What is Kabbalah?

Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis

Kabbalah (also spelled Kabalah, Cabala, Qabala)—sometimes translated as “mysticism” or “occult knowledge—is a part of Jewish tradition that deals with the essence of God. Whether it entails a sacred text, an experience, or the way things work, Kabbalists believe that God moves in mysterious ways. However, Kabbalists also believe that true knowledge and understanding of that inner, mysterious process is obtainable, and through that knowledge, the greatest intimacy with God can be attained.

The Zohar, a collection of written, mystical commentaries on the Torah, is considered to be the underpinning of Kabbalah.  Written in medieval Aramaic and medieval Hebrew, the Zohar is intended to guide Kabbalists in their spiritual journey, helping them attain the greater levels of connectedness with God that they desire. 

Kabbalistic thought often is considered Jewish mysticism.  Its practitioners tend to view the Creator and the Creation as a continuum, rather than as discrete entities, and they desire to experience intimacy with God.  This desire is especially intense because of the powerful mystical sense of kinship that Kabbalists believe exists between God and humanity. Within the soul of every individual is a hidden part of God that is wait­ing to be revealed. Even mystics who refuse to describe such a fusion of God and man so boldly, still find the whole of Creation suffused in divinity, breaking down distinctions between God and the universe. Thus, the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero writes, “The essence of divin­ity is found in every single thing, nothing but It exists….It exists in each existent.”  

There are three dimensions to almost all forms of Jewish mysticism, which are likely to be understood by only small numbers of people who possess specialized knowledge or interest in the topic: 

  • The investigative
  • The experiential
  • The practical

The investigative aspect of Kabbalah in­volves searching the hidden reality of the universe for secret knowledge about its origins and its organization—a quest that is more esoteric than mystical.  In Jewish tradition, there are three ways esoteric knowledge can be obtained:

  1. By interpreting sacred texts to uncover nistar (“hidden” meaning)
  2. By oral transmission of tradition from a Kab­balistic master
  3. By direct reve­lation, which might include visitation by an angel or Elijah, spirit possession, or other supra-rational experience

Although it is primarily interested in metaphysics, things “beyond” the physical universe, investigative Kabbalah is not anti-rational. All Jewish mystical/esoteric traditions adopt the language of, and expand upon, the philosophic and even scientific ideas of their time.

The experiential dimension of Kabbalah involves the actual quest for mystical experience: a direct, intuitive, unmediated encounter with a close but concealed Deity. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, mystics “...want to taste the whole wheat of spirit before it is ground by the millstones of reason.” Mystics specifically seek the ec­static experience of God, not merely knowledge about God. In their quest to encounter God, Jewish mystics live spiritually disciplined lives. Although neither formal nor informal monasticism is sanctioned by Jewish mysticism, experiential Kabbalists tend to be ascetics. Nonetheless, Juda­ism keeps its mystics grounded, and they are expected to marry, raise a family, and fulfill all customary communal religious obligations.  Therefore, many willfully expand the sphere of their religious practice beyond what tradition requires, creating hanganot, personal daily devo­tional practices. In his will, one Kabbalist recommended this regime to his sons: peri­ods of morning, afternoon, evening, and midnight prayer, two hours devoted to the Bible, four and a half to Talmud, two to ethical and mystical texts, and two to other Jewish texts, as well as one and a half hours to daily care, time to make a living – and five hours to sleep!

The practical dimension of Kabbalah involves rituals for gaining and exercising power to effect change in our world and in the celestial worlds beyond ours. This power is generated by performing commandments, summon­ing and controlling angelic and demonic forces, and otherwise tapping into the supernatural energies present in Creation. The practical aspect of Kabbalah furthers God’s intention in the world, advancing good, subduing evil, healing, and mending. The true master of this art fulfills the human potential to be a co-creator with God.

Historians of Judaism identify many schools of Jewish esotericism across time, each with its own unique interests and beliefs. Technically, the term “Kabbalah” applies only to writings that emerged in medieval Spain and southern France beginning in the 13th century. Beyond academia, however, the term “Kabbalah” is a catchall for all forms of Jewish esotericism. 

As noted above, Jewish mystics are not like monks or hermits. Kabbalists tend to be part of social circles rather than lone seekers. With few exceptions, such as the wandering mystic Abraham Abulafia, esoterically inclined Jews tend to congregate in mystical as­sociations, and it is not unusual for a single master to bring forth a new and innovative mystical school, which yields multiple generations of a particular mystical practice. Although until today Kabbalah has been the practice of select Jewish “circles,” most of what we know about it comes from the many literary works that have been recognized as “mystical” or “esoteric.”

From these mystical works, scholars have identified many distinctive mystical schools, including the Hechalot mystics, the German Pietists, the Zoharic Kabbalah, the ecstatic school of Abraham Abulafia, the teachings of Isaac Luria, and Chasidism. These schools can be categorized further based on individual masters and their disciples. Most mystical movements are deeply indebted to the writings of earlier schools, even as they add innovative interpretations and new systems of thought to the existing teachings. In contemporary Reform congregations, the observances of Kabbalat Shabbat, havdalah, and the Tu BiShvat seder derive from Kabbalistic traditions.

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