Welcome to Mystic Link!

This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Divine Unity

ב ס" ד

By Moshe Yehuda Bernstein

One of the most unusual features of the Jewish declaration of Divine unity expressed in the Shema Yisrael is that the name of God is mentioned three times:

שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
Shema Yisrael! Adonai (1), Elohaynu (2), Adonai (3) Ecĥad
Hear, O Israel! The Lord (1), our God (2), the Lord (3) is One.

One would expect that a declaration of God’s unity would contain only one name instead of three. One can understand the mystical paradox embedded in this concept by examining another triple proclamation from the Hindu Vedanta:

The world is an illusion
Only Brahman is real
Brahman is the world.

This statement begins by informing us that the world of our senses—the world of nature, the physical world—is an illusion. First, as the Buddha expressed it, the hallmark of this world is impermanence. Furthermore, quantum physics has shown us that matter itself has no substance. Even the atom, in the words of Werner Heisenberg, is “a tendency of consciousness.”
The only reality is Brahman, which signifies the Supreme Unity from which all other Beings, whether spiritual or physical, emanate.
Yet, paradoxically, that Supreme Unity or Absolute Reality permeates and manifests as Maya, the subjective illusion of self and other, good and evil, the reality of space-time as we know it... As we are “stuck” in the limited perspective of subject/object duality, we are normally unable to experience that Oneness. Through liberating the mind (moksha), however, one yields to that transcendent space of what the Hindus call the Eternal Witness, where the subject/object illusion dissolves and one experiences Supreme Unity, the state of enlightenment that exists “already always” in the simple condition of Being.

The Shema expresses the very same paradox, but in reverse order.
שמע (Shema) is, above all, an injunction to “comprehend” rather than merely to “hear”. ישראל represents transcendent consciousness, the Higher Self. ישראל, Yisrael, contains the letters לי ראש, (li rosh ,“my head”) indicating the higher faculties of the “head”; while יעקב, Yaakov (Jacob), refers to the lower instincts of the עקב (eikev or “heel”.)
What are we supposed to comprehend?
That the seeming duality of the transcendent and immanent, the infinite and the infinitesimal, Brahman and the world, all of these opposites are indeed One. The name יהוה (Adonai) signifies the undifferentiated, transcendent, timeless aspect (היה הוה ויהיה, haya, hoveh ve-eheyeh, “I was, I Am, I Will Be”), while אלהינו (Eloheynu, which is grammatically in the plural) represents our collective perception of the Divine as manifest in this world of multiplicity and immanent in nature (the name אלהים is the same numerical value as הטבע, the word for nature). יהוה אחד, Adonai echad, “God is One”, signifies that state of consciousness where duality no longer exists; in its place is the reality of Pure Awareness and Unity Consciousness.
It is for this reason that the final letter ayin of שמע and the letter daleth of אחד are written in large script. Together they form the word עד or “witness”. The simple meaning of this is that, as a people, we witnessed this Unity in the revelation on Mount Sinai. On a deeper level, however, it is also referring to the Eternal Witness within every one of us, the Pure Awareness in which subject and object dissolve, and God is truly One, in the ultimate sense of the word.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

From the WA weekly The Maccabean, December 11, 2002: Kabbalistic Manuscript Returned


On Tuesday, December 10 Abbot Placid Spearritt of the Benedictine Order of New Norcia presented the manuscript copy of the kabbalistic text Shoshan Sodot, recently found in a cupboard in the monastery (see cover story of issue #?) to the Jewish community, represented by the President of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis and Educators, Rabbi David Y A Freilich and Director of Jewish Studies at Carmel School, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Bernstein. The abbot’s decision to restore the book, a hand-written copy whose date has not yet been established, follows an appeal by the Council to which the New Norcia Community responded most positively.
The original Shoshan Sodot, written by Rabbi Moshe ben Yakov Ha-goleh of Kiev in 1495, is a work comprising elements of theoretical, meditative and practical Kabbalah based on the teachings of the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman). It is different in nature than the more prolific works emerging from the teachings of the Arizal, R. Yitchak Luria of 16th century Tsfat, and thus classified as “pre-Lurianic”. It contains kavanot, or meditative visualisations of Divine Names with their appropriate letter and vowel permutations as well as those to be utilised in the recitation of the Shma and Amidah prayers. There are chart illustrations of the 10 Sefirot (the 10 Emanations of Creation) and their combinations into partzufim (Expressions) reflecting various mystical states of consciousness. The book concludes with a commentary on the ancient kabbalistic text (which some attribute to Avraham Avinu) of Sefer Yetzira, discussing the Hebrew letters of the alef bet with their astrological and sefirotic correspondences.
A Baal Shem Tov story appearing in a collection of Eliahu Klein entitled The Last Temptation of a Kabbalist (http://hasidicstories.com/Stories/The_Baal_Shem_Tov/temptation.html) makes reference to the book’s mystical powers and how it was on one occasion fatally misused.
Rabbi Bernstein will be taking the text with him to the chief rabbi of Lugano, the Admor of Biala Rabbi Ben-Zion Rabinowitz, who will complete the shelichut of bringing the book to Eretz Yisrael, where it can be properly conserved and researched in an environment respectful of its sanctity. Discussions with other rabbis in Israel are also underway to determine the most appropriate facilities for the conservation of the manuscript, which will remain on permanent loan from the Perth Jewish community.
On receiving the manuscript Rabbi Freilich expressed his profound gratitude to the monks of New Norcia on behalf of C.O.R.E., the Perth Jewish community as well as for klal yisroel (the entire Jewish people). In Rabbi Freilich’s reply to Abbot’s affirmative decision, he wrote: “…the generosity of the New Norcia Community imbues the concept of interfaith dialogue with depth, vitality and profound significance.”
Rabbi Bernstein, who was one of the initial party of four to investigate the book, said, “The restoration of the Shoshan Sodot to its Jewish source is a great mitzvah, and I have to commend Abbot Spearritt for his wisdom and ability to empathise with the spiritual value a book like this has for our people. I’ve been told that its return will also mean a tikkun neshama [soul rectification] for its author in Gan Eden.” He said the entire story of the retrieval of this book is still obscured in mystery on many different levels, including the mundane one of how it ended up in the monastery. While a stamp on the title page indicates it was once in Jewish hands, it has been historically “hidden from view” in New Norcia for nearly half- a-century. In 1966, however, Mr Harold Boas, a member of the Perth Jewish community, sent a microfilm copy of the text to Hebrew University, which has on record the existence of such a manuscript in “a monastery in Western Australia”. The monastery also has record of an inquiry made concerning a “Cabbalistic text” from around the same period of time.
Meanwhile, the Shoshan Sodot saga is extending its boundaries as David Solomon has been immersing himself in archival records in the British Museum and Oxford to compare the New Norcia version with the other extant copies on record (there are 17 known copies) as well as to shed more light on the mystery of its date. There is a possibility that it could be as old as the 16th century. Rabbi Eli Lewis, who is currently in Israel, where he has consulted the Admor of Biala and other rabbinic authorities, has presented digital CD copies of the text to Bar-Ilan University and Hebrew University.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

From the WA weekly The Maccabean, November 6, 2002: Discovery of the Shoshan Sodot manuscript


A few months ago Shane Dowling, who works in the library of the New Norcia monastery, discovered a had-written Hebrew manuscript that had been lying for many years wrapped in paper in an old cupboard. Interested to find out exactly what type of manuscript it was, the head librarian, Susan Johnston contacted Rabbi Shalom Coleman and faxed him the manuscript’s title page.
Seeing that the manuscript related to kabbalah, Rabbi Coleman passed the information over to Rabbi Moshe Y. Bernstein, who has a particular interest in the study of Jewish mysticism.
Last week, on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Wednesday, November 6th, Rabbi Bernstein organised a visit to New Norcia to view the manuscript. Accompanying him were rabbinic colleagues and Jewish Studies staff members Rabbi Elchanan Lewis and Rabbi Moshe Rothchild. Also, joining the rabbinic delegation was David Solomon, an academic expert in kabbalistic translations and manuscripts, who was in Perth for the levaya and shiva for his father, the late Dr. Geoff Solomon.
The Perth delegation met with Abbot Placid Spearritt, Susan Johnston and some of the other monks and monastery workers, where they were presented with a copy of the kabbalistic book-- Shoshan Sodot-- for examination.
The copy at the New Norcia monastery appears to be an antique copy of the original work, which was written by Rabbi Moshe ben Yaakov, possibly a student from the mystic school of Nachmanides (Ramban) in 1495. The book is a veritable encyclopaedia of kabbalistic thought and practice, containing many secrets which the author felt obliged to write down to ensure their preservation through a time of great oppression (the Inquisition and Spanish expulsion) for the Jewish people.
Later, the rabbinic delegation was given the opportunity to visit the monastery library, which contains many other volumes of Hebrew texts, though none of them in the highly esoteric and ancient category of the Shoshan Sodot.
The monastery was kind enough to agree to scan the pages of the manuscript onto a CD, which will be compared with other existing copies of the manuscript. Certain rabbis in Israel and Europe are also being consulted due to the extremely sensitive nature of such an esoteric manuscript.
The mystery of how this extremely sacred text ended up in the New Norcia monastery is still unclear and in the process of investigation. One thing is certain: the story of the discovery of this book in the New Norcia monastery could surely give Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) a run for his money. Stay tuned for any new developments regarding this exciting discovery!

PART III: The Kabbalah of the Future

by Moshe Y. Bernstein

What does the future hold in store for kabbalah, or, more accurately from a kabbalistic stance, what does kabbalah hold in store for the future?
While many would like to believe that the increased interest in all forms of mysticism is but a passing fad, there are persuasive reasons to consider otherwise.
Kabbalah’s proliferation to the general public was in many ways a reaction to the post-modern agenda of the last half of the twentieth century. That agenda deemed that there were no absolute truths (except for, ironically, the absolutism inherent in its own proclamation) and that all supposed pre-given “realities” were in fact shrouded in inter-subjective, cultural constructs. This philosophy gave way to the moral relativism now dominant in academic circles. More ominously, it also produced a generational complex of apathy and nihilism, which, unfortunately, we have not seen the end of.
In this brave, new, senseless world championed by post-modernism, a desperate need arose for meaning. People began seeking out answers to the existential questions that imbue life with a sense of purpose. Kabbalah, even in its tainted forms, provides many of those answers. In that sense, it serves a legitimate function for its adherents, supporting a meaningful framework for existence.
What it cannot provide, once it has been extricated from its Jewish origins, is an authentic experience. That can only occur when it is connected to its indigenous roots, the more peripheral dimensions of the Pardes Ha-Torah.
Another possible reason that kabbalah seems to reverberate with western culture is its erotic component. (As mentioned in part 1 this aspect has endured unfortunate historical abuses.) The notion of the patriarchal God has become embarrassingly passé; kabbalah enthrones the Shechina, the feminine aspect of Divine immanence, to a position of prominence commensurate with the advances of women today. With the exception of rare tantric practices in Tibet, sexuality in Buddhism is viewed as an obstacle to enlightenment. In kabbalah, by contrast, it is perceived as a means to such, emulating, as it does, the perpetual union of Divine forces.
When discussing the future of kabbalah in Jewish terms, it could be said that kabbalah is, in fact, the very future of the Jewish people.
To elaborate on this, it is first necessary to deconstruct a particular misconception in regard to kabbalah’s quintessential character. Rabbi Meshullam Faibush of Zavriza, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, authored a brief but intensive mystical manual called Yosher Divrei Emes (The Integrity of Words of Truth), a descriptive code of ethics for kabbalists. He explains how a person can mentally absorb all the profound mysteries of kabbalah—the sefirot, the Tree of Life, the various partzufim (Divine expressions), etc. Yet, if that individual still displays arrogance, smugness, or other selfish traits, he cannot be deemed a true mystic. On the other hand, one who has no knowledge of kabbalistic terms, but, when humbly engaging in even the simple meaning of scriptural text, consequently experiences the dissolution of the borders of subject and object, of self and other, then that person has reached the goal of kabbalah: the revelation of Divine Spirit, i.e. the experience of non-dual reality.
When speaking here of kabbalah, therefore, it is important to bear in mind that I am referring not to the corpus of mystical knowledge per se (though, for many, this can indeed be a significant means to achieve the objective) but rather to the aim itself: the revelation of Spirit.
The concept of the Messianic Era is predicated on this revelation, nothing less than a transformation of consciousness as we know it. As articulated so poetically in Isaiah: “The knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waves cover the sea.” This zenith of human development is also described unequivocally in the prophetic book of Yoel: "And it shall come to pass afterwards, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions". All the other benefits of that future epoch— the return to Zion, peace, technological and medical advancements, global unity, prosperity—are mere subsidiaries of the unique revelation in consciousness that our tradition has foretold.
Unfortunately, even this lofty concept of the Messianic Era has been stymied, frequently by those most frantically waving the Messianic banner, to a very shallow level: When the world is depicted as incurably evil, and the Messiah idealised as an individual superhero who-- like the White Knight in the old Ajax detergent commercials-- will wave his magic wand and make all the dirty stuff disappear, the deeper perception of the Messiah, and correlatively of human responsibility, suffers tremendous erosion.
Many years ago in Israel I once attended a brit milah in one of the synagogues in Tsfat. When it was over, one of the congregants took a rubbish bag full of waste and tossed it over the balcony guardrail onto the adjoining property of a public park. Stunned, I asked him if he was not concerned to protect the natural environment God has so graciously bestowed upon us. His answer was that when Moshiach arrived, all the garbage would be taken care of.
I mention this anecdote because the erroneous perception of the Messiah as the White Knight “garbageman” of history is more prevalent then one would imagine, not just in regard to the trashing of our physical environment but even more so of our spiritual one. Do we not continue to harbour needless hatred towards others, to bear grudges, to speak lashon hora, to deliberately cause pain, to ignore those in need, to oppress those who are weaker? We think nothing of it, because…well, that’s just human nature, it’s the way things are. One bright day, however, the White Knight will appear and…presto! With one wave of his magic wand, he’ll clean up this whole mess. This distorted view of the Messiah is not only juvenile and unintelligible; it is ultimately a massive cop-out, an abnegation of the precious free will, with which we, as Jews and as human beings, have been endowed.
Fortunately, none of the great Torah luminaries who have recorded their vision of the Messianic era subscribe to such simplistic conceptions.
One of the most controversial works on this subject, first printed only in 1968, is a remarkable text called Kol Ha-Tor (Voice of the Turtle-Dove). Written by Rabbi Hillel Rivlin of Skhlov, a close disciple and relative of the Vilna Gaon, it purports to express the latter’s teachings of the transformation into Messianic consciousness.
It should be noted that already in the latter part of the 18th century the Gaon Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna was preparing the first group of his students to settle and work in the Holy Land. According to the Zohar, 1740 CE (5501) marked the dawning of the 6th millennium in the Jewish calendar. It was deemed to be the start of a five-hundred year transitional period that would ultimately usher in the Messianic era. The first half of that period was devoted primarily to the revelation of Moshiach ben Yosef (the Messiah, son of Joseph); the final half, which commenced in 1990, to Moshiach ben David (the Messiah son of David).
The Kol Ha-Tor elaborates extensively on the concept of the two Messiahs, one that is commonly misunderstood. According to the Gaon, Moshiach ben Yosef relates to revelation of Divine Spirit within the immanent sphere of nature. This refers to sociological, scientific and technological developments that are meant to pave the way for the transcendent revelation of Moshiach ben David to follow. For this reason, the Vilna Gaon, a hundred years prior to the formal beginnings of Zionism, was already engaged in settling the Holy Land to build the physical infrastructures essential to the spiritual fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies.
The Vilna Gaon advocated an integrated knowledge of both natural science and kabbalah as a prerequisite for the revelation of the Messiah, incorporating, as it did, both Divine immanence and transcendence. In Kol Ha-Tor reference is made to three levels of the Messianic process. The first, ruach ha-moshiach, is the ubiquitous evolutionary Spirit leading to the Messianic goal of Divine revelation; the second refers to the visionaries and mystics in every generation who are capable of embodying that Spirit; the third level is the receptivity of the human heart to partake in this progression of spiritual awakening. This depiction of the Messiah as a vast evolutionary and participatory process rather than a dubious one-man show has likewise been confirmed by other great thinkers such as the Ari, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Rabbi Abraham I. Kook.
The town of Skhlov, where Rav Hillel wrote the Kol Ha-Tor, is often referred to as the first manifestation of modernism in Russian-Jewish history. Like their revered teacher, the Vilna Gaon, its inhabitants were conversant in mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering, music and other offshoot disciplines of the Seven Wisdoms (with which all rabbis are supposed to be au fait). Less known, however, is that the inhabitants of Skhlov were, again like their teacher, deeply immersed in the study of kabbalah. Their apparent “descent” into secularism was, from their mystical standpoint, an “ascent” towards the awareness necessary to facilitate the true, complete revelation of Godliness characterising the Messianic era.
Will the prophecies of the Messianic era come to pass? Many of them, particularly those referring to the advent of that occasion, already have. The Gemara, however, was adamant in its explicit “curse” of those who attempt to reckon the date of the Moshiach’s arrival. All of the eschatological events predicted for that period can only be comprehended according to their general contours; the actual details remain in the province of God alone. The Talmud also states that the Messiah will arrive only through a “vacuum of knowledge”, i.e. unpredictably and unexpectedly. If we are always gazing towards the future to discern the moment of Spirit’s revelation, we can easily forget that it is literally right at our fingertips this very instant.

PART II: The Relevance of Kabbalah Today

by Moshe Y. Bernstein

To better understand the vital relevance of kabbalah for Judaism today, it is necessary to know that the Torah, with both its written and oral components, has evolved over time, as has human consciousness itself. Like an exotic plant, its seed was implanted at Sinai and later germinated by the Judges, Prophets and finally, by the men of the Great Assembly who set the canons. The seedling thrived in the light of rabbinic Judaism as recorded in the Midrash, the Mishnah and the Gemara, the simple meaning of the Torah yielding to its allegorical and homiletic interpretations. Generations of Rishonim and Acharonim then reaped the leafy harvest of deeper, exegetical analysis, in both the domains of Jewish law and theology. From its ancient inception to its gradual emergence in history, the kabbalah—the domain in which the Divine is revealed-- signifies the maturity of this wondrous plant, celebrated with fragrant, colourful blossoms, allusions to the Torah’s mystical secrets.
This same concept is expressed—perhaps less poetically than my attempt—in the Jewish notion of Pardes Ha-Torah, the “Torah orchard”. The Pardes—the name also given to that ultimate level of reality to which the four rabbis aspired—is simultaneously the acronym for four levels of Torah study: Pshat (the literal meaning), Remez, (the allegorical meaning), Drash, (the homiletic and exegetical meaning) and Sod (the secret meaning). Although these levels are often visualised hierarchically, they are best comprehended, like an actual orchard, as three-dimensional with increasing interior depth.
The Pshat level is the surface-perception view from the edge of the orchard standing on the outside: it is represented by the literal stories of scripture. Stepping into the orchard, in Remez, the literal meaning acquiesces to the allegorical. The Midrash and the Mishnah symbolise this level. Going deeper still, in Drash, both in the legal and philosophical domains that characterise post-Talmudic Judaism, exegesis and homily-- commentaries upon the commentary-- characterise the engagement here. It is only, however, when one reaches the very centre of the orchard, the Sod, that one can fathom its actual depth. The realm of kabbalah surveys these most interior features.
Significantly, the master kabbalist the Ari of Tsfat claimed that when one removed the samech—the final letter of the Pardes acronym representing Sod­—the remaining letters form the word “pered”, which means “separation”. This refers to the theological “separation” between the individual and the Divine that occurs as a result of neglecting mystical wisdom. The individual becomes trapped “down here”, while God becomes a remote being somewhere “up there”. An alternative meaning of “pered” is mule, referring both to the irrational obstinacy of mysticism’s antagonists and, alternatively, to the “blinders” that render them deliberately oblivious to kabbalah’s wisdom.
It is from this exalted vantage point that kabbalah can illuminate and supply relevance for many of those seminal ideas of Judaism referred to in passing in Part 1. There are numerous Jewish theological concepts that cannot be fully understood without kabbalah: creation, free will, reward and punishment, the commandments, the soul and its transmigrations, the future world and the messianic era all contain mystical underpinnings. There is, however, one foundational proposal where I believe kabbalah plays a vital role in assisting our understanding. I am referring to the cornerstone of Jewish theology—the belief in one God.
You might be surprised to discover that a subliminal theme in many of the arguments between the pre-modern traditionalist and the modern rationalist relates to the very definition of monotheism, the way in which we “package” the Divine.
Judaism has traditionally been labelled the world’s first “monotheistic” religion. From a mystical perspective, this description is not entirely accurate. Technically, monotheism is the belief in a single deity. According to the mythical perspective common in the early medieval period, this belief manifested as the vision of an omnipotent, wise patriarchal figure—the father, the king-- abiding above the seven heavens but disengaged from the material world. This anthropomorphic picture of God (with a long, silvery beard, of course) is familiar to all of us; it remains imprinted in the subconscious from early childhood, when these are the only terms by which God can be apprehended.
Of course, this picture of the Divine is not only immature, it is inauthentic as well. In the Rambam’s Thirteen Articles of Faith we are taught that God is absolutely one, a Oneness that is unique and simple (not consisting of subordinate parts); that God has no beginning or end in time; that God has no bodily representation or spatial limits. Certainly, the standard mythic conception of God does not meet these criteria.
Why is it then that many people still retain an underdeveloped conception of God? It seems that, after imparting the pictorial image of a personalised, male God in the early years of childhood, normative religion—with no access to the treasury of kabbalah wisdom in its midst—has nothing more to add in that lofty realm. With no tools to spiritually develop the inadequate mythic notion, some people remain with that deficient image their entire lives.
When modernism burst onto the scene, bolstered by the Cartesian paradigm, science began its rational examination of all visible surfaces in the material world. And guess what? Lo and behold, no matter how hard they looked, they found no solid evidence of God, not up in the starry heavens and not even down here on earth, where a great, deterministic machine was deemed to be running the show. The deists (e.g. Sir Isaac Newton) believed that in a mysterious way, God, from high above, was still pushing the buttons on this complex machine. The pantheists held that the machine itself, i.e. nature, was God. Finally, modernism produced the popular belief in atheism: the machine was all there is, and it was running by itself.
Although atheism always gets a bashing in the ongoing conceptual debate between modernists and traditionalists, no less a figure than Rabbi Abraham I. Kook, saw the advance of atheism as a positive development, smashing the idolatrous mental picture of the mythic God:

“We avoid studying the true nature of the divine, and as a result, the concept of God has dimmed. The innermost point of the awareness of God has become so faint that the essence of God is conceived only as a stern power from whom you cannot escape, to whom you must subjugate yourself. If you submit to the service of God on this empty basis, you gradually lose your radiance by constricting your consciousness. The divine splendour is plucked from your soul…Every sensitive spirit feels compelled to discard such a conception of God. This denial [atheism] is the heresy that paves the way for the Messiah, when the knowledge of God runs dry in the world…”

Rabbi Kook, one of the greatest mystics of the 20th century, was suggesting that the rise of modern secularism occurred as a means to dissolve the dross from a stagnant perception of the Divine in order to pave the way for the more evolved notion characteristic of the Messianic Era. Atheism, deism and pantheism, were just temporary road stops in the evolution of consciousness to a more mature and inclusive conception of the Divine.
In the end, however, post-modernism demolished the rationalist’s claim to scientific absolutism; the new discoveries in quantum mechanics utterly collapsed those views that had hitherto idealised nature as a substantive reality. At its fundamental particle level, nature was now “without substance” and, more importantly, inextricably and existentially linked to consciousness itself. With that, modernity’s baffling quest to “know God” empirically was laid to rest: scientific materialism no longer reigned supreme.
It remains the task of kabbalah to supply an integral and viable meaning, one that transcends yet includes from its predecessors, to this most elementary premise of Judaism: the existence of one God.
In our daily morning prayers that precede the Shma we make two declarations about God. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! The entire earth is filled with his Glory!” This refers to the immanent (feminine) aspect of the Divine that reveals itself through the garment of nature. Simultaneously, we declare: “Blessed is the Glory of God from his place.” This verse implies that God’s place is somehow transcendent (masculine) to our world of physical space/time.
Though God appears to us as dual, with a transcendent and immanent aspect, the core of Jewish belief is that this duality is generated only by the limitation of our physical perspective. In the future this will be rectified. (“And on that day God will be one and his Name will be one!”); ultimately, we will know that Divine immanence and transcendence are in reality one and the same.
To the best of my knowledge, kabbalah, in both its theoretical and meditative aspects, is the only available address for the development of this awareness in a genuine Jewish context. Kabbalistic practice supplies both the knowledge and experience to seal that paradoxical gap between these two polarities. The kabbalists did not believe in waiting for the Messiah to realise the non-dual awareness of God. On the contrary, they believed that by realising this awareness, they were hastening the Messiah’s advent.
Of course, the real truth is that God is One right now at this very moment; it is just that we are less than fully conscious of the fact. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan described it, the reason our perception of God is obscured is not because He/She is too far away but rather because He/She is too close.
Like fish who cannot conceive of water, we are experiencing mystical Oneness every moment of the day without being aware of it. It is only when the fish jumps out of the water that it can acquire an awareness of what the water truly is. Likewise, it is the leap into mystical consciousness that makes us aware of the “water” of divinity that engulfs us at all times.
So, are you ready to take that leap?
Although, from a pure statistical perspective, your answer was probably no, you will be surprised to find out that, according to our tradition, sooner or later, everyone will.

PART I: The Post-Modern Emergence of Jewish Mysticism

By Moshe Y.Bernstein

For the past several years the world has witnessed a rather strange phenomenon. Kabbalah, the tradition of esoteric Judaism once accessible only to an elite group of Torah scholars, has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Roseanne Barr, Jeff Goldblum, Naomi Campbell, Jerry Hall… these are only a few of the celebrities who have found spiritual solace in the Jewish mystical tradition, primarily by means of the internationally-acclaimed Kabbalah Centre, founded by former insurance salesman Phillip Berg and currently managed by his wife and sons.
In general, the Jewish reaction to the hijacking of its secret tradition to the bright lights of Hollywood has been a mixed one. On the one hand, in that glittering world of pop spirituality where Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism have previously enjoyed the public spotlight, it is somewhat of an honour that elements of Judaism can compete in the slick marketplace of meaningful ideas. On the other, we feel a sense of disappointment and discomfort that many of these legitimate ideas have been commercialised and, in the process, corrupted.
As one who has delved into the authentic Jewish mystical tradition for many years, I have to admit that I cringe every time I am confronted with the common response to the kabbalah phenomenon: “Oh, yes. Kabbalah! That’s about wearing a red thread on your wrist, right?”
Unfortunately, even prior to the current trend of pop spirituality, largely because of its chequered history, kabbalah has been the subject of gross misunderstandings by Jews and gentiles alike. The aim of this series of articles, therefore, is:

To understand the phenomenon of kabbalah’s emergence in the 21st century
To analyse the visceral opposition to kabbalah
To clarify some mistaken notions regarding the nature of Jewish mysticism
To examine whether or not kabbalah can assist in the future perpetuation of Judaism

First, in order to properly gauge the impact of kabbalah’s emergence today, it is significant to note that this occurrence is not limited to the adulterated version espoused by Madonna. In Israel, the number of yeshivot that study kabbalah from authentic Jewish sources and utilise kabbalistic meditations in daily prayer has jumped exponentially in the last decade. In addition, particularly in Jerusalem and Tsfat, a growing number of alternative kabbalists outside the yeshiva framework are combining genuine kabbalistic concepts with those that are now accessible from other mystical traditions across the planet. Furthermore, an increasing number of secular Israelis are partaking in this cross-cultural, mystical fertilisation. Commonly nicknamed ChaBaKuk (after the Jewish prophet), an acronym of the three most popularised forms of Jewish mysticism-- Chabad, Breslav and Rav Kook-- this movement is far more eclectic than its name implies.
Before suggesting the reasons for this surfacing of what was heretofore the concealed mystical tradition of Judaism, it is both necessary and informative to scrutinize the intense antagonism kabbalah has frequently engendered. Curiously, this antipathy has primarily stemmed from two opposing sources: modern rationalists and pre-modern traditionalists. (Ironically, when these two sides are not engaged in bashing kabbalah, they are frequently bashing each other. )
To the modern rationalists, particularly those aligned with today’s reform movements, kabbalah has always been a cause of embarrassment. Its magical texts with incantations to summon angelic forces, its imbuing the mitzvoth with cosmic significance to rectify the world’s imbalances and its focus on the messianic future are in contradiction to the rationalist’s emphasis on a logical but humanistic approach to religion.
To the traditionalist, where faith in a dogmatic system of belief frequently trumps the rational mind, the threat posed by kabbalah originates from a different basis. Exegetically, the conventional texts are replete with warnings of the trepidations of the mystical journey. The Talmudic legend of the four rabbis who ascended to the Pardes (defined by Rashi as a mystical level achieved through meditative techniques) is the classic example. According to this story, of the four rabbis who took part in this endeavour in expanded consciousness, only Rabbi Akiva ascended and descended in peace. Ben Zoma went mad, Acher became a heretic, and Ben Azzai passed away.
Historically, as well, kabbalah has posed an enormous threat to the religious establishment. The kabbalah of Shabbtai Tzvi in the 17th century led to an eschatological disaster for the Jewish people. Other messianic pretenders, like Jacob Frank, have utilised the erotic notions espoused in kabbalistic theory (e.g. the masculine aspect of Divine transcendence in union with the feminine aspect of Divine immanence) to promote an agenda of sexual debauchery. In the early generations of the Hasidic movement, the mass proliferation of kabbalah led to concerns over its trivialisation and abuse. Ultimately, some of the rabbinic of authorities of Europe decreed to restrict its practice (though not its theoretical study) to married men over 40 who had already mastered the exoteric, legal texts.
There is another reason, however, why traditionalists often feel threatened by kabbalah. The goal of kabbalah is nothing less than an experience of the Divine in this human body, the merging of “heaven and earth”. This experience completely transcends rigid dogma and demands a total transformation of the ego. To many people, it is much safer and simpler to nestle into the familiar, “translative” aspects of the Jewish religion, i.e. those that nurture and stabilise the ego (e.g. social, ritual, mythical, ethical) rather than the daunting—and often frightening—task of transforming it. It should be noted that those translative aspects of religion serve a perfectly legitimate social function for many people; they do not, however, satisfy the needs of those seeking authentic religious experience. This is possibly the reason that nearly 50% of practicing Buddhists in the U.S. are Jewish by birth.
Although the objections of both the modernists and traditionalists contain some validity, the problem occurs when we accordingly thrust aside the entire kabbalistic tradition and end up chucking out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. Yes, kabbalah does contain elements of superstition (e.g. red threads on the wrist) that no longer sit well with the rational mind. Yes, it can be frightening to imagine the personal and/or historical dangers mysticism can pose. There are, nonetheless, aspects of kabbalah that are absolutely foundational to Jewish theology (to be discussed in Part II); by discarding its mystical component completely, we risk stripping Judaism of some of these elements most central to its teachings, thus eliminating its very heart and soul.
Consider for a moment the saintly models from our Jewish heritage: Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu, the Prophets, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Akiva, the Ari, Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbeinu Bahya, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and hosts of other personages who, each in their own way, followed the mystical path of our tradition. According to the rationalist, were all these exceptional individuals simply engaged in a program of nonsensical mumbo-jumbo? Did they, according to the traditionalists, constitute a grave threat to the tenets of normative Judaism?
On the contrary, all of these great mystics have been instrumental in preserving and perpetuating our Jewish legacy, precisely because Judaism, in its essence, is a mystical tradition. Were we to deny the greatness and achievements of these spiritual masters, we would be short-changing Judaism itself. Alternatively, if we acknowledge their greatness, we should feel compelled to explore the mystical path that brought them to those heights in our quest to discover the true depth, beauty and spirituality that is embodied in our heritage.
As one who has been involved in Jewish education for almost three decades, I can attest to the fact that the shell of normative Judaism-- neutered of its mystical aspect-- presented by the religious establishment very often fails to resonate with the younger generation. In particular, the brand of Diaspora Judaism that has hoisted the banner of Holocaust memorials and Zionism above the profundity of Torah wisdom offers very little in the way of real hope for future generations. To anyone who is looking, that banner is already in tatters, not only for the next generations but also, in many instances, for the flag-bearers themselves.
If we reduce all of the deep, ancient wisdom of our tradition to a reflexive “Oy, vey!” regarding the historical injustices of the past and the political machinations of the present, we are committing a grave injustice to both the Torah and generations of future Jews.
I believe it is high time that we lower those worn-out banners and allow ourselves a careful appraisal of the hidden treasure concealed in the Torah for time immemorial but within reach to all who seek it earnestly at any given moment with an open heart. We will be surprised to find that, rather than consisting of irrational twaddle or ominous peril, this sparkling treasure is more accessible, meaningful and relevant—particularly in the times we live in—than we had ever before imagined.