Kabbalah: Fact or Fiction?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, emissary of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, has a reputation of presenting Judaism as a vibrant, spiritual experience and not merely as a set of laws and prohibitions. Carlebach tells the story of his visit to an Israeli army unit during the Lebanese War:
I met the I.D.F. chaplain and asked him ‘How is everything?’ And he responded, ‘Fine. The meat is kosher…’
“So I said, ‘If I wanted good salami, I wouldn’t come to Lebanon for it. How are the soldiers doing?’ ‘Oh, they aren’t religious, they aren’t interested.’
“So I said to him, ‘I’ll bet you ten dollars that if you offer to teach these soldiers something deep, like the teaching of the great kabbalist Rav Kook, that they’ll respond.’
“So I went out to the unit and walked up to the most coarse-looking soldier, and you could see on his face that he ate on Yom Kippur not three times but five times just to show you, and I walked up to him and I said, ‘Would you like to study Rav Kook, something for your soul?’
“His eyes lit up. He didn’t even know that Jewish people talk about the soul. He thought all we talk about is kosher meat and a yarmulke and other religious rituals. Unbelievable.”1
The Chassidic movement from which Carlebach hails has, for the past two centuries, concerned itself with a Judaism of the soul. In contrast to the rigid external forms of Orthodox Judaism, the Lubavitch sector of the Chassidic movement has popularized a Judaism of experience, a Judaism that is experiential and strives to be relevant and real. This movement, with its emphasis on soul-life, sits like a dwarf on the shoulders of another giant within Judaism—the Kabbalah.
Carlebach, Kook and others have applied Kabbalistic teachings to the modern Jewish situation so successfully that today it is seen by many as a new wave of Jewish spirituality. Celebrities such as Jeff Goldblum and Elizabeth Taylor and non-Jewish counterparts like Madonna have embraced it. (Rabbi Eitan Yardeni of the Kabbalah Learning Centre’s Los Angeles branch received thanks from Madonna on the sleeve of her latest album for his “spiritual guidance.”) What attracts people to Kabbalah? Why the renewed interest in spirituality of the mystical variety? Let’s look at what Kabbalah has to offer.
Key Concepts of the Kabbalah The Kabbalah seeks direct experience of and intimate union with God. It teaches that knowledge of the mysteries of the Divine realm are crucial to this union. Taking as its departure point the Hekhalot literature (see A History of the Kabbalah), kabbalistic thought was directed at achieving ascendant knowledge of the secrets of God and of his upper realm.
Ein Sof and the Ten Sefirot Sefer Yetzirah or “the Book of Creation,” describes ten emanations believed to proceed from God. “The sefirot are not merely external attributes of God, but are supposed to describe his inner nature on one level, and reflect his outward manifestations on another.” The Bahir also speculates on the nature of God, developing the theory that there are various powers and dimensions within the being of God. Even the divine realm is explored and mapped out and a “secret tree” is posited as the structure of God’s creative powers. God himself is conceived of as being ein sof or “the root of all roots,” a concept that gives expression to his transcendent and unlimited nature. As ein sof, God is also unknowable. He can only be known by his attributes as defined by the ten sefirot. However, the sefirot are not to be separated from the Infinite. “It is they and they are It,” says the Zohar (3:70a).2Together, ein sof and the sefirot comprise what Kabbalists term “the upper world.”
Beneath the “upper world” is our world, the “lower world.” (Later Kabbalists in Safed would insist that there are three worlds higher than ours, each with its own similar sefirotic structure.3) The lower world is a kind of parallel universe to the upper world, but whereas the upper world is characterized by perfection and harmony, the lower world is flawed and broken. Our world reflects (in classic neoplatonic fashion) the upper world. The physical world is a visible manifestation of that which is transpiring on the invisible sefirotic plane. Kabbalah claims that sin has caused God to withdraw from the world and this explains why his presence is not readily available to earth-dwellers. The Role of Humanity Kabbalah teaches that since people in the lower world are created in God’s image, every human being has an inner reflection of the sefirotic structure,4 a soul or neshamah which is a direct link to the Divine above. (In later Kabbalastic teaching, Jewish souls are considered to stem from the world of Beriah, whereas Gentile souls stem from Yetzirah, see footnote 2.)
It is on the basis of this supernatural link that Kabbalah teaches that human beings can effect the upper world. Every human action is said to have a powerful influence on the cosmic order of things. The great task given to human beings is to repair the damage caused by sin. This task is known today in Chassidic circles as Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, and the means to accomplish this are in doing mitzvoth, the commandments given by God to the Jewish people.
Lurianic Kabbalah formulated and refined the notion that the redemption of the world and the return of the Messiah would be achieved through the efforts of the Jewish people, with the Kabbalah as the key to those efforts. To support the mystical scheme, the literal meaning of Scripture was side-lined and place-names and people-names become symbolic references to the sefirot and their mystical functions. Systems of numerology were developed to probe the deeper codes within the Scriptures and to invest every letter with mystical significance. Whole communities in Safed, and later the communities of Chasidim in Russia and Europe would strive to achieve mystical perfection in order to unleash redemption and the return of the Messiah from the heavens.
Practices known as devekut or “cleaving” to God through mystical meditation and kavannah, or prayer with intense concentrated effort were used in an attempt to reach for communion with the distant Divine. These Kabbalistic moves, as emphasized by the Chassidim, have become prominent in the practice of the modern Jewish religion of today. Modern Orthodox scholars like Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Aryeh Kaplan have popularized Kabbalistic theology and philosophy as did the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. But the question that arises is—Is Kabbalah true?” Is it biblical? No.
Indeed, the whole biblical basis of the mitzvoth, i.e. holiness and the love of one’s fellowman, is redirected and redefined under Kabbalah. Whereas the Bible reminds us of our need to grapple with sin and to turn back to God in vital repentance, the Kabbalah teaches that the well being of God himself can be determined by human behavior. Kabbalah’s mystical constructions endow humanity with powers we do not have. It becomes a cosmic machine fueled by a religion of human works that can manipulate the Deity. “The effect of Kabbalistic theology is to thoroughly revise the notion of God’s autonomy. The function of religious observance has been redefined.”5 Instead of performing mitzvoth for their own sake, deeds are invested with a cosmic significance that elevates humanity to the starring role on the stage of world-redemption. This goes against the biblical message, which clearly teaches that God himself initiates and procures redemption.
Kabbalah vs. Torah: Redemption How? “We want Moshiach now!” is the current cry of the Lubavitch Chassidim. They seem to believe they have a right to expect him now because, according to their perceptions, more Torah is being taught and more mitzvoth are being done now than at any other time.
Perhaps the question “We want Messiah, but how?” needs to be asked. Offers of kabbalistically seasoned “soul-food” go out to attract disillusioned Jewish people who can find no real connection to God through traditional Judaism. But has God really hidden himself from humanity as Kabbalah claims? Is the Kabbalah the right way to find him? What do the original Messianic messages of Scripture indicate about the Messiah, who he will be, how and when he will come?…
What does the Torah say about the nature of God and how communion with him is possible? What does the Jewish Bible declare about the sinfulness of humanity and how to resolve its effects? Perhaps we would do well to listen carefully to the words of the Torah itself:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29)
It is with such simplicity and plainness of speech that Moses addressed the Jewish people before they entered the land of Canaan. In fact, the entire Pentateuch reveals a personal God who communicates with Moses and others in free but reverent conversation. The Torah shows us a Holy God, separate and high, but not unreachable. The Torah shows us a God who loves to be known and recognized and loved. It shows us that God does indeed distance himself from sin and yet he makes a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself, and for the effects of sin to be dealt with and removed. The God of the Bible loves to be near his people.
There are many mysteries about God and his purposes that the Torah does not reveal. Not every secret stone is supposed to be overturned. The intricacy of creation and the geography of higher worlds are not presented for human concern. Neither does the God of Abraham deign for us to know the mystery of his awesome and unique nature. Yet God has revealed all that is necessary for life and godliness, including serious warnings about the consequences of human rebellion and unrepentant sin. In Deuteronomy 31:17, God declared:
“On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and difficulties will come upon them, and on that day they will ask,’Have not these disasters come upon us because our God is not with us?'”
Adam and Eve sinned and they were ushered out of the presence of God. The nation of Israel was warned that they too would be exiled from the presence of God if they lived in error and disobedience. Sadly, these things have come to pass and our people have been struggling to understand why. Kabbalah grapples with this question all the time and uses metaphors and symbols to support its mystical answers. But what did God say to the very first person who held a complete Torah in his hands?
“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
God exhorted Joshua to take his Word seriously and not to add or subtract from it. God did not tell Joshua to find a secret code in the Bible or to delve into the mysteries of its hidden meanings. Joshua was to put the commandments into practice—to honor God and to respect his fellow man. He was also to learn the seriousness of sin as well as the need for atonement and heartfelt repentance before the Lord.
Sadly, the Kabbalistic philosophy of redemption lost sight of that exhortation which should still speak to us today. However, a look at the historical development of Kabbalah provides some insight on how its flawed philosophy of redemption came about. As we have seen, Rabbinic Judaism was itself developed in the aftermath of the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. The Temple housed the presence of God. Now he had left and had scattered his people as he had warned. The Talmudists were not mystical sages but earnest strugglers with the events of their day. They were men grappling with a problem: How do we continue being Jewish without the presence of our God and without the Temple? They retreated into tradition, rules and regulation. Later, when the Kabbalists of Europe also grappled with the loss of the presence of God, mystical yearnings for his closeness developed and eventually were codified and systematized. Gnostic beliefs were incorporated in order to explain God’s absence.
In Safed, the plight of the Jewish people in exile required explanation and so the mystical doctrines of the withdrawal of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) were offered. In a desperate effort to contact the Lord God, later-day Hasidim focused on mystical experiences, devekut and kavannah, in order to try and commune with the Divine and to usher in the Messiah to redeem and renew the world.
Although God promised Moses that he would raise up for the Jewish people a prophet of his stature and that he would put his words in this prophet’s mouth, and that the prophet would tell the Jewish people everything that God commanded him (see Deuteronomy 18:18), the mystics came to believe that they, not God, would be responsible for the Messiah’s coming.
But one main source of revealed, not secret, knowledge that the mystics missed was the clear teaching of the prophets that had been consistently sent to Israel before the destruction of the Temple. Throughout the pre-exilic period, God revealed in no uncertain terms who the Messiah would be and what he would do. He would be the one sent by God’s initiative to redeem the world through his sacrificial death that would atone for the sin of humanity. “The Arm of the Lord” would be revealed and he would be led like a sheep to the slaughter:
“He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted, he opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
The Messiah would come before the Temple was destroyed (Daniel 9:25). He would not be a distant, mystical being only reachable through arcane rites. He would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, where everyone from shepherds to astrologers could see him (Micah 5:2).
The prophets declared that the Messiah would be God himself, coming down in flesh to visit his people, near enough to them to love them and speak with them and show them his salvation.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
The Messiah would demonstrate his love for humanity in the most dramatic of ways; he would be pierced for our sins:
“And I will pour out on the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they shall look unto me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one is in bitterness for his first-born.” (Zechariah 12:10)
The Messiah would come to teach us how to pray, how to commune with the Almighty as “our Father” and to relate to him as his homeward-bound children. The Messiah would lead his people like sheep, back into the hands of their tender-hearted Shepherd, the lover of their souls. No secret knowledge would be necessary, no magical incantations, just faith and trust, love and repentance, the very core lessons of the Torah itself.
We all crave to have the mysteries of the universe unraveled to uncover the hidden truths. But God wants us to experience his nearness without running through a maze to solve a mystery. He sent the Messiah to make it very clear how we could be with God today and through eternity. Jesus told his followers that he would be going to prepare a place for them (beyond their earthly existence) and that they would know how to get there. Thomas, one of his disciples then asked him,
“Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had know me, you would have known my Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” Another disciple, Philip, then said to him: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” Jesus said to him, “He who has seen me has seen the father.” (John 14:5-9)
He who has seen the son, Yeshua, has seen the Father. The Messiah truly came, but the mystics missed him. Instead of looking to well-meaning but misguided sages for answers, consider the fact that God has revealed all in Yeshua who came to bear our sins, grant forgiveness and offer us a forever future where we will no longer “see through a glass darkly.”
“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall fully know even as I was fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Footnotes 1Practical Wisdom from Shlomo Carlebach; Tikkun, Vol. 12 no.5 p.53
2Abulafia, a Spanish Kabbalist suggested that the doctrine of ten sefirot was formulated in opposition to Christianity’s idea of the Trinity: “The Masters of the Kabbalah and Sefirot intended to unify the Name and flee from the Trinity, but they have made it ten!” Cited by Daniel Chanan Matt; Zohar etc.; p.20, see footnote 55 there. Whereas the Trinity is a doctrine that is argued for on the basis of Scripture, the “Decade” stems from kabbalistic conceptions.
3Moses Cordovero (d. 1570) submitted this. The Upper Atzilut—the world of Emanation, then follows Beriah, the world of creation, next is Yetzirah, the world of Formation and finally, the Lower world, our world, Asiyah, the world of making.
4The sefirot are not only represented as a tree, but are also pictured in the form of a human being, with head, torso, arms and legs, etc. Back to the Sources; p.325
5Back to the Sources; ed. Barry W. Holtz, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1984, p.325.