A Balanced Approach to Studying Kabbalah

~ by ~
Miriam Ben-Yaacov

Every person experiences times in his life of feeling helpless and naturally seeks the means to empower himself. For many this has meant turning to alternatives, such as those offered by “New Age.” These things are mixed, some quite valid and good, but others problematic. In the narrow straits of not experiencing Gd, are the opportunities for faith to grow through a challenge of choices, bringing things back into proper boundaries.

We are created with an empty space; the danger comes in trying to fill it by our own devices, including those we perceive as spiritual. Even Adam and Chava (Eve) in the Garden of Eden were created with this empty space. When the serpent offered the forbidden fruit, it was with the promise that they would “be like Gd…” Chava’s desire was to KNOW, to be more like Gd. This may appear to be a fine motivation. Yet in order to achieve her goal, she was willing to overstep the boundaries He had set. And why had He set those boundaries?…to be mean?…to play some mind-game or joke on them? No. He understood that they did not yet have a vessel large enough to hold the revelation they desired. One day they would, and at that time, the fruit would no longer be forbidden, but in the present moment, they simply were not ready.

In our day it has become the fashion to study kabbalah. Why? We would like to think it has come about due to a new thirst for truth, for deeper spirituality. For many this is the case, and I am going to address these people. It is normal, and yes, GOOD, for a person to desire deeper spirituality. We are supposed to want to know Gd better. This is the purpose—the only valid purpose--of studying Torah--to bring us closer to Hashem, to help us know Him better.

The word “kabbalah” comes from the Hebrew word, kabbel, which means “receive.” Moses received the Torah at Sinai—it was something received: kabbalah. There are three methods of kabbalah: theoretical, practical, meditative. Theoretical kabbalah is the terminology needed to understand the other methods; practical kabbalah is magic; meditative kabbalah is the practice of attaining higher states of consciousness. Of practical kabbalah the sages warn that NO ONE can practice it without “sullying his soul.” However, all these methods were the tools of the prophets of the Tanakh.

There are also alternative spellings of the word “kabbalah,” with a “C” and with a “Q.” “Cabbalah” is the Christian form. How did Christians come to have a method of this secret, mystical Jewish practice? In Medieval Europe certain Christian noblemen wanted to learn these secrets in order to do such things as practice alchemy, turning lead to gold. They therefore forced kabbalists to teach them. We can be pretty sure that the kabbalists in question did not teach them in exactly correct ways, so this method, spelled with a “C,” is corrupt. “Qabbalah” is that used by occultists for witchcraft; it goes without saying that this, too, is contaminated. Considering this history, it is interesting to note that in our time many Christians adamantly declare that Kabbalah is witchcraft and those who study and practice it are unholy.

Like a building a house, the study of Torah requires a solid foundation. No one ever builds the roof first and expects it to just levitate until he decides if he feels like building the rest of the structure. Studying Torah follows the same principle. A person needs to be well grounded in the basic, the Written Torah, Prophets, and Writings—Tanach. Then he learns halacha of the Mishneh, what the laws mean, how to follow them; this is found in the Gemora. Torah is also learned through Midrash, allegoric stories that lend more depth, more understanding, to the Torah’s text. Then there are the secrets that were received (kabbal, in Hebrew) by Moshe at Sinai.

The four levels of Torah, all necessary for full understanding, are represented by the acronym PaRDes, which means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew.
Pashat - Written. “Pashat” means “simple.” This is the plain meaning of the text.
Remez - Mishneh, Oral Law. “Remez” means “clue.” It is the meaning hinted at, or alluded to in the text.
Derush - Midrash. “Derush” means “sermon.” It is the homiletical parables, the poetic of Midrash. It can be seen as a literary expansion of the text. Yet some of the stories are to be seen in their literal sense, secrets undisclosed in the written.
Sod- Kabbalah. “Sod” means “secrets.” It is the mystical, given over in methods, such as gematria, the numerical equivalent of each letter, deriving deeper meaning from the words. The sod level has its own language, the terminology of kabbalah, that lends deeper understanding to the initiated reader. The study of Torah is a journey into the Garden, where one may partake of the Tree of Life. This is so desirable, our souls yearn for it; we were created to commune with our Creator. Yet there are warnings.

In Tractate Chagigah the Talmud relates a very famous story of four sages who entered Pardes. They achieved this through meditation, yet the lessons of the story hold for studying the secrets, as well. Four entered the Orchard (Pardes). They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the Other, and Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba warned them, “When you enter near the stones of pure marble, do not say ‘water, water,’ since [there is actually no water there at all, and] it is written, ‘He who speaks falsehood will not be established before My eyes’” (Psalms 101:7).
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him it is written, “Precious in Gd’s eyes is the death of His saints” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Regarding him it is written, “You have found honey, eat moderately lest you bloat yourself and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16).
The Other (Elisha ben Abuya) gazed and cut his plantings (became a heretic).
Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and left in peace… The angels also wished to cast down Rabbi Akiba but the Blessed Holy One said, “Leave this elder alone, for he is worthy of making use of My glory.” --Chagigah 14b, quoted in Inner Space by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (pg. 125)

“Ben Azzai gazed and died.” He became so engrossed in the spiritual experience that he could not return to his body. It was particularly tragic, because he was young and unmarried. He was exceedingly brilliant and concentrated only on Torah, yet without drawing it into this world.

“Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken.” He literally lost his mind. He saw the pillars of pure marble and could not resist saying “water, water.” He spoke falsehood in Heaven, the very thing Rabbi Akiba had warned all of them not to do. The paradox he was seeing was more than he could handle. He became confounded by the illusion of duality. Rather than waiting for more information, he drew a false conclusion and spoke it out. His mind, unable to hold the idea he was perceiving, cracked.

“The Other (Elisha ben Abuya) gazed and cut his plantings (became a heretic).” Elisha made the false assumption that there were two authorities. We can look at this as approaching the Tree of Life and breaking off one branch and worshiping it, rather than seeing the whole Tree as One. This is the danger of concentrating on one aspect of Gd, rather than seeing Him as Unified. Herein is the manner in which people err with the idea of multiplicity of Gd—Gd forbid.

“Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and left in peace.” He was able to maintain the balance necessary to approach the highest ideas of Torah, the highest places in Heaven. Why would the angels want to cast him down? He was attaining the status of the human soul’s potential, which is higher than that of the angels, even while in physical form. This accords a human being privileged access to Hashem that they, the angels, will never enjoy—“making use of My glory.”

When a person enters the meditative state, he is vulnerable, without the defenses of his conscious mind. In this state he is prey to deceiving spirits. His foundational faith in Hashem, therefore, has to be very strong in order to “leave in peace, “ as did Rabbi Akiba. Indeed, all founders of new religions are receiving their “new revelations” from spirit beings.

In the seventeenth century lived a man named Shabbatai Tzvi. He was a brilliant, young student of kabbalah. He was so charismatic that people rallied to him, convinced he was the Mashiach. In Gaza, a prophet, named Nathan wrote about him and proclaimed him to be. The time was close after the pogroms of the Chmielnicki Cossack uprising in the Ukraine, during which tens of thousands of Jews had died. The Jewish people were certain the Redemption was at hand and they were being returned to the Promised Land. However, when Shabbatai Tzvi went to Turkey, the sultan forced him to convert to Islam. That ended the hope that he was the Mashiach. There were still people who stayed loyal to Shabbatai Tzvi, however, who practiced grave heresies they had learned from him. In a detached understanding of kabbalah, Shabbatai Tzvi had come to some very flawed conclusions about the Eternal Oneness of Gd. Even one so brilliant, fell into error. Like Chava, he overstepped his boundaries; his vessel was not large enough to hold the revelation he desired. Like Ben-Zoma, he came to false conclusions that he then taught as doctrines. Like the Other, his false conclusions were ideas of multiplicity of Gd that led him to teach a concept he called “the holy sinner”—“sinning for the sake of Gd.” He was known to openly eat non-kosher food and condoned illicit sexual practices, all for the sake of “unifying Gd.”

This fiasco was a devastating blow to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Then came the Baal Shem Tov, who taught that the common man can approach Gd. It was a new approach to the mystical that caused upheaval in the Jewish yeshiva world, for the scholars who remembered Shabbatai Tzvi. Yet it was a necessary breakthrough for the preservation of Judaism among the people.

In his book Meditation and Kabbalah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan discusses the various methods of kabbalist schools through history. Meditative kabbalah utilizes the secrets of the Torah to ascend to the higher worlds—to Pardes. After relating the history of each master, he notes the dangers. He ends with a chapter on Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who taught his students to meditate on scriptures, specifically Psalms, and says that while this may seem simple, one may attain a very high state through it safely.

The mysteries deepen our understanding, helping us grasp the Torah more fully. The dangers arise when we try to learn these mysteries in a detached manner. Study of the upper levels of Torah, especially the esoteric and mystical, must be anchored to the basic of Written Torah. Like building a house, brick upon brick, knowledge of Torah must be built line upon line, precept upon precept.

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