Minister’s forum: Learning about Jewish mysticism
Kabbalah appears in the public eye more now than perhaps ever. The Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, and worldwide, made it popular, and now people from Madonna to Demi Moore claim to follow the way of Kabbalah. So, given all this attention, I figured a little discussion about Kabbalah would be appropriate.
Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism – the word Kabbalah means, roughly, “that which has been received,” and it refers to a tradition of seeking the divine in the most profound ways in Judaism. Like other types of mysticism, the goal of Kabbalah is to get in touch with the infinite, with the divine. For those who are regular practitioners of other mystically influenced traditions – meditation, yoga, Sufi mysticism – Kabbalah offers many of the same tools, only, of course, coming from a Jewish perspective.
So what makes Jewish mysticism different? Jewish mystics, or Kabbalists, use the Hebrew language and the stories of the Hebrew Bible as jumping off points to find symbolic messages to improve their lives. Many devotees of Kabbalah will meditate using Hebrew letters as foci for their meditation. The manipulation of the letters, either by writing them, or by thinking about their permutations, and how they relate to the names of the divine as written in the Hebrew Bible, provide people meditation keys for their own inner beings.
Kabbalah encompasses more than just meditation practices, it also contains stories and teachings about how to make one’s life better by cooperating better with the divine in our world. An important teaching about this comes in an interpretative story about creation.
If we understand the divine to be infinite, which is one of the names for the divine in Kabbalah, then how can there be any finite creation? The Kabbalistic teaching on this is that in order to create, the divine had to withdraw, to make limited space in the infinity of the divine. So that now, as people in a limited creation, we have to work to access the infinite. Kabbalah also teaches that we have a responsibility to work with the divine to make creation better – that as humans we are capable of co-creation, both within ourselves and in the world. Thus, we can be divine partners in the completion of a better world.
Other Kabbalistic teachings help us focus on building balance in our lives between our priorities. Recognition of all the things that pull at us, reflecting on them, and how helpful they may or may not be, also helps us to work to better balance them, and better accomplish our partnership for improvement of the world.
These brief teachings show a mere glimpse into the literature and practices that have been developed over the past 2,000 years, that we now call Kabbalah. If this interests you, feel free to contact me, as Temple Bat Yam has a regular Kabbalah discussion group, no experience necessary.
May all of us continue to work to help everyone be a better partner in creating a better world.
– Jonathan Freirich is the rabbi of Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe and the Valley Regions Jewish Community.
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