If you are like me, you have heard of Kabbalah but are not exactly sure of the origin, message, and mystical traditions of the faith. I wanted to know more. Upon connecting with Stephen Weiser of Congregation Or Chadash, he was more than enthusiastic to provide the basics and show a path to discover more about the world of Kabbalah.
Stephen J. Weiser
We hear a great deal about Kabbalah today because of Madonna's highly publicized adoption of the ancient Jewish mystical tradition as her road to self-realization. Wearing red strings around the wrist and meditating on Hebrew letters has become the focus of spiritual seekers looking to find God and at the same time warding off the 'evil eye.' Madonna has gone so far as to change her name to Esther, the heroine who saved the Jews from genocide in ancient-day Persia.
Growing up in a traditional Jewish home, I had heard about Kabbalah. However, I was always told one should not attempt to study this mystical tradition until after 40 years of age. The Kabbalah requires a maturity and understanding of the Torah (the five books of Moses) as well as a study of the Talmud and other Jewish books considered as the word of God. At many times in my life, I attempted the self-study of Kabbalah, buying books and attempting meditation techniques associated with its practices. Again and again, I found it impossible to enter the realm of the Kabbalah because it is not a simplistic approach to enlightenment. On the contrary, Kabbalah is extremely esoteric and is a study that one should not attempt on his or her own.
So what is Kabbalah? The term Kabbalah in Hebrew literally means 'to receive' and it also means 'tradition' or 'received knowledge.' Mysticism and mystical experiences have been a part of Judaism since the earliest days. The Torah contains many stories 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.
One starting point for the study of the Kabbalah is on the tree of life and the sefirot which describes the essense of God known as the Ein Sof, which in Hebrew is translated as 'without end.' According to Kabbalah, the true essence of God is so transcendent that it cannot be described, except with reference to what it is not. The Ein Sof encompasses the idea that God is without boundaries and cannot be understood within 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, known as the Ten Sefirot. This Kabbalist oral tradition contended that God is perceivable as 10 different potencies or forms of light (known collectively as the sefirot). Because each one of the 10 sefirot has Hebrew characters associated with it, the Kabbalah provides a method for interpreting the hidden meanings of the scriptures, and Kabbalism aims primarily to decrypt the Torah using these keys. Kabbalists believe the Torah is God itself, and that an infinite store of wisdom can be uncovered only through Torah study and prayer.
These Sefirot correspond to qualities of God. They consist of, in descending order, Keter (the crown), Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (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 Lord, is the greatness (gedulah), the strength (gevurah), the glory (tiferet), the power (netzach), and the splendor (hod). The Ten Sefirot include both masculine and feminine qualities. Kabbalah pays a great deal of attention to the feminine aspects of God. The Sefirot are commonly represented in a diagram as the Tree of the Sefirot or the Tree of Life. There is great significance to the position of these various attributes and their interconnectedness.
My advice to anyone interested in the study of Kabballah is not to go it alone. It is powerful and without a knowledgeable guide one may become confused and overwhelmed. Further, while the popular approaches to Kabballah may provide for some a path to spiritual transformation, I recommend getting down to the basics through the study of such texts as the Zohar offered through local synagogues and Jewish teaching institutions such as Spertus College on Michigan Avenue.
Congregation Or Chadash offers classes on Kabbalah. Rabbi Laurence Edwards leads Kabbalah: A Quick Dip in the Ocean, a two-session introduction, followed by a more in-depth class in Spring 2005. For more, e-mail Office@OrChadash.org or visit www.OrChadash.org .
Stephen Weiser is co-President of Congregation Or Chadash, an attorney specializing in healthcare law, and assistant general counsel at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. He lives with his life partner, Andrew Deppe and together they share a spiritual commitment to healing. Weiser would like to acknowledge the following source: Judaism 101: Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism, Tracey R Rich, Webmaster@JewFAQ.org .,5757-5761 (1996-2001).