IN JUDAISM AND THE KABBALAH
"But if you listen with your heart to one famous quotation, I am sure
that all your doubts as to whether you should study the Kabbalah will vanish
without a trace. This question is a bitter and a fair one, asked
by all born on earth: What is the meaning of life?"
--Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, Introduction to Talmud Eser Sfirot
All things of which this world consists, spirits as well as bodies,
will return to their principal, the root from which they proceeded.
--Zohar (The Book of Splendour)
Men find their happiness in religion and the world,
Deliver me from both; thus in my happiness,
To be enamoured of Thee, is my desire vain;
Drop then the veil, and let me look.
--Sarmad, Jewish Mystic
Throughout the ages, there has been a branch of knowledge, which focuses
on the domain of the spirit. Spiritual existence is that which is
never lost. The common core of most religions is devotional mysticism,
based on the Sound Current, Word, or Holy Name. It is rooted in meditation
(inner journeys) whether it appears in Judaism, Sufism, Tantra, Taoism,
etc. While science explores outer phenomena, the field of mysticism
explores the inner realms, which can be perceived only by our soul.
A study of the different major religions reveals that each has an esoteric
core. The essence of each religion is the union of the soul with
Mysticism is the study of how we can achieve this divine communion with
the Lord. Martin Buber explained that the ecstasy is not a sudden
absorption into the Universal Soul, but a steady progress forward, progress
which is constant and well-controlled. God pervades the entire creation.
The soul of man is a spark of Divinity and our principle duty is to take
the soul back to its source. This can be done by the power of Shekhina,
the equivalent of the Name or Word, which is described as the Emanation
and Glory of God whose presence and power sustain every creature.
The Masters or Zaddiks preached the banishing of all worldly desires and
merging them in a single desire to meet God.
The purpose of this introductory essay is to familiarize us with some important
aspects of the mystical tradition of Judaism. The Jews over the ages
have tended to discourage the practice of magic or practical qabalah, choosing
instead to keep their emphasis on love. Both Talmudic and Kabbalistic
schools emphasize the need of mentors or Masters, well-familiar with the
experiential territory. Nevertheless, an extremely useful generic
map of the in-scape of mysticism was developed in Jewish Kabbalah, called
the Tree of Life. Mysticism considers the human life as the fruit
of the Tree of Life, and encourages meditation to unite with God on the
path of Return while still living. It describes each of the domains of
the inner planes on the soul's journey back to reunion with God in its
true Home, Kether. Kabbalah is the study of the system of our spiritual
roots which emanate from Above. There is none else but the Creator.
According to contemporary Kabbalists of B'nai Baruch, "The Kabbalah
teaches the cause effect connection of our spiritual sources. Both
mankind as a whole and each and every individual has to attain his highest
point of understand the goal and the program of the creation in all of
its fullness. In each generation there were people who by constant
self work reached a certain spiritual level. In other words, while
walking up the ladder, they managed to reach the top. In the spiritual
world the main factor of discovery and comprehension is not time but rather
purity of spirit, thought and desire." The part of Kabbalah that
deals with the study of form without matter is totally based on experimental
control and therefore can be verified and tested!"
The kabbalistic imperative is to transcend the bounds of the ego.
"How can a beginner master this science when he cannot even properly
understand his teacher? The answer is very simple It is only
possible when we spiritually lift ourselves up above this world.
This is possible only if we rid ourselves of all of the traces of material
egoism and accept the spiritual values as the only ones. Only the
longing and the passion for the spiritual in our world, is the key for
the higher world. A person's main objective is to elevate the importance
of the Creator in his own eyes, i.e. to acquire faith in His greatness
and might, since this is his only possibility to escape from the prison
of personal egoism, and into the higher worlds. The method of breaking
free from the slavery of egoism is found in the Kabbalah. The worst
egotism is arrogance and conceit. Only those who engage in the study
of Kabbalah for self-improvement will benefit."
These kabbalists say we must reach spiritual levels in order not to be
reincarnated. We must perfect the parts of the soul, Nefesh-Ruach-Neshama-Chaya-Yechida,
physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Historical researches conducted in ancient Egypt have revealed that "what
was known as the worship of the Word" was quite extensively prevalent during
the times of the Pharaohs some 3,000 years ago. Moses, who organized
a successful revolt of Jewish slave sin that country and led them on to
the establishment of an independent state of their own, was brought up
in the court of a Pharaoh, and seems to have been quite conversant with
the worship of the Word.
(Excerpts from The Holy Name, Miriam Caravella, 1989, RS Satsang
According to the Bible, the prophet Moses communed with God "mouth to mouth."
This implies a personal experience of the Divine -- a mystic experience.
At God's behest, Moses brought the Torah -- the divine "teaching" or "revelation"
-- to the children of Israel. Thus the early Israelites also had
a direct mystical experience of God. Many of the patriarchs and prophets
whose lives and teachings are given in the Bible are described as mystics
who heard God's "voice" and "Word," who relied on His "Name," and otherwise
had direct communion with Him. According to J. Abelson, an early
twentieth-century scholar of Jewish mysticism, "Jewish mysticism is as
old as the Old Testament...The Old Testament scintillates with sublime
examples of men whose communion with God was a thing of intense reality
It is important to remember that the Hebrew Bible as we know it today is
not an exact and accurate rendering of the words of the mystics and prophets.
Contemporary scholars, tracing the styles of several scribes in its narratives,
have concluded that the Hebrew Bible is probably the work of several authors
of different periods, with differing purposes and levels of spiritual attainment.
Throughout history, scribes and scholars of all religions have subtly altered
the teachings of the mystics, albeit unintentionally. Because they
were not of the same spiritual level as the mystics whose works they were
attempting to record, and because they were often writing from memory,
these scribes may have unwittingly misinterpreted or obscured the mystics'
teachings. In many places in the Bible, therefore, the mystical aspects
or implications of the prophets' message may actually have been lost.
Mystics often couched their teachings in parables and symbols, so that
the deeper meaning of their words would be hidden to all but their closest
disciplines. In some instances, for example, where the prophets appear
to be speaking about political or social issues, they may have also been
speaking on a mystical or esoteric level, with the political or social
situation used as an allegory or symbol.
During the period of the prophets, the priestly classes were the primary
authority in Judaism. The priests performed specific religious functions
in the temple in Jerusalem, and in daily Jewish life as well. With
the destruction by the Romans of the second temple in the year 70 C.E.,
the role of the priestly classes began to change and their power started
started diminishing. The institution of the "rabbi" (literally, "teacher,"
or "master"), as the primary authority in Judaism, arose during the first
and second centuries C.E., becoming greatly strengthened during the period
of Islamic rule, and continuing until today.
The discovery of the scrolls at Qumran and other long-hidden early texts
reveals that, from the second century B.C.E. and possibly even earlier,
there were several ascetic and possibly mystical sects coexisting with
the mainstream of organized priestly Judaism. It is believed that
John the Baptist, and probably even jesus of nazareth, came from one of
these sects, the Essenes.
The teachings of Philo Judaeus, the first-century Jewish mystic of Alexandria,
Egypt, are of great interest from the mystical point of view. Philo
wrote about God as the Word or Logos. For many centuries, Philo had
more influence on Christianity than on Judaism, because until the 1700s
his writings were hardly known to Jewish scholars and theologians.
In the same spirit as Philo, the commentators Onkelos and Jonathan ben
Uzziel, in their Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, rendered the
name of God Jehovah (wherever it appears) as the memra, or "utterance,"
clearly a reference to the creative Word, or Sound, of God.
After the Bible, the second great written work in Jewish history is the
Talmud, which represents almost one thousand years of rabbinic thought.
Its foundation were laid during the middle of the fourth century B.C.E.
in the community of the returned exiles from Bab ylonia. The Talmud
exists in two versions -- one Palestinian and the other Babylonian (both
edited during the fifth century C.E.) -- reflecting the thinking of the
two academies of rabbis. Most of the Talmud is concerned with law,
but it also contains a good deal of moralistic, legendary, and mystical
The "Ethics of the Fathers," a collection of ethical and moral saying of
the rabbis of the talmudic period, contains some highly mystical material
as well. However, on the whole, from the period of the Talmud onward,
most rabbis were suspicious of mysticism. Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser explains:
Some teachers of the Talmud cultivated the mystical life...[but] while
recording the views of those teachers who sought to cultivate mystical
interest, the Talmud indicates that the religious authorities of the time
tried to discourage this tendency. . .In some instances mystical pursuits
became intertwined with magic, which was, no doubt, an additional factor
that inspired the effort to discourage it.
Contemporary rabbi David Blumenthal explains that during the talmudic period,
some of the rabbinic tradition rubbed off on Jewish mysticism, hence the
intellectualism or "bookishness" of Jewish mystic literature. He
says that the general concept of Judaism that we have today stems from
rabbinic Judaism. From then on, those rabbis who were devoted to
the mystic life tend to be secretive about their teachings and practice,
using esoteric symbols and stories that could be understood only by the
"initiated." But still, Blumenthal explains, during the course of
Jewish history there was often a give-and-take between the rationalistic
rabbis and the mystics; and just as mysticism tended to be expressed in
intellectual terms, often the scholarship of the rationalists became infused
with a suppressed mystic yearning. "There is hardly a symbol, act,
or belief in the rabbinic tradition which was not touched, and transformed
by the mystical tradition."
The mystical side of Judaism during the talmudic period and continuing
into the Middle Ages is represented for the most part in the heckalot
literature. Heckalot literally means "palaces," or "halls."
These works describe the meditation practices of Jewish mystic who were
attempting to take the mystic journey through the iner regions or palaces
on the merkavah, "chariot," of light and sound. The chariot metaphor
is taken from the mystic experiences of Elijah and Ezekiel in the bible.
Most of the works describing the merkavah journey were written between
the first century B.C.E. and the tenth century C.E. and are called the
greater and lesser heckalot.
Sometime between the third and sixth centuries C.E. appeared one of the
most powerful works of Jewish mysticism to survive till this day.
Only two thousand words long, the Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Formation")
is an attempt to describe the mystery and structure of creation by means
of numbers, and as such it is similar to the teachings of Pythagoras.
With a minimum of words, it describes the creation as series of emanations
from the one divine Name, Word, or utterance.
The concept of creation by emanation is also found in the literature of
the medieval Jewish mystics, many of whom were part of the Sufi mystic
tradition in Egypt and Spain. Sufism was a mystic teaching which
appeared in the Islamic world from approximately the tenth century.
The focus of Sufi philosophy was God-realization through mystic practice
and devotion rather than through intellectual pursuit or performance of
ritual. The Sufis emphasized the need to control the mind and senses
and eliminate the ego in order to travel on the spiritual path.
Jewish Sufi manuscripts discovered during the late nineteenth century in
the Cairo Genizah (a hidden attic in an ancient synagogue) have shed great
light on the close relationship between Jewish and Muslim mystics of medieval
times. From the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, Jewish mystics
translated and freely quoted from Sufi mystical writings, and some pursued
the spiritual path under the guidance of Sufi masters. Similarly,
during almost the same period, Jewish mystics in Persia and Turkey shared
a devotional spirit with the Muslim mystics of their time. Many read
Hebrew translations of the works of Rumi and Sa'adi.
The Jewish mystics in the Sufi tradition were sometimes called hasidim
("devotees," "pious ones"). Althought this movement, and the Hasidei
Ashkenaz movement which arose in Germany during the thirteenth century,
were not connected historically with what later became known as Hasidism
-- the ecstatic religious movement which began in eighteenth century Poland
-- they foreshadowed many of its elements, particularly the emphasis on
devotion, spiritual inwardness, and personal experience of God.
Bahya ibn Paquda of eleventh-century Spain was a mystic in the Sufi tradition.
His book Hovot ha-Levavot, "Duties of the Hearts," deals with the
life of the true "servant," the devotee yearning for the mystical life.
Solmon ibn Gebirol, also known as Avicebron, was Bahya's older contemporary;
in his mystical work Mekor Haym, "Fountain of Life," he described
the creation as a series of emanation from the primal source of light.
This teaching was echoed by many later Jewish mystics, especially the Kabbalists,
and parallels the descriptions of the creation given by mystics from many
Moses Maimonides, author of the philosophic masterpiece The Guide for
the Perplexed, lived in Cairo during the twelfth century. Noted
as a philosopher, physician, and rationalist, Maimonides was also a mystic
who stressed the possibility of direct spiritual experience through mystic
practice. His son Abraham and grandson Obadyah were mystics in the
Sufi tradition, whose works have recently been rediscovered and published.
The most renowned aspect of Jewish mysticism, which has almost taken on
life as a religious movement and influence in itself, is the Kabbalah,
which literally means "receiving" or "tradition." The development
of Jewish Sufism may have prepared the way for acceptance and growth of
the Kabbalah. The term Kabbalah is normally used to refer to a large
number of complex, esoteric works dating from the thirteenth century which
draw on the Bible, the Talmud, and other texts. Its precursors were
the Sefer Yetzirah, the works of Ibn Gebirol, and the twelfth-century work,
the Sefer ha-Bahir ("Book of Brilliance").
But when most contemporary Jews think of the Kabbalah, they generally have
in mind the Zohar ("Radiance" or "Shining"), the longest and most
influential work of the Kabbalah. Although it had been widely believed
that the Zohar was written during the more ancient talmudic period
by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, recent scholarship has shown that, at the earliest,
it was written in the late thirteenth century by Moses de Leon of Spain.
At that time, it was not uncommon for authors of religious texts to claim
that they had discovered manuscripts written in earlier periods.
Such works are called pseudo-epigraphic. They seek the authenticity
and credibility that come from authorship by an ancient, respected master.
However, although De Leon may have been the actual writer of the Zohar,
many scholars and students of mysticism feel that he was indeed compiling,
recording, and synthesizing mystical traditions dating from earlier times.
Clearly, many of the Zohar's underlying principles coincide with
universal mystic teachings -- for instance, the theory of creation as an
emanation from the original divine light; the concept of spiritual, astral,
and physical levels of creation; reincarnation, etc. But the Jewish
mystics of the Zohar gave expression to their mystic experiences
by linking them to biblical references and couching them in terms acceptable
to Jewish tradition. Also enmeshed in the Zohar are accretions
of legend, ritual, and superstition that reflect the influences of the
many cultures in which Jewish mystics and seekers lived after their exile
The Kabbalists maintained that God's real Torah, or teaching, is the Zohar,
and that what we commonly know as the Torah is a hint to the Zohar's esoteric
teachings. They felt that God gave the Zohar and other kabbalistic
works for those initiated into "the inner mysteries," and that the Bible
exists as a hint to those esoteric teachings. They often referred
to the Kabbalah as "the hidden science."
Most of the works grouped in the Kabbalah teach a theosophy or cosmogony
concerning the nature of God and structure of the universe. In contrast
to the Sufi teaching, they do not generally urge a devotional approach
in pursuing direct experience of and attachment to the Divine. In
this sense, Kabbalah becomes what the Indians call gyana yoga, "the yoga
of knowledge," where the Sufi or hasidic tradition is more like bhakti
yoga, "the yoga of devotion." As Bokser explained, the Kabbalah "proceeds
through an intricate web of esoteric symbols, and its offering is primarily
a gnosis, an esoteric knowledge which in itself is said to yield man the
highest rewards of divine commendation."
The Kabblah was an influence not only on the Jew; Christian scholars looked
into its symbols and allegories and found symbols of Jesus and his teachings.
The Kabbalah is also the focus of Freemasonry and other secret societies,
which have as their goal the discovery of mystical knowledge they believe
to have been handed down through the generation since the time of Adam
[the 'Lost Word" in Masonry]. According to the Freemasons, the Zohar
is the vehicle of the most profound religious mysteries, reveal only orally
in previous ages, to which hints exist in secret manuscripts.
Abraham Abulafia, a mystic and student of Kabbalah of thirteenth-century
Spain and Italy, taught his followers an actual system of meditation and
concentration based on combinations and permutations of letters and words,
with the goal of entering the inner spiritual realms. Abulafia was
excommunicated as a heretic by the orthodox Jewish authorities of his time,
and many of his manuscripts were lost for several centuries. Today
modern researchers have been successfully unearthing and studying them,
bring to light a lost chapter in Jewish mystical history.
Although some Jewish mystics claim success in following the complicated
practices of letter and word combinations and permutations, as taught by
Abulafia and other Kabbalists, there are many more stories relating the
dangers and pitfalls experienced within by practitioners. Despite
the dangers, however, some Jewish mystics continued to teach these practices
openly until the sixteenth century, when it became more expedient to hide
their use; and by the eighteenth century they had almost died out.
Since the 1970s in the United States, however, with the resurgence of interest
in Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, a number of seekers have begun attempting
these techniques once again, using old manuscripts as models and guides.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Kabbalists had gathered
in Safed, palestine. Rabbi Isaac Luria, who was known as ha-Ari
Lion"), was the center of this circle of Safed mystics. Also known
as "the divine Rabbi Isaac," he was said to possess "the holy spirit" and
to have been given "the revelation of Elijah," Luria appears to have transformed
the doctrine of emanation described in the Zohar into amore complex
system and also taught name and letter combination techniques for concentration.
During the seventeenth century, a Jewish mystic by the name or Sarmad settled
in India. Born into a rabbinical family of Kashan, Persia, he came
to India as a trader and experienced a spiritual transformation.
Sarmad is still revered throughout India, yet little is known about the
details of his life, and western Judaism is largely unaware of him.
From his teachings, however, we can see that Sarmad was a true mystic of
the highest order, a sauna who transcended the outer formalities of religion
and found the Lord within himself. He sang of union with the Name,
the inner divine music. Some sources say he converted to Islam and
then to Hinduism, but if one reads his rubaiyats carefully, it is clear
that although he examined all religions, he rejected their external limitations,
embracing the inner teaching which he recognized as only One. He
boldly sang of his unconventional love for the Lord and taught others to
do the same. Ultimately, in 1959/60 he was beheaded as a heretic
by Aurangzeb, Mogul emperor of India.
The most recent flourishing of mysticism in Judaism is Hasidism, which
appeared in Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, a time when Jews
were being persecuted at the hands of the authorities. There was
deep yearning for God to reveal himself, for a religious renewal which
would lift the soul out of the sufferings of the world. Hasidism
fulfilled this need and was the movement which quickly transformed Judaism.
During this time, many spiritual teachers appeared, who were call rebbes
("masters") by their disciples.
The first hasidic master, the Ba'al Shem Tov (literally, "Master of the
Good Name") was a simple, uneducated man -- the antithesis of the traditional
rabbi, who was generally a scholar and an intellectual. The Ba'al
Shem Tov communed with God internally and preferred the stillness of nature
to the synagogue. It is said that he was able to speak to and understand
the birds and animals. He spoke of seeing the divine Light and taught
his followers the importance of devekut, "attachment" or cleaving
to God at every moment of their lives. There were many other hasidic
masters, like Rabbi Nahman of Batslav and Dov Baer, the Maggid ("spiritual
channel") of Mezherich -- spiritual teachers whose legends and parables
are quoted even in present times.
At first the Hasidim were considered as heretics by mainstream Jewish rabbis
and the community at large; some were even excommunicated and their writings
put in herem, "quarantine," and reading them was forbidden.
Later, however, as the hasidic rebbes gathered more and more adherents,
their teachings spread and gained strength amongst the people. Nowadays,
the descendants of the Hasidim still follow the rebbes of their
respective lines, but the teachings have for the most part become another
form of orthodox ritual and study of scripture, though sometimes infused
with an intensity, joy, and fervor that reflect their true hasidic origin.
At the end of the nineteenth century there was a decline in mystical seeking
in Judaism, as the Haskalah, the 'enlightenment" movement, took over.
All over the world, science became the new god, and people rejected religion
-- especially mysticism -- as superstition. However, in certain parts
of Europe there were small groups of mystics who continued to study the
Kabbalah, while some hasidic lines maintained their integrity, if not always
the purity of their original purpose.
And still today, there are mystic seekers practicing within the boundaries
of traditional Judaism. During twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Isaac
Kook, Martin Buber, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and
others have emphasized once again the need for inwardness in spiritual
devotion. Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence in the study
of Jewish mystics of the past, and some seekers have attempted to follow
their meditational practices. This has led to examination of self
and tradition. As Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser wrote,
The mystical spirit that craves for a direct encounter with God, for
a fresh illumination of soul, is not content with pondering a tradition,
even a mystical tradition. To gain this boon the mystic must travel
the lone road of meditation, of struggling with his own opaque material
self, to break the barrier that separates him from God and to enter directly
into contact with the divine mystery.
Over the ages, mystics have used many metaphors to convey the state of
the soul's longing to return to its. source. Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote
of the soul as a spark of the divine light, from which it had separated
at the time of creation and with which it longs to be reunited. He
spoke of the lower self as a kelipah, a "shell" or "husk," that
encases our souls, our holy spark. Although we are truly spiritual,
our imprisonment in these shells prevents us from knowing and experiencing
our spiritual essence. The purpose of human life is to break the
shells and liberate the sparks, freeing them to reunite with the original,
eternal light. This state of restoration was called tikkun
-- "redemption" or "perfection."
The spiritual Master, the mystic, comes to this world to teach a method
of freeing the soul -- the spark -- from the shell of mind and illusion,
so it can merge back into God. This is the real unification, or yoga.
Some Kabbalists taught that each of the realms of Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah,
and Assiah was made of respectively higher and lower intensities of all
ten sefirot. They envisioned the ten sefira of the world of Assiah
as existing in the human body itself, with each sefirah corresponding to
a particular function or energy center of the body. The Kabbalists
used the image of the Tree of Life to describe the relationship between
the sefirot when manifested in the human body. In various Jewish
meditational practices, the tree serves as a diagram of the various steps
or stations a practitioner needs to traverse in the course of his or her
inner mystic journey to spiritual union. Similarly, Indian yogis
and mystics describe a series of chakras or energy center in the body,
upon which they meditate during certain practices of yoga. These
chakras have a direct correspondence to the sefirot of the Tree of Life
in the realm of Assiah (the Physical Plane).
All saints teach that the creation came from the Word, the holy Name of
God, the Shabd -- the divine energy of life, the divine music, the audible
life stream -- which activates the creation and manifests as sound and
light, emanating from En-Sof -- the realm of pure Spirit.
The goal of spiritual practice is to reverse this process of creation on
an individual level -- of the soul's separation from the divine source
and imprisonment in matter. Jewish mystics call it tikkun, "fixing,"
but Indian mystics simply describe it as the merging of the soul into its
divine source, so that it never again has to experience separation and
imprisonment in the material creation.
The purpose of the creation cannot be understood at the level of intellect.
The causal, astral and physical planes are composed of spirit mixed with
varying degrees of matter, and thus are subject to change and disintegration.
They are not eternal or true; love exists in limited quantities there,
but negativity is also present. In Judaism, man is said to have two
inclination or impulses: the good inclination (soul) and the evil inclination
(mind and body/desire nature). What is good or evil can be distinguished
easily, for one either moves closer to or further sway from the Lord.
Since the Lord, the pure spiritual being, is light, to obscure that light
results in what we call evil. Though in many respects evil is only
a lesser good an there is no such things as evil per se...it is but a show,
a lesser light. Whatever pulls us away from the Lord and realizing
Him within us is evil; whatever leads us toward Him is good. Just
as there is one Lord for everyone, so the soul which is His essence, is
one and the same in everyone. Though our bodies may differ, the spiritual
essence that activates it and gives us life is the same. We must
get in touch with the divine Name He has placed within us all.
When you examine the grades closely, you find that Thought, Understanding,
Voice, Utterance are all one and the same, and there is separation between
them, and this is what is meant b the words: "The Lord is one and His Name
is One." --(Zohar).
In the scriptures of all religions, prophets and mystics have used the
terms Name and Word to describe the divine power, the spiritual truth,
the manifestation of God in the creation -- sound and light within.
For more on Jewish Kabbalah, see B'nei Baruch: http://kabbalah-web.org/index.html
File Created: 8/9/02 Last Updated: 8/10/02