Kabbalah is a subject and system of thought concerning the spiritual characteristic of the Jewish religion. It is often considered as a set of mysterious teachings intended to describe the significance of both the Hebrew Bible known as Tanakh and the conventional Rabbinic writings, and to enlighten the importance of Judaism adherences.
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Kabbalah contemplates the concentration of Jewish holiness towards the character of mysticism, the conception, the soul’s development and destiny, and the position of humans in this universe. It is often regard as an impenetrable off-branch of the Jewish religion for the reason that it emphasizes on consideration, faithfulness, and spiritual developments. Kabbalah initiated only for the people of the Jewish religion, nevertheless various non-Jews have considered Kabbalah as well.
Kabbalah came together and still concentrates on Zohar, its elemental book. Moses de León wrote Zohar in 13th century when he was in Spain. The book explores heavenly obscurities beneath the appearance of an explanation of the Torah. Kabbalah started to spread out further than its small group of intellectuals after the 18th century materialization of Hasidism as a Jewish movement in East of Europe. Several Kabbalist scholars, nevertheless, were assassinated in the Holocaust, becoming the grounds of the practice to get weaker for a short term.
History of Kabbalah
Historically, the Kabbalah has existed in some tension with rabbinic Judaism, which focuses on halakah, the tradition of Jewish law written in the Torah and its rabbinic commentaries. While the secret Torah of the Kabbalists was apprehended through intuition, imagination, and faith, the written Torah and its rabbinic commentaries were interpreted by highly educated teachers trained in rational debate and argumentation. Adding to this difference, rabbinic Judaism steered firmly away from images of God and sharply distinguished the inscrutable and transcendent nature of God from that of his creatures.
The Kabbalists were an esoteric elite within an elite, and up to the end of the sixteenth century, they showed no interest in spreading their ideas among the masses. Until the end of the fifteenth century the influence of the Zohar was confined mainly to small circles in Spain and Italy. Its influence gradually spread after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, but it took some time before its influence was felt among the Ashkenazi Jews in northwestern, central, and Eastern Europe. Until the advent of Hasidism in the eighteenth century, the Kabbalah was largely controlled by rabbinic scholars who made study of Kabbalah a privilege reserved for rabbis steeped in halakah. The Baal Shem Tov and his followers drew the Kabbalah away from rabbinic control. Not that they were disrespectful of halakah, or uncommitted to ritual observances that set them apart as Jews. But with the Hasidim, the Kabbalah became an alternative to rabbinic Judaism, a form of popular religion defined by and for the common people.
In part, the Kabbalah represented a reaction to the antimythological and antimonistic world of mainstream rabbinism. The Kabbalists retained the notion of a transcendental, infinite God and did not return to a mythical stage of religion. Instead, they presented a dialectical synthesis of mythical and transcendental religion containing many diverse and contradictory elements. The Kabbalists expressed the absolute and unknowable aspects of the divine by the term Ein-Sof (Infinite), and they built a phenomenally complex and intricate theosophy around the notion of the progressive manifestations or emanations of the Divinity. The successive manifestations of the Divinity were divided into ten fundamental categories, realms, or phases known as Sephirot: Crown, Wisdom, Intelligence, Mercy, Power, Compassion, Eternity, Majesty, Foundation, and Kingdom. The Sephirot were correlated to a great number of other symbols, such as the body of Adam Kadmon (primordial man), the names of God, the elements, the metals, and the mythical cosmic tree. The mythological theme was pronounced in the symbolic correlations between four Sephirot and a divine family: Wisdom was the Supernal Father, Intelligence was the Supernal Mother, Compassion was their Son, and the last Sephira, Kingdom, was their Daughter. The Kabbalists made clear that the members of the divine family were but four aspects of the godhead, but many passages of the Zohar appear to move from the metaphorical to the mythological realm. The members of the divine family had independent feelings, and they conversed and interrelated with each other as separate persons. The Zohar also gave numerous accounts of episodes in their lives and described the relationships between the divine couple and between son and daughter in highly erotic terms.
The Kabbalah reintroduced the close interrelationships of mythological religion between events in the divine realm and events in the world. The happy and intense love relationship between the divine son and daughter was disrupted by the sins of Israel, and the divine bedchamber was destroyed with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. The daughter was also known as the Queen, Lady, Matronit, and Shechinah. In the talmudic sense the Shechinah represented the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, especially in Israel, but the Kabbalah identified the Shechinah with both the feminine aspects of the divine and the community of Israel. Thus, the exile of the Jewish people represented a separation of the masculine and feminine principles of the Divinity, and the Redemption of the Jewish people would constitute the reunion of those principles.
The Kabbalists stressed not only the interrelationship of the divine and human worlds but also their mutual effects. The observance of a commandment was a concrete symbol of a divine essence, but it also transmitted an effect to that essence. The Zohar stressed that all “upper happenings” required stimulation by “lower happenings.” Every religious act performed with the proper kavanah (intention) was “for the sake of the reunion of God and His Shechinah.” Not only important historical events but also the regular activities of ordinary people were built into the cosmogony. The weekly divine union of the King and the Matronit was the prototype of the traditional weekly union between husbands and wives. According to the Kabbalists, when pious scholars coupled with their wives on Friday night, they recognized that they were imitating the union that took place at the same time between the divine beings. If the wife conceived at that time, the child would have one of the pure souls procreated in the divine copulation. The human imitation of the divine act not only sanctified the sexual act but also helped the godhead to achieve mystical unity: the human act caused the King to fertilize the Matronit, who gave birth to human souls and angels.
The Kabbalists rejected any charge that they were polytheistic heretics. They claimed that while a passage might appear to be heretical, its true meaning was in conformity with tradition, which would be understood if a person immersed himself in the hidden truths. They argued that their conceptions did not affect the fundamental Oneness of God but that the Shechinah and other elements were symbols that would help men comprehend the divine emanations. The Kabbalists were traditional mystics insofar as they accepted the sacred texts and the existing ritual of rabbinic Judaism. They did not reject the literal meanings of the Torah, but they tended to devalue them in favor of symbolic meanings that were hidden in the text. Every word of the Torah was said to have six thousand “faces,” or meanings, which were found at different levels of the mystical search and could be ordered in a hierarchy. Likewise, they attributed new meanings to the traditional rituals. For example, they related rituals of the Sabbath and festivals to the sacred marriage, the union of the male and female aspects of the Divinity. The Kabbalists did not regard their new interpretations as a break with traditional authority, and they confirmed that authority by claiming that their revelations had come from the Prophet Elijah, whom they conceived as the vigilant custodian of Jewish tradition. Their claim that they had communicated with the Prophet Elijah rather than directly with God was also an acknowledgment that their revelations were lower and less authoritative than the revelations of the past.
Jewish mysticism was relational and nonabsorptive: the complexities of its theosophy were set within the framework of a unique and unknowable God. It was hypernomian rather than antinomian: the Kabbalists tended to be highly pious, ascetic men who kept the mitsvot (commandments) in a strict fashion. The emphasis was on knowledge rather than experience: the Kabbalists were less interested in describing their experiences than in presenting mystical commentaries on the texts. In contrast to the rabbinic tradition, where the object of study was God’s revealed will, the object of study of the mystics was the Divinity itself; but the mystics remained traditionalists in following the method of scholarly commentary on the texts, and they generally accepted the rule that mystical practice and speculation should be restricted to fully trained talmudic scholars.
The complicated theosophy of the Kabbalah remained the esoteric concern of small elite, but certain elements, doctrines, and practices were absorbed at the popular level. One branch of the Kabbalah which appealed to the unscholarly came to be known as “practical Kabbalah.” This focused on the magical use of the sacred and esoteric names of God and the angels, but the term practical Kabbalah came to be used to encompass all magical practices in Jewish communities. A number of cabbalistic beliefs, such as the transmigration of souls, became part of folk Judaism, and certain cabbalistic rituals, such as the midnight vigils for the exile of the Shechinah, became widespread. The conception of the Shechinah as the female element within the Deity had an important influence on the masses from the sixteenth century. In its popular expressions the Shechinah was no mere symbol or emanation but a discrete goddess who took on pronounced physical attributes and with whom the people could feel a deep, emotional attachment. Unlike the divine King who had become remote from the people following the destruction of the Temple, the Shechinah shared the exile of the Jewish people and could be approached directly at any time or place.
In the recent times, through the internet and TV and through the writings of modern writers such as Yehuda Berg, Kabbalah has gained more popularity. Numerous conventional Kabalists express disapproval of modern Kabbalah activities as and consider it as imaginary and excessively popularized falsification of genuine Kabbalistic ideology. Even if this is the case, analysis of the Zohar, which was written a number of hundred years ago, disclose theology evocative of the modern time: recreation, internal spirituality, pantheism, etc.
Scholem, Gershom. (1995) Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken.