What is the Jewish Kabbalah?

It was in Provence and Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE that there arose the Kabbalah that revived mysticism in Jewish thought. 

There had been mysticism in earlier Jewish tradition, notably in the Merkavah mysticism of Rabbi Aqiba of the first and second centuries CE. This tradition took inspiration from the story of the prophet Elijah who ascended into heaven which came to represent or symbolize the inner ascent of the mystic to the higher realms of experience.

Doctrinally, the Kabbalists saw God as Ein Sof who is both the endless and ineffable (1). It is somewhat similar to the Neoplatonic conception of God (the One) as there are also emanations from Ein Sof. Ein Sof emanates ten powers or entities called the Sefirot. These emanations are given names such as Wisdom, Understanding, Kingdom, Splendor, Greatness, Thought, Power, and so on. According to the Kabbalist book Sefer ha-bahir (“Book of Brightness”), the Sefirot were believed to play a role in the creation of the world.

Much of the Kabbalist practical dimension included meditation and ecstasy. Ecstasy, for instance, would assist the devotee to learn prayers of the angels, secrets of the Torah, God’s decrees for the future, and other supernatural knowledge. Jewish mysticism is generally seen as one’s striving for an intense relationship with God sometimes accompanied by altered states of mind. According to Daniel M. Horwitz, Kabbalah is a specific form of Jewish mysticism in which what people do can “affect God’s inner life, and that by doing so we make a great difference for all life. This teaching is sometimes described as “theosophical,” which means: having to do with mystical insights into the nature of God” (2).

Human acts are also seen to have divine effects because of God’s relationship with humans: just as God needs human beings, so do human beings need God. Kabbalah mysticism held to a direct route to God himself which, in the eyes of many others, seemed heretical. Within mainline Kabbalah, there is the human-centered mysticism called “Affective Kabbalah” that holds action within this world to stimulate action in a higher world for human benefit, not for God’s sake.

A later tradition of the Kabbalah, known as Lurianic Kabbalah centered in Safed, greatly expanded upon the existing Kabbalistic practices and developed several doctrines, some of which included cosmic restoration, the withdrawal of the divine light, and an intense struggle against evil, that influenced the eighteenth-century Eastern-European mystical Hasidic tradition.

Today there are few Jewish mystics although some small communities exist; according to scholar Jody Myers, “There are only a few congregations in which Kabbalah is the predominant component of the group’s doctrines and behaviors” (3). Some of these exist in Israel and those who are attracted to the movement’s doctrines and practices are typically uncomfortable with conventional religious institutions.

References

  1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 271.
  2. Horwitz, Daniel. 2016. “What Is Jewish Mysticism?” In A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader, edited by Daniel Horwitz, 3-9. University of Nebraska Press; Jewish Publication Society
  3. Myers, Jody. 2011. “Kabbalah at the Turn of the 21st Century.” In Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah: New Insights and Scholarship, edited by Frederick E. Greenspahn, 175-190. New York: NYU Press.

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