Jewish Mysticism: Kabbalah

Sunday, April 26, 2009

By the middle ages, different techniques were employed to achieve superior knowledge deemed unattainable for natural processes. For instance, some people resorted to meditating on divine names as a means of achieving some contact with the deity. The most famous system of mystical contemplation in Judaism is known as Kabbalah.

Kabbalah is the Hebrew word for “tradition”. Whereas the rabbis employed the word Kabbalah to mean the legal tradition, going back to Moses, the mystics opted this phrase to suggest a more hidden tradition. This tradition was passes on to the worthy, not to everyone.

Kabbalah addresses the nature of the deity. It distinguishes between God as He is, what we would call the essence of God; and God as he manifests himself in this world. Kabbalah would say is that the essential God is unknowable. The phrase that they use in Hebrew is the Ein Sof, the limitless. This is something beyond human comprehension.

God’s manifestations descend to us through a series of powers from within the Godhead.These ten powers are known as Sefirot. These Sefirot serve as a sort of bridge between the limitless aspect of God and our imperfect reality. Each of the Sefirot has a name corresponding to the various attributes of God. The attributes are named:

  1. Crown
  2. Wisdom
  3. Understanding
  4. Loving kindness
  5. Strength
  6. Beauty
  7. Victory
  8. Glory
  9. Power
  10. Kingdom
These are frequently laid out in diagrams. There are sexual overtones to the relationship between the various Sefirot. Some of them are of male nature and others of a female nature. They create a completeness.

The Zohar

The classic Kabbalistic text is called the Zohar. It appears to be a commentary to the Torah, but it is way beyond that. This book has a very strange history to it. No one really knew when it was written. It appears in 13th century Spain for the first time. Traditionalists would claim that it was written by the rabbis of Galilee in the second century C.E. In particular by one rabbi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.

Ultimately, the Zohar was printed in the 16th century and it became an extremely influential work, although many Kabbalists were actually unhappy with that. They thought that the dissemination of the Zohar among the masses was very dangerous. This is a sort of secret knowledge that should not be accessible to everyone.

Kabbalistic teaching received a further stimulation through the teaching and influence of a rabbi known as Isaac Luria. He is commonly referred to as the Ari. He was a man who lived his final years in 16th century Safed, in Galilee. Luria introduced new ideas into Kabbalah, primarily connected to the nature of the cosmos. God, he claimed, originally had withdrawn into himself, leaving a void, out of which primordial man and the Sefirot were created.

What would ensue now is an ongoing process of God’s withdrawal and emanation. This ongoing process would have practical implications in the nature of the world and the vicissitudes taking place within the Jewish world. They would link the historical development of Israel with the theological development of the deity.

A New Hope in Kabbalah

In the aftermath of the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, many Jews accepted a mystical explanation of their recent catastrophe. This Kabbalistic teaching offered them, if it was presented properly, some sort of hope. The spread of Kabbalah had major social repercussions among Jewish communities.

Kabbalah offered an alternative system of spirituality. What was the existing one? The traditional commitment to Rabbinic studies. For many people that was not satisfying. They were looking for a spiritual, inner link to the truth. This alternative later encouraged the appearance of different communal contexts. Most notably, the emergence of Hasidism. This movement was based on the notion that God is pervasive and that he requires a constant attachment to him through constant prayer. This cleaving is a behavioral phenomenon, it is not an intellectual study. This intellectual study was the main occupation of the traditional Rabbinic world.

Some scholars have also drawn connections between the political ramifications of a Lurianic Kabbalah and the appearance of a false messianic figure, Sabbatai Zevi. He claimed that at certain times one has to go to the depth of sinning, and then, from there, arise and bring about a certain redemption.

We find that there are two parallel worlds: the philosophical-intellectual world and the mystical-Kabbalistic world. These two are operating simultaneously. Clearly, different people plugged in to one or another of these disciplines.

Historians' History

As we enter modernity, we find scholars choosing sides. At different stages of modern Jewish scholarship, one or the other of these two worlds has the upper hand. In the 19th century, when histories of Judaism were being produced in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, the hero of Judaic scholars was Maimonides. When you read the histories that were produced for the first time, you find that, for them, intellectual Judaism was the standard. They felt that this was the norm. This was the proper presentation of Judaism. They considered mysticism and Kabbalah, and the results of that type of activity, primitive and superstitious.

When we enter the 20th century, things change radically. One of the great scholars of Judaism of the 20th century was named Gershom Scholem. He was a professor of Mysticism and Kabbalah at the Hebrew University. Scholem uncovered a whole world of mystical texts that had never been studied systematically.

Scholem claimed that Kabbalah was far more central that what people ever imagined. He claimed it was a dominant force within mainstream Judaism, and not just something that a few mystics attached themselves to. He managed to convince many scholars that maybe we’ve been reading the wrong texts. Maybe, to really understand Jewish history, we have to address these elements of Jewish theology.

These last 50 years, people began addressing all of Jewish literature. For instance, we know today that Jews were involved in magic throughout history. This was the type of activity that the Talmud would had frowned at. Clearly, this was part of some Jewish behavior.

I think the conclusion is that there is no one normative type of Judaism. We should look at it from each point of view.