What is Kabbalah?
By Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria
Published in Balanced Living Magazine of Northeast Ohio, May – June 2007 edition
Kabbalah (pronounced ka-ba-LAH) recently has been made famous by celebrities, including Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Paris Hilton, all of whom practice contemporary mystical rituals, prayers and meditations based on its ancient Jewish mystical traditions, beliefs and practices. This Jewish philosophy describes the universe, the Holy One and humanity’s connection to both. Kabbalists believe that Kabbalah began when God gave these secrets to Adam, and that the insights into the essence of God come from the inner (or hidden) Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible—which God gave to Moses. During most of the thousands of years that followed, few people were granted the opportunity to study Kabbalah. Today, however, an increasing number of people from a variety of faiths are turning to Kabbalah in the pursuit of achieving a conscious awareness of spiritual truth, generally referred to as mysticism.
The simple, literal translation of Kabbalah from Hebrew is “that which is received” or “that which has been handed down,” or more succinctly, “tradition.” In Jewish practice the sages teach that when Moses “received” the Torah on Mount Sinai from God, he actually received two Torahs. The first was the “written Torah”—the same text written on every Torah scroll around the world. The second was the “oral Torah”—a deeper level of Torah not to be written. One element of the oral Torah is Kabbalah. The Zohar, the mystical commentary on the Torah written in 13th century Spain, explains the written Torah as the garment or physical appearance, and Kabbalah or oral Torah as the soul and true heart of Torah and all wisdom.
In a broader sense, Kabbalah has a universal element because it offers an understanding of life itself and the true inner meaning of the soul and God. It teaches self-realization and a sense of the Divine within. In The Mystic Quest, David Ariel states, “Jewish mysticism involves the experience of overcoming the barriers that apparently separate the world of God from the world of man.” Kabbalah offers the means to elevate oneself and live in a higher spiritual dimension.
Jewish mystics believe that God created the world using the blueprint of Kabbalah and the Torah. They trace Kabbalah back to the beginning of time and envision Adam in the Garden of Eden as the first mystic, and also consider the other major Biblical personalities—Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah and Ezekiel—to be ancient mystics as well due to their intimate connection with God and resulting knowledge of the secret wisdom of Torah and life. Although several of the classic Kabbalistic works are attributed to these Biblical personalities, they were actually written much later. Most likely, the first kabbalists lived 2,000 years ago.
During the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) transformed Kabbalah philosophically and through the creation of canonized prayers. Luria, also known as the Holy Ari or Arizal, provided a new understanding of Kabbalah, explaining that the universe was created by God’s contracting and leaving a space for this world. He described that God then sent a Divine light into this world and filled vessels with the light. These vessels shattered because they were neither perfect nor infinite as was God’s light, so they could not contain it. The world is not perfect, and life can be considered broken like the vessels. Luria taught that the mission of humanity is to repair the world, redeeming the shattered pieces and God’s hidden light in the world through prayer, charity and study.
Until the latter part of the 20th century, only a small, closed group studied Kabbalisitc teachings. Traditionally it was forbidden to study Kabbalah unless one was male, over the age of 40, married, grew a beard and found an appropriate teacher. Teachers upheld these requirements in order to protect the student because of the power contained in esoteric Jewish mysticism that could lead a person astray. The imposed restrictions ensured that the student was already well versed and grounded in all traditional Jewish learning and observances so that the Kabbalistic teachings would provide a deeper insight into the existing study and practice of traditional Judaism. Today, however, the traditional prerequisites for Kabbalistic study are not strictly followed.
Kabbalah provides a way to intimately reach and glean a higher understanding of God and one’s self. Although it is not possible to fully reach God—because God is infinite—mystics teach a specific path of channels that one must follow to become the closest. The Tree of Life is the visual model that one may “climb” to connect with God. Ten sefirot, or emanations of God, link the channels of energy in Tree of Life. The 10 sefirot are essences that describe a multiplicity of God’s attributes, from beauty and understanding to strength and mercy. At the top, the crown, called keter, is the highest level of intellect and consciousness humanly attainable, which is generally considered incomprehensible to man. At the bottom lies the kingdom, called shekhinah, or God’s presence in this world.
Keter: “crown,” enlightenment, humility (Total Consciousness)
Chochma: wisdom, divine reality, revelation (Power of Wisdom)
Bina: understanding, repentance, reason (Power of Love)
Chesed: compassion, abundance, love (Power of Vision)
Gevurah: judgment, boundaries (Power of Intention)
Tiferet: beauty, harmony, balance, truth, compassion (Creative Power)
Netzach: endurance, confidence, contemplation (Power of the Eternal Now)
Hod: splendor, grace, vulnerability (Intellectual/Observational Power)
Yesod: foundation, connection, coherent knowledge (Power of Manifesting)
Malkhut: “kingdom,” action (Power of Healing/Accomplishment/Level of Realization of Divine Plan)
The Kabbalists often visualize the sefirot in the form of a human body and posit that the feminine and masculine qualities of God must be united to truly understand the Holy One. Similarly, individuals have many attributes and qualities that can be out of sync or balance. During Kabbalistic meditation and prayer, one does not only seek to unify God but also to balance and unify one’s own qualities. Guided visualizations, spiritual journaling, meditations and yoga practices can help a person focus on repairing each of the 10 sefirot. For example, a person may choose to explore the quality of humility and selflessness of keter, the need of gevurah to set boundaries or chesed’s approach to opening up to share love.
By uniting one’s traits and body parts, one may connect with the inner soul and follow the overlying mission to repair the world. When there is balance in the world, then energy flows unimpeded through the Tree of Life and one can easily follow the channels to elevate the soul. Just as people climb the channels of the sefirot to elevate their lives to reach the Holy One, Kabbalists believe that God follows the same sefirot path from top to bottom in order to act in the world.
For more than 2,000 years, Jewish mystics have practiced meditation and chanting both within traditional Jewish prayers and outside those rituals. Special intentions, or kavanot, were added before any Jewish ritual was performed. Times were set aside for solo introspection as well as group celebrations with fervent dancing and singing at midnight, on nights with a full moon or the beginning of the new moon.
Today, Jewish mysticism has risen to new heights and opened new doors. Modern teachers have integrated the practice and beliefs of Kabbalah into traditional yoga, tai chi, Zen Buddhist meditation and chanting. Bookstores are filled with a variety of Kabbalah works translated from classic texts and modern interpretations, and most synagogues offer classes on Jewish mysticism. Jewish mystical ideas, Hebrew phrases and teachings provide practitioners with another pathway to find their inner peace, higher wisdom and secrets of self and the Holy One. Ultimately, Kabbalah is an ancient way to understand one’s spirit and a guiding path where one can find peace.
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria is a rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation (www.bnaijeshurun.org) in Pepper Pike, Ohio and can be contacted at [email protected] or followed on Facebook or twitter @rabbihal. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Rudin-Luria works to nourish a caring, welcoming and learning community as a preacher, teacher and counselor. He has studied, practiced and led kabbalistic meditation and Hebrew Tai Chi. Rabbi Rudin-Luria is married with two children and three dogs.
To Learn More
- David S. Ariel, The Mystic Quest, Schocken
- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken
- Penny Cohen, Personal Kabbalah
- Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation, Schocken
- Arthur Kurzweil, Kabbalah for Dummies
- Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, HarperCollins
- Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken
- Adin Steinsaltz, The Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Aronson
- Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petaled Rose, Basic Books
- Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, Morrow
- Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, transl. Daniel C. Matt, Paulist Press