Kabbalah for Today?

KABBALAH. The mere mention of the word conjures up images of magical and mysterious otherworldly dimensions, of spiritual secrets that are profoundly miraculous and deeply inspiring. Nowadays it seems everyone-Jew or non-Jew, famous or nameless-is discovering and uncovering the divine truths of Kabbalah. Or are they?

That question raises three, more pointed ones: What is the essence of Kabbalah? Will opening the exploration of Kabbalah to the masses demean and distort this extremely difficult and highly spiritual subject, reducing it to the level of pop culture? If Kabbalah is not appropriate for popular study, is it somehow still relevant to our lives?

Kabbalah literally means “receiving”; in Israel today, the receipt you get when making a purchase is called a kabbalah. The Bible, or Written Law, is given by God and is available to anyone who can read it. The Oral Law-which includes the Kabbalah-is received, passed directly from teacher to pupil.

Most of Torah is considered Torah haniglet-revealed Torah, to be studied by all Jews. Kabbalah, however, was designated chochmah nisteret-hidden wisdom. In truth, Kabbalah was never literally hidden, but was not widely, or even publicly, studied.

The reason for restricting the study of Kabbalah relates to its subject matter. Kabbalah encompasses two general themes: ma’aseh bereshit-the theory or description of creation-and ma’aseh merkavah-Ezekiel’s description of the Heavenly Chariot, which teaches us about the relationship between humans and the Almighty.

When I discuss matters that are tangible and open for all to see and appreciate, things that are already “revealed,” it is simple for others to verify the truth of what I say. But if I am talking about angels, for example, I must be very careful. If I speculate from ignorance, what I say will be nonsense. And it may become dangerous nonsense if I fail to realize the power and meaning of what I am saying and end up defiling the Majesty of God.

Equally as esoteric as its subject matter is the language of Kabbalah. It is presented as a stream of abstract formulas, conveyed in Kabbalah’s own unique jargon, understood only by a select cadre of scholars trained to decipher it. To avoid misunderstanding, Kabbalah had to be taught one-on-one by a master teacher singularly attuned to the capabilities and receptivity of each student. One cannot simply open the classic Kabbalistic texts and glean their truths in a vacuum.

Unfortunately, today Kabbalah has been commercialized by those who pretend to grasp its innermost secrets. These pretenders purport to teach-and to sell-what they do not understand, to people who are not equipped to receive it. Kabbalah’s mystifying formulas become nothing more than intoxicating mantras to those who mindlessly repeat them. This is like trying to cure an illness by chanting the chemical formula of the remedy.

This is not to say that Kabbalah should not be studied and learned. In fact, it is incumbent upon Jewish scholars to understand the whole map of Torah from beginning to end, the Hidden Law no less than the Revealed Law. Throughout history, there have been those who, very quietly, achieved extensive knowledge of the Hidden Law.

But today, most of us are simply incapable of comprehending Kabbalah. For us the question is, “Is there some way we, too, can ‘receive’ the remarkable teachings of Kabbalah in a meaningful way, without treading upon its divine essence?”

One answer lies in the Hasidic approach to Kabbalah.

It is a basic Kabbalistic concept that the human soul is, in a manner of speaking, a spark of Divine revelation within the world and that each human being is a microcosm of the entire universe. Hasidism shows how the rarified teachings of Kabbalah, which speak to the macro-universe, can be adapted into a structure with ethical and practical meaning for our individual lives.

In this way, Hasidism is a form of applied Kabbalah. Just as the Revealed Law frames the behavior of our bodies, the internalization of Kabbalistic notions of the Hidden Law can attune us to our soul, educating it to connect with the Divine. In this model, the power of Kabbalah is harnessed not to serve our own desires but to align them with the wishes of the Almighty.

One of the most important Hasidic books is called Zohar Chai, “the living Zohar.” That is what Hasidism does: It gives the Kabbalah life by translating it into something meaningful in one’s relationships with others and, most important, something that can quell the strife within one’s own soul and calm the struggle of one’s inner being.

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