his explorations all over again? He replied, "Is God friendly?"
ORIGINS OF KABBALAH'S CONCEPTS
As mentioned previously, the beliefs of the Kabbalists are rooted in the words of the Torah. Torah, which means "teaching" or "law" in Hebrew, refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Books of Moses or the Pentateuch), but it can also refer more generally to all the holy writings in the Hebrew Bible, including the books of the prophets — Joshua, Ezekiel, Isaiah — and all the psalms, proverbs, and songs.
While Kabbalists examine all the books of the Bible, the Book of Genesis and the Book of Ezekiel are the primary texts they focus on, the former because they say it depicts in detail a very specific and hierarchical process of Creation through which we can understand the workings of the physical and spiritual worlds, and the latter because it presents an account of the Jewish prophet Ezekiel's "face-to-face" encounter with God, through which Kabbalists have gleaned information about the workings of God and how to attain communion with Him. By examining the words and images expressed in these books and looking for deeper meanings beyond their obvious interpretations, Kabbalists have developed an understanding of how and why the world exists, which they have charted out in a complex map called the Tree of Life.
Kabbalah, thus, is a deeper level of meaning of the Bible. It is often referred to as the "soul" of the Torah, and the relationship between the Torah and Kabbalah is likened to the body and spirit of an individual. When we look at a person, we see the person's external, physical self. But inside the body is the soul, which holds the essence of who the person is. Just as we are composed of an inner and an outer layer — the physical and the spiritual — so, too, is the Torah. The narrative Torah is the outer layer, while Kabbalah is the inner layer. And just as the body of a person clothes the soul and serves as the vehicle to carry the soul through this world, the words of the Bible are the clothing hat carry the ideas of Kabbalah into this world — they are the means by which we can comprehend the spiritual realm; they are the tangible tools that give concreteness to ethereal concepts.
Excerpted from Simple Kabbalah by Kim Zetter. Copyright © 1999 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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List of Illustrations
Foreword by Ira Steingroot
one What Is Kabbalah?
two A Brief History of Kabbalah
three Some Key Principles of Kabbalah
four Understanding Genesis
five The Tree of Life
six Practical Kabbalah
Numerical Chart of the Hebrew Alphabet
For Further Reading
Posted December 4, 2002