AN INTRODUCTION TO KABBALAH
(in 10 parts)
by Professor Jay Michaelson
Part 3:Three Answers
To The Ultimate Question
(in 10 parts)
by Professor Jay Michaelson
To The Ultimate Question
Last post, in part two of our introduction to Kabbalah, we suggested that in Jewish mystical theology, “God does not exist — God is existence itself.” But then we ended by asking if this is true, if everything is God, why do things appear as they do? And what are we supposed to do about it? What is the best use of our time as human beings?
Kabbalah, the centuries-old system of Jewish mysticism and esotericism, offers three types of answers to these questions. The answers are not contradictory but are, at the very least, three different perspectives on how a unitary world appears as multiplicity, and what to do about it. These three types of answers are found in three distinct streams of Kabbalah: what scholars call theosophical Kabbalah, prophetic/ecstatic Kabbalah, and practical/magical Kabbalah. These categories are not hard and fast, but the distinctions are productive ones, so let’s take a look.
1. Theosophical Kabbalah
The most well-known and influential stream of Kabbalah is theosophical Kabbalah — or what Kabbalists themselves call “Kabbalah of the sefirot” (we’ll get to that term in a moment.) “Theosophical” here refers not to the early-20th century occultist movement, but to the principle that it is possible to know the nature of God. Thus, classic theosophical texts of the Kabbalah, such as the Zohar, talk about the “shape” of the Godhead, how our actions influence and mirror the Divine, how the nature of the world reflects the Divine reality and so on. By gradually developing and deepening this esoteric knowledge, the spiritually adept come to see the manifest world as perhaps the skin of the Divine, beneath which are endlessly deep layers of symbol and myth.
Theosophical Kabbalah’s central symbolic structure is that of the ten sefirot — an untranslatable word, sometimes rendered as “emanations,” the neo-Platonic term for the stages of development from unity to multiplicity. One helpful metaphor is to think of the sefirot as ten different panes of stained glass through which the Infinite Light — the ohr ein sof — shines. For many theosophical texts, the world exists and appears as it does because God manifests through these sefirot, which both contain God’s Light and, to speak in metaphor, dimmed or colored it in increasing degrees. Indeed, by the time this “light” reaches the final sefirah, Malchut, it can appear to us that it is completely concealed.
Experientially, learning theosophical Kabbalah transforms our understanding of the world; everything, every word, every moment is like a symbol for a ripple in the Godhead. As the deep structure of reality is uncovered, through ever greater sensitivity to and immersion in the Kabbalah’s symbolic structure, our consciousness expands. In every blade of grass is the entire universe. For theosophical Kabbalah, we might say the life well lived is that which is subtly attuned to these symbolic structures and enriched by that knowledge. We will explore the sefirot in detail, and take a look at some key theosophical texts in future installments.
2. Prophetic Kabbalah
The second stream of Kabbalah is the prophetic Kabbalah (kabbalah nevuit), sometimes called “ecstatic Kabbalah” because it contains spiritual practices that lead to ecstatic mystical states. Until the 20th century, no Kabbalists used this term, for them the point was not the ecstatic states themselves, but the prophecy that could be obtained through them. The prophetic Kabbalah, most importantly in the writings of Abraham Abulafia, contains meditation practices, symbolic associations and what we might today understand as stream-of-consciousness writing for attaining union with the Divine.
Notice the difference in approach between prophetic Kabbalah and theosophical Kabbalah. Prophetic Kabbalah is about cultivating mystical experiences to obtain hidden knowledge. Theosophical Kabbalah is about studying and learning esoteric secrets. As scholar Melila Helner-Eshed has recently shown, this “studying” is itself a mystical experience, but the distinction still holds. Prophetic Kabbalah also uses the conceptual structure of the sefirot, but focuses less on understanding complex mythical and symbolic structures and more on techniques for altering the mind in order to open it to God. Language plays an essential role in both systems: the Hebrew Alphabet is seen as the underlying structure of the universe, a sort of “periodic table” which contains all the elements of the cosmos. In theosophical Kabbalah, language is mined for its symbolic associations. In prophetic Kabbalah, those associations themselves become grist for generating mystical experience.
In Abulafia’s Maimonidean terminology, the insights one receives when the mind is warmed up by ecstatic practice come from the Active Intellect, the wisdom of the Divine which shapes and maintains the universe, and they — not the experience itself — are why the practices are important. In the practices of prophetic Kabbalah, the individual soul is annihilated. Once its illusory self is seen to be nothing but illusion, the world is experienced as nothing but the Divine Light, and one has access to the radiance of this Light, which is the source of prophecy. More than theosophical Kabbalah, prophetic Kabbalah closely resembles the mystical practices of other religious traditions, with meditation practices and other means of cleansing the doors of perception so that they can accept the Infinite. For prophetic Kabbalah, the best use of our time is cultivating states of higher consciousness so that we can have knowledge of God.
3. Practical Kabbalah
Third and last of the Kabbalistic “answers” of why the world is the way it is, and what to do about it, is that of practical Kabbalah (kabbalah ma’asit), sometimes called magical Kabbalah or theurgical Kabbalah. On the basic level, this form of Kabbalah contains a bewildering array of mythical and magical teachings: demons, angels, golems, amulets, spells, you name it. But we can understand practical Kabbalah thematically by putting it in the context of our original question of unity and multiplicity — how the Infinite One relates to the finite many.
We might say that theosophical Kabbalah is concerned primarily with the relationship of finite to infinite, prophetic Kabbalah with how to unite with the infinite, and practical Kabbalah about how to manipulate the finite. Prophetic Kabbalah is the “up there,” practical the “down here,” and theosophical the relationship between the two. Of course, this is a very crude reduction of a thousand years of religious cultivation, but after all, we are only on installment 3.
Practical Kabbalah includes various esoteric practices such as divination, doctrines such as the transmigration of souls — a lively world of angels and demons — and legends such as the Golem. Theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalists tend to denigrate magic to them; however, it is moving in the wrong direction. Still, some of the oldest Kabbalistic texts we have are magical formulas and incantations, and the most popular forms of Kabbalah today make heavy use of magic. In Israel, Kabbalistic healers offer remedies for everything from infertility to depression, and in America, the Kabbalah Centre makes magical use of the Zohar and various talismans.
Practical Kabbalah is enormously popular, and not surprisingly. Because of the three streams, it is the most concerned with influencing the life we are leading here on Earth: protecting us from harm and giving us the keys to worldly success. Whether these keys actually work, well, that’s for you to decide. But remember, for keys to work, you’ve got to use them to open doors.
In a sense, these three “answers” are really three approaches to how we are to live. This “life advice” may take the form of quasi-magical techniques that may heal us, or ecstatic practices that may give us equanimity and liberate us from the endless cycle of desire and suffering, or theosophical intentions that transform our daily consciousness. In all cases, to truly study Kabbalah is to live it, to bring its wisdom into our every act, and to understand ourselves in light of its truths. Before moving on to the details of these three systems, next Part (4) we’ll pause to explore how Kabbalah does this — how it can work as a spiritual practice for those of us who are not medieval rabbis but contemporary folks like you and me.