Some people might have heard about Kabbalah through celebrities becoming fans of it – Madonna in particular. However, the way in which Kabbalah is presented in the media does not reveal its deeper and more mystical aspects. The word Kabbalah in Hebrew and means “to receive” and like other mystical traditions found in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, Kabbalah is about directly receiving or perceiving the truth. Kabbalah as a tradition differs from Judaism in that beliefs and doctrines are not at the centre of its practice. The ‘truth’ embodies the answers to questions about the meaning of existence, how the universe is governed, our relationship to God, and the nature of the soul.
Kabbalah as a school of thought originated in the 12th century AD, yet supposedly its ‘truth’ has been around for a lot longer. According to the tradition, humans have received the truth of Kabbalah on three separate occasions. The first time it was revealed to Adam by the Archangel Raziel when he and Eve were banned from the Garden of Eden. The second time it was revealed to Abraham (at around 1700 BC) when Abraham swore his allegiance to God. Unfortunately, the truth was then lost when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. And lastly, the third time it was revealed to Moses, when he went to Mount Sinai to meet God, to be shown the Ten Commandments, then the truth of Kabbalah.
The Kabbalists, from the 12th century AD onwards, believed that they were studying this lost truth, and their interpretation of the Torah (first five books of the Bible) was completely at odds with the interpretations of mainstream Judaism. By looking at the classic Kabbalistic texts, we can see how mystical and unique this form of Judaism really is. One central text is the Sefer Yetzirah, also known as The Book of Formation, and there are four different versions of it. The text is concerned with God’s creation of the world. It is extremely difficult to understand, firstly because it is written in an obscure style, and secondly because there is a lack of context to it – there are different opinions on the exact age and origin of the book, for example.
This book explains the idea that language is the basis of creation and reality. When it says in Genesis that God said “Let there be light” and there was light, the Kabbalists interpret this as meaning that God’s act of speaking really did create the physical world. Furthermore, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, combined in all their different ways, are said to be the basis of the universe and mankind. Interestingly, the writer Terence McKenna believed that his intense experiences with psychedelics revealed to him that reality is made up of language. So, McKenna and the Kabbalists reached the same conclusion about the nature of reality, but through different methods (the Kabbalists through studying the Bible, and McKenna through taking psychedelic drugs).
In the Sefer Yetzirah, the origin of the three basic substances (air, water, and fire) is described as arising from the three Hebrew letters, Aleph, Mem, and Shin. These three letters are the three “mothers” from which all the other letters of the alphabet are formed. Likewise, air, water, and fire are supposed to be the elements of nature from which all other substances are formed. Based on the idea that God created the world through language, the book says: “Twenty-two letters: God drew them, hewed them, combined them, weighed them, interchanged them, and through them produced the whole creation and everything that is destined to come into being”. It is helpful to think of the Hebrew letters as like the chemical elements, which can be combined in different ways to produce the diversity and intricacies of the cosmos.
Another central idea in the text is that the world is defined by pairs – more specifically, pairs of contrasting essences. These contrasting essences are constantly in a battle with each other, yet this violent contrast can be pacified by God. In a person’s life, there will be contrasts between beauty and ugliness; life and death; wealth and poverty; wisdom and folly, etc. Interestingly, the book says that good and evil have no independent existence since something is only good if there is evil to contrast it with, and vice versa. The Zohar, a collection of books about the mystical nature of the Torah, is also considered to be foundational in the Kabbalistic tradition. To Kabbalists, The Zohar is a practical guide that allows one to achieve higher states of perception. These commentaries on the Torah were kept secret for 900 years because those who possessed it thought that others did not need it, or that they would misunderstand it.
Kabbalah also uses a mystical symbol called the “Tree of Life”. It contains the ten Sephirot, which are the ten attributes of Ein Sof (a term used to describe God before he manifested himself in the world through creation). Ein Sof also means the Infinite or the Endless. The ten attributes of Ein Sof are Crown (which stands for Divine Will), Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Kindness, Severity, Beauty, Victory, Splendor, Foundation, and Kingship. The symbol is intended to be a full model of reality, depicting how God created the world from nothing, man’s place in the universe and the way in which to follow the spiritual path.
The Crown is at the top of the tree and can be thought of as the primordial energy out of which everything else is created. It is beyond our comprehension. In the Kabbalistic school of thought, this tree is also said to be the template of the two trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of life is a symbol found in many other traditions as well. It is the Yggdrasil of the Nordics, the Tree of Life of the Aztecs and Mayans, and the Bodhi Tree of the Buddha.