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.
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...