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Kabbala #1: What Is Kabbala?

Kabbala #1: What Is Kabbala?

Kabbala is the Torah's expression of the way the world works. Removed from its source, it's a lot of rubbish. (First in a series.)


Most people have heard something or other about Kabbalah. But it is highly unlikely that what is going around in the general marketplace posing as Kabbalah is anywhere close to the real thing.

What most people have been exposed to is a smorgasbord of pop psychology and self-help that pretends to have some connection to Jewish mysticism, but it rarely, if ever, does.

It is easy to see how people are fooled. In most disciplines, you expect to know and understand something after studying it. But when it comes to mysticism, people expect to be mystified. So they are willing to accept incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo. Kabbalah is supposed to be mysterious and enigmatic. It's mysticism after all!

So much nonsense is presented in the name of Kabbalah, it is important to have some sort of forum where people can find the basic understandings that they crave.

In this series, we will attempt to present the central ideas of Jewish mysticism in a methodical and intelligent manner, minimizing abstruse terminology and shying away from a sense of the incomprehensible.

What Kabbalah Is and Isn't

In order to understand what Kabbalah is and what it isn't, let us use the following illustration.

A researcher sits in his lab examining all sorts of atomic phenomena. He smashes atoms at great speeds, and records what he sees happening. He is very meticulous in his work, and may even draw some immediate conclusions from the data at hand. But he leaves it at that.

The kabbalist describes the abstract, but is grappling with a concrete solid reality.

A great scientist picks up these notes, reads them and ponders their meaning. He begins to construct a mega-picture. He tries to envision what the entire system may be like. He knows that there are no instruments, nor can there be, to actually see the particles he imagines, and therefore he gropes for metaphors that will accurately connect the bits of data that the physicist collected. Thus, he begins to speak of "super strings," "atomic tunnels," "energy bridges," and "ten dimensions."

A third person, who has a highly fertile mind but with no sense of science, is eavesdropping. His imagination has been fired and, in no time at all, he is carrying forth about people that have mysteriously disappeared in "atomic tunnels," and unlimited sources of energy contained in various of the "ten dimensions."

These three people illustrate the different approaches to Kabbalah.

The "data" or facts that Kabbalah deals with are the narrative of the Torah, and its entire body of religious law. The "researcher" represents a person who sees the laws and narrative as they are, understands their immediate meaning, but does not get the larger picture.

The "great scientist" represents the Kabbalist who sees the various local points and then begins to get a feel for the greater picture. He needs metaphors to describe the abstract unity he perceives, and he is aware that this tool is likely to be vague and only approaching the understanding that he has acquired. Although limited by the tools at his disposal, the complex picture the great scientist communicates can still give us a sense of the reality that he is grappling with.

And then there is the pseudo-Kabbalist -- "the eavesdropper" -- whose Kabbalah is basically unrelated to Torah, except perhaps as a springboard for his imagination. He has discovered "sources of energies," "divine emanations," and ways to "expand consciousness," but it all stems from his fanciful illusions.

In Summary

Kabbalah is to Torah what philosophy is to science.

Like science, the Torah gives us the facts that are fully perceived sensually and rationally quantifiable.

Like philosophy, Kabbalah gives us the grander abstract picture that the facts present.

The upcoming segments of this series will explore the fundamentals of Kabbalah.

February 14, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 58

(57) Lee Kelso, August 22, 2017 11:33 AM

Kabbalah deals with developing the 6th sense

I read your course 8 years ago and study much while hopping on one foot. 1) If you could expound on your thought, Kabbalah is to Torah as philosophy is to science 2) I understand Kabbalah to be a science of reception and not mysticsim. So it works like material science which is based not on having to have a belief system per se but rather on performing experiments. 3) My understanding of this science is it does not deal with material matter but through matter we learn to understand the forces behind it that are operating the material matter and so it does not deal with the 5 physical senses but only the 6th. 4) In your statement "Like science, the Torah gives us the facts that are fully perceived sensually and rationally quantifiable" due to the nature of the uncorrected Yetzer Ra or lack of growth/maturity of Yetzer Tov... this "God entity" is irrational and so without studying the light that Reforms from Zohar, Torah is reduced to corporeal stories. 5) My understanding of philiosophy is it is thinking about thinking and therefore its focus is upon knowledge, which is not a bad thing but as Karl Marx said, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” A Kabbalist, attempts to change the world from the inside out, while the Jew or non-Jew who wants to change the world does it from the outside. Scientist are at the doorsteps of this science of reception as they perceive based on their own discipline that material matter is illusion. More Jews need to awaken to the depths of this science of reception and not look at the actions of humanity so much as they are being deceived as to what is really happening in the world as it is only a mirror of what is inside of each of us. If I perceive something is bad in another person... the science of reception postulates that it is in me. Just A Perspective! Todah Raba for your contribution as I still learn from you.

(56) Agbozo emmanuel, May 20, 2017 7:35 PM

Your teachings are great

(55) Anonymous, September 21, 2014 9:44 PM


Thank you Rabbi Lieberman for an interesting intriguing class. I always wanted to learn about Kabbalah and still have difficulties understanding only because I have not studied it, but simply read the books in a superficial manner, just to have an idea of what Kabbalah really is, so that when I study the books on my second round, I will be able to understand it better. I have just started - Kabbalistic Writings On The Nature of Masculine & Feminine - by Sarah Schneider, It is a great book for someone like me who is just beginning to understand the basic of Kabbalah, Sefirot and the diminishing moon. It is truly interesting. It also made me understand your class today as it related to Kabbalah. Thank you very much again for your contribution to teaching this class.

(54) markgelfand, February 3, 2013 3:47 AM

where does a jewish man whho wisher to learn the kabbalah turn

where does a jewish man born jewish man start to learn the kabbalah without prejudice with pride and witout fear there is a lot of negative feedback about who is the master and who is the techer all i want to do is learn

Tzofiya, October 10, 2013 5:33 PM

Books you might find helpful

Always read the Torah & Tanach , these are your critical anchors.... Having said that you could get some books by Rabbi David A. Cooper, or Rabbi Laibl Wolf(practical Kabbalah)

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