This is an opinion piece.
Although I’ve read about Kabbalah and occasionally written about it, I’ve never formally learned Kabbalah with a master teacher.
Still, I’ve learned enough to recognize the many ways in which Kabbalah permeates Jewish liturgy and observance. For example, saying “B’rich Sh’mei,” as I wrote about in my previous post.
When I first began learning Torah as an adult, the “Kabbalah” or “Mysticism” section of many Jewish bookstores consisted mostly of Gershom Scholem’s “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” and perhaps a few other books. There was the beginning of an “explosion” in translations and texts in the 1980’s (the work of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, for example), that has continued through the present. The material that’s available is far greater than when I started. One should be grateful for that.
But I’m not sure that Kabbalah, when it’s taught, is taught with full knowledge of its ultimate purposes. It’s one thing to give a lecture about “Kabbalistic meditation.” Actually teaching any of the methods based on personal experience and mastery is quite another — and far rarer.
Kabbalah is also often taken as synonymous with “Jewish spirituality.” While this can be true, it is not always so. Gershom Scholem, for example, was an academic master of the literature, but he wasn’t a spiritual teacher — and never presented himself as such. Study of Kabbalah can be like studying Physics. It involves a specialized vocabulary to describe a paradigm of Reality, its functioning and processes, in minute detail.
There can be “Jewish spirituality” without reference to Kabbalah. I’d say that anything that leads you to a more sincere, stable belief in and relationship with God is “spiritual” teaching. Kabbalah is — or begins as — an “intellectual approach to God-realization,” in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s words. For some, this leads to greater ahavat Ha-Shem; love of God. It can be manifested as increased devotion; increased commitment to observing some or all aspects of Jewish life. But I’ve met many people who have a simple, sincere faith that is not based on any formal learning. I don’t and can’t deny that they are “spiritual,” too.
In this case, however, Kabbalah provides a structured system of learning that can help bring us to higher levels. A “simple” faith, while genuine, might not grow and expand, and might not be able to stand up to the challenges that we face in life.
The Rambam asked only that we know that everything exists only because of God’s Existence. Thinking at length about this idea alone could change the way we view our lives and the world (universe/creation) that fills and surrounds us.
“Adon Olam” likewise provides a basic model for contemplative prayer, as I’ve written about at other times, in other posts. It begins by introducing certain fundamental ideas about God in terse statements and proceeds into personal experience through surrender: “B’yado afkid ruchi” — “I put my soul in [God’s] Hands” — culminating in “Ha-Shem li, v’lo irah” — God is for me; I will not fear” [or: “God is mine; I don’t fear.”]
Hasidut, too, can offer a spirituality with a more limited terminology. This is particularly true in Breslav hasidut. The contemporary work of (Breslaver) Rabbi Shalom Arush is a good example of this. He emphasizes the experience of God through hitbodedut/prayer, over the intellectual comprehension of ideas alone. I believe this has great promise for a wide range of Jewish settings and groups, as long as the simplicity of the method is preserved.
The “Jewish Science” of Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein and others can likewise provide systematic spiritual ideas and practices that are expressed in language that is both simple and clear. As Mrs. Tehillah Lichtenstein, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s wife and foremost student wrote:
“…God cannot be perceived through the mind [i.e. intellect] alone. If you would know God, do not seek merely to prove His existence, but turn to Him with your heart; affirm your union with Him, affirm His responsiveness to prayer, pray to Him; if you actually turn to G-d and speak to Him in your heart, you will be astonished to find how close He is to you, you will feel His nearness, you will have found G-d.”
I confess to not knowing much about the teachings of Reb Zalman. I actually attended a weekend at Etz Hayim some 24 years ago, and attended a couple of his workshops. I was not drawn to what I heard him teach. I thought it was a rather “eclectic” interpretation of the kabbalah that was familiar to me. But I was impressed that he was able to make personal prayer a very accessible practice for the people in attendance.
Nevertheless, I suggest that there can be a serious place in Jewish education for learning at least basic Kabbalah. This is especially true in rabbinic education. I think it would be worthwhile to have a course that lays out the basic model of the Sephirot and Divine Emanation, following which the student then explores how these are represented in mainstream Orthodox practice (and, from there, the practice in other branches of Judaism). Why, for example, do we wrap the leather strap:
1 — around our left arm?
2 — 7 times?
Why don’t we just put the tefillin on our head and our arm, without all the “windings?”
The answers are actually based in Kabbalah. I believe it was the Ari and perhaps other rabbis of Safed who brought practices with kabbalistic references into mainstream observance. I understand their purpose as being to add a contemplative element to the things “observant” Jews do on a daily, weekly and annual basis. However, without an understanding of the underlying kabbalistic teaching, the practices that were added (the Kabbalat Shabbat service is another example) simply become strange, mysterious rituals instead of having the illuminating, uplifting effects that were intended.
Whether or not a rabbi or rabbinic student agrees with Kabbalah, such learning could help clarify the reasons why we do what we do. To know and be able to explain that is a rabbinic responsibility. Too often, we are doing things with no real understanding of the meaning or intention of what we’re doing.
So, I think that rabbis (at least) should have some familiarity with basic Kabbalah, whatever their own beliefs about it. I could envision a course in which the basic “Etz Hayim” is laid out for them, followed by assignments in which they identify how
But I wouldn’t hold out such understanding as the only possible route to “Jewish spirituality.”