The Forgotten Torah

The Forgotten Torah

BY: Periel Shapiro

Kabbalah is part of your life. Even if you are an only nominally observant Jew, you have likely partaken in Kabbalistic prayers and customs or studied works inspired by Jewish mystical concepts. If you have ever been to a Jewish wedding, you must have seen the bride circle the groom three or seven times, a custom based on interpretations of Hoshea and Yirmeyahu and the mystical implications of the number seven. It is a virtually universal custom in synagogues to sing “Lekhah Dodi,” a beautiful hymn written by 16th-century Safed Kabbalist Rabbi Shelomoh ha-Levi Alkabets, on Friday night, and much of the Shabbat liturgy and many of its customs are based on Jewish mysticism. A large number of the classic Jewish ethical texts studied throughout the world bear the stamp of Kabbalistic influence, and indeed the very Halakhah by which religious Jews live their daily lives was authoritatively codified by the renowned Kabbalist R. Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh. R. Karo regularly cites Kabbalistic sources and mystical aggadot when they are relevant to halakhic practice, and commentaries such as the Hafets Hayyim’s Mishnah Berurah include substantial discussions of fundamental Jewish mystical concepts. When perhaps the authority on Jewish law was very much a mystic, a man who wrote a diary describing detailed conversations he had with an angelic being, it is certainly proper for a Jew to at least understand what Kabbalah is.,

The term “Kabbalah” in its wider sense signifies all the mystical movements within Judaism that have evolved over the past two millennia. Historically speaking, the origins and development of Jewish mysticism are uncertain and can only be traced as far back as the Jewish esoteric traditions being transmitted in the Roman provinces of Egypt and Palestine in the 1st century CE. Some scholars argue that Kabbalah was heavily influenced by Persian and Greek culture, while others, such as Gershom Scholem, emphasize the uniqueness and dynamism of 1st– and 2nd-century Jewish mysticism. Either way, the relationship between Kabbalah and various other mystical traditions beyond Judaism was certainly never one-directional, and indeed Scholem points out that the theologies of some of the most important non-Jewish Gnostic groups were based largely on Jewish Aggadah and esotericism. However, Scholem denies the efforts of some to demonstrate the existence of mystical trends in biblical times, vaguely dismissing the identified ideologies as unfit for the label “mysticism:” “Organized closed societies of mystics have been proved to exist only since the end of the Second Temple era.”

One cannot historically prove Kabbalah to be an original, indigenous part of Judaism any more than one can do so for all of our Oral Torah. And so, scholars like Scholem have long developed theories to help explain how the mysticism accepted by the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud came to be. However, as is the case with much of ancient history, there is also no proof that there was not an ancient mystical tradition, one that was given to Moshe at Mount Sinai along with the halakhot le-Moshe mi-Sinai and the exegetical principles through which the Talmud and Mishnah were later formed. So while a believing Jew can, generally speaking, learn a great deal from historical research regarding Jewish mysticism and how the Oral Torah evolves, he does not have to decipher clues and piece together evidence to explain where it all came from. He can simply trust the testimony of the Mishnah in Tractate Avot that states: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly.”

With that background, we find evidence of mystical thought in many traditional, canonical writings. Talmudic sources and early Jewish esoteric literature, such as the Hekhalot texts, are connected at many points and often explain each other. Even the Shi’ur Komah, an obscure and heavily anthropomorphic mystical teaching, “was an early and genuine part of mystic teachings in the days of the tannaim,” and at one point, even Maimonides accepted it as authoritative, suggesting that perhaps one of the father figures of rationalist Judaism was not as one-dimensional as many portray him to have been. In addition, Scholem describes how the “striking halakhic character of [Jewish mystical] literature shows that its authors were well rooted in the halakhic tradition and far from holding heterodox opinions.” Indeed, Jewish mysticism, “an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding; a direct, intimate union of the soul with God,” or deveikut, is the ultimate purpose of the entire Torah.

Therefore, it is remarkable that many strains of Judaism virtually ignore Jewish mysticism and deny its legitimacy, even in its most basic and universally applicable forms. Some may be justifiably concerned that Kabbalah was influenced by external forces, a concern equally applicable to all of our Oral Law (although, that may be the point – as a Living Torah, it evolves in different times and places within the boundaries of halakhic and Talmudic principles). Still, evidence seems to suggest the remarkable originality of many strands of Jewish mysticism. The enormously influential Sefer Yetsirah, a text expounding the mysticism of Ma’aseh Be-Reshit, is one shining example. Scholem writes that “its brevity, allied to its obscure and at the same time laconic and enigmatic style, as well as its terminology, have no parallel,” and that even modern scientific investigations into the text have not succeeded in arriving at unambiguous results. Similarly, the Hasidei
Ashkenaz, a group of mystical ascetics who, some scholars contend, simply adapted Christian asceticism to Jewish categories, had actually “developed [their religious philosophy] mainly within the framework of a clear Talmudic tradition and the basic principles were often identical with the principles of this tradition.”

Some might reject Jewish mysticism in its current form because they believe that the Zohar, the most influential work of Kabbalah in today’s world, was created by R. Moshe de Leon of 13th-century Spain, as most scholars have argued, not by the Tanna R. Shimon bar Yohai, as tradition contends. I would not claim that R. Shimon bar Yohai sat in a cave and wrote word-for-word the Zohar that we have today. I would only state that he likely meditated on the concepts found in the Zohar and expounded them to his students. These ideas were then transferred orally for over a thousand years, evolving, like all of our Oral Torah, before being committed to writing by R. De Leon. For some, it is enough that almost every major Torah scholar since the appearance of R. De Leon’s Zohar has accepted its authenticity and even debated whether and in what context it can be used to determine Halakhah, concluding that we determine law based on Kabbalah, but only when it does not contradict a Talmudic source. This ruling can perhaps be understood based on the concept “Lo ba-Shamayim hi” ([the Torah] is not in Heaven).

In addition, some Jews are wary of the field of esoterica as a whole because mysticism without Torah, an existence of longing for something beyond this world, is essentially antithetical to Judaism, as Rav Soloveitchik suggests in Halakhic Man. Still, mysticism is part-and-parcel of Jewish life. As mentioned, in Judaism, mysticism aims at deveikut, cleaving to God through Torah and mitsvot, concrete acts. Thus, we see that Jewish mysticism cannot be divorced from a Torah lifestyle and is, in fact, the ultimate purpose of Torah observance, as many Torah leaders have pointed out. The system of Kabbalah represents perhaps the only practical ethical application of mysticism to society in existence. The beauty of Judaism is that “meditation and deed suffused one another, so that the mystic was enabled to live concretely, and the halachist mystically.”

Another reason people are unwilling to explore mysticism is out of concern for the dangers it poses and the prohibitions against its improper use as expressed in Devarim 18:10-14 and Tractate Hagigah. Nevertheless, not all Kabbalah is dangerous and there are appropriate avenues for accessing a direct mystical experience of the Divine, as the perek in Devarim goes on to say, “And I will raise a prophet unto you.” Those avenues were taken by our prophets, some of whom reached the highest levels of Jewish mystical achievement: the practical, or magical, Kabbalah. The prophet Eliyyahu, for example, had the ability to manipulate the forces of Creation and thereby bring about changes to the physical world through a nes, or miracle. Such mystical powers are inaccessible and incomprehensible to the vast majority of Jews.

However, the great physicist and Kabbalist R. Aryeh Kaplan, zts”l, outlines two other forms of Jewish mysticism that can be practiced and studied by all Jews, especially through Hasidut. These two categories are “meditative Kabbalah” and “theoretical Kabbalah,” both of which are extensively discussed in many major Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar. Meditative Kabbalah, accomplished through hitbodedut (reflective isolation) and hitbonenut (meditation), allows a person to quiet his mind and achieve a direct experience of God, which is a major part of Hasidut. Theoretical Kabbalah contains the “mechanics of the divine realm,” explaining the other branches of Kabbalah and providing an underlying philosophy of Judaism.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for the rejection of Kabbalah by many Jews today is that they see rationalism and mysticism as antithetical schools of thought. This seems to be especially so for Modern Orthodox Ashkenazim, a community that does not seem able to shake its philosophically-outdated Enlightenment insecurity about the non-rational elements of Jewish tradition. Ironically, this anxiety creates strange double standards within Modern Orthodoxy; for instance, the Zohar has been dated to the 13th century using the same academic methods by which scholars date all of Jewish Oral Law to the post-Second Temple period. Yet, many Jews who claim that the Zohar is late would never consider doing so with regard to the Talmud.

In truth, though, it may be that the question of rationality is itself irrelevant. “The mystic, the halachist, as well as the pure scientist live in an ideal world. Given their own criteria, the structures are perfectly logical in themselves.” I have long heard the silly argument, “It is not scientific,” as if science ever claimed to understand reality in its totality, as if the spirit of man is governed by scientific canons. Even the atheist believes: he believes that the sun will rise tomorrow or that the traffic light will change to green, though he has no purely rational grounds for doing so. Do pure rationalists “circumscribe themselves ‘scientifically’ in anything but their refusal to be men in the fullest sense of the word”?

Instead of putting them in conflict, Judaism teaches that mysticism and rationality should play complementary roles as two distinct ways of approaching existence that are both divine and not mutually exclusive. Rationality allows one to cognize reality and develop ways of relating to and measuring it – asiyyat ha-mitsvah – while mysticism gives one the ability to experience reality directly, kavvanat ha-mitsvah. We were given commandments by God and an intellect to decipher those commandments and determine how to carry them out and apply them to our lives. However, without at least a basic awareness that one is performing a commandment of God, one does not fulfill his or her obligation. This awareness is the simplest level of mysticism needed for one to fulfill his halakhic obligations. The more we intuitively understand the nature of existence and our place in it, the closer we come to a union with God, for “God knows the world as the truth of His own existence” and thus “man and God are united in knowledge of the world.” However, what makes this mystical union Jewish is the understanding that “knowledge without action serves no purpose.” We express this union in concrete acts and halakhic behaviors that emphasize individuality rather than nullify it.

Whatever the explanation may be for our neglect of our mystical tradition, the fact is that many Jews are being lost in the legalism of today’s Judaism. Jewish youth are spiritually starved and seek to quench their thirst for meaning with Buddhism, Hinduism, or music. We have gone so far in denying and burying Kabbalah that Judaism is the last place where some Jews look for spirituality, further boosting ever-rising assimilation rates. In addition, due to the neglect of Jewish mysticism in traditional circles, Kabbalah has sadly become the domain of Madonna and the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center. I once heard someone say that Judaism gave away the Land of Israel to the secular Zionists, Hebrew to the Maskilim, and Tanakh to the Christians. Now, we are abandoning our ancient spiritual tradition to Hollywood.

It is time that modern Judaism face Torat ha-Sod rather than ignore it or flee from it. Even many scholars of the 20th century, including Scholem, acknowledge the enriching impact that Kabbalah has had on Jewish existence, strengthening the inner life of the individual Jew and Jewry as a whole with its wealth of symbolism and imagery. Kabbalah, our tradition, is essential for our spiritual redemption and the emergence of a united society in perfect harmony with the Eybershter, God, the Eternal One, existence itself. As Rav Kook, zts”l, writes:

“Due to the alienation from the ‘secret of God’ [Hidden Torah], the higher qualities of the depths of godly life are reduced to trivia that do not penetrate the depth of the soul. When this happens, the most mighty force is missing from the soul of the nation and individual […] We should not negate any conception based on rectitude and awe of Heaven of any form – only the aspect of such an approach that desires to negate the mysteries and their great influence on the spirit of the nation. This is a tragedy that we must combat with counsel and understanding, with holiness and courage.”

We should all merit to witness the day when we realize the fullest expression of our ancient tradition and incorporate every dimension of our humanity as both rational and spiritual beings.


Periel Shapiro is a junior at YC majoring in History.