Kabbalah and mysticism

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Rationalism vs Mysticism

Rationalists believe that the ethical and religious-intellectual beliefs imparted by the Torah are attainable by human reason. Rationalism is “a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge and, in contrast to empiricism, tends to discountenance sensory experience. It holds that, because reality itself has an inherently rational structure, there are truths – especially in logic and mathematics but also in ethics and metaphysics – that the intellect can grasp directly.” [“Rationalism” Encyclopaedia Britannica CD, 1999]

“In the period between Sa’adiah and Maimonides, most Jewish writers who speculated on the nature of the Torah continued in the rationalist tradition established by Sa’adiah. These included Bahya ibn Paquda, Joseph ibn Zaddik, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Abraham ibn Daud.” [Torah, Encyclopaedia Judaica]

In contrast, mystics believe that human reason will not allow one to discover ultimate religious truths. Rather, religious truths can only be discovered through a mystical experience, a direct human communion with God. Kabbalists believe that this is achieved through annihilation of individuality, bittul ha-yesh. “Kabbalah may be considered mysticism in so far as it seeks an apprehension of God and creation whose intrinsic elements are beyond the grasp of the intellect, although this is seldom explicitly belittled or rejected by the Kabbalah. Essentially these elements were perceived through contemplation and illumination, which is often presented in the Kabbalah as the transmission of a primeval revelation concerning the nature of the Torah and other religious matters. In essence, the Kabbalah is far removed from the rational and intellectual approach to religion.” [“Kabbalah”, EJ]

What is the difference between Jewish mysticism, in general, and Kabbalah in specific?
Some academics use the term Kabbalah to refer to any form of Jewish mysticism, ancient, medieval or modern. But many use the term Kabbalah to refer specifically the Jewish mysticism centered around the idea of the 10 Sefirot and the 4 Worlds, which began when the Zohar was published in the 13th century. Although Kabbalah does draw on some Hekhaloth/Merkabah concepts, there appears to be little direct continuity.

Some recommended books on Kabbalah – and a few to stay away from 😉

Books on Kabbalah and mysticism p.1

Books on Kabbalah and mysticism p.2

Kabbalistic beliefs

Kabbalah teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the creator of both, but is Himself neither. But if God is so different than His creation, now can there be any interaction between the Creator and the created? This question prompted speculation on two aspects of God, (a) God Himself, who is unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God who created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind. Kabbalists hold that these aspects are not contradictory but complementary.

Some Kabbalistic Jews, such as Moses Cordovero and Lubavitch (Chabad) Hasidism, teach that the first aspect of God is all that there really is. Nothing exists except for God, and all else is an illusion. Depending on how this is explained, such a view can be considered panentheism, or pantheism. Most other Kabbalists hold that there is an aspect of God that is revealed to the world.

Kabbalists speak of the first aspect of God as “En Sof”, “the infinite,” or “that which has no limits”. Nothing can be said about this aspect of God. This aspect of God is impersonal. Kabbalists speak of the second aspect of God as being seen by the universe as ten emanations from God; these emanations are called”sefirot”.

The ”sefirot” mediate the interaction of the ultimate unknowable God with the physical and spiritual world. Some explain the sefirot as stages of the creative process whereby God, from His own infinite being, created the progression of realms which culminated in our finite and physical universe. Others suggest the the ”sefirot” may analogous to the four fundamental laws of physics. Just as gravity, electro-magnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force allow for interactions between matter and energy, the ten ”sefirot” allow for interaction between God and the Universe.

Our actions literally affects a spiritual world, which then literally changes our own world

Jewish mysticism ascribes a higher meaning to the purpose of prayer, which is no less than affecting the very fabric of reality itself, restructuring and repairing the universe in a real fashion. In this view, every word of every prayer, and indeed, even every letter of every word, has a precise meaning and a precise effect. Prayers thus literally affect the mystical forces of the universe, and repair the fabric of creation. This approach has been taken by the Chassidei Ashkenaz (German pietists of the Middle-Ages), the Zohar, the Arizal’s Kabbalist tradition, the Ramchal, most of Hassidism, the Vilna Gaon and Jacob Emden

Similarities with topics in Christian theology

A difficulty with this view is that the Kabbalah teaches that the Sefirot are not distinct from the Ein-Sof, but are somehow within it. The idea that there are ten divine ”sefirot” could evolve over time into the idea that “God is One being, yet in that One being there are Ten”. This would be almost the same as the Christian belief in the Trinity, which states that while God is “One”, in that One there are three persons. This interpretation of Kabbalah in fact did occur among some Jews in the 17th century. Rabbi Leon Modena, a 17th century Venetian critic of kabbalah, wrote that if we were to accept the Kabbalah, then the Christian trinity would indeed be compatible with Judaism, as the Trinity closely resembles the Kabbalistic doctrine of sefirot. This critique was in response to the fact that some Jews went so far as to address individual sefirot individually in some of their prayers.

Kabbalah had many other opponents, notably Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (The Rivash); he stated that Kabbalah was “worse than Christianity”, as it made God into 10, not just into three. The critique, however, may be unfair. Many followers of Kabbalah never believed this interpretation of Kabbalah. The Christian Trinity concept posits that there are three persons existing within the Godhead, one of whom literally became a human being. In contrast, the mainstream understanding of the Kabbalistic ”sefirot” holds that they have no mind or intelligence; further, they are not addressed in prayer, and they can not become a human being. They are conduits for interaction – not persons or beings. On the other hand, many Chasidic rabbis do speak of their Rebbe as being God’s will in human form, a theology that is considered borderline heretical by their rationalist Modern Orthodox peers.

Kabbalists identify the tenth sephira, ”Malkuth” (the Kingdom), with Earth or the world of perception. Each sephira emanated from the number or numbers before it, so in a sense the first sephira, ”Kether” (the Crown), created everything else. However, at least some of them attributed the creation of ”Kether” to the limitless light, ”Ain Soph Aur”. Some also called the light ”Ain” (the Nothing). Some Kabbalists interpret the names of the ”sephiroth” and ”Ain” to mean certain ‘mental’ states.

Early Jewish mystical texts?

Apocalypses of the 2nd Temple period.

These are reflected in books like Apocalypse of Abraham, Jubilees, Enoch

After destruction of the Second Temple: Heichalot/Merkavah mysticism, meditative ascents to the heavenly realms

The Hekhalot literature is the earliest form of Jewish mysticism. The word comes from the Hebrew word for “Palaces” – relating to visions of ascents into heavenly palaces. This genre overlaps with Merkabah or “Chariot” literature, concerning Ezekiel’s Biblical vision of a heavenly chariot, so the two are sometimes referred to together as “Books of the Palaces and the Chariot” (ספרות ההיכלות והמרכבה). The Hekhalot literature is a genre of Jewish esoteric and revelatory texts produced some time between late antiquity – some believe from Talmudic times or earlier – to the early Middle Ages.
Many motifs of later Kabbalah are based on the Hekhalot texts. The Hekhalot literature itself is based upon earlier sources, including traditions about heavenly ascents of Enoch found among the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Hebrew Bible pseudepigrapha.

(Pseudepigrapha are works produced after the closing of the Hebrew Bible canon but before production of the Christian canon, that are not accepted as canonical by Jews today. Some Pseudepigrapha is accepted in some Christian Bibles.)


Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation)

The best translation and commentary on this is by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Sefer Yetzirah”, published by Jacob Aronson. It includes the complete Hebrew text of all versions of this book, a clear commentary, and in depth discussions with helpful diagrams. From the introduction:

The Sefer Yetzirah is without question the oldest and most mysterious of all Kabbalistic texts. The first commentaries on this book were written in the 10th century, and the text itself is quoted as early as the sixth century. So ancient is this book that its origins are no longer accessible to historians. Careful study indicates that it is a meditative text with magical overtones. Talmudic traditions indicate that it could be used to create living creatures, including the Golem! The Sefer Yetzirah is a small and concise book, only 1300 words long in the short version and 2500 words long in the long version. The first chapter discusses the Sefirot; The second chapter is a discussion of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the 231 gates; Chapters three to five discuss the divisions of the letters in relation to astrology. The text was deliberately written in a fashion so that it would be meaningless to those who read it without an extensive background in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Midrash. To guide the novice, Rabbi Kaplan takes great care to introduce the necessary knowledge to the reader, making it accessible for the very first time to English speakers without a Kabbalistic background.

Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

The Bahir is one of the oldest and most important of all Kabbalistic texts. Until the publication of the Zohar, the Bahir was the most influential source of Kabbalistic teachings. It is quoted in virtually every major Kabbalistic work and is cited numerous times by the Ramban in his commentary on the Torah. It is also paraphrased and quoted many times in the Zohar.

The name ‘Bahir’ literally means ‘brilliant’ or ‘Illumination’, and is derived from the first verse quoted in the text of the Bahir “And now they do not see the light, it is brilliant [bahir] in the skies”, which itself is a quote from the book of Job (37:21).

This book is also called “The Midrash of Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana”. Although the Bahir is a fairly small book, 12,000 words in all, it was very highly esteemed. It was first published in Provence in 1176. Most Kabbalists ascribe authorship to Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana, a Talmudic sage of the first century.

One of the most important concepts revealed in it is that of the ten Sefirot. Also discussed are the opening verses of Genesis and their true meaning; The mystical aspects of the Hebrew alphabet; A discussion of Gilgul [reincarnation]; The 32 paths of Wisdom, and the Tzimtum, among other topics.

Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

The Zohar [radiance] is a classic of Jewish mysticism.  It is the beginning of modern Kabbalah, which centers around the idea of the 10 Sefirot and the 4 Worlds.
The Zohar is a mystical commentary on the Torah, written in Aramaic, and is purported to be the teachings of the 2nd century Palestinian Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai. Legend relates that during a time of Roman persecution, Rabbi Shimon hid in a cave for 13 years, studying Torah with his son; During this time he is said to have been inspired by God to write the Zohar. However, there is no real mention of this book in any Jewish literature until the 13th century. In the 13th century, a Spanish Jew by the name of Moshe de Leon claimed to discover the text of the Zohar, and the text was subsequently published and distributed throughout the Jewish world.

Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

Later (modern) stage of Kabbalah, as taught by Isaac Luria

(to be added)

Historical origin of the Zohar

(to be added)

Analysis of Kabbalah

Some hold that Kabbalah leads away from monotheism as it is dualistic: the belief that there is a supernatural counterpart to God.

(a) Some early mystics believed in a heavenly being called Metatron, a lesser YHVH (the lesser Adonai), that worked in concert with YHVH (the greater) Adonai. While this essentially Gnostic belief was never a mainstream trend within Jewish thought, some Kabbalists accepted it.

(b) Later Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar, more strongly affirmed dualism, ascribing all evil to a supernatural force known as the Sitra Ahra (“the other side”.)

The Encyclopaedia Judaica writes:

“The dualistic tendency is, perhaps, most marked in the Kabbalistic treatment of the problem of evil. The profound sense of the reality of evil brought many Kabbalists to posit a realm of the demonic, the Sitra Ahra, a kind of negative mirror image of the “side of holiness” with which it was locked in combat.”
[Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 6, “Dualism”, p.244]

One can find apologetics for this dualism, claiming that it is ultimately compatible with monotheism; some claim that this demonic realm originates “somewhere in the sphere of divine emanation – whether in the sefirah gevurah or (as in Lurianic kabbalism) in the more hidden aspects of the godhead.” Therefore, it is claimed, it is essentially a monotheistic belief. However, this is little different from the dualism inherent in Christianity; Christianity posits that there is both an independent good force (God) and as independent evil force (known variously as Lucifer, Satan, or the devil). Like some Kabbalists, many Christians claim that this dualism is compatible with monotheism, as the devil is only a creation of God. Similarly, recall that the classical Greek religion was polytheistic, yet the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus was in fact the father of the gods in the Greek Pantheon.

If we were to accept the argument of the Kabbalists who believed in the Sitra Ahra as an independent force, then we would be forced to concede that Christian dualism and Greek paganism are also monotheistic. However, these arguments stretch the bounds of the word “monotheism” beyond any recognizable form. The issue for monotheists is not where various god and deities come from; the issue is whether or not one and only one god actually exists. Classical Greek paganism, Zoroastrianism, classical Christianity, and certain adherents of Kabbalah posit two or more independent supernatural deities, and hence are not monotheistic.

It is my understanding that historic Judaism has always rejected any form of polytheism or dualism in any guise.
(c) Even without either of the above two concerns, a major Kabbalistic tenant in of itself has an inherently dualistic tension. According to Kabbalists, no person can understand the true nature, unknown nature of God. However, the Kabbalistic description of God as En Sof is far from the description of God described by Jewish religious writings such as the Torah, Tanakh (Bible), Mishna and Talmud. The difference is so great that it can effectively turn Kabbalah into Gnosticism, a belief system in which there is one god that makes Himself known to man, and another hidden god far removed from man’s experience.

Books on Kabbalah and mysticism p.1

Books on Kabbalah and mysticism p.2

External links

Concerning the Zohar and Other Matters: Marc B. Shapiro

A Flat or Round Earth, the Talmud and the Zohar