Introduction: A Glimpse of the Orchard - The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt

The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt (1996)

Introduction: A Glimpse of the Orchard

THE HEBREW word kabbalah means “receiving” or “that which has been received.” On the one hand, Kabbalah refers to tradition, ancient wisdom received and treasured from the past. On the other hand, if one is truly receptive, wisdom appears spontaneously, unprecedented, taking you by surprise.

The Jewish mystical tradition combines both of these elements. Its vocabulary teems with what the Zohar—the canonical text of the Kabbalah—calls “new-ancient words.” Many of its formulations derive from traditional sources—the Bible and rabbinic literature—but with a twist. For example, “the world that is coming,” a traditional phrase often understood as referring to a far-off messianic era, turns into “the world that is constantly coming,” constantly flowing, a timeless dimension of reality available right here and now, if one is receptive.

The rabbinic concept of Shekhinah, divine immanence, blossoms into the feminine half of God, balancing the patriarchal conception that dominates the Bible and the Talmud. Kabbalah retains the traditional discipline of Torah and mitsvot (commandments), but now the mitsvot have cosmic impact: “The secret of fulfilling the mitsvot is the mending of all the worlds and drawing forth the emanation from above.”1 According to Kabbalah, every human action here on earth affects the divine realm, either promoting or hindering the union of Shekhinah and her partner—the Holy One, blessed be he. God is not static being, but dynamic becoming. Without human participation, God remains incomplete, unrealized. It is up to us to actualize the divine potential in the world. God needs us.

Kabbalah owes its success to this piquant blend of tradition and creativity, loyalty to the past and bold innovation. The kabbalists grew adept at walking the tightrope between blind fundamentalism and mystical anarchy, though a number of them lost their balance and fell into one extreme or the other. Remarkably, despite their startling ideas and sometimes shocking imagery, the kabbalists aroused relatively little opposition, compared to some of the famous Islamic Sufis and Catholic mystics such as Hallaj and Meister Eckhart. No doubt this was due in part to the esoteric method of transmitting Kabbalah. At first, the secret teachings were conveyed orally from master to disciple and restricted to small circles. Even when written down, the message was often cryptic, sometimes concluding: “This is sufficient for one who is enlightened,” or “The enlightened one will understand,” or “I cannot expand on this, for thus have I been commanded.”

From the beginning of the movement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Kabbalah was promoted by renowned, learned rabbis such as Rabad of Posquières and Nahmanides. Strongly committed to traditional observance, the kabbalists could not easily be attacked as radicals. But they were profoundly radical, and they touched something deep in the human soul.

The kabbalists made the fantastic claim that their mystical teachings derived from the Garden of Eden. This suggests that Kabbalah conveys our original nature: the unbounded awareness of Adam and Eve. We have lost this nature, the most ancient tradition, as the inevitable consequence of tasting the fruit of knowledge, the price of maturity and culture. The kabbalist yearns to recover that primordial tradition, to regain cosmic consciousness, without renouncing the world.

Visions of God

Kabbalah emerges as a distinct movement within Judaism in medieval Europe, but the experience of direct contact with the divine is already evident in the earliest Jewish book—the Bible. When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he is overwhelmed: “afraid to look at God,” he hides his face. Soon God reveals the divine name, “I am that I am,” intimating what eventually becomes a mystical refrain: God cannot be defined (Exodus 3:6, 14). Later, at Mt. Sinai, Moses asks to see the divine presence, but God tells him, “No human can see me and live.” Yet the Torah concludes by saying that God knew Moses “face to face” (Exodus 33:20; Deuteronomy 34:10). The prophet Isaiah sees God enthroned in the Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by fiery angels who call out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is filled with his presence” (Isaiah 6:3). The most graphic account of a vision of God is undoubtedly the opening chapter of the book of Ezekiel. Standing by a river in Babylon, the prophet sees a throne whirling through heaven, accompanied by four winged creatures darting to and fro. On the throne is “a figure with the appearance of a human being,” surrounded by radiance like a rainbow.

Ezekiel experienced this vision near the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. Even before his book was canonized as part of the Bible, his vision had become the archetype of Jewish mystical ascent. Until the emergence of Kabbalah, Jewish mystics used Ezekiel’s account as their model. Ma’aseh merkavah, the account of the chariot—as it came to be called—was expounded in some circles, imitated in others. An entire literature developed recounting the visionary exploits of those who followed in Ezekiel’s footsteps, among them some of the leading figures of rabbinic Judaism. The journey was arduous and dangerous, requiring intense, ascetic preparation and precise knowledge of secret passwords in order to be admitted to the various heavenly palaces guarded by menacing angels. The final goal was to attain a vision of the divine figure on the throne.

The danger of the mystical search is conveyed by a famous report in the Talmud of four rabbis who ventured into pardes, the divine orchard, or paradise:

Four entered pardes: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher,
and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai glimpsed and died.
Ben Zoma glimpsed and went mad. Aher cut
the plants. Rabbi Akiva emerged in peace.2

Aher, “the other one,” is the nickname of Elisha ben Avuyah, the most famous heretic in rabbinic literature. The exact nature of his heresy is unclear; the metaphor of “cutting the plants” may refer to his conversion to Gnostic dualism. In any case, only Rabbi Akiva, we are told, emerged unscathed.

Certain Jewish mystics went so far as to formulate detailed descriptions of the body of God. These texts became known as Shi’ur Qomuh, “the measurement of the [divine] stature.” Such extreme anthropomorphism generated criticism, such as that of Moses Maimonides, but it also influenced the bold mythical language of the Kabbalah.

Secrets of Creation

The account of Ezekiel’s chariot formed one major branch of early Jewish mysticism. The other branch was ma’aseh bereshit, the account of creation, or cosmology. The most important text concerning these secrets was Sefer Yetsirah. The Book of Creation, composed apparently in Palestine sometime between the third and sixth centuries. Here we are told how God created the world by means of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sefirot—a term that appears for the first time in Hebrew literature. Genesis and Psalms had already indicated that divine speech was the tool of creation. “God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’” “By the word of God the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth, all their hosts” (Genesis 1:1; Psalms 33:6). What is new in Sefer Yetsirah is the detailed speculation on how God combined the individual letters, as well as the idea of the sefirot, which in this text are numerical entities, living beings embodying the numbers one through ten, ciphers, metaphysical potencies through which creation unfolds. The notion that numbers are essential to the structure of the cosmos derives from Pythagorean mysticism. Gradually, however, the sefirot evolved into something more, becoming the central symbol system of Kabbalah.

The Zohar

Based on these earlier traditions, Kabbalah emerged in its own right in the fertile region of Provence toward the end of the twelfth century. Here a variegated Jewish community flourished, a center of learning that encompassed rabbinic law, philosophy, and mysticism. Sefer ha-Bahir. usually considered the first kabbalistic text, was edited here. Ironically, although bahir means “bright” or “clear,” this small book is unimaginably obscure: an often impenetrable collection of esoteric fragments. In it, the sefirot now appear as lights, powers, and attributes, similar to the divine potencies described in Gnostic literature. They represent stages of God’s inner life, aspects of the divine personality. There is no unified scheme; the sefirot are described in various and conflicting ways. Over the next hundred years, as Kabbalah spread over the Pyrenees into Catalonia and then to Castile, the symbolic system crystallized. Elements of Neoplatonic mysticism were incorporated, as well as speculations on the origin of evil.

Around the year 1280, a Spanish Jewish mystic named Moses de León began circulating booklets to his fellow kabbalists. Written in lyrical Aramaic, they were replete with nonce words, arcane symbolism, and erotic imagery. The tales and teachings were esoteric, yet enchanting. Moses claimed that he was merely the scribe, copying from an ancient book of wisdom. The original had supposedly been composed in the circle of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a famous disciple of Rabbi Akiva who lived and taught in the second century in the land of Israel.

These booklets were the first installments of an immense work: Sefer ha-Zohar, The Book of Radiance. De León’s claim was widely accepted, and the Zohar’s ostensible pedigree helped promote the young kabbalistic movement. Few dared to challenge the ancient teachings of Shim’on bar Yohai and the havrayya, his mystical companions. The Zohar gradually became Ha-Zohar ha-Qadosh, The Holy Zohar, the canonical text of Kabbalah, and most subsequent Kabbalah was based on its teachings. Only in relatively recent times has Moses de León’s actual role in the Zohar’s generation become more clear.

More than a scribe, De León was the composer of the Zohar. He drew on earlier material; he may have collaborated with other kabbalists; and he may have genuinely believed that he was transmitting ancient teachings.3 Indeed, parts of the Zohar may have been composed through automatic writing, a technique in which the mystic would meditate on a divine name, enter a trance, and begin to “write whatever came to his hand.” Such a technique was reportedly used by other thirteenth-century kabbalists. But Moses de León wove his various sources into a masterpiece: a commentary on the Torah in the form of a mystical novel. Rabbi Shim’on and the havrayya wander through Galilee exchanging kabbalistic insights. On one level, biblical heroes such as Abraham and Moses are the protagonists, and the rabbis interpret their words, actions, and personalities. The text of the Torah is simply the starting point, a springboard for the imagination. At times, the commentators become the main characters, and we read about dramatic mystical sessions with Rabbi Shim’on or about the companions’ encounters with strange characters on the road, such as an old donkey driver who turns out to be a master of wisdom in disguise.

The Sefirot

The plot of the Zohaz focuses ultimately on the sefirot. By penetrating the literal surface of the Torah, the mystical commentators transform the biblical narrative into a biography of God. The entire Torah is read as a divine name, expressing divine being.4 Even a seemingly insignificant verse can reveal the inner dynamics of the sefirot—how God feels, responds, and acts, how She and He relate intimately with each other and with the world. The opening chapter of Genesis appears to describe the creation of the world, but it alludes to a more primal beginning—the emanation of the sefirot, their emergence from the Infinite, or Ein Sof (literally, “Endless”).5 In contrast to the personal God of the sefirot, Ein Sof represents the radical transcendence of God. Not much more than its name can be said. Here the Jewish mystics adopted the negative theology of Maimonides, who had taught:

The description of God by means of negations is the correct description—a description that is not affected by an indulgence in facile language. … With every increase in the negations regarding God, you come nearer to the apprehension of God.6

The first sefirah shares in the negative nature of Ein Sof and is sometimes referred to as Ayin. Nothingness. As one kabbalist puts it, “Ayin is more existent than all the being of the world. But since it is simple, and every simple thing is complex compared with its simplicity, it is called Ayin.”7 In this primal state, God is undifferentiated being, neither this nor that, no-thingness.

The first sefirah is more commonly called Keter, Crown. It is the crown on the head of Adam Qadmon. Primordial Adam. According to the opening chapter of Genesis, the human being is created in the image of God. The sefirot constitute the divine archetype of that image, the mythical paragon of the human being, our original nature. Another depiction of the sefirot is that of a cosmic tree growing downward from its roots above, from Keter, “the root of roots.”

Out of the depths of Nothingness shines the primordial point of Hokhmah, Wisdom, the second sefirah. This point expands into a circle, the sefirah of Binah. Understanding. Binah is the womb, the Divine Mother. Receiving the seed, the point of Hokhmah, she conceives the seven lower sefirot. Created being, too, has its source in her; she is “the totality of all individuation.”8

These three highest sefirot (Keter, Hokhmah, and Binah) represent the head of the divine body and are considered more hidden than the offspring of Binah. She gives birth first to Hesed (Love) and Gevurah (Power), also known as Din (Judgment). Hesed and Gevurah are the right and left arms of God, two poles of the divine personality: free-flowing love and strict judgment, grace and limitation. For the world to function properly, both are essential. Ideally a balance is achieved, symbolized by the central sefirah, Tif’eret (Beauty), also called Rahamim (Compassion). If judgment is not softened by love, it lashes out and threatens to destroy life. Here lies the origin of evil, called Sitra Ahra, the Other Side. From a more radical perspective, evil originates in divine thought, which eliminates waste before emanating goodness. The demonic is rooted in the divine.

Tif’eret is the trunk of the sefirotic body. He is called Heaven, Sun, King, and the Holy One, blessed be he, the standard rabbinic name for God. He is the son of Hokhmah and Binah. The next two sefirot are Netsah (Eternity) and Hod (Splendor). They form the right and left legs of the body and are the source of prophecy. Yesod (Foundation) is the ninth sefirah and represents the phallus, the procreative life force of the universe. He is also called Tsaddiq(Righteous One), and Proverbs 10:25 is interpreted as applying to him: “The righteous one is the foundation of the world.” Yesod is the axis mundi, the cosmic pillar. The light and power of the preceding sefirot are channeled through him to the last sefirah, Malkhut.

Malkhut (Kingdom) is also known as Shekhinah (Presence). In earlier Jewish literature, Shekhinah appears frequently as the immanence of God but is not overtly feminine. In Kabbalah, Shekhinah becomes a full-fledged She: daughter of Binah, bride of Tif’eret, the feminine half of God. Shekhinah is “the secret of the possible,” receiving the emanation from above and engendering the varieties of life below.9 The union of Shekhinah and Tif’eret constitutes the focus of religious life. Human righteous action stimulates Yesod, the Righteous One, and brings about the union of the divine couple. Human marriage symbolizes and actualizes divine marriage. Sabbath eve is the weekly celebration of the cosmic wedding, and the ideal time for human lovers to unite.

The mythical imagery of the sefirot is stunning. The kabbalists continually insist that these figures of speech should not be taken literally; they are organic symbols of a spiritual reality beyond normal comprehension. At the start of one of his most anthropomorphic descriptions, Rabbi Shim’on cites a verse from Deuteronomy: “Cursed be the one who makes a carved or molten image, the work of the hands of an artisan, and sets it up in secret.”10 Sefirotic descriptions are intended to convey something of the beyond; becoming fixated on the image itself prevents genuine communication.

Critics charge that the theory of Ein Sof and the sefirot is dualistic, that by positing and describing ten aspects of divinity, Kabbalah verges on polytheism. As one iconoclastic kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia, noted, some adherents of the sefirot have outdone Catholic adherents of the trinity, turning God into ten!11 The kabbalists maintain that the sefirot and Ein Sof form a unity, “like a flame joined to a burning coal.” “It is they, and they are it.” “They are its name, and it is they.”12 From the human perspective, the sefirot appear to possess a multiple and independent existence. Ultimately, however, all of them are one; the true reality is the Infinite.13 Nevertheless, the prominent mythological character of the system cannot be denied. In a sense Kabbalah represents “the revenge of myth,” its resurgence after being attacked for centuries, after being pronounced dead by rationalist philosophers.14 The kabbalists appreciate the profundity of myth and its tenacious appeal.

From above to below, the sefirot depict the drama of emanation, the transition from Ein Sof to creation. In the words of Azriel of Gerona, “They constitute the process by which all things come into being and pass away.”15 From below to above, the sefirot constitute a ladder of ascent back to the One. The union of Tif’eret and Shekhinah gives birth to the human soul, and the mystical journey begins with the awareness of this spiritual fact of life. Shekhinah is the opening to the divine: “One who enters must enter through this gate.”16 Once inside, the sefirot are no longer an abstract theological system; they become a map of consciousness. The mystic climbs and probes, discovering dimensions of being. Spiritual and psychological wholeness is achieved by meditating on the qualities of each sefirah, by imitating and integrating the attributes of God. “When you cleave to the sefirot, the divine holy spirit enters into you, into every sensation and every movement.”17 But the path is not easy. Divine will can be harsh: Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac in order to balance love with rigor.18 From the Other Side, demonic-forces threaten and seduce. Contemplatively and psychologically, evil must be encountered, not evaded. By knowing and withstanding the dark underside of wisdom, the spiritual seeker is refined.

Near the top of the sefirotic ladder, meditation reaches Binah. She is called Teshuvah, Return. The ego returns to the womb of being. Binah cannot be held in thought. She is called Who, the meditative question, “Who am I?” The questioning yields nothing that can be grasped, but rather, an intuitive flash illuminating and disappearing, as sunbeams play on the surface of water.19

In the depths of Binah lies Hokhmah, Wisdom. The mystic is nourished from this sphere. Profound and primal, it cannot be known consciously, only absorbed. In the words of Isaac the Blind, one of the earliest kabbalists of Provence, “The inner, subtle essences can be contemplated only by sucking, not by knowing.”20 Beyond Hokhmah is the Nothingness of Keter, the annihilation of thought. In this ultimate sefirah human consciousness expands, dissolving into Infinity.

Only rarely does the Zohar explicitly discuss meditation or mystical experience. It focuses on theosophy—the interplay of the sefirot—and on human conduct. Ethical and spiritual behaviors unite the sefirot, ensuring a flow of blessing and emanation to the lower worlds; unethical or evil human activities disrupt the union above, empowering demonic forces.

The Ecstatic Kabbalah

Alongside this theosophical system, other kabbalists developed an ecstatic Kabbalah. The emphasis here is on meditative techniques, especially the recitation of divine names and combinations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet based on Sefer Yetsirah. The most prominent ecstatic kabbalist was Abraham Abulafia. Born in Spain in 1240, Abulafia traveled and lived in Italy, Sicily, Greece, and the land of Israel. In his travels he may have been influenced by Sufism and yoga. He combined the teachings of Sefer Yetsirah with Maimonides’ theory of prophecy, expounding a technique for achieving a state of inspiration through the fusion of the human and divine intellects.

According to Abulafia, the soul is part of the stream of cosmic life. Our awareness, though, is limited by sensory perceptions, our minds cluttered with sensible forms. The goal is “to untie the knots” that bind the soul, to free the mind from definitions, to move from constriction to the boundless. But how? If one meditates on abstract truths, however sublime, there is still a specific object of meditation, a limited meaning. Abulafia instead recommends focusing on the pure forms of the letters of the alphabet, or on the name of God. Here there is no concrete, particular meaning, no distraction, just the music of pure thought. As the highest form of this meditation, Abulafia recommends “jumping” or “skipping,” a type of free association between various combinations of letters, guided by fairly lax rules. Thereby, consciousness expands.21

Abulafia came to see himself as playing a messianic role, and he actually attempted to meet with Pope Nicholas III in the summer of 1280, apparently to discuss theological and political questions. The pope condemned him to death by burning, but before the sentence could be carried out, the pope himself died. After a month in prison, Abulafia was released. His prophetic and messianic pretensions aroused the opposition of a leading rabbinic authority, Solomon Adret of Barcelona, who condemned Abulafia as a charlatan. As a result, he was forced to flee to the desolate island of Comino, near Malta, and his influence on Spanish Kabbalah was minimized. In the Middle East, though, ecstatic Kabbalah was readily accepted, and kabbalists such as Isaac of Akko reveal clear traces of Abulafia’s teachings. In Palestine, Abulafia’s ideas were combined with Sufi elements, and in this way Sufi views were introduced into Kabbalah.22

The Safed Mystics: Cordovero and Luria

In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain. Along with tens of thousands of other exiles, kabbalists made their way to North Africa, Italy, and the eastern Mediterranean, disseminating mystical ideas. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Kabbalah, with the Zohar as its nucleus, had become an important spiritual factor in Jewish life.

A growing stream of kabbalists began arriving in Palestine. Jerusalem served as their first center, but beginning in the 1540s, the village of Safed became dominant. Perched high above the Sea of Galilee, commanding immense vistas, Safed seems to verge on heaven. The mystics here believed, based on a passage in the Zohar, that if one community lived a life of holiness, the Messiah would soon arrive. They strove to be that ideal community, supporting and urging one another. One of their ritual innovations was welcoming the Sabbath on Friday evening. Walking out to the fields before sunset, they would sing greetings to the Sabbath bride and queen, who was none other than Shekhinah, the feminine presence of God. A poem written in Safed for this occasion, “Lekhah Dodi,” opens with the words: “Come, my beloved, to greet the bride! Let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath.” Today this poem is sung weekly in synagogues and Jewish homes throughout the world.

A leading figure in the mystical community of Safed was Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), who blended the Zohar with ecstatic Kabbalah, already flourishing in Jerusalem. His magisterial Pardes Rimmonim (The Pomegranate Orchard), completed by the time he was twenty-seven, synthesized the teachings of the previous three centuries. On a more popular level, he wrote Or Ne’erav (The Sweet Light), an introduction to Kabbalah, and Tomer Devorah(The Palm Tree of Deborah), a book of mystical ethics, showing how one can imitate God by embodying the qualities of the various sefirot. Soon a whole genre of mystical ethical literature developed, spreading kabbalistic thought and practice widely.

After Cordovero’s death in 1570, one of his students, Isaac Luria, was acknowledged as the mystical master. Born in Jerusalem, Luria lost his father at a young age, and his mother took him to Egypt, where he was brought up in the home of his wealthy uncle. He spent a considerable time in seclusion on an island in the Nile near Cairo, studying the Zohar and the works of Cordovero. Arriving in Safed in 1569 or 1570, he was able to study with Cordovero for only a short time before his teacher passed away.

Luria’s profound influence was due to his saintly behavior, his occult powers, and his novel teachings. He would reveal to each of his disciples the root of his particular soul, its ancestry, and the transmigrations through which it had journeyed. Luria taught in Safed for only about two-and-a-half years before dying in an epidemic in the summer of 1572 at the age of thirty-eight. His fame spread quickly, and he became known as Ha-Ari, “the Lion,” an acronym for “the divine Rabbi Isaac.”

Unlike the prolific Cordovero, Luria wrote hardly anything. When asked by one of his disciples why he did not compose a book, Luria is reported to have said: “It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received’ How can I set it down in a book?”23 We know of Luria’s teachings from his disciples’ writings, especially those of Hayyim Vital.

Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process of emanation start? If Ein Sof pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. According to some versions of Luria’s teaching, the purpose of the withdrawal was cathartic: to make room for the elimination of harsh judgment from Ein Sof.

Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tiqqun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tiqqun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah. In a sense, the Messiah is fashioned by our ethical and spiritual activity. Luria’s teaching resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.”24

Kabbalah’s Continuing Influence

The Lurianic myth of tsimtsum (“contraction” or withdrawal), shevirah (shattering), and tiqqun became central to Kabbalah. Whereas Spanish Kabbalah had been restricted to an aristocratic elite, by the middle of the seventeenth century elements of Luria’s theology and a number of his ritual innovations had spread throughout much of the Jewish world. Later, Lurianic Kabbalah strongly influenced Hasidism, the eighteenth-century revivalist movement in Eastern Europe. Hasidism popularized and psychologized various kabbalistic ideas. In the words of Dov Baer, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezritch, “I teach everyone that all the things described in the book Ets Hayyim pertain also to this world and to the human being.”25

“Raising the sparks” served as a frequent Hasidic motif. Since all material existence is animated by the divine, even the most mundane activity can serve as an opportunity to discover God. This attitude also characterized the life and thought of the most original kabbalist of the twentieth century, Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), who taught that all existence is the body of God.26 As chief rabbi of Palestine, he blended profound mystical speculation with social and political activism. For Kook, the secular and the holy are not fundamentally distinct; secularism participates in the larger scheme of religious evolution. Even heresy plays a spiritual role, challenging us to continually expand our concept of God.27

Although Kabbalah emerged within Judaism, and has deeply affected Jewish thought and religious observance, its influence extends far beyond. Italian Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola immersed himself in Latin translations of Kabbalah, believing it to be the original divine revelation. Long lost and now finally restored, Kabbalah would enable Europeans to comprehend Pythagoras, Plato, and the secrets of Catholic faith. Pico claimed that “no science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the Kabbalah.”28 His controversial, syncretistic 900 Theses drew heavily on Kabbalah and laid the foundation for Christian kabbalistic literature.

Pico’s follower, Johannes Reuchlin, produced the first systematic work of Christian Kabbalah, De arte cabalistica. In the seventeenth century, Knorr von Rosenroth assembled translations of many important texts in Cabbala denudata (The Kabbalah Unveiled), an anthology widely read by European thinkers. Figures such as Gottfried Leibniz, Gotthold Lessing, Emanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake absorbed kabbalistic ideas. In the twentieth century, traces of Kabbalah can be found, for example, in the fiction and poetry of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, in the thought of Walter Benjamin, and in Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction. For the contemporary spiritual seeker, Kabbalah has become a rich and vital resource.

TRADITIONALLY, RESTRICTIONS have been placed on the study of Kabbalah. Some kabbalists insisted that anyone seeking entrance to the orchard must be at least forty years old, though Moses Cordovero stipulated twenty years. Other requirements included high moral standards, prior rabbinic learning, being married, and mental and emotional stability. The point is not to keep people away from Kabbalah, but to protect them. Mystical teachings are enticing, powerful, and potentially dangerous. The spiritual seeker soon discovers that he or she is not exploring something “up there,” but rather the beyond that lies within. Letting go of traditional notions of God and self can be both liberating and terrifying. In the words of Isaac of Akko, “Strive to see supernal light, for I have brought you into a vast ocean. Be careful! Strive to see, yet escape drowning.”29


THE PURPOSE OF the marriage of a woman and a man is union.

The purpose of union is fertilization.

The purpose of fertilization is giving birth.

The purpose of birth is learning.

The purpose of learning is to grasp the divine.

The purpose of apprehending the divine is to maintain the endurance of the one who apprehends with the joy of apprehending.


AN IMPOVERISHED person thinks that God is an old man with white hair, sitting on a wondrous throne of fire that glitters with countless sparks, as the Bible states: “The Ancient-of-Days sits, the hair on his head like clean fleece, his throne—flames of fire.” Imagining this and similar fantasies, the fool corporealizes God. He falls into one of the traps that destroy faith. His awe of God is limited by his imagination.

But if you are enlightened, you know God’s oneness; you know that the divine is devoid of bodily categories—these can never be applied to God. Then you wonder, astonished: Who am I? I am a mustard seed in the middle of the sphere of the moon, which itself is a mustard seed within the next sphere. So it is with that sphere and all it contains in relation to the next sphere. So it is with all the spheres—one inside the other—and all of them are a mustard seed within the further expanses. And all of these are a mustard seed within further expanses.

Your awe is invigorated, the love in your soul expands.