The Kabbalah is an aspect of Jewish mysticism. It consists of a large body of speculation on the nature of divinity, the creation, the origin and fate of the soul, and the role of human beings. It consists also of meditative, devotional, mystical and magical practices which were taught only to a select few and for this reason Kabbalah is regarded as an esoteric offshoot of Judaism. Many aspects of Kabbalah have been studied and used by non-Jews for several hundred years.
What Does The Word “Kabbalah” Mean?
The word “Kabbalah” is derived from the root “to receive, to accept”, and in many cases is used synonymously with “tradition”. No-one with the slightest interest in Kabbalah can fail to notice that there are many alternative spellings of the word, the two most common being Kabbalah and Qabalah. Cabala, Qaballah, Qabala, Kaballah (and so on) are also seen. The reason for this is that some letters in the Hebrew alphabet have more than one representation in the English alphabet, and the same Hebrew letter can be written either as K or Q (or sometimes even C).
Some authors choose one spelling, and some choose the other. Some (the author for example) will even mix Q and K in the same document, spelling Kabbalah and Qlippoth (as opposed to Qabalah and Klippoth!). A random selection of modern Hebrew phrase books and dictionaries use the K variant to represent the letter Kuf,
so anyone who claims that the “correct” spelling is “Qabalah” is on uncertain ground.
There has been a tendency for non-Jewish books on Kabbalah published this century to use the spelling “Qabalah”. Jewish publications are relatively uniform in preferring the spelling “Kabbalah”. The author takes the view (based on experience) that the spelling “Kabbalah” is recognized by a wider selection of people than the “Qabalah” variant, and for this purely pragmatic reason it is used throughout the FAQ.
What is the “Tradition”?
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah (Torah – “Law” – the first five books of the Old Testament) was created prior to the world and she advised God on such weighty matters as the creation of human kind. When Moses received the written law from God, tradition has it that he also received the oral law, which was not written down, but passed from generation to generation. At times the oral law has been referred to as “Kabbalah” – the oral tradition.
The Torah was (and is) believed to be divine, and in the same way as the Torah was accompanied by an oral tradition, so there grew up a secret oral tradition which claimed to possess an initiated understanding of the Torah, its hidden meanings, and the divine power concealed within it. This is a principle root of the Kabbalistic tradition, a belief in the divinity of the Torah, and a belief that by studying this text one can unlock the secrets of the creation.
Another aspect of Jewish religion which influenced Kabbalah was the Biblical phenomenon of prophecy. The prophet was an individual chosen by God as a mouthpiece, and there was the implication that God, far from being a transcendental abstraction, was a being whom one could approach (albeit with enormous difficulty, risk, fear and trembling). Some Kabbalists believed that they were the inheritors of practical techniques handed down from the time of the Biblical prophets, and it is not impossible or improbable that this was in fact the case.
These two threads, one derived from the study of the Torah, the other derived from practical attempts to approach God, form the roots from which the Kabbalistic tradition developed.
How Old Is Kabbalah?
The earliest documents which are generally acknowledged as being Kabbalistic come from the 1st. Century C.E., but there is a suspicion that the Biblical phenomenon of prophecy may have been grounded in a much older oral tradition which was a precursor to the earliest recognizable forms of Kabbalah. Some believe the tradition goes back as far as Melchizedek. There are moderately plausible arguments that Pythagoras received his learning from Hebrew sources. There is a substantial literature of Jewish mysticism dating from the period 100AD – 1000AD which is not strictly Kabbalistic in the modern sense, but which was available as source material to medieval Kabbalists.
On the basis of a detailed examination of texts, and a study of the development of a specialist vocabulary and a distinct body of ideas, Scholem has concluded that the origins of Kabbalah can be traced to 12th. century Provence. The origin of the word “Kabbalah” as a label for a tradition which is definitely recognisable as Kabbalah is attributed to Isaac the Blind (c. 1160-1236 C.E.), who is also credited with being the originator of the idea of sephirothic emanation.
Prior to this (and after) a wide variety of terms were used for those who studied the tradition: “masters of mystery”, “men of belief”, “masters of knowledge”, “those who know”, “those who know grace”, “children of faith”, “children of the king’s palace”, “those who know wisdom”, “those who reap the field”, “those who have entered and left”.
Must I Be Jewish To Study Kabbalah?
The Law of Gravitation was formulated by Isaac Newton, who was English. You do not need to be English to fall on your face. You do not need to be English to study the physics of gravitation.
However, if you choose to study Kabbalah by name you should recognize that Kabbalah was and is a part of Judaism, and an important part of the history of Jewish people, and respect the beliefs which not only gave rise to Kabbalah, but which are still an essential part of Jewish faith.
It must also be said that there are many aspects of Kabbalah which would be meaningless if lifted out of the context of Judaism.
Is There An Obstacle To A Woman Studying Kabbalah?
Within Judaism the answer is a resounding “Yes!”: there are many obstacles. Perle Epstein relates some of her feelings on the subject in her book on Kabbalah (see the Reading List below).
The obstacles are largely grounded in traditional attitudes: it is less easy for a woman to find a Rabbi prepared to teach Kabbalah than it would be for a man. Persistence may reward (see below).
Outside of Judaism the answer is a resounding “No!”: there are no obstacles. For the past one hundred years women have been active both in studying and in teaching Kabbalah.
You Shouldn’t Study Kabbalah Unless You Are Over Forty? Is This True?
The great Kabbalist R. Isaac Luria (1534-1572), began the study of Kabbalah at the age of seventeen and died at the age of thirty-eight! His equally famous contemporary R. Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) began at the age of twenty. Many other famous Kabbalists also began the study early.
This prohibition has come from Ashkenazic (East European) Jews and has never applied to Sepharidic (Middle Eastern) Jews.
The historical basis for the “rule” comes from opponents of Kabbalah within Judaism who (successfully) attempted to restrict its study. At the root of this was the heresy of false messiah Shabbatai Tzevi (17th. C) which resulted in large numbers of Jews leaving the orthodox fold. This heresy had deep Kabbalistic underpinnings, and in the attempt to stamp out Shabbateanism, Kabbalah itself became suspect, and specific prohibitions against the study of Kabbalah were enacted (e.g. the excommunication of the Frankists in Poland in 1756).
A further factor was the degeneration (in the eyes of their rationalist opponents) of 18th. century Hasidism, which had roots both in Kabbalah and Shabbateanism, into “wonder working” and superstition. The rationalist faction in Judaism triumphed, and the study of Kabbalah became largely discredited, to the extent that many Jewish publications written this century discuss Kabbalah (if at all) in a very negative way.
Greg Burton has supplied this (mildly amusing) post from America OnLine, from a Rabbi Ariel Bar-Zadok:
” One thing I assure you, I am not a “new ager”, nor am I sympathetic to anything that is not pure, authoritative Kabbalah. Remember, Kabbalah means “to receive”. I am an Orthodox Sephardic Rabbi, ordained in Jerusalem. I teach only from the true texts, many of which most Rabbis for whatever reasons have never read. I document all my sources so as to verify to you that these teachings are authentic. (I must also admit that I have studied other religious and meditative systems, in this way I feel comfortable and confident to discuss them). My classes are open to all, Jew and Benei Noah alike, men and women, (in accordance to Tana D’vei Eliyahu, Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 9). By the way, according to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabi Ovadiah Yosef (Yehaveh Da’at 4,47) quoting Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, one only has to be 20 years old to study Kabbala, and not 40. THIS IS THE HALAKHA!!”
This still leaves R.Isaac Luria looking embarrassed, but R. Moses Cordevero scrapes in under the bar
Do I Need To Learn Hebrew To Study Kabbalah?
Do you need to learn French in order to visit France? Should you learn French if you intend to visit France regularly? These are questions you need to answer for yourself. The author of this FAQ visits France regularly and does a lot of pointing and grunting – it all comes down to deciding whether asking for food in colloquial French is more important than simply getting the food and eating it. The author takes the latter view; the realities of mysticism and magic can be pointed at, and the accompanying grunts can be found in many traditions and many different languages. There are many practical exercises and ritual techniques which can be employed with only a minimal knowledge of Hebrew.
However… there is no question that a knowledge of Hebrew can make a very large difference. Non-Jewish texts on Kabbalah abound in simple mistakes which are due largely to uninformed copying. Thousands of important Kabbalistic texts have not been translated out of Hebrew or Aramaic, and the number of important source texts in translation is small. The difficulties in trying to read the archaic and technically complex literature of Kabbalah should not be discounted, but it is well worthwhile to acquire even a superficial knowledge of Hebrew. Four useful books are:
Levy, Harold, “Hebrew for All”, Valentine, Mitchell 1976
Harrison R.K. “Teach yourself Biblical Hebrew”, NTC Publishing Group 1993
Kelley, P.H., “Biblical Hebrew, an introductory grammar”, Eerdmans 1992
Brown, F, “The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon”, Hendrickson 1979
Many Kabbalists view the Torah as the word of God and Hebrew as the language of creation. In this view the alphabet and language are divine and have immense magical power. Many of the source texts of Kabbalah are commentaries on the Bible, and derive their insights using a variety of devices, such as puns, anagrams, gematria (letter manipulations) and cross references to the same word in different contexts. The reader is presumed to be adept at playing this game, which becomes completely inaccessible in translation.
Is Non-Judaic Kabbalah Really Kabbalah?
This is a matter of definition. Jewish writers on the subject tend to downplay aspects of Kabbalah which conflict with orthodox rabbinic Judaism, so that we do not see the heretic Nathan of Gaza classed as an important Kabbalist, despite the fact that he was very influential for almost two hundred years. We hear little about the non-rabbinic “Baal Shem” or “Masters of the Name” who used Kabbalah for healing and other practical purposes. There is ample evidence that many magical practices currently associated with non-Judaic Kabbalah were widely used and well understood by some of the most famous rabbinic Kabbalists.
It is the author’s opinion that non-Jewish Kabbalah has preserved up to the current day many practical techniques, and R. Aryeh Kaplan makes the following significant comment:
“It is significant to note that a number of techniques alluded to in these fragments also appear to have been preserved among the non-Jewish school of magic in Europe. The relationship between the practical Kabbalah and these magical schools would constitute an interesting area of study.”
A more difficult question is whether non-Jewish Kabbalah conforms to the spirit of Jewish Kabbalah. One of the most visible distinctions is that between theurgy and thaumaturgy, between the attempt to participate in the workings of the divine realm for the betterment of the creation, and the attempt to interfere with its workings, for a variety of reasons which might include personal gain. Modern Kabbalah outside of Judaism appears in many guises, and is often associated or combined with ceremonial or ritual. It may be mixed with a wide range of theosophical traditions. This does not in itself set it apart from historical Kabbalah. Ritual has always been an integral part of Kabbalah, and Kabbalah has absorbed from cultures and traditions all over Europe and the Middle East. Even the distinction between theurgy and thaumaturgy may be meaningless, as similar techniques can be used for both, and one would need to climb into someone’s head to figure out what is going on.
Given the lack of a dogmatic tradition in Kabbalah it is not clear that the question is meaningful. Even within Judaism it is unclear what the authentic spirit or tradition is – there are large differences in outlook between someone like Abraham Abulafia and Isaac Luria.
One person will be reassured that the tradition is alive and going off in many different directions; another will feel threatened by cowboys who are bringing the tradition into disrepute. About the only thing which can be said with certainty is that there is a great deal of prejudice. Just about everyone who studies Kabbalah seems to be certain that someone else hasn’t a clue what Kabbalah is about.
How Can I Find Someone Who Teaches Kabbalah?
It is not possible to recommend specific people or organizations as what is right for one person may not be right for another. In general, (good) teachers of Kabbalah are not easy to find and never have been, and the search for a teacher proceeds in the Micawberish belief that when the time is right “something will turn up”.
The difficulty in finding a teacher can be viewed as a nuisance or a positive part of learning Kabbalah. A thing is valued more when it is hard to find. Associate with people who share your interests, go to lectures and public meetings, go to workshops, go to whatever happens to be available, (even if it is not entirely to your taste), and sooner or later someone will “turn up”.
Many Kabbalists are people with strong personal convictions of a religious nature, and may see their teaching as a personal obligation (see “What is the Great Work?”). Those who do not charge money for their teaching may require a strong commitment from pupils, and are unlikely to welcome “flavour of the month” mystical aspirants.
A word of advice: a genuine teacher of Kabbalah will help you to develop your own personal relationship with God. Beware of a teacher who has preconceived and well-developed ideas about what is good for you, or who tries to control the development of your beliefs.