THE KABBALAH by Ian Ellis-Jones REVISED PRECIS OF AN ADDRESS DELIVERED BEFORE THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH SUNDAY, 23 OCTOBER 2005Every religion has its esoteric side. Islam has its more esoteric side in themystical teachings of Sufism, Hinduism in Yoga, Christianity in, among otherthings, the teachings of the Christian mystics, the Liberal Catholic Church,Rosicrucianism and certain orders of Freemasonry such as the Rose Croix.Judaism has its more esoteric side in the mystical system of Kabbalah.Now, there are, in the Jewish tradition, three “grades” of knowledge (asopposed to actual sources of law or teaching material): Firstly, there is the Torah (or Pentateuch), supposedly inspired by God and written down by Moses. The Torah normally refers to the contents and documents of the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures, but more loosely also refers to the books of the Prophets and the Holy Writings (that is, the whole of what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament”). This knowledge is intended to be mastered by all members of the Jewish faith. Secondly, there is the Talmud, which comprises the accumulated commentaries on the Mishnah (the primary oral law) as well as the comments on and discussion surrounding the Mishnah (known as the Gemara). The Talmud is intended to be studied by priests and rabbis. Thirdly, there is what is referred to as the Kabbalah, which traditionally was imparted to so-called “initiates” only.1 The Kabbalah is the body of mystical knowledge of the Jewish people. Rabbi Shimon Leiberman writes, “Kabbalah is to Torah what philosophy is to1 The Kabbalah was traditionally not taught to people until the age of 40, when they hadcompleted their study of both the Torah and the Talmud.
2 science.”2 The Kabbalah goes beyond the exoteric part of the Torah and reveals its inner meaning and purpose as well as its effects.The Kabbalah (also “Kabalah”, “Cabala”, “Quabalah”, and “Qabalah”), calledin Hebrew QBLH [Hebrew for “tradition”, or “receiving”], is derived from theroot QBL, Qibel, meaning “to receive” or “to reveal”, and refers to the customof handing down supposedly esoteric knowledge and tradition by oraltransmission. There is a saying in the Kabbalah - it’s adapted from the Zohar(the chief work of the Kabbalah movement) - “God conceals Himself from ourminds, but reveals Himself to our hearts”.As to the origin of the Kabbalah, Rabbi H Geffen writes: The Kabbalah originated with the Essenes, and also with the initiated Talmudists, who arranged Kabbalistic schools that followed Akiba and Simon Ben Jochai, who consolidated it into a scientific system in the Books, Jetzirah and Zohar. The two chief classics of the Kabbalah, Jetzirah and Zohar, attributed respectively to Akiba and Simon Ben Jochai, reveal the basis of the occult religion of the Hebrews. The most ancient and most comprehensive is the Sefer Jetzirah, probably written by Rabbi Akiba. The Zohar teaches us that true Torah, or Law of Moses, is not in the literal but in the allegorical interpretation of the Pentateuch.3Prior to the 13th century, the term Kabbalah referred only to the writings of theProphets and the oral law. However, since then, the term Kabbalah has cometo be an overall designation for Jewish mysticism.The Kabbalah movement flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries, beingcentred in the mountain city of Safed in Israel. Later, the movement had aninfluence on the Hasidic movement, an 18th century east European religious-mystical-revival movement in Judaism. (There is a wonderful Hasidic saying,“God requires no synagogue - except in the heart.”) In the last 20 or so years2 Shimon Leiberman, “What is Kabbalah?” [Online]http://www.templesanjose.org/JudaismInfo/tradition/kabbalahindex.htm [accessed12/09/2005].3 H Geffen, “The Occultism of the Bible and the Kabbalah”, The New Age, February 1950[Online] http://www.freemasonrywatch.org/masonry_kabbalah.html [accessed 11/09/2005].
3the Kabbalah movement has enjoyed a phenomenal revival. In all, themovement has gone through many stages of revelation, even preceding thetime of the giving of the Torah.Kabbalah consists of four sections: meditative, devotional, mystical, and“magical” (the last two being of special interest to present-day New Agers).The very first work of Kabbalah Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, isattributed to Abraham, and sets forth the principal symbol of the Kabbalahwhich is Etz Hayim (the “Tree of Life”). The Tree of Life consists of threepillars or columns. The one on the right is often referred to as the "Column ofMercy" - the active column, representing our positive inclinations andimpulses (the yetzer hatov). That on the left is called the "Column ofSeverity" - the passive column, representing our negative inclinations (theyetzer harah). The central column is called the "Column of Consciousness" -the “neutral” column, or the column of equilibrium, the purpose of which is tokeep the other two in balance.According to the Kabbalistic Rabbi Joseph P Gelberman: The spheres lining this middle section of the tree gain their significance from the other globes to which they are connected via twenty-two lines called “paths.”4The three pillars or columns all terminate in and depend for their efficacy on theDivinity at the top of the central column.Gelberman also writes: The Tree of Life blooms because it is in harmony. It teaches us a lesson about the great value of staying in balance. Harmony comes when resistance is faced with love instead of confronted with opposition.5The Book of Formation explains the 32 paths of wisdom that are all operativeand functional in the process of creation. The 32 paths are comprised of 10sefirot (“spheres” or emanations), Divine lights (from the Tree of Life), which4 Joseph P Gelberman, with Lesley Sussman, Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist’sApproach to Health and Healing (Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 2000), p 114.5 Joseph P Gelberman, with Lesley Sussman, Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist’sApproach to Health and Healing (Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 2000), p 115.
4act as creative and conscious channels of creation, and the 22 letters of theHebrew alphabet. Of the 10 spheres, the spheres of Wisdom, Compassionand Victory correspond to the right side of the body, the spheres ofKnowledge, Judgment and Glory in splendour correspond to the left side ofthe body, with the other spheres being the Kingdom, Foundation, Beauty andthe Crown (the entrance way to the Tree of Life, the holy light that shinesthrough all the other spheres). Rabbi Gelberman writes: The Tree of Life 1 Kether (Crown) or Kether Elyon (Supreme Crown) 2 Hokhmah (Wisdom) 3 Binah (Understanding orIntelligence) 4 Hesed (Mercy or Grace) or Gedullah (Greatness) 5 Gevurah (Severity or Power), Din (Judgement) or Pahad (Fear) 6 Tifereth (Beauty) or Rahamim (Mercy) 7 Netsah (Victory or Constancy) 8 Hod (Glory or Majesty) 9 Yesod (Foundation) or Tsedek (Justice) 10 Malkuth (Kingdom) or Shekhinah (Divine Immanence)
5 The Crown represents the highest divinity – all that God is as a metaphysical concept. And since, according to the Kabbalistic tradition, you and God are always in a partnership, then the Crown also represents you.6These are the basic building blocks, called the vessels, and include all thecombinations and permutations with which God creates the world with words,for Kabbalah teaches that words, permutations and combinations of lettersare the vessels through which the creative process takes place. The verybeginning of comprehension of the creative process is described in SeferYetzirah.According to Gelberman: The study of Kabbalah is a lifelong commitment. It is a complex metaphysical system that includes the use of numbers – gematria – and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are considered sacred by the Kabblistic mystics.7It has been written, with some justification, that modern Freemasonry is acodification of the Hermetic/Kabbalistic tradition which formed the intellectualessence of Renaissance thought.8 One thing is clear, Kabbalists have beenan accepted part of Jewish culture since the 12th century. Though theirmystical beliefs, which focused on the individuals direct communion with Godthrough solitary study, sometimes set them apart from their mainstreamcoreligionists, many Kabbalists were teachers and judges highly respected byall Jews. The emphasis on secret knowledge and mysticism have also longendeared the study of Kabbalah to occultists of other persuasions, kicking offa Kabbalist fad among gentiles in Renaissance Europe - and giving us wordslike "cabal".6 Joseph P Gelberman, with Lesley Sussman, Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist’sApproach to Health and Healing (Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 2000), p 118.7 Joseph P Gelberman, with Lesley Sussman, Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist’sApproach to Health and Healing (Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 2000), p 20. Thenumbers 7 and 3 are important Kabbalistic numbers. The number 7 is the Divine Number,referring to fullness, individual completeness and the perfection of the human soul. Thenumber 3 (cf the triangle) refers to self-expression, the outgrowth of the numbers 1 (the malenumber) and 2 (the female number).8 See, eg, H Geffen, “The Occultism of the Bible and the Kabbalah”, The New Age, February1950 [Online] http://www.freemasonrywatch.org/masonry_kabbalah.html [accessed11/09/2005]; W Kirk MacNulty, “Kabbalah and Freemasonry”, Heredom, vol 7, 1998. Geffenwrites: “Our Masonic spiritual allegories are based on the Kabbalah, which is known to usmoderns as the Kabbalistic Doctrine.”
6In the United States of America, Kabbalism made a big comeback in the1960s, when it was championed by one Philip Berg, an American former rabbiwho began studying Kabbalah whilst on a visit to Israel in 1962. Under Bergsleadership, Kabbalah in the United States of America has greatly expanded.There are now innumerable Kabbalah centres around the country, with manyprominent followers including Jews such as Elizabeth Taylor and MonicaLewinsky as well as gentiles such as the singers Madonna, Britney Spearsand Mick Jagger. However, many of the faddish versions of Kabbalah arealmost a total perversion of true Kabbalah. Whereas traditional Kabbalahemphasizes mysticism as an integral part of devoted Judaism, the modernKabbalah movement tends to focus almost exclusively on self-absorption,personal improvement and spiritual happiness, targeted to "people of all faithsand no faiths" - a smorgasbord of self-help pop psychology, numerology,astrology and other forms of superstition. Rabbi Leiberman writes: Kabbalah reduced to spiritual or philosophical symbolism, stripped from the observance of the mitzvot [the commandments of the Torah], is worthless mumbo-jumbo, an empty shell.9True Kabbalah is concerned with coming close to God, the divine creator ofthe universe. In order to come close to God, one has to intellectuallycomprehend the stages of the continual recreation of reality. At everymoment, God creates all of reality anew, and we are said to co-creators withGod. Rabbi Gelberman writes: Basically the Kabbalah teaches us that our mission on earth is to be in partnership with God. The Almighty did His/Her part, and now you do your part.10We are Shutaf Elohim. We are in partnership with God. Indeed, the purposeof Kabbalah is to become one as a partner with God in the creative process oflife itself, which is to make the world a dwelling place for Gods Infinite Lightand God’s Absolute Essence. But who or what, according to Kabbalistic9 Shimon Leiberman, “What is Kabbalah?” [Online]http://www.templesanjose.org/JudaismInfo/tradition/kabbalahindex.htm [accessed12/09/2005].10 Joseph P Gelberman, with Lesley Sussman, Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist’sApproach to Health and Healing (Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 2000), p 36.
7teaching, is this “God”? Writing from a kabbalistic point of view, Rabbi DavidA Cooper, like many other “modern” religious leaders and teachers, haschallenged contemporary views as to the nature of God: What is God? In a way, there is no God. Our perception of God usually leads to a misunderstanding that seriously undermines our spiritual development. God is not what we think It is. God is not a thing, a being, a noun. It does not exist, as existence is defined, for It takes up no space and is not bound by time. Jewish mystics often refer to It as Ein Sof, which means Endlessness. Ein Sof should never be conceptualized in any way. It should not be called Creator, Almighty, Father, Mother, Infinite, the One, Brahma, Buddhamind, Allah, Adony, Elohim, El, or Shaddai; and It should never, never be called He. It is none of these names, and It has no gender.11Cooper goes on to say: The closest thing we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being. We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun. Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God. We might call It God-ing, a process, rather than God, which suggests a noun.12Ein Sof means “without end”. It is written: Ein-Sof [sic], the Infinite God, has no static, definable form … Ein-Sof must be constantly redefined, as by its very nature, it is in a constant process of self- creation and redefinition … God is the origin of the world, the reality of the world, or the totality of all things …13The pursuit of “wisdom” is paramount in the Kabbalah. In the words ofGelberman: The Kabbalists considered Wisdom to be a more positive attribute than Knowledge because of the Biblical story of King Solomon who, when asked by God what he wanted the most, replied “Wisdom.”1411 David A Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism (New York:Riverhead Books, 1997), p 65.12 David A Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism (New York:Riverhead Books, 1997), p 69.13 “Ein-Sof” The Lurianic Kabbalah http://www.newkabbalah.com/einsof.html [accessed10/11/2004].14 Joseph P Gelberman, with Lesley Sussman, Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist’sApproach to Health and Healing (Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 2000), p 119. AS asidelight, the symbolism associated with the building of King Solomon’s Temple is central toFreemasonry (“a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols”). We areall building a spiritual temple, a temple not made by human hands, nor built in any locality on
8Abraham passed his wisdom on to his son, Isaac, who passed it on to his son,Jacob and then to the 12 Tribes. Seven generations after Abraham, Mosesreceived the Torah on Mount Sinai. According to the Kabbalah, certainmystical doctrines were given to Moses on Mount Sinai; those doctrines aresaid to be hidden in the Torah and the oral law.Kabbalists also assert that the Torah has two dimensions: 1. The body of the Torah, comprising the manifestation of the laws and will of God. These laws express the will of God for our ultimate and absolute good in this world and all worlds. 2. The soul of the Torah, being the inner dimension (nistar, the esoteric part of the Torah), the Kabbalah, comprising the comprehension of the “secrets” of creation, that is, the manner or mode in which God is said to work in creation.Rabbi Leiberman writes, “As a body cannot function without a soul, so thesoul is ineffective without the body.”15 Actually, it’s a bit more complicatedthan that. Kabbalah itself has many dimensions, one inside the other. Thereare said to be secrets, mysteries, secrets of secrets, mysteries of mysteries,and many dimensions of soul within soul. The soul itself, according toKabbalists, possesses five levels, one inside the other. Even within theKabbalah, there were two traditions, one exoteric and the other esoteric.Writing from both a Kabbalistic and Masonic point of view, Geffen writes: There were two traditions in the Occult Kabbalah, an exoteric tradition perpetuated and an esoteric tradition wherein the Kabbalah was transmitted. The exoteric tradition is permeated with Kabbalism. One must be a studious Mason to discern the esoteric direction from the exoteric customs having no divine object.16earth. It is built in silence, and in confidence and strength, in the “secret place”, that is, in thesanctuary of the human heart. Esotericists regard Solomon, the third and last king of unitedIsrael, as an emblem of SOL, the “Solar Initiate”. Solomon is a Kabbalistic composition,symbolizing Divine Wisdom.15 Shimon Leiberman, “What is Kabbalah?” [Online]http://www.templesanjose.org/JudaismInfo/tradition/kabbalahindex.htm [accessed12/09/2005].16 H Geffen, “The Occultism of the Bible and the Kabbalah”, The New Age, February 1950[Online] http://www.freemasonrywatch.org/masonry_kabbalah.html [accessed 11/09/2005].
9The Kabbalah is not, however, a speculative philosophy based on humaninsight and intuition. Its theories are not derived from human reasoning butare said to have been derived from revelation.17 Kabbalists state that Godgives us wisdom and understanding, if we truly want and seek them. In thatregard, much emphasis is placed on prayer and meditation in all their variousforms. Kabbalists further state that it is God’s will that we become a part andpartner with God in the ongoing process of creation through doing God’s willin the world. We carry out Gods will through the mitzvot [the commandmentsof the Torah] (the body of the Torah), while the soul of the performance ofGod’s will is to become a partner with Him in the continual process ofcreation, bringing additional light into the world. This light is a transcendentone, being infinite and above creation. It became part of our activeconsciousness with the giving of the Torah.In about 100 CE Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) revealed the moreesoteric teachings of Kabbalah. He explained the functions of all the sefirot,and how they manifest in every verse of the Torah and every phenomenon ofnature. Rashbi wrote the great classic text of Kabbalah - the heart of Jewishmystical teaching - the Zohar (more fully, the Sefer Hazohar, the “Book ofBrilliance”), which dates (at least in part) to the 2nd century. The Zoharincludes Rashbis revelations of Kabbalah as taught to his “disciples”.As Rabbi Shimon Leiberman points out, the Kabbalah is essentially “a study,as it were, of Divinity and of the relationship between God and His Creation,based on the premises of revealed truth”.18 According to the Kabbalah, God,or Divinity, is pure Light, infinite and spiritual. Its emanations are responsiblefor all manifestation. As Although God is said to be essentially unknowable,there are, nevertheless, various ways in which, according to the Kabbalists,we can come to understand certain aspects of God’s being. I have alreadyreferred to the sefirot, which are identified with the more important of theseaspects (for example, Wisdom, Understanding, Judgment, Mercy, and so17 See Shimon Leiberman, “What is Kabbalah?” [Online]http://www.templesanjose.org/JudaismInfo/tradition/kabbalahindex.htm [accessed12/09/2005].18 Shimon Leiberman, “What is Kabbalah?” [Online]http://www.templesanjose.org/JudaismInfo/tradition/kabbalahindex.htm [accessed12/09/2005].
10forth). The Kabbalah also places considerable emphasis on what is known asthe "Shekhinah”, which means "presence of God". The Shekhinah relates tothe feminine aspect of God as well as Divine Immanence.The basic purpose of the Kabbalah is the refinement of one’s personality andcharacter traits through drawing closer to this God whose attributes aremanifest and revealed in reality. The study of Kabbalah is ultimately directedat the Divinity of God, so as to be able to emulate God in our lives. The moreone studies Kabbalah properly, the closer one comes to God, and the moreone refines one’s character. Thus, God is, in the words of Martin Buber, aninner potentiality in us. The Kabbalah, in its more modern forms, is very mucha “theology of man” or, perhaps more correctly, a theology of God in terms ofman. In truth, it is the only kind of theology which makes it possible forhumans to commune with God. Indeed, Kabbalists consider that theKabbalah is important for all people, not just Jews. According to theKabbalah, all life is one and interconnected. This is reflected in the ShemahYisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Dt 6:4).Kabbalists, along with others devoted to esoteric spirituality, insist that theScriptures must be interpreted allegorically and spiritually. Reincarnation(transmigration of souls) is one of the more mystical Kabbalistic doctrines,something that is alluded to in this prayer known as “The Bedtime Shema”: Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me - whether against my body, my property, my honour or against anything of mine; whether they did so accidentally, wilfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration - I forgive every person. May no one be punished because of me. May it be Your will, Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in Your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illnesses. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favour before You, Lord, my Rock and My Redeemer.1919 The ArtScroll Tehillim, trans Rabbi Hillel Danziger (Brooklyn NY: Mesorah Publications,1988), p 29, adapted.