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.
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...