Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism
Judaism has ancient mystical teachings
Mysticism was taught only to those who had already learned Torah and Talmud
Jewish mysticism is known as kabbalah, and part of it was written in the Zohar
Kabbalah and its teachings have been distorted by mystics and occultists
One well-known teaching is the Ein Sof and the Ten Sefirot
When non-Jews ask about Judaism, they commonly ask questions like: Do you
believe in heaven and hell? In angels or the devil? What happens to the soul
after death? What is the nature of G-d and the
universe? The answers to questions like these define most religions; in fact, I
have heard some people say that the purpose of religion is to answer these
kinds of questions. Yet in Judaism, most of these cosmological issues are wide
open to personal opinion. The areas of Jewish thought that most extensively
discuss these issues, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, were traditionally not
even taught to people until the age of 40, when they had completed their
education in Torah and
Mysticism in Judaism
Mysticism and mystical experiences have been a part of Judaism since the
earliest days. The Torah contains many stories of mystical experiences, from
visitations by angels to prophetic dreams and visions. The Talmud considers the
existence of the soul and when it becomes attached to the body. Jewish
tradition tells that the souls of all Jews were in existence at the time of the
Giving of the Torah and were present at the time and agreed to the Covenant.
There are many stories of places similar to Christian heaven and purgatory, of
wandering souls and reincarnation. The Talmud contains vague hints of a
mystical school of thought that was taught only to the most advanced students
and was not committed to writing. There are several references in ancient
sources to ma'aseh bereishit (the work of creation) and ma'aseh merkavah (the
work of the chariot [of Ezekiel's vision]), the two primary subjects of
mystical thought at the time.
In the middle ages, many of these mystical teachings were committed to writing
in books like the Zohar. Many of these writings were asserted to be secret
ancient writings or compilations of secret ancient writings.
Like most subjects of Jewish belief, the area of
mysticism is wide open to personal interpretation. Some traditional Jews take
mysticism very seriously. Mysticism is an integral part of
Chasidic Judaism, for example, and passages
from kabbalistic sources are routinely included in traditional prayer books.
Other traditional Jews take mysticism with a grain of salt. One prominent
Orthodox Jew, when introducing a speaker on the
subject of Jewish mysticism, said basically, "it's nonsense, but it's Jewish
nonsense, and the study of anything Jewish, even nonsense, is worthwhile."
The mystical school of thought came to be known as Kabbalah, from the Hebrew
root Qof-Beit-Lamed, meaning "to receive, to
accept." The word is usually translated as "tradition." In Hebrew, the word
does not have any of the dark, sinister, evil connotations that it has
developed in English. For example, the English word "cabal" (a secret group of
conspirators) is derived from the Hebrew word Kabbalah, but neither the Hebrew
word nor the mystical doctrines have any evil implications to Jews.
Kabbalah: The Misunderstood Doctrine
Kabbalah is one of the most grossly misunderstood parts of Judaism. I have
received several messages from non-Jews describing Kabbalah as "the dark side
of Judaism," describing it as evil or black magic. On the other end of the
spectrum, I receive many messages wanting to learn more about the trendy
doctrine popularized by various Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities.
These misunderstandings stem largely from the fact that the teachings of
Kabbalah have been so badly distorted by mystics and occultists. Kabbalah was
popular among Christian intellectuals during the Renaissance and Enlightenment
periods, who reinterpreted its doctrines to fit into their Christian dogma. In
more recent times, many have wrenched kabbalistic symbolism out of context for
use in tarot card readings and other forms of divination and magic that were
never a part of the original Jewish teachings. Today, many well-known
celebrities have popularized a new age pop-psychology distortion of kabbalah (I
have heard it derisively referred to as "crap-balah"). It borrows the language
of kabbalah and the forms of Jewish folk superstitions, but at its heart it has
more in common with the writings of Deepak Chopra than with any authentic
I do not mean to suggest that magic is not a part of Kabbalah. There are
certainly many traditional Jewish stories that involve the use of hidden
knowledge to affect the world in ways that could be described as magic. The
Talmud and other sources ascribe supernatural
activities to many great rabbis. Some rabbis
pronounced a name of G-d and ascended into heaven to
consult with the G-d and the angels on issues of great public concern. One
scholar is said to have created an artificial man by reciting various names of
G-d. Much later stories tell of a rabbi who created a man out of clay (a golem)
and brought it to life by putting in its mouth a piece of paper with a name of
G-d on it. However, this area of Kabbalah (if indeed it is more than mere
legend) is not something that is practiced by the average Jew, or even the
average rabbi. There are a number of stories that discourage the pursuit of
such knowledge and power as dangerous and irresponsible. If you see any books
on the subject of "practical kabbalah," you can safely dismiss them as not
authentic Jewish tradition because, as these stories demonstrate, this kind of
knowledge was traditionally thought to be far too dangerous to be distributed
blindly to the masses.
It is important to note that all of these magical effects were achieved through
the power of G-d, generally by calling upon the name of G-d. These practices
are no more "evil" than the miracles of the prophets, or the miracles that
Christians ascribe to Jesus. In fact, according to some of my
mystically-inclined friends, Jesus performed his miracles using kabbalistic
techniques learned from the Essenes, a Jewish
sect of that time that was involved in mysticism.
Ein Sof and the Ten Sefirot
To give you an idea of the nature of Kabbalah, I will briefly discuss one of
the better known, fundamental concepts of kabbalistic thought: the concept of
G-d as Ein Sof, the Ten Sefirot, and the kabbalistic
tree of life. This explanation is, at best, a gross oversimplification. I do
not pretend to fully understand these ideas.
According to Kabbalah, the true essence of G-d is so transcendent that it
cannot be described, except with reference to what it is not. This true essence
of G-d is known as Ein Sof, which literally means "without end," which
encompasses the idea of His lack of boundaries in both time and space. In this
truest form, the Ein Sof is so transcendent that It cannot have any direct
interaction with the universe. The Ein Sof interacts with the universe through
ten emanations from this essence, known as the Ten Sefirot.
Sefirot correspond to qualities of G-d. They consist of, in descending order,
Keter (the crown), Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (intuition, understanding), Chesed
(mercy) or Gedulah (greatness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (glory), Netzach
(victory), Hod (majesty), Yesod (foundation) and Malkut (sovereignty). The
middle five qualities are mentioned explicitly and in order at I Chronicles
29:11: Yours, O L-rd, is the greatness (gedulah), the strength (gevurah), the
glory (tiferet), the power (netzach), and the splendor (hod). I have seen this
passage translated in widely varying ways, but the Hebrew corresponds to the
names of the Sefirot in order.
The Ten Sefirot include both masculine and feminine qualities. Kabbalah pays a
great deal of attention to the feminine aspects of G-d.
The Sefirot are commonly represented as in the diagram at left. This diagram is
commonly known as the Tree of the Sefirot or the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
There is great significance to the position of these various attributes and
The Sefirot are not separate deities, as some might think by taking this too
literally. They are intimately a part of G-d, and yet they are in contact with
the universe in a way that the Ein Sof is not. The Sefirot connect with
everything in the universe, including humanity. The good and evil that we do
resonates through the Sefirot and affects the entire universe, up to and
including G-d Himself.
Readings in this area should be undertaken with extreme caution. There is
entirely too much literature out there under the name "Kabbalah" that has
little or nothing to do with the true Jewish teachings on this subject. Any
book on the subject of practical Kabbalah should be disregarded immediately; no
legitimate source would ever make such teachings available to a faceless mass
audience. Books written by Christians should be viewed with extreme skepticism,
because many Christian sources have reinterpreted Kabbalah to fit into
There is a nice online introductory Kabbalah course available from Aish.com at
For an academic and scholarly information about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah,
check out the works of
Gershom Scholem. He was a prolific writer on the subject, and his writings
are widely available and well-respected by both Jews and non-Jews.
For a more personal and experiential approach to Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah,
see the works of
Kaplan. I am informed that his books are reliably authoritative and
uncompromisingly Orthodox. I have found his materials on meditation and prayer,
Meditation, to be particularly useful in my own devotional practices.
Of course, if you are serious about Kabbalah, you must get yourself a teacher
that you can work with one-on-one, either online or in person.
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