Welcome to Kabbalah Q&A. Since I have been asked many questions about Kabbalah throughout this blogging journey, I thought I would try to answer some of the most basic questions here.
WHO SHOULD STUDY?
Traditionally, the study of Kabbalah in Judaism was reserved for Jewish men over the age of 40. Aside from the cultural and patriarchal issues involved in this stance, these constructs represented the belief within the tradition that the study of these mystical teachings required a high level of maturity, and extensive knowledge and training within the other, more exoteric teachings of the tradition (Torah and Talmud). The age of 40 also has a mystical meaning to it as well; 40 is the total number of the 10 Sefirah or branches of the Tree of Life, manifesting through the Four Worlds of Creation (see below).
My own belief is that these traditional conditions for the study of Kabbalah still hold true on a symbolic and/or archetypal level: For me, being Jewish means to be a devoted seeker of the Divine Oneness; since it is believed that the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) is a feminine energy, those who study Kabbalah should symbolically hold the masculine stance towards this presence in order to attain union with it; and one must be psychologically healthy, emotionally mature, and have some knowledge of the tradition before entering into the experiential mystical practices of Kabbalah.
There are also those who say that it is dangerous to study the Kabbalah if these traditional conditions are not met, and once again, I would agree on a more symbolic/archetypal level: It is my belief that any advanced psycho-spiritual practice like that of the Kabbalah, can be dangerous for those not prepared to loosen the perceptual bounds of the traditional constructs of both personal and consensual reality.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THE KABBALISTIC MATERIAL?
In my view, there are three major theories about the origin of the Kabbalah: One theory holds that the teachings that would one day become the Kabbalah were communicated to Abraham and passed down from one generation to the next through an ever-expanding oral tradition; Another theory holds that the Kabbalah was transmitted to Moses at the same time that he was given the Torah and the other Oral Teachings that would eventually become the Talmud, or the codified Jewish Law; and still another theory holds that the teachings of Kabbalah were developed by Judaic mystics after the first millennium CE.
It is my understanding that there is historic evidence for the existence of Kabbalistic teachings dating back to the early Talmudic period (74 CE). Many Kabbalists and Biblical historians also point to hints of Kabbalistic teachings and practices in the writings of the Prophets, and within the Torah itself.
My own belief is that all three theories are true on some level; that the teachings of the Kabbalah slowly developed over the span of Judaic history, first beginning as simple mystical understandings and practices, then developing into more and more complex system of oral teachings and spiritual exercises, and finally becoming a codified and written tradition.
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE DIFFERENT KABBALISTIC SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT AND PRACTICE?
There are many different schools of Kabbalistic thought and practice both within and outside of Judaism. Within Judaism, there are many different systems of Kabbalah related to the different mystics who codified the teachings and practices to fit their particular mystical approach; these include the Kabbalistic teachings and systems of Moses Cordovero, Isaac Luria, Moses Luzzatto, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, Abraham Abulafia, and the Baal Shem Tov. There are also more recent permutations within the tradition, including more pop culture oriented movements like that of The Rav and the Kabbalah Center.
There are also many systems of Kabbalah (Cabala, Cabbala, or Qabalah) outside of Judaism, including Hermetic traditions like that of the Order of the Golden Dawn, along with various other Alchemic and esoteric traditions. Many of these teachings come from a long list of non-Judaic mystics and spiritualists including Franz Bardon, Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, A. E. Waite, Israel Regardie, and Paul Foster Case.
Kabbalah has also influenced and been influenced by other mystical systems; one can find Kabbalistic signs on most Tarot decks, and many see traces of neo-Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic thought within the teachings of Judaic and non-Judaic systems of Kabbalah.
My personal position on all these different schools and influences is...that it is all God in Drag (as Ram Dass likes to say). It is my belief that each method speaks to different people, and/or speaks to each of us at different times and phases of our journey. There is a poem I often like to remember when I am asked to comment on what I think of all these different and often seemingly divergent mystical paths...it says: “Oh Stream of Life, Run Ye Slow, or Run Ye Fast, All Streams Reach the Sea at Last.” So for me, if a path speaks to me, then I take it; and if that path stops speaking to me and another path calls me, then I take that one; because in my heart and mind I feel a single great river running through all these streams, all rushing towards that wondrous mystical ocean of oneness.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BASIC CONCEPTS IN KABBALAH?
While Kabbalah is a very complex system with a vast cosmology, I believe there are some basic concepts common to most, if not all, of the different Kabbalistic traditions. My perception of these basic concepts includes the idea of a formless, nameless Source of existence (EIN SOF); the emergence of the energy of that source through a process of emanation, creation, formation, and manifestation (THE FOUR WORLDS); the movement of this energy through the different worlds is channeled through a mystical structure (THE TREE OF LIFE) with numerous pathways (32 PATHS) and ten main branches or hubs (THE TEN SEFIROT).
These are just a few of the basic concepts of the tradition, and each of them is merely a tiny spark on the edge of a vast mystical universe of teachings and practices.
Here are some resources for further exploration of the vast mystical universe of the teachings and practices of the Judaic Kabbalah, which is the form of Kabbalah I am personally drawn to.
Some Classic Books of the Judaic Kabbalah Tradition
Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Translated by Aryeh Kaplan. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.
Sefer Bahir. Translated by Aryeh Kaplan. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.
The Zohar. Translated by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon. New York: The Soncino Press.
Derech HaShem: The Way of God by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Translated by Aryeh Kaplan. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers.
Da’ath Tevunoth, The Knowing Heart: The Philosophy of God’s Oneness by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Translated by Shraga Silverstein. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers.
Sha’arey Orah: Gates of Light by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla. Translated by Avi Weinstein. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Some Modern Books About Judaic Kabbalah
Daniel C. Matt. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1995.
Perle Epstein. Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1978.
Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi (Warren Kenton). Kabbalah: Tradition of Hidden Knowledge. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi (Warren Kenton). Kabbalah and Exodus. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1980
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Meditation and Kabbalah. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1982.
Rabbi Arthur Green. Seek My Face, Speak My Name. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992.
Rabbi David A. Cooper. God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.
Rabbi Shoni Labowitz. Miraculous Living: A Guided Journey in Kabbalah through the Ten Gates of the Tree of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Rabbi Steven A. Fisdel. The Practice of Kabbalah: Meditation in Judaism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.
Dr. Philip S. Berg. Kabbalah for the Layman. Jerusalem, Israel: Research Centre of Kabbalah, 1981.
*Originally published on KabbalahBlog hosted by Enlightenment.com