Kabbalah—Judaism's Dark Side

Book: Judaism— Revelation of Moses Or Religion of Men?

Within Orthodox Judaism, the highly philosophical discipline known as Kabbalism (from a Hebrew word meaning received) attempts to explain the “mystical relationship” between an infinite, eternal God and the universe (wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabbalah). Kabbalism features cryptic teachings on the nature of God, heaven, creation, the destiny of man, the soul, an afterlife, reincarnation, etc., and inclines heavily toward gemantra, a method by which the numerical value of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is used to uncover alleged secrets hidden in the written Torah. As Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah is an “exotic blend of superstition, false hermeneutics, astrology and spiritism”—the “black arts” of Judaism (John Phillips, Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 71). While Kabbalistic doctrines are accepted by Orthodox Jews in varying degrees, other Jews—mainly from among the Conservative and Reform movements—have rejected them as heretical and adversative to Judaism. In spite of this overall rejection by the more liberal side of the religion, Kabbalistic themes can be found throughout Judaism. Today, many Jews accept the academic study of Kabbalah, but do not actually hold its views to be truth.

Origin and Background

According to one Jewish tradition, Kabbalism dates from the Garden of Eden as an esoteric revelation belonging to and preserved by privileged tzaddikim (righteous ones). As “received wisdom,” Kabbalistic knowledge is more generally believed to be an integral part of the Jews' so-called “oral law” allegedly given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Like the oral law, Kabbalistic teachings were only to be passed on orally.

In early Rabbinical Judaism, Kabbalistic teachings were at times held in suspicion, considered dangerous, and even banned. By the Middle Ages, numerous Kabbalist brotherhoods existed throughout Europe—yet they were truly esoteric, remaining largely anonymous. In Kabbalah—The Way of the Jewish Mystic, Perle Epstein writes: “From the earliest times, the practice of Jewish mysticism has been secret. In 11th-century Spain, a philosopher named Ibn Gabirol labeled these secret oral teachings ' Kabbalah,' or [received] tradition.... Fearful of persecution from within and without the Jewish community, [Kabbalists] buried an already esoteric tradition even deeper.... True followers of the mystical tradition practiced in secret, until, in the 18th century, they emerged as European Hasidim” (pp. 13-14).

Historians generally date the start of Kabbalism as a major influence in Jewish thought with the 13th-century publication of the Zohar (“Book of Splendor”), considered to be the foundational text for Kabbalistic exegesis. The Zohar is attributed to Rabbi Shimon Yohai, but was greatly enlarged over centuries by various rabbis. As a guide written for the “enlightened ones,” the Zohar was said to offer an ecstatic spiritual experience. Phillips writes: “Its teachings could not be grasped with the mind; they had to be perceived intuitively with the heart. Those initiated into its mysteries moved further and further away from the real world and into a world of the imagination” (p. 71; emphasis added).

The Hasidic movement of 18th-century Europe breathed new life into Kabbalism. Credited as having been established by Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760)—known also as Baal shem Tov—Hasidism (from the Hebrew hasid, “pious”) began as a Jewish “revivalist movement” that swept through parts of Eastern Europe, mostly Poland and Russia. Eliezer's teachings “simplifying the Kabbalah for the common man” as he developed numerous “schools of Hasidic Judaism” (wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabbalah).

It was Rabbi Eliezer's universal application of Kabbalism that made Hasidism so attractive. In Hasidic Tales, Andrew Harvey writes that Eliezer promoted the holiness of the common man through teachings that centered on a “heartfelt yearning” for God as opposed to the “intellectual mastery” of the written Torah as was featured in Rabbinical Judaism. Eliezer's emphasis was on “union with God” as opposed to the rabbis' focus on “scholarship and study” (p. 18). Harvey defines Hasidism as a “highly sophisticated understanding of Judaism” led by “scholar-mystics” who teach their students how to “deepen one's spiritual life” as they search for the “path to divine love.” The Hasidim, he adds, are “those who become drunk ..... with awe, humility [and] reverence for the presence of God in everything” (pp. 12, 18).

Kabbalistic Hasidism developed around charismatic mystics called rebbes, or “masters.” While Eliezer taught that any devoted Hasidic disciple could achieve “union with God,” later rebbes taught that only chosen mystics, the tzaddikim, could achieve such union. Hasidic disciples could, however, “come close [to union with God] by drawing close to their rebbe.” Consequently, “focus shifted from God to the rebbe.... Over time, the rebbe's role grew from mentor to intermediary” (Harvey, p. 29; emphasis added). (Christians can readily see the danger in such teachings, as there is one Mediator between God and men, Jesus the Christ—I Timothy 2:5.)

Similarly, Epstein notes that “the difference between other spiritual masters [regular rabbis] and the Hasidic tzaddikim [enlightened righteous ones] is seen perfectly by the change in [the latter's] title: Rav [master], the [standard and] respectful form of address, was transformed by [the] Hasidim into Rebbe, a diminutive, personal, and untranslatable version of the word that denotes affection and, in later years of the movement, the disciple' s complete surrender to his teacher” (p. 111; emphasis added). Epstein adds that Hasidic Jews “continue to display a penchant for teacher worship that is still apparent today” (p. 14; emphasis added). This is particularly noticeable in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which began in the 1940s in Russia and Eastern Europe (see Chapter Seven under the section heading, The “Divine” Status of Rabbis.)

Kabbalistic Teachings

For centuries, Kabbalism was Judaism's dirty little secret. As the movement “crept down the back alleys of Judaism,” its teachings, like the rabbis' oral law, accumulated with the passage of time. Kabbalism “fed on pseudo-prophecy, superstition, myth, numerology and assorted odds and ends of heresy” (Phillips, p. 71).

Jews who did not “fit in with Rabbinic Judaism” sought refuge in Kabbalah, believing that “its mysticism and occultism would open the door of knowledge and help them understand their strange destiny in the world.” According to Phillips, the Zohar taught “ten spheres of divine manifestation” through which God was believed to “emerge from His vast, secret, unknowable immensity.... Initiates into the Zohar dealt in covert allusions, in magic formulas, in theosophy, and in mystical speculation” (Phillips, p. 71; emphasis added).

Likewise, Epstein writes that mystics move through ten “gates” or levels of “graduated mystical experience” (p. 5). Via the eighth gate— “examination of the soul”—the mystic “attempts to purify himself to the point where he will see without eyes, hear without ears, speak without tongue, perceive without the sense of perception, and deduce without reason.” This is accomplished through intense meditation (p. 8). Once he has learned the lessons of the gates, the mystic “leaves the realm of Awe for the more deeply personal realm of Love” (p. 9). “With his soul sufficiently cleansed by the ethical and spiritual practice centered on Awe, the mystic . is prepared to reflect a vision of the Absolute [i.e., God]” (p. 34).

Oneness with God is the ultimate goal of the Kabbalist. “As the [mystic's] senses are . refined, he will become conversant with the ethereal world of angelic beings, pure color and sound, until finally he reaches the un-manifest level of awareness called devekuth, 'cleaving to God,' the highest state attainable by human consciousness” (Epstein, p. 4). Hinting at Kabbalism's pantheistic leanings, Harvey writes that “union with God is not something to be achieved but a given to be realized,” as one is to experience “an awareness of God's [presence] in, with, and as all things” (p. 31).

Epstein adds that the mystic becomes “united with Divine Essence” through “exalted levels of consciousness” that include meditation, trancelike states and “visionary experiences which could not be performed by the mind alone” (p. 39). There is no doubt that such “visionary experiences” involve demonic influences. In reality, Kabbalism is repackaged Eastern religion and ancient Babylonian occultism, complete with magic, spiritism, astrology, superstition, emotionalism, and the worship of the creation—all of which is condemned in Scripture as both false and dangerous.

According to Kabbalists, the words and letters of the written Torah are seen as “divine emanations” that constitute the manifestation of God's will in the universe. “Supernatural powers were supposed to reside in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. A mystical significance lurked in the very forms of the letters themselves, in the sounds that resulted when they were spoken, in their numerical value [each letter of the alphabet has a numerical value], and in their position when written on the page. Kabbalists would juggle the letters of the Hebrew alphabet for hours on end ..... in the hope that they might stumble upon the ultimate secret of God” (Phillips, p. 71).

As with Eastern religion, Kabbalists look to the self as the ultimate source of spirituality. Accordingly, every human being has within his or her heart the “spark of the divine”—which can be realized via the creation. In What Do Jews Believe?, David Ariel writes: “[Kabbalist] Jews believe that all of human life can be understood as the spiritual process of experiencing God within the world. To experience the divine within the world is to realize God's presence. Ultimately, to know yourself is to know God” (p. 51). He adds: “Hasidism ..... is founded on the premise that true spirituality arises out of the heart of the individual.... Genuine spirituality is to be found not in the prescribed formulas of institutional religion, but in the 'heart-knowledge' each individual possesses and in the human desire to achieve devekuth, communion with God.” In short, the Kabbalist “believed that there was a deeper spiritual realm [which could be accessed by] listening to the world as the song of God” (pp. 81-82; emphasis added).

Such nonsensical, ethereal-like statements that focus on the self are typical of Kabbalism. Scripture, however, warns of trusting in the human heart. The prophet Jeremiah wrote that the unconverted heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). Jesus had this to say about what typically comes from within the human heart: “That which springs forth from within a man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the hearts of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, guile, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness; all these evils go forth from within, and these defile a man” (Mark 7:20-23). Indeed, “there are ways that appear and feel right in the minds of men, but such ways only lead to death” (Prov. 14:12; author's paraphrase).

Kabbalism in Modern Judaism

As a subset of Jewish religion, Kabbalism remains the domain of the ultra-Orthodox movement. Still, Kabbalistic influences have pervaded all of Judaism, perhaps to a greater extent than most realize. On this point, Epstein writes that Kabbalism is “so incorporated into the everyday life of the Jews that it has gone unnoticed.... Kabbalah is not an intellectual discipline, nor is it—like the Talmud—a rational exegesis of Jewish laws. It is first and foremost a mystical practice, but one that is fully dependent on, and integrated with, Judaism as a whole” (pp. 15-16; emphasis added).

How popular is Kabbalism today? Epstein notes that Jewish “mysticism once again appears to be enjoying a popular resurgence” (p. 16). Ariel writes that “Hasidism conveys some of the most significant modern Jewish spiritual teachings about human destiny. Hasidism . continues today as a religious revival movement among ultra-Orthodox Jews” (p. 81).

Likewise, Harvey writes that there is currently a revival of Hasidic and Kab-balistic thought among American ultra-Orthodox Jews (p. 12).

Without question, the foremost advocate of modern-day Kabbalism is the Chabad-Lubavitch faction, a staunchly Hasidic movement with roots in Eastern Europe. “No group [today] emphasizes in-depth Kabbalistic study . to the extent of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose Rebbes [have] delivered tens of thousands of discourses, and whose students study these texts for three hours daily” (wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabbalah). According to the Chabad-Lubavitch Web site, chabad.org, the movement considers itself to be the most “dynamic force” in Jewish life today.

Kabbalism is a complex, multifaceted Jewish discipline. While this overview has only covered the highlights, it is clear that Kabbalism—as the “dark side” of Orthodox Judaism—is altogether contrary to the clear teachings of the Scriptures.