Kabbalah: the dance of life
“You beings on earth who are in deep slumber, awaken! Who among you has laboured to turn darkness into light And bitterness into sweetness?” Text from the Zohar, one of the principal books of the Kabbalah
With many Hollywood celebrities and pop divas publicly embracing Kabbalah, a great deal of attention has been focused on it. American singer Madonna’s links with Kabbalah are frequently in the media spotlight, for example. As a keen member of the international Kabbalah Centre, she has even adopted the Hebrew name of Esther and openly wears the trademark red string bracelet on her left wrist to ward off the “evil eye”.
Yet, despite the press — or maybe because of it — Kabbalah continues to intrigue and key questions remain: what exactly is Kabbalah? What are its teachings? When was it conceived? And why is it so mysterious?
Simply put, Kabbalah is a way of life and, as Rabbi and author David A. Cooper has written, it is also a way of “looking at things”. The nucleus of Kabbalah remains the esoteric nature of Creation by God. Kabbalah is totally and uniquely centred on this mystery of life and, as a consequence, the growth of individual mystical awareness.
Things, says the Kabbalah, are so much more than we think they are. Everything we will ever experience during life has a deeper message — a mystical meaning and a personal significance. Yet, to say that Kabbalah is merely a teaching devoted exclusively to the mystical experience of being and to the subsequent attaining of enlightenment would be an unsubstantial answer. Kabbalah is so much more.
It is as complex as it is diverse. It discusses not just Creation and God; it is not afraid to probe the very nature of God Himself. It traverses the dimensions of the human soul, the ebb and flow of mystical forces that operate so powerfully in our universe, while it talks openly about the mending of broken souls and of the many paths of the tzaddik (Jewish enlightenment) — the paths one can tread of respect, generosity, purity and joy, to name but a few.
Shrouded in mystery and requiring years of study for initiation, Kabbalah has fascinated Western scholars and occultists for centuries. Rumoured to be the world’s oldest body of spiritual knowledge, its symbols and rituals have been zealously guarded by secret societies and buried beneath layers of impenetrable Hebrew script for thousands of years. Interest in Kabbalistic scripts led to the establishment of the alchemical fraternity of the Rosicrucians in Germany in 1614 and formed the basis of the famous occult order The Golden Dawn, founded in London in 1888, of which Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune were both members. These groups sought to delve into the inner realms of the Kabbalistic world in an attempt to try to control the external world.
Kabbalistic wisdom is related to no other religion or belief system and, while today there are a great many Kabbalists, there are also hidden Kabbalists who have no intention of ever becoming publicly known, or of teaching others. Their sole purpose is to exist in order to balance this world, correcting and checking the flow of negative forces. It’s said that such individuals are known to no one and that this is how they should remain: anonymous workers performing the will of the Creator, God, on our corporeal level which is why, of course, such Kabbalists have a body and a soul.
There are two viewpoints on the transmission of Kabbalah: the Theosophical school, which suggests that teachings be passed from teacher to student, and the Ecstatic school, which does not require a teacher and focuses instead on meditation as a means of channelling information. The ultimate teacher in this discipline is the source of life, frequently represented as the greatest of all Jewish prophets, Elijah, who alone maintained the faith during the slaughter of the prophets in the darkest period of Judaism. It is believed that Elijah comes to the student in dreams or while in a deep meditative state.
The term “Kabbalah” is derived from the Hebrew word lekabbel which, roughly translated, means “to receive” or “to accept”. And while “Kabbalah” is the spelling used in Jewish and contemporary spiritual traditions, other groups have spelt it “Cabala” or “Qabalah”.
Kabbalistic knowledge is said to have been passed down from Abraham through the generations. It evolved by word of mouth, with each Kabbalist leaving his own unique imprint on the theology, and it uses only two diagrams. These are based on the Jewish structures of the menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum that modern Kabbalists refer to as the Tree of Life) and the tabernacle (the portable temple the Hebrews set up in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, now known as Jacob’s ladder).
Aside from the Torah, the five books of Moses, the pre-eminent Kabbalistic text remains, of course, the Zohar or Book of Splendour. In keeping with the enigmatic tradition of Kabbalah, the Zohar’s origins remain a mystery and date back to the Roman occupation of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. There are, however, some Jewish scholars who believe passionately that the actual birth of Kabbalah may be even more venerable than this. Kabbalah is the stuff of legend.
And, according to this legend, God personally instructed a group of senior archangels in the nature and purpose of the universe. One of these great angels, Raziel, whose name means literally “secret of God” and who is the Archangel of Hokhmah or Wisdom, appeared to the first human, Adam, three days after his expulsion from Eden and handed him a book “wherein all celestial and earthly knowledge is set down”. Tradition has it that the book passed through Noah’s hands and then came to Abraham and, eventually to Moses. It was also kept by Solomon, the latter deriving from it his great knowledge of power, magic and demonology.
Initially, the Zohar consisted of many individual manuscripts written chiefly in Aramaic, interspersed with some Hebrew, and they tell the tale of a group of nomadic rabbis who wander the Galilean countryside exchanging the secret teachings of the Zohar.
The author is believed to have been Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known as Rashbi. Following the failed revolt of Bar Kokhba and the execution of Rabbi Akiva in the second century, Rashbi escaped with his son, hiding out in caves for 13 years. Tradition has it that it was during this period of seclusion that Rashbi composed the Zohar, working it out in his head after much study of the Torah and its mystical teachings, the Torat Ha’Sod. He later dictated the Zohar to Rabbi Aba, who transcribed the material in the form of parables. However, not long after Rashbi’s time, the Zohar inexplicably disappeared.
Kabbalists claim the Zohar remained hidden until it resurfaced again several centuries later in Spain during the Middle Ages. At this point in history, many leading Kabbalists, inspired by the invention of the printing press, tried to record the teachings of the Kabbalah and for the first time this body of mystical knowledge could be disseminated throughout the known world. Other important texts also made appearances during this period, including the Sefir Bahir (also known as The Book of Illumination in which the Ten Sefirot of the Godhead, the 10 emanations of God’s essence, are clearly delineated) and the Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation, which contains mystical information about the numbers and letters of the Hebrew alphabet for Biblical interpretation). These texts remain at the very heart of Kabbalah.
“God’s place,” says the Kabbalah “is the world. But the world is not God’s place.” This statement alone makes it clear from the outset that while God, the supreme being, is present in existence, He is separate from it. This mystery is the key to unlocking much Kabbalistic doctrine and forms the cornerstone of the Kabbalistic view of the universe. Thus, God and the world meet in intimate and common knowledge but God is not of this world.
God, says the Kabbalah, is utterly and totally complete. He is called Ayin, which in Hebrew means “no-thing”. He is beyond existence and incomprehensible to humans.
According to legend, God “longed to behold God” and so God’s will, symbolised by the En Sof Aur, the Endless Light of Will, shone nowhere and everywhere. From God’s desire to see Himself, the first act of separation (the creation of a space or void called Tzimtzum) took place. Around this space shone the En Sof Aur — the light in the darkness of the newly created void that is described so beautifully in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.
The unfolding of the universe via the Will, the Act and the Restriction of God, referred to as the three Zahzahot, or Hidden Splendours, had begun. These Zahzahot were the first of several sets of rules or divine laws that would govern the universe and man’s place in it. They generated the acts of expansion and contraction of energy affecting all things.
As divine light (or lightning flash) flowed into the void that God had created, each new impulse of creation had to be balanced and stabilised. Without this stabilisation process the light from God would have remained purposeless. The Kabbalah says this part of the process of creation required the balancing of two pillars and it is here that we see the creation of the Tree of Life with its 10-stage progression known as the Sefirot and its alternating passive and active states (the two pillars) as the divine light comes into balance and subsequently reaches physical manifestation.
At the top of the tree is Keter (Crown) representing Will, where light first flows. From here, the lightning flash moves down to Hokhmah (Wisdom), before flowing across to the passive Sefira of Binah (Understanding), where growth is stabilised. Next, light flows across the abyss of Da’at to the active Sefira of Hesed (Mercy) before moving back to the passive Sefira of Gevurah (Judgement) where the new growth consolidates. From Gevurah, the lightning flash passes to Tiferet (Beauty), where quickening takes place before moving to Nezach (Eternity) and back to Hod (Reverberation). From here it balances itself in Yesod (Foundation) before becoming manifest — or born — in Malchut (Kingdom).
As the flash of divine lightning flows down through the four worlds of Jacob’s Ladder, it slows down, becoming denser at each stage before birthing into the physical world.
The Sefirot are linked by 22 paths which form a network of triangular subsystems. Along these many paths various minor combinations of energy can flow, bringing different aspects to the soul. Within the framework of this tree, nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing decays. It is the eternal paradigm of life, a manifestation of infinity, a framework for the universe. Above all, it is the mirror of the image of God.
The Sefirotic tree reminds us that existence is without end — but, if ever God reverses His will to see God, then the universe as we know it would simply vanish and the void would be filled and dissolve into the nothingness from which it first came.
The world is sustained totally and absolutely by the will and the grace of God and until God ends time itself, these 10 Sefirot will exist forever.
Man’s place, on the other hand, belongs firmly in the world. And as he is made in the image of God, man alone of all living creatures has the greatest possibility of realising the divine presence in the universe. To this end, the world provides all the conditions needed for man to attain perfection of being and, in return, man helps the world towards its completion so that what has been separated (through the fall from divine grace in Eden) can eventually be reunited.
To understand the universe, Kabbalists use the diagram of Jacob’s Ladder. At a cosmic level, Jacob’s Ladder represents a map of the universe with its invisible laws that establish and govern the stars, planets and nature itself.
Creation is said to have occurred at four levels, each one representative of an element: Azilut, the divine level, represented by fire; Beriah, the spiritual level, represented by air; Yetzirah, the psychological plane of the soul, represented by water; Asiyyah, the physical world, represented by earth. All four elements are present throughout the universe and obey the cosmic law of karma, the law of cause and effect. The Kabbalah teaches that, as children of God, every single one of our thoughts, words and deeds invoke this karmic law and are subject to it.
In addition to the Biblical account of creation, Kabbalistic tradition holds that God created seven heavens, which are sometimes seen as curtains or veils between the different levels of reality. The upper heaven is called Arabot and is perceived as a plain or surface on a vast cosmic sea. This is a place of perfect peace and blessings, where spirits are created and where they return in their purest state after their descent to the imperfect human world below. It is in Arabot that “Divine Dew”, which will revive the dead on the Day of Resurrection, is to be found. The light that was called forth on the first day of creation, Divine Luminosity, is also stored here.
The seven heavens are, in their turn, filled with pure spirits, which are ranked in orders of greater or lesser, depending on their allotted tasks. Gathered around each angel is a host of lesser spirits.
Composed of fire and water — meaning they are made up of the two force and form sides of the pillars of Beriah (the realm of pure mind, where the concept of duality, good and evil, begins) — the angelic host were created exclusively to serve the will of God. They have no will of their own because the will of the Creator operates through them. Their primary duty is to ensure that the great cycles of life endure.
In the Kabbalah, evil is seen as having a vital role in the divine plan for it is only through man’s triumph over evil that he can eventually find his way back to Heaven. The idea that even evil impulses perform the will of the Creator is a key component of the Kabbalah.
It is this “push/pull” effect that can be seen in the workings of our physical world where good battles evil or light versus dark. No matter how dark things might seem in a person’s life, the Kabbalah reminds us that, as with the Biblical figure Job, who was battered, tormented and tossed about by the forces of evil, the light from God is always stronger and this light will prevail — come what may.
Claire Porter has been a freelance investigative reporter for the past 30 years and has a special interest in the dynamics of human healing. Her first book 70,000 Veils: The Miracle of Energy, is published by O Books.
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