Mindful Judaism: Introduction to the Kabbalah

“The Kabbalah, literally ‘tradition’, that is the tradition of things divine, is the sum of Jewish mysticism” (Scholem, 1965, p. 1). The Kabbalah is a well of old, fed by a Divine source, the headwaters of Eden that flows to water the garden, too great for any individual to empty or contain, each student drawing from it only that which satiates his soul. The Kabbalah is, just as the rest of Judaism, a living wisdom, filtered through the body, mind and spirits of its masters. There are in fact many Kabbalahs: in the middle ages, the Heichalot schools and Hasidei Ashkenaz in Germany, the Provencial, Geronese, Barcelonese, Toledano, Ecstatic and Zoharic schools in Spain and France; then there was the integrative Kabbalah of Safed, where elements of the Ecstatic Kabbalah and Hasidei Mitzrayim were combined with the Spanish and Zoharic Kabbalah; all before the Arizal introduced his revolutionary interpretation of the Zohar which changed the face of Kabbalah ever since. The modern period saw developments by a number of masters, not least the Baal Shem Tov and the Hasidim. The purpose of this series is to survey some of the most important masters of the Kabbalah as well as some masters who either did not know or chose to ignore the Kabbalah. 

The unifying component of all the schools of Kabbalah and what distinguishes them from the philosophical mysticism of Maimonides and the Hasidei Mitzrayim on the one hand, and the ethical focus of the Musar school on the other, is their discussion of what is known as the Tree of Life. The tree of life is an image which appears very early in the Torah, planted at the centre of the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were banished from the garden of Eden out of fear that they might eat from the tree of life. The way to the tree of life was subsequently placed under the angelic guard of the Cherubim. The image of the tree of life became a central motif in later Judaism becoming symbolic of the Torah: “she is a tree of life for those who cling to her”. This symbolism itself is derived from the wider association with the Cherubim in Hebrew literature. There are three primary locations in the Bible where the Cherubim are mentioned. The first, as noted, is in relation to the garden of Eden. The second is in connection with the Mishkan and the Ark of the Covenant; the cover of the ark depicted two cherubim facing each other. The ark itself contained the Tablets of Testimony, given to Moses on Mount Sinai, inscribed with the ten commandments. Above and between the Cherubim over the ark of the covenant is where God appears and speak with Moses. 

The third place the Cherubim are mentioned is in Ezekiel’s second vision. He describes these Cherubim as the same Holy Creatures he saw in his first vision on the river Kebar: the vision of the Chariot. It is this third depiction that leads to another image which is synonymous with the tree of life image in the Kabbalah. Above the Cherubim, Ezekiel envisions a throne, and on the throne sits the appearance of a person. This figure on the throne is the Image of God in which Adam and Eve were made, and the basis for the central focus of the Kabbalah, the ten Sefirot. 

A closer look at the imagery which emerges from these three stories paints a near complete picture of the Bibles mythological landscape which informed later speculation by the Rabbis and Kabbalists. The Cherubim connect three central motifs in Jewish mysticism: the Garden of Eden, including the Trees of Life and Knowledge; the Holy Temple, God’s dwelling on earth, along with the Ark and Tablets of the Covenant, the Torah-Law; the Chariot, a moving sanctuary God rides outside the Temple of Jerusalem (Ezekiel’s vision took place in Mesopotamia). The Temple then becomes a replacement or parallel to the Garden of Eden, and the prophetic vision a surrogate to the destroyed Temple. The temple, garden and chariot are the axis mundi, the world axis, where heaven and earth meet, the Ladder seen by Jacob in his vision on Mount Moriah, the future location of the Jerusalem temple. It is through this axis that God guides his world, and it was through this that the universe was created in the first place. Note that the Kabbalists describe God as Ein Sof, the Infinite, and therefore the image of God is itself created.

The Talmudists first make this connection between the temple and the creation of the universe in noticing that the ten commandments correspond to the ten utterances through which God created the universe. In the genesis creation story, the expression “and God said” occurs ten times, from “let there be light” to “behold, I have given you all herbage”. Although some later Kabbalists enumerate them differently, the ten Sefirot are these very same expressions of creation; they are also the ten limbs of the image of God and the ten branches of the tree of life. The Sefirot themselves are silent – ineffable, as the Sefer Yetzirah describes – and it is through the letters of creation, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, that they are given expression and through which the creation takes place; it is God’s speech that actualises existence. The ten Sefirot and the 22 Letters together comprise the 32 Paths of Wisdom with which God created the universe and the substance of the universe itself. These paths can be viewed additionally from an epistemological perspective as it is through counting and naming that mankind interacts with his environment, but the Sefirot are more than just the 10 digits of the decimal counting system.

The Sefirot constitute the entire range of human experience and facilitate a complete contemplative model for understanding both the mechanism and the content of spiritual practice. The traditional Sefirotic diagram illustrates both a vertical unfolding and a horizontal expansion of experience: beginning with the mind of God in Keter and moving towards the physical universe itself in Malchut, and expanding horizontally as the three columns of Hesed, Din and Rachamim. From a contemplative perspective the vertical axis depicts the following range of experience: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, instinctual/social, sensory; the horizontal  axis defines the polarities/varieties of the middle three domains: big picture vs fine details, love vs fear, expressive vs reserved, though these are exemplary rather than definitive. The highest Sefirah Keter is the transcendental experience, Devekut (absorption); it is reached either through the upward movement or through Malchut (the Sefer Yetzirah describes how Keter and Malchut form a continuum, “the end embedded in the beginning” and vice versa). In addition to the transcendental experience, the polarity of internal discord can be brought into balance which is described as various unifications between the Sefirot as well as the Sefirot of the central column: Daat, knowledge, Tiferet, beauty, Yesod, foundation; these unifications are expressions of the unity of Keter and the Ein Sof within creation. The Messianic ideal and the Kabbalistic goal is the unification of all the Sefirot as one.

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