What is the purpose of studying Kabbalah? What effects (both tangible and intangible) does this have on a person? With areas of Torah study like character development and Jewish law, the purpose and effects are obvious. With Kabbalah, this is not the case. So what's it all about?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Kabbalah is best defined as "Jewish metaphysics." Just as physics deals with interactions and relationships within the physical world, Kabbalah deals with interactions and relationships within the spiritual world, as well as the interconnection between the physical and spiritual. It addresses such ideas as an infinite God creating a finite universe, body-soul relationships, etc.
Just as physics has its principles and descriptive formula, so too Kabbalah has its principles and descriptive formula. Though one may be exposed to popularized explanations of physics, a true understanding of the physical universe (such as sub-atomic physics) requires an in-depth study of standard physics with a strong background in calculus, etc. So too Kabbalah cannot be understood without a firm grasp of Talmud, Code of Jewish Law, and other primary Jewish works. The study of Kabbalah is like "graduate work" built upon a firm base of the revealed written and oral Torah.
Further, Maimonides writes that Kabbalah should be studied only after one has passed the age of 40. Without a huge base of Torah and years of maturity, one lacks the ability to correctly understand Kabbalah. Even worse, one who misunderstands Kabbalah could actually cause spiritual destruction upon himself and others.
The Hebrew word Kabbalah literally translates as "received," since it is a tradition that has been "received" from previous generations. The roots of this tradition are very old, with the earliest Kabbalistic writings can be traced back to the very first Jew, the patriarch Abraham. The main book of Kabbalah, "The Zohar," was written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai about 2,000 years ago.
The reason to learn Kabbalah is simply because it contains the deepest secrets of the universe! Kabbalah explains how everything in the physical world is a metaphor for a spiritual concept. For example, hair appears on the power-points on a body: arms, head, groin. Therefore, hair represents power. The Torah concept of a Nazir (one who refrains from cutting hair, among other things) is tapping into the deep wellsprings of spiritual power. (See the biblical story of Samson, who strength waned when his hair was cut.)
You should be aware that popularized accounts of Kabbalah are often misrepresented and wrong.
Nevertheless, there are certain basic Kabbalistic concepts that can be grasped by one who does not have an extensive background. These ideas are found in "The Way of God," written in the 18th century by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto. There is an English translation published by Feldheim. Also, see an online course, "Kabbalah 101" at: www.aish.com/sp/k/
My neighbor recently cloned their pet dog, so that they could enjoy the dog for years after he is dead. This got me thinking – should we be doing this with our best and brightest people? I mean, why not keep the gene pool at a high level?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Actually, it is a fallacy to think that "genetically identical" equals an identical human being. In the 1978 movie, "The Boys From Brazil," an evil scientist conspires after the war to clone Hitler, in order to raise a new generation of Nazi leaders. The movie shows that without intense indoctrination, these "junior Hitlers" may be more inclined to become house-painters than they are to become dictators.
It is very un-Jewish – and even racist – to say that the value of a human being is defined by a particular set of physical features. This philosophy is promoted by Nazi's and other White Supremacists.
Consider also the example of identical twins – who are genetically identical – but often grow up with vastly different personalities. It is a basis of Jewish thought that every individual has a unique soul. Each human has a totally unique combination of talents, skills, sensitivities and perceptions. It is that diversity which defines us as precious and "human." The Talmud says that Adam was created alone, so that each person should say, "The world was created for my sake alone." In order to fulfill one's potential, we need to discover our unique contribution to the world. In the Purim story, when Mordechai sends Esther a message asking her to go visit the king, he indicates that her very purpose for creation rests on this key moment. (see Esther 4:14)
The true greatness of a person is not their genetic make-up, but their hard work and applying those talents they have. Think Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller and others who have overcome great physical limitations to become great. It is truly something to strive for.
For more on the Jewish perspective of cloning, see www.jlaw.com/Articles/cloning.html
My credo in life has always been: Work hard, plan, and struggle. Yet I find that things often just end up a big mess. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. How can the pieces of this puzzle possibly fit together?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The premise for this question comes from a certain lack of perspective. Somehow we imagine that the world began when we're born, and ends when we die. Everything that happened beforehand is lumped together as "ancient history." If I can't understand it today, then it must not make sense at all.
The following story has a very deep message:
There once was a farmer who owned a horse. One day the horse ran away. All the people in the town came to console him because of the loss. "Oh, I don't know," said the farmer, "maybe it's a bad thing and maybe it's not."
A few days later, the horse returned to the farm accompanied by 20 other horses. (Apparently he had found some wild horses and made friends!) All the townspeople came to congratulate him: "Now you have a stable full of horses!" "Oh, I don't know," said the farmer, "maybe it's a good thing and maybe it's not."
A few days later, the farmer's son was out riding one of the new horses. The horse got wild and threw him off, breaking the son's leg. All the people in town came to console the farmer because of the accident. "Oh, I don't know," said the farmer, "maybe it's a bad thing and maybe it's not."
A few days later, the government declared war and instituted a draft of all able-bodied young men. They came to the town and carted off hundreds of young men, except for the farmer's son who had a broken leg. "Now I know," said the farmer, "that it was a good thing my horse ran away."
The point of this story is obvious. Life is a series of events, and until we've reached the end of the series, it's hard to know exactly why things are happening. That's one reason the Torah commands us to give respect to every elderly person - because through the course of life experience, they have seen the jigsaw puzzle pieces fall into place.
It is interesting that one of the weekly Torah portions, "Miketz," ends on a bad note, and is then resolved at the beginning of the following week. Why didn't the Torah simply extend "Miketz" a few verses and have it end good? Because the Torah wants to communicate the lesson that we don't always see the whole picture. More than any other Biblical account, the story of Joseph illustrates the lesson "that everything turns out good in end." In order to drive home this lesson, the Torah makes us wait one week to find out the ending!
The truth is that we are here on Earth for short time. We do not see the "Big Picture." We don't know all the details that happened before we were here, and we certainly don't know what will happen after we're gone. It is unfair to take a single event out of context. Why did it happen? We might not see the answer immediately; we might not even see in our lifetime.
In truth, it is often when things look the most grim that they then turn around. The night is at its absolute darkness just moments before the first rays of morning sun begin to illuminate the sky.
In the morning prayer service, we say, "Blessed are You, God, Who forms light and creates darkness..." Judaism says that the darkness is not a negative, but rather is a necessary step along the path toward light. Only because of our limited perception, do we perceive the darkness as an end unto itself.
A seed, when placed in the ground, is in a dark, cold and dirty place. The seed then begins to decay. To the onlooker, it looks like death. And then, at the very moment that the seed has completely broken down, something miraculous happens. It begins to sprout.
Think about your life, your career, your relationships with others and with God. Was the process smooth? In general, have you experienced greater growth when times have been tough or when times have been smooth?
From the darkness comes light.