What is Kabbalah?
The aim of this page to provide a short introduction to Kabbalah, its language and ideas and some historical context. Like any meaningful spiritual tradition, it takes a lifetime of study to engage fully with the teaching and to experience its riches, but I hope this will help get you started.
The word Kabbalah means “reception” and it is a spiritual path whose purpose is ultimately to participate in the work of creation, what I like to see as a sort of partnership with The Holy One in a process of self- (and Self-) fulfilment. It is not the only spiritual tradition that seeks this end, nor is it the “right” (or only) one, or THE answer. It is one approach out of many and it works for some and not for others. Neither is it a dogma, a set of strict rules that you MUST follow, nor a panacea that will cure you of all your troubles.
It is based around the Tree of Life, the Ayts Chayim, (seen below) a spiritual diagram that presents a map of the Universe and a language in which spiritual discussion can take place. According to tradition, The Absolute, which is beyond existence, wished to perceive itself and to do so emanated forth existence – out of nothing came something, like a lightning flash that gave space to the principles, or Universal laws, on which all of creation is based.
Tree of Life
Like most traditions, Kabbalah has its sacred writings, of which the Bible is the most famous and, arguably, the most misunderstood and misused. One the aims of this site is to reconsider how we look at Judaeo-Christian scripture, especially the Bible, without the millennia of religious overlay. Nonetheless it represents the essence of Kabbalistic teaching. To be truly on a spiritual path, one must seek to be an individual, subject to Divine Law, but not wholly bound by the rules laid down by religion and society. The Holy One is not looking for conformity, but honesty and integrity, and the further one walks along the spiritual path the more one is tested.
For many years, Kabbalah was only studied by a secret few, who only allowed in those whom they believed were ready and to be trusted. In the Middle Ages and after, at the height of the (paradoxically named) ‘Holy Inquisition’, writing like this would have been very dangerous, because it challenged the power of the Church. Even Jews, who were not subject to the inquisition were careful about whom they trusted to discuss such ideas. Today we live in a freer, more open world but there is no guarantee this freedom will last for ever; indeed, history teaches us that it is unlikely to do so.
Historically, the name ‘Kabbalah’ was first used around the 11th century, but the ideas go back much further. At the time of Jesus it was called the Merkabah (or ‘Chariot’) tradition, based on the Vision of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Testament. Essentially it is the mystical tradition that underlies the Jewish, and therefore also the Christian, tradition. The Bible is full of references that, when understood in Kabbalistic terms, take on a whole new level of meaning. It is no wonder the Church disliked it! The Tree of Life is complemented by the Jacob’s Ladder, first brought into the public domain in the 20th century by Zev ben Shimon Halevi (see bibliography) but I will focus here on the Tree itself and leave the reader to explore further.
The language of Kabbalah can at first seem strange, but it is simply a means of communicating ideas that can be more fully appreciated in context and through direct experience. The words themselves are Hebrew, but you do not need to be a Hebrew scholar to understand them. More important is the principle they represent. For example, Gevurah literally means ‘strength’ and here denotes the principle of discipline, judgement and severity.
These sound like very negative concepts, which in a sense they are – yin, as opposed to yang – and Gevurah is sometimes associated with cosmic evil. However, if you consider it in relation to its opposite, Hesed – which translates as compassion, mercy, loving-kindness, or devotion, and is often associated with expansiveness and cosmic love – you will also realise that these two are both needed in order for there to be balance and discernment. After all, sometimes severity is needed, the murderer or thief who cares nothing for the impact he has on his victims must experience the severity of the law if he is to learn. Gevurah, therefore, is boundaries and self-restraint, which helps contain the expansiveness of Hesed.
That does not mean one should be without compassion when dealing with those who err, but we know that we cannot simply allow lawlessness without risking chaos. We teach children to respect other people’s boundaries, to behave in a way that is respectful and considerate – this is Gevurah in its best sense. It is the place of the warrior who draws his sword only when he must. Hence self-discipline is a form of strength, and knowing when not to act is often more important than diving in head first.
I chose Gevurah as my example because its severity makes it in so many ways the most challenging principle of the Tree; and, looking at history, we can observe how an excess of Gevurah has manifested in destructively puritanical attitudes that put law before humanity. This is too often the case with religious communities that demand absolute obedience to a fixed and uncompromising set of rules. However, justice is a complex principle, and a lack of Gevurah can also lead to anarchy and destructiveness. It is only through observation of the principle, either through contemplation, meditation or ritual, that one can achieve a fuller insight into its nature. This in turn can bring one closer to a fuller understanding of one’s Self.
In addition to these ten ‘sefirot’ (literally ‘sapphires’) or principles, one must also look at the paths between them and the triangles (or triads) that they form. For example, the three triads that surround the sefirah of Yesod (best understood as ordinary mind or ego) denote three ways of encountering the world, to the left is the triad of thought and contemplation, to the right is that of action and ritual, and just above it, but below the path linking Hod and Nezah, is the triad of feeling and meditation. This represents the three types of person – thinker, doer and feeler – as well as the three kinds of spiritual path – the ways of contemplation, ritual and meditation, each of which is an equally valid and potentially efficacious way of developing oneself spiritually. At least at first, because, just as each of us is usually stronger in one aspect and inclined to that way, it is of great benefit to strengthen those aspects of ourselves that are less well developed.
To give an example, I have always been more of a thinker and feeler than a doer, so to develop that aspect of myself some years ago I did two things – first, I joined an amateur dramatic society and literally exercised the ‘action triad’ by becoming an actor and engaging with a part of myself that had lain dormant. (This is one of the reason that practical activities, such as art, drama and sport, are so important to us when we are growing up. The expression ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ is a Kabbalistic principle!) The other thing I did was to acquire a garden – a 100 foot long garden to be precise! – and I designed and made a Kabbalistic Tree, using paving stones, gravel of different colours and a range of plants and decorations that expressed each of the sefirot. This activity, while making use of the intellect in the designing stage, in a sense also by-passed it, because I was intent on the physical action, rather than the intellectual pondering of the idea. It brought me out of my ordinary mind (Yesod) into my body (Malkhut, literal meaning ‘kingdom’) and allowed my inner Self (Tiferet, literally ‘beauty’) to guide and take over. This kind of experience is equivalent to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which is of course the opposite of filling one’s mind, but is about being more fully Self-aware and conscious.
The colours of the Tree and the three columns, to the left, right and centre, each have their own significance, but once you have a basic grasp of this language, a fuller appreciation of the way of Kabbalah will develop. Speaking to a fellow Kabbalist I might say, “the situation in such and such a place is typically left hand pillar” – it has emerged from too much Gevurah and not enough Hesed etc. But you have to do some work to get to that point, Kabbalah is not a quick fix! The reward is that one develops insights into how the world works, into human behaviour, and even the subtle manoeuvring of politicians. It is not a path for those who want to sit under trees contemplating their navels – the Kabbalist engages with the world we all live in and, through placing experience on the Tree of Life, comes to a fuller realisation of how the Universe functions and how we can best play our part in the unfolding of creation.
For further insights into the tradition, a list of recommended reading can be found on the bibliography page.