Of all the ancient spiritual traditions still practiced today, Kabbalah remains as one of the most mysterious. At first glance it seems to an ancient religion, but that’s not 100% accurate. After some study, it has the appearance of being a pseudo-science, but that’s not altogether accurate either. In reality it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s basically a collection of spiritual laws and teachings that provide a foundation for interacting with all things, yet with a healthy dose of vagueness.
To fully understand Kabbalah, the individual needs to have tremendous knowledge about ancient religions, early scientific beliefs, and a very open mind. Even after significant research, most people find themselves with more questions than answers. You could read 5 separate articles about this practice and come away with 5 different viewpoints. In order to keep the confusion to a minimum, this article takes a brief, high-level look at the basic elements, texts, and discusses some of the key thoughts that serve as the guiding principles of Kabbalah.
Where to Start – The Basic Texts of Kabbalah
Kabbalah (alternately Cabala, Kabbala or Qabala(h)) is a mystical and esoteric system based on ancient Jewish oral tradition that answers all questions, both great and small, including understanding God. Through magical rituals, contemplation, mysterious meditations, and philosophical study, the teachings of Kabbalah provide students the potential to expand their mind to an elevated state of consciousness. It offers a pathway to understanding creation, the role of humankind while we are here on earth, and even the human soul. The word Kabbalah means ‘to receive’ or ‘accept’ and is often used synonymously with ‘tradition’. Through the teachings of Kabbalah, practitioners learn to open themselves fully and completely; they must be prepared to receive that which they wish to understand. All in all, pretty complicated stuff, even to those who are spiritual minded.
Experienced practitioners of Kabbalah say that in order to truly understand it, you must read the core written texts associated with Kabbalah. These include the Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Creation), written about 4,000 years ago and the Zohar, written about 2,000 years ago by Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai. Others are texts by the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) in the 16th century and various texts by Baal HaSulam (Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag) in the 20th century.
One of Baal HaSulam’s key writings s the Talmud Eser Sefirot (The Study of the Ten Sefirot). The Sefirot can be understood as 10 different channels in which God reveals his will. But, even though most scholars agree on the need to understand the Sefirot, there are different interpretations of the work, which leads to uncertainty.
Origins of Kabbalah
Scholar’s of Kabbalah claim that since the beginning of humankind, the wisdom of Kabbalah has existed. Most practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date those of the other major world religions, yet this point in itself is a sticky one. There are many people who see Kabbalah as a religion while others do not, however the comparisons seem to always be with other ancient religions. Once the oral traditions were analyzed and written down, Kabbalah became more formalized. The first influential book, the Sefer Yetsirah (Book of Formation), comes from unknown origins, but there is substantial debate over when and who first wrote it. Some claim it was penned by Abraham the Patriarch. Truthfully, there is no factual data to support the identity of the writer at this time.
The book analyzes the creation of the world, how things came into existence, and the 32 paths of wisdom. Later came the Zohar (Book of Splendor), which quickly became the most important text to Kabbalah. The Zohar is a commentary on sections of the Torah, and elaborates on many Rabbinic texts including the Talmud, the Bahir, Midrash Rabba, and Sefer Yetsirah. Through that commentary, the willing reader is exposed to insights of all things, both physical and spiritual.
Because Kabbalah was highly secretive in it’s early years, there are many gaps in what we know today. Modern scholars can form a general timeline on how the practice evolved, but the minute details are missing.
Three Branches of Kabbalah, The Tree of Life, and Symbolism
Three main branches of Kabbalah existed over history. The Judaic Kabbalah, which is the original practice from ancient times, established the primary system and the symbols of Kabbalah. As the ancient Jewish texts entered non-Jewish circles, Hermetic Kabbalah developed independently from the traditional version during the Italian Renaissance. Hermetic Kabbalah combined elements of astrology, divination, magic, and alchemy with those of traditional Kabbalah. Those practices were considered part of the occult and by embracing them, the old practice was forever changed. The third branch, Modern Kabbalah which originated in the early 1700’s was inspired by both of the earlier branches but has adopted many concepts of our modern metaphysical world. In the last few hundred years, Modern Kabbalah has influenced modern science, psychology, and philosophy. Collectively all three branches are heavily associated with symbology, so deep that it would take a lifetime to fully understand. Many of the symbols of Kabbalah are associated with other ancient religions and modern Western esoteric practices.
One very important symbol is called the Tree of Life (Otz Chiim). It is a diagram of the 10 Sefirot, or divine numbers, shown as circles, and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, shown as connections, or pathways between each. The complete glyph and its interconnections represent the 32 paths of secret wisdom. Almost as soon as it was introduced, it quickly became the central point of all meaningful discussions. Additionally, the Star of David, the Mezuzah, the Merkabah, and even the Pentagram, which was used by the Hebrews as a symbol of Truth and to represent the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, have their roots in ancient Jewish mysticism. Cabalists believe in reincarnation and Angels, Demons, Ghosts, and wayward sprits are found in the ancient oral traditions. Kabbalah goes into detail on how and why demons exist and how the concept of evil emerged through misappropriated universal energy.
In addition to considering the source of evil, Kabbalah looks at creation and places human beings as having a central role in it. It also analyzes the human soul, dividing it into three separate parts, and teaches how two of the three parts can be developed to achieve enlightenment. Cabalists have a different way of looking at God; God in Essence and God in Manifestation, with the former being unknowable but the latter accessible with study and understanding. Yet, despite Kabbalah having origins in religious texts, it is not a religion. It is a science. It does not have any special rules or icons. It is an ancient spiritual practice that is not based on faith, but rather truth, wisdom, and receiving spiritual enlightenment.
Modern Day Kabbalah
Kabbalah is thriving in the modern world. There are more than forty branches worldwide today thanks to Phillip Berg (birth name Feivel Gruberger), who had a vision of teaching Kabbalah to the masses. In July 1965, Berg and others founded a publishing house called “The National Institute for the Research in Kabbalah” to publish translations of older books and fundraise. In 1970, Berg legally changed the name of the National Institute to “The Research Centre of Kabbalah”, establishing it as an independent Centre. It was also at this time that he began publishing his own interpretations. This Research Centre was to resolve a widespread spiritual crisis affecting Jews that felt teachings at that time were inadequate for the youth. Up until his death, Berg believed Kabbalah had the answers to the questions the younger generations needed to keep them from straying into cultist or Eastern metaphysical practices that did not support his vision of divinity and God.
In the early 2000’s many celebrities flocked to Kabbalah, including pop singer Madonna. Yet as time passed many of these same supporters became disenchanted and left the practice, citing it had been corrupted with scandals and financial fraud. The Centre still has locations around the world today, but the number of devout members has dropped significantly.