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Kabbalah (Hebrew: קַבָּלָה, Tiberian: qabːɔˈlɔh, Qabbālāh, Israeli: Kabala) refers to a set of esoteric teachings and mystical practices that form an alternative to traditional Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh and religious observances. It is a set of beliefs followed by some Jews as the true meaning of Judaism, while rejected by other Jews as heretical and contrary to Judaism.
Kabbalah is considered by its followers to be part of the study of Torah -- the study of Torah (the Law of God) being an inherent duty of observant Jews -- specifically the study of the inner meaning of Torah. The Torah is the name commonly given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible which is also the Christian Old Testament. These first five books are commonly referred to in Christian circles as the Pentateuch.
Torah study is traditionally divided into three levels, while Kabbalah followers add a fourth:
- Peshat, the surface meaning of the text;
- Remez, allusions or allegories in the text;
- Derash, a rabbinic or midrashic way of reading new lessons into the text;
- Sod, the hidden mystical reading of the inner secrets of Torah. These hidden meanings are more than just what may be seen by attentive study, but include layer upon layer of codes and meanings intentionally hidden by God, which can only be found through unraveling coded meanings.
The study of the inner secrets of Torah (Sod) is called Kabbalah
The origins of the actual term Kabbalah are unknown and disputed to belong either to Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021 - 1058) or else to the 13th century AD Spanish Kabbalist Bahya ben Asher. While other terms have been used in many religious documents from the 2nd century AD up to the present day, the term Kabbalah has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices. Main Kabbalistic literature which served as the basis for most of the development of Kabbalistic thought divides between early works such as Bahir and Heichalot (believed to be dated 1st Century AD) and later works dated to the 13th century AD, of which the main book is the Zohar representing the main source for the Contemplative Kabbalah ("Kabbalah Iyunit").
Because it is by definition esoteric, no popular account (including an encyclopedia) can provide a complete, precise, and accurate explanation of the Kabbalah. However, a number of scholars, most notably Gershom Scholem, Arthur Green, Daniel Matt and Moshe Idel have made Kabbalist texts objects of modern scholarly scrutiny. Some scholars, notably Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, have argued that modern Hassidic Judaism represents a popularization of the Kabbalah. According to its adherents, intimate understanding and mastery of the Kabbalah brings one spiritually closer to God and enriches one's experience of Jewish sacred texts and law.
Kabbalah literally means "receiving", and is sometimes transliterated as Cabala, Kabbala, Kabala, Kabalah, Qabalah, or other spellings.
According to Kabbalistic tradition, Kabbalistic knowledge was transmitted orally by the Jewish Patriarchs, prophets, and sages ( Avot in Hebrew), eventually to be "interwoven" into Jewish religious writings and culture. According to this tradition, Kabbalah was, in around the 10th century BCE, an open knowledge practiced by over a million people in ancient Israel, although there is little objective historical evidence to support this thesis.
Foreign conquests drove the Jewish spiritual leadership of the time (the Sanhedrin) to hide the knowledge and make it secret, fearing that it might be misused if it fell into the wrong hands. The Sanhedrin leaders were also concerned that the practice of Kabbalah by Jews deported on conquest to other countries (the Diaspora), unsupervised and unguided by the masters, might lead them into wrong practice and forbidden ways. As a result, the Kabbalah became secretive, forbidden and esoteric to Judaism (“Torat Ha’Sod” Hebrew: תורת הסוד) for two and a half millennia.
Origins of Judaic Mysticism
|The Sephirot in Jewish Kabbalah|
According to the traditional understanding, Kabbalah dates from Eden. It came down from a remote past as a revelation to elect Tzadikim (righteous people), and, for the most part, was preserved only by a privileged few. Talmudic Judaism records its view of the proper protocol for teaching this wisdom, as well as many of its concepts, in the Talmud, Tractate Hagigah, Ch.2.
Contemporary scholarship suggests that various schools of Jewish esotericism arose at different periods of Jewish history, each reflecting not only prior forms of mysticism, but also the intellectual and cultural milieu of that historical period. Answers to questions of transmission, lineage, influence, and innovation vary greatly and cannot be easily summarized.
Origins of terms
Originally, Kabbalistic knowledge was believed to be an integral part of the Judaism's oral law (see also, Aggadah), given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai around 13th century BCE, though there is a view that Kabbalah began with Adam.
When the Israelites arrived at their destination and settled in Canaan, for a few centuries the esoteric knowledge was referred to by its aspect practice - meditation Hitbonenut (Hebrew: התבוננות), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's Hitbodedut (Hebrew: התבודדות), translated as “being alone” or “isolating oneself”, or by a different term describing the actual, desired goal of the practice - prophecy (“NeVu’a” Hebrew: נבואה).
During the 5th century BCE, when the works of the Tanakh were edited and canonized and the secret knowledge encrypted within the various writings and scrolls (“MeGilot”), the knowledge was referred to as Ma'aseh Merkavah (Hebrew: מעשה מרכבה) and Ma'aseh B'reshit (Hebrew: מעשה בראשית) ., respectively "the act of the Chariot" and "the act of Creation". Merkavah mysticism alluded to the encrypted knowledge within the book of the prophet Ezekiel describing his vision of the "Divine Chariot". B'reshit mysticism referred to the first chapter of Genesis (Hebrew: בראשית) in the Torah that is believed to contain secrets of the creation of the universe and forces of nature. These terms are also mentioned in the second chapter of the Talmudic tractate Haggigah.
Mystic elements of the Torah
According to adherents of Kabbalah, its origin begins with secrets that God revealed to Adam. According to a rabbinic midrash God created the universe through the ten sefirot. When read by later generations of Kabbalists, the Torah's description of the creation in the Book of Genesis reveals mysteries about the godhead itself, the true nature of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life, as well as the interaction of these supernal entities with the Serpent which leads to disaster when they eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in Genesis 2.
The Bible provides ample additional material for mythic and mystical speculation. The prophet Ezekiel's visions in particular attracted much mystical speculation, as did Isaiah's Temple vision - Isaiah, Ch.6. Jacob's vision of the ladder to heaven provided another example of esoteric experience. Moses' encounters with the Burning bush and God on Mount Sinai are evidence of mystical events in the Tanakh that form the origin of Jewish mystical beliefs.
The 72 letter name of God which is used in Jewish mysticism for meditation purposes is derived from the Hebrew verbal utterance Moses spoke in the presence of an angel, while the Sea of Reeds parted, allowing the Hebrews to escape their approaching attackers. The miracle of the Exodus, which led to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Orthodox view of the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, preceded the creation of the first Jewish nation approximately three hundred years before King Saul.
Mystical doctrines in the Talmudic era
In early rabbinic Judaism (the early centuries of the first millennium AD), the terms Ma'aseh Bereshit ("Works of Creation") and Ma'aseh Merkabah ("Works of the Divine Throne/Chariot") clearly indicate the Midrashic nature of these speculations; they are really based upon Genesis 1 and Book of Ezekiel 1:4-28; while the names Sitrei Torah (Hidden aspects of the Torah) (Talmud Hag. 13a) and Razei Torah (Torah secrets) (Ab. vi. 1) indicate their character as secret lore. An additional term also expanded Jewish esoteric knowledge, namely Chochmah Nistara (Hidden wisdom).
Talmudic doctrine forbade the public teaching of esoteric doctrines and warned of their dangers. In the Mishnah (Hagigah 2:1), rabbis were warned to teach the mystical creation doctrines only to one student at a time. To highlight the danger, in one Jewish aggadic ("legendary") anecdote, four prominent rabbis of the Mishnaic period (first century CE) are said to have visited the Orchard (that is, Paradise, pardes, Hebrew: פרדס lit., orchard):
Four men entered pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher ( Elisha ben Abuyah), and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.
In notable readings of this legend, only Rabbi Akiba was fit to handle the study of mystical doctrines. The Tosafot, medieval commentaries on the Talmud, say that the four sages "did not go up literally, but it appeared to them as if they went up." (For further analysis, see The Four Who Entered Paradise.)
Eminent rabbinic teachers in the Land of Israel held the doctrine of the preexistence of matter ( Midrash Genesis Rabbah i. 5; iv. 6), in spite of the protest of Gamaliel II. (ib. i. 9).
In dwelling upon the nature of God and the universe, the mystics of the Talmudic period asserted, in contrast to the transcendentalism evident in some parts of the Bible, that "God is the dwelling-place of the universe; but the universe is not the dwelling-place of God". Possibly the designation ("place") for God, so frequently found in Talmudic-Midrashic literature, is due to this conception, just as Philo, in commenting on Genesis 28:11 says, "God is called ha makom (המקום "the place") because God encloses the universe, but is Himself not enclosed by anything" (De Somniis, i. 11). This type of theology, in modern terms, is known as either pantheism or panentheism. Whether a text is truly pantheistic or panentheistic is often hard to understand; mainstream Judaism generally rejects pantheistic interpretations of Kabbalah, and instead accepts panentheistic interpretations.
Even in very early times in the Land of Israel, Jewish, as well as Jewish Alexandrian theology recognized the two attributes of God, middat hadin, the attribute of justice, and middat ha-rahamim, the attribute of mercy (see: Midrash Sifre, Deuteronomy 27); and so is the contrast between justice and mercy became a fundamental doctrine of the Kabbalah. Other hypostasizations are represented by the ten "agencies", (the Sephiroth) through which God created the world, namely: wisdom, insight, cognition, strength, power, inexorableness, justice, right, love, and mercy.
While the Sefirot are based on these ten creative "potentialities", it is especially the personification of wisdom which, in Philo, represents the totality of these primal ideas; and the Targ. Jerusalem Talmud i., agreeing with him, translates the first verse of the Bible as follows: "By wisdom God created the heaven and the earth." Genesis Rabbah equates "Wisdom" with "Torah."
So, also, the figure of the Sar Metatron passed into mystical texts from the Talmud. In the Heichalot literature Metatron sometimes approximates the role of the demiurgos (see Gnosticism), being expressly mentioned as a "lesser" God. One text, however, identifies Metatron as Enoch transubstantiated (see: Enoch, III). Mention may also be made of other pre-existent states enumerated in an old baraita (an extra- mishnaic teaching); namely, the Torah, repentance, paradise and hell, the throne of God, the Heavenly Temple, and the name of the Messiah (Talmud Pesahim 54a). Although the origin of this doctrine must be sought probably in certain mythological ideas, the Platonic doctrine of pre-existence has modified the older, simpler conception, and the pre-existence of the seven must therefore be understood as an "ideal" pre-existence, a conception that was later more fully developed in the Kabbalah.
The attempts of the mystics to bridge the gulf between God and the world are evident in the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul, and of its close relation to God before it enters the human body — a doctrine taught by the Hellenistic sages (Wisdom viii. 19) as well as by the Palestinian rabbis. The mystics also employ the phrase from (Isaiah 6:3), as expounded by the Rabbinic Sages, "The whole world is filled with His glory," to justify a panentheistic understanding of the universe.
From the 8th-11th Century Sefer Yetzirah and Hekalot texts made their way into European Jewish circles. Modern scholars have identified several mystical brotherhoods that functioned in Europe starting in the 12th Century. Some, such as the "Iyyun Circle" and the "Unique Cherub Circle," were truly esoteric, remaining largely anonymous.
One well-known group was the "Hasidei Ashkenaz," (חסידי אשכנז) or German Pietists. This 13th Century movement arose mostly among a single scholarly family, the Kalonymus family of the French and German Rhineland.
There were certain rishonim ("Elder Sages") of exoteric Judaism who are known to have been experts in Kabbalah. One of the best known is Nahmanides (the Ramban) ( 1194- 1270) whose commentary on the Torah is considered to be based on Kabbalistic knowledge. Bahya ben Asher (the Rabbeinu Behaye) (d. 1340) also combined Torah commentary and Kabbalah. Another was Isaac the Blind ( 1160- 1235), the teacher of Nahmanides, who is widely argued to have written the first work of classic Kabbalah, the Bahir.
Sefer Bahir and another work, the "Treatise of the Left Emanation", probably composed in Spain by Isaac ben Isaac ha-Kohen, laid the groundwork for the composition of Sefer Zohar, written by Moses de Leon and his mystical circle at the end of the 13th Century, but credited to the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, cf. Zohar. The Zohar proved to be the first truly "popular" work of Kabbalah, and the most influential. From the thirteenth century onward, Kabbalah began to be widely disseminated and it branched out into an extensive literature. Historians in the nineteenth century, for example, Heinrich Greatz, argued that the emergence into public view of Jewish esotericism at this time coincides with, and represents a response to, the rising influence of the rationalist philosophy of Maimonides and his followers. Gershom Scholem sought to undermine this view as part of his resistance to seeing kabbalah as merely a response to medieval Jewish rationalism. Arguing for a gnostic influence has to be seen as part of this strategy. More recently, Moshe Idel and Elliot Wolfson have independently argued that the impact of Maimonides can be seen in the change from orality to writing in the thirteenth century. That is, kabbalists committed to writing many of their oral traditions in part as a response to the attempt of Maimonides to explain the older esoteric subjects philosophically.
Most Orthodox Jews reject the idea that Kabbalah underwent significant historical development or change such as has been proposed above. After the composition known as the Zohar was presented to the public in the 13th century, the term "Kabbalah" began to refer more specifically to teachings derived from, or related, to the Zohar. At an even later time, the term began to generally be applied to Zoharic teachings as elaborated upon by Isaac Luria Arizal. Historians generally date the start of Kabbalah as a major influence in Jewish thought and practice with the publication of the Zohar and climaxing with the spread of the Arizal's teachings. The majority of Haredi Jews accept the Zohar as the representative of the Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh B'reshit that are referred to in Talmudic texts.
Early Modern era: Lurianic Kabbalah
Following the upheavals and dislocations in the Jewish world as a result of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the trauma of Anti-Semitism during the Middle Ages, Jews began to search for signs of when the long-awaited Jewish Messiah would come to comfort them in their painful exiles. Moses Cordovero and his immediate circle popularized the teachings of the Zohar which had until then been only a modestly influential work. The author of the Shulkhan Arukh (the Jewish "Code of Law"), Rabbi Yosef Karo ( 1488- 1575), was also a great scholar of Kabbalah and spread its teachings during this era.
As part of that "search for meaning" in their lives, Kabbalah received its biggest boost in the Jewish world with the explication of the Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria ( 1534- 1572) by his disciples Rabbi Hayim Vital and Rabbi Israel Sarug, both of whom published Luria's teachings (in variant forms) gaining them wide-spread popularity. Luria's teachings came to rival the influence of the Zohar and Luria stands, alongside Moses de Leon, as the most influential mystic in Jewish history.
Ban against studying Kabbalah
The ban against studying Kabbalah was lifted by the efforts of the sixteenth century Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azulai ( 1570- 1643).
- I have found it written that all that has been decreed Above forbidding open involvement in the Wisdom of Truth [Kabbalah] was [only meant for] the limited time period until the year 5,250 (1490 C.E). From then on after is called the "Last Generation", and what was forbidden is [now] allowed. And permission is granted to occupy ourselves in the [study of] Zohar. And from the year 5,300 (1540 C.E.) it is most desirable that the masses both those great and small [in Torah], should occupy themselves [in the study of Kabbalah], as it says in the Raya M'hemna [a section of the Zohar]. And because in this merit King Mashiach will come in the future – and not in any other merit – it is not proper to be discouraged [from the study of Kabbalah]. (Rabbi Avraham Azulai)
Sefardi and Mizrahi
The Kabbalah of the Sefardi (Portuguese or Spanish) and Mizrahi (African/Asian) Torah scholars has a long history. Kabbalah in various forms was widely studied, commented upon, and expanded by North African, Turkish, Yemenite, and Asian scholars from the 16th Century onward. It flourished among Sefardic Jews in Tzfat ( Safed), Israel even before the arrival of Isaac Luria, its most famous resident. The great Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh was part of the Tzfat school of Kabbalah. Shlomo Alkabetz, author of the famous hymn Lekhah Dodi, taught there.
His disciple Moses ben Jacob Cordovero authored Sefer Pardes Rimonim, an organized, exhaustive compilation of kabbalistic teachings on a variety of subjects up to that point. Rabbi Cordovero headed the Academy of Tzfat until his death, when Isaac Luria, also known as the Ari, rose to prominence. Rabbi Moshe's disciple Eliyahu De Vidas authored the classic work, Reishit Chochma, combining kabbalistic and mussar (moral) teachings. Chaim Vital also studied under Rabbi Cordovero, but with the arrival of Rabbi Luria became his main disciple. Vital claimed to be the only one authorized to transmit the Ari's teachings, though other disciples also published books presenting Luria's teachings.
Among the most famous was the Beit El mystical circle of Jerusalem, originally a brotherhood of twelve, mostly Sefardic, mystics under the leadership of Gedaliyah Chayon and Shalom Sharabi in the mid-18th century. The group endured into the 20th Century and there is still a yeshivah of that name in the Old City of Jerusalem.
One of the most important teachers of Kabbalah recognized as an authority by all serious scholars up until the present time, was Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel ( 1525- 1609) known as the Maharal of Prague. Many of his written works survive and are studied for their deep Kabbalistic insights. The Maharal is, perhaps, most famous outside of Jewish mysticism for the legends of the golem of Prague, which he reportedly created. During the twentieth century, Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980) continued to spread the Maharal's teachings indirectly through his own teachings and scholarly publications within the modern yeshiva world.
Failure of Sabbatian Mysticism
The spiritual and mystical yearnings of many Jews remained frustrated after the death of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples and colleagues. No hope was in sight for many following the devastation and mass killings of the pogroms that followed in the wake the Chmielnicki Uprising ( 1648- 1654), and it was at this time that a controversial scholar of the Kabbalah by the name of Sabbatai Zevi ( 1626- 1676) captured the hearts and minds of the Jewish masses of that time with the promise of a newly-minted "Messianic" Millennialism in the form of his own personage.
His charisma, mystical teachings that included repeated pronunciations of the holy Tetragrammaton in public, tied to an unstable personality, and with the help of his own "prophet" Nathan of Gaza, convinced the Jewish masses that the " Jewish Messiah" had finally come. It seemed that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah had found their "champion" and had triumphed, but this era of Jewish history unravelled when Zevi became an apostate to Judaism by converting to Islam after he was arrested by the Ottoman Sultan and threatened with execution for attempting a plan to conquer the world and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Many of his followers, known as Sabbateans, continued to worship him in secret, explaining his conversion not as an effort to save his life but to recover the sparks of the holy in each religion, and most leading rabbis were always on guard to root them out. The Donmeh movement in modern Turkey is a surviving remnant of the Sabbatian schism.
Due to the chaos caused in the Jewish world, the Rabbinic prohibition against studying Kabbalah was well intact again, and established itself firmly within the Jewish religion. One of the conditions allowing a man to study and engage himself in the Kabbalah, was to be of age forty. This age requirement came about during this period and is not Talmudic in origin. Many Jews are familiar with this ruling, but are not aware of its origins. Moreover, the prohibition is not halakhic in nature. According to Moses Cordovero, halakhically, one must be of age twenty to engage in the Kabbalah. Many famous Kabbalists, including the ARI, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, were younger than twenty when they began.
The Sabbatian movement was followed by that of the "Frankists" who were disciples of another pseudo-mystic Jacob Frank ( 1726-1791) who eventually became an apostate to Judaism by apparently converting to Catholicism. This era of disappointment did not stem the Jewish masses' yearnings for "mystical" leadership.
- Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov ( 1698-1760) in the area of Ukraine spread teachings based on Rabbi Isaac Luria's foundations, simplifying the Kabbalah for the common man. From him sprang the vast ongoing schools of Hasidic Judaism, with each successive rebbe viewed by his "Hasidim" as continuing the role of dispenser of mystical divine blessings and guidance.
- Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 - 1810), the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, revitalized and further expanded the latter's teachings, amassing a following of thousands in Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and Poland. In a unique amalgam of Hasidic and Mitnagid approaches, Rebbe Nachman emphasized study of both Kabbalah and serious Torah scholarship to his disciples. His teachings also differed from the way other Hasidic groups were developing, as he rejected the idea of hereditary Hasidic dynasties and taught that each Hasid must "search for the tzaddik ('saintly/righteous person')" for himself—and within himself.
- Rabbi Elijah of Vilna ( Vilna Gaon) ( 1720-1797), based in Lithuania, had his teachings encoded and publicized by his disciples such as by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin who published the mystical-ethical work Nefesh HaChaim. However, he was staunchly opposed to the new Hasidic movement and warned against their public displays of religious fervour inspired by the mystical teachings of their rabbis.
Although the Vilna Gaon was not in favour of the Hasidic movement, he did not prohibit the study and engagement in the Kabbalah. This is evident from his writings in the Even Shlema."He that is able to understand secrets of the Torah and does not try to understand them will be judged harshly, may God have mercy". (The Vilna Gaon, Even Shlema, 8:24). "The Redemption will only come about through learning Torah, and the essence of the Redemption depends upon learning Kabbalah" (The Vilna Gaon, Even Shlema, 11:3).
- Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ( 1707- 1746), based in Italy, was a precocious Talmudic scholar who arrived at the startling conclusion that there was a need for the public teaching and study of Kabbalah. He established a yeshiva for Kabbalah study and actively recruited outstanding students and, in addition, wrote copious manuscripts in an appealing clear Hebrew style, all of which gained the attention of both admirers and rabbinical critics who feared another "Zevi (false messiah) in the making".
He was forced to close his school by his rabbinical opponents, hand over and destroy many of his most precious unpublished kabbalistic writings, and go into exile in the Netherlands. He eventually moved to the Land of Israel. Some of his most important works such as Derekh Hashem survive and are used as a gateway to the world of Jewish mysticism.
One of the most influential sources spreading Kabbalistic teachings have come from the massive growth and spread of Hasidic Judaism, a movement begun by Yisroel ben Eliezer (The Baal Shem Tov), but continued in many branches and streams until today. These groups differ greatly in size, but all emphasize the study of mystical Hasidic texts, which now consists of a vast literature devoted to elaborating upon the long chain of Kabbalistic thought and methodology. No group emphasizes in-depth kabbalistic study, though, to the extent of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose Rebbes delivered tens of thousands of discourses, and whose students study these texts for three hours daily.
Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch urged the study of kabbala as prerequisite for one's humanity:
- "A person who is capable of comprehending the Seder hishtalshelus (kabbalistic secrets concerning the higher spiritual spheres) - and fails to do so - cannot be considered a human being. At every moment and time one must know where his soul stands. It is a mitzvah (commandment) and an obligation to know the seder hishtalshelus."
- "Due to the alienation from the "secret of God" [i.e. Kabbalah], 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 nation and individual, and Exile finds favour essentially... 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." ( Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook Orot 2 )
Another influential and important Kabbalah character is Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ashlag 1884-1954 (also known as the Baal HaSulam — a title that he was given after the completion of one of his masterworks, The Sulam). Ashlag is considered by many to be one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time.
He developed a study method that he considered most fitting for the future generations of Kabbalists. He is also notable for his other masterwork Talmud Eser HaSfirot — The Study of the Ten Emanations — a commentary on all the writings of the ARI. Some today consider this work as the core of the entire teaching of Kabbalah. Baal Hasulam's goal was to make the study of Kabbalah understandable and accessible to every human being with the desire to know the meaning of life. There are several organizations that are actualizing his ideas today.
Renewed interest in Kabbalah has appeared among non-traditional Jews, and even among non-Jews. Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal have been the most influential groups in this trend.
The Hebrew word Sephirah (סְפִירָה) literally means "Emanation". Sephirot is the plural, "Emanations". Sometimes, Jewish midrashic interpretations reread the Hebrew letters of this word to mean "Spheres" or "Narrations".
Ten Sephirot as process of Creation
According to Kabbalistic cosmology, Ten Sephiroth (literally, Ten Emanations) correspond to ten levels of creation. These levels of creation must not be understood as ten different "gods" but as ten different ways of revealing God, one per level. It is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes.
While God may seem to exhibit dual natures (masculine-feminine, compassionate-judgmental, creator-creation), all adherents of Kabbalah have consistently stressed the ultimate unity of God, and that all parts of god are the same. For example, in all discussions of Male and Female, the hidden nature of God exists above it all without limit, being called the Infinite or the "No End" ( Ain Soph) - neither one nor the other, transcending any definition. The ability of God to become hidden from perception is called "Restriction" ( Tzimtzum). Hiddenness makes creation possible because God can then become "revealed" in a diversity of limited ways, which then form the building blocks of creation.
Ten Sephirot as process of ethics
Divine creation by means of the Ten Sefirot is an ethical process. Examples: The Sefirah of "Compassion" ( Chesed) being part of the Right Column corresponds to how God reveals more blessings when humans use previous blessings compassionately, whereas the Sephirah of "Overpowering" ( Geburah) being part of the Left Column corresponds to how God hides these blessings when humans abuse them selfishly without compassion. Thus human behaviour determines if God seems present or absent.
"Righteous" humans (Tzadikim) ascend these ethical qualities of the Ten Sefirot by doing righteous actions. If there were no "Righteous" humans, the blessings of God would become completely hidden, and creation would cease to exist. While real human actions are the "Foundation" ( Yesod) of this universe ( Malchut), these actions must accompany the conscious intention of compassion. Compassionate actions are often impossible without "Faith" (Emunah), meaning to trust that God always supports compassionate actions even when God seems hidden. Ultimately, it is necessary to show compassion toward oneself too in order to share compassion toward others. This "selfish" enjoyment of God's blessings but only if in order to empower oneself to assist others, is an important aspect of "Restriction", and is considered a kind of golden mean in Kabbalah, corresponding to the Sefirah of "Adornment" ( Tiferet) being part of the "Middle Column".
Ten Sephirot as vowel sounds
The Scholar and Rabbi Solomon Judah Leib Rappaport notes that according to the Masoretes there are ten vowel sounds. He suggests that the passage in Sefer Yetzirah, which discuss the manipulation of letters in the creation of the world, can be better understood if the Sefirot refer to vowel sounds. He posits that the word sefirah in this case is related to the Hebrew word sippur - to retell. His position is based on his belief that most Kabbalistic works written after Sefer Yetzirah (including the Zohar) are forgeries. (Igrot Shir(Heb.) "Letters of Shir) - available on Google Books)
Kabbalistic understanding of God
Kabbalah teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the creator of both.
This question prompted Kabbalists to envision two aspects of God, (a) God himself, who in the end is unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God that created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind. Kabbalists speak of the first aspect of God as Ein Sof (אין סוף); this is translated as "the infinite", "endless", or "that which has no limits". In this view, nothing can be said about this aspect of God. This aspect of God is impersonal. The second aspect of divine emanations, however, is at least partially accessible to human thought. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but, through the mechanism of progressive emanation, complement one another. See Divine simplicity; Tzimtzum. The structure of these emanations have been characterized in various ways: Four "worlds" (Azilut, Yitzirah, Beriyah, and Asiyah), Sefirot, or Partzufim ("faces"). Later systems harmonize these models.
Some Kabbalistic scholars, such as Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, believe that all things are linked to God through these emanations, making us all part of one great chain of being. Others, such as Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Lubavitch [Chabad] Hasidism), hold that God is all that really exists; all else is completely undifferentiated from God's perspective.
If improperly explained, such views can be interpreted as panentheism or pantheism. In truth, according to this philosophy, God's existence is higher than anything that this world can express, yet he includes all things of this world down to the finest detail in such a perfect unity that his creation of the world effected no change in him whatsoever. This paradox is dealt with at length in the Chabad Chassidic texts.
Theodicy: explanation for the existence of evil
Kabbalistic works offer a theodicy, a philosophical reconciliation of how the existence of a good and powerful God is compatible with the existence of evil in the world. There are mainly two different ways to describe why there is evil in the world, according to the Kabbalah. Both make use of the kabbalistic Tree of Life:
- The kabbalistic tree, which consists of ten Sephiroth, the ten "enumerations" or "emanations" of God, consists of three "pillars": The left side of the tree, the "female side", is considered to be more destructive than the right side, the "male side". Gevurah (גבורה, "Might"), for example, stands for strength and discipline, while her male counterpart, Chesed (חסד, "Mercy"), stands for love and mercy. Chesed is also known as Gedulah (גדולה, "Glory"), as in the Tree of Life pictured to the right. The "centre pillar" of the tree does not have any polarity, and no gender is given to it. Thus evil is really an emanation of Divinity, a harsh byproduct of the "left side" of creation.
- In the medieval era, this notion took on increasingly gnostic overtones. The Qliphoth (or Kelippot) ( קליפות, the primeval "husks" of impurity) emanating from the left side were blamed for all the evil in the world. Qliphoth are the Sephiroth out of balance. Sometimes the qliphoth are called the "death angels", or "angels of death". References to a word related to "qlipoth" are found in some Babylonian incantations, a fact used as evidence to argue the antiquity of kabbalistic material.
- Not all Kabbalists accepted this notion of evil being in such intimate relationship with God. Moses Cordovero (16th century) and Menasseh ben Israel (17th century) are two examples of Kabbalists who claimed "No evil emanates from God." They located evil as a byproduct of human freedom, an idea also found in mythic form in Rabbinic traditions that claim most demons are either the "dead of the flood" or products of human sexual debauchery.
Human soul in Kabbalah
The Zohar posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru'ach, and neshamah. The nefesh is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one's physical and psychological nature. The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but can be developed over time; their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened spiritually. A common way of explaining the three parts of the soul is as follows:
- Nefesh (נפש) - the lower part, or "animal part", of the soul. It is linked to instincts and bodily cravings.
- Ruach (רוח) - the middle soul, the "spirit". It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
- Neshamah (נשמה) - the higher soul, or "super-soul". This separates man from all other lifeforms. It is related to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided at birth and allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.
The Raaya Meheimna, a section of related teachings spread throughout the Zohar, discusses the two other parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah (first mentioned in the Midrash Rabbah). Gershom Scholem writes that these "were considered to represent the sublimest levels of intuitive cognition, and to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals". The Chayyah and the Yechidah do not enter into the body like the other three - thus they received less attention in other sections of the Zohar.
- Chayyah (חיה) - The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.
- Yehidah (יחידה) - the highest plane of the soul, in which one can achieve as full a union with God as is possible.
Both rabbinic and kabbalistic works posit that there are a few additional, non-permanent states of the soul that people can develop on certain occasions. These extra souls, or extra states of the soul, play no part in any afterlife scheme, but are mentioned for completeness:
- Ruach HaKodesh (רוח הקודש) - ("spirit of holiness") a state of the soul that makes prophecy possible. Since the age of classical prophecy passed, no one (outside of Israel) receives the soul of prophesy any longer. See the teachings of Abraham Abulafia for differing views of this matter.
- Neshamah Yeseira - The "supplemental soul" that a Jew can experience on Shabbat. It makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment of the day. This exists only when one is observing Shabbat; it can be lost and gained depending on one's observance.
- Neshamah Kedosha - Provided to Jews at the age of maturity (13 for boys, 12 for girls), and is related to the study and fulfillment of the Torah commandments. It exists only when one studies and follows Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one's study and observance.
The act whereby God "contracted" his infinite light, leaving a "void" into which the light of existence was poured. The primal emanation became Azilut, the World of Light, from which the three lower worlds, Beriah, Yetzirah and Assiyah, descended.
Among its many pre-occupations, Kabbalah teaches that every Hebrew letter, word, number, even the accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contains a hidden sense; and it teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings. One such method is as follows:
As early as the 1st Century BCE Jews believed that the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) contained encoded message and hidden meanings. Gematria is one method for discovering its hidden meanings. Each letter in Hebrew also represents a number; Hebrew, unlike many other languages, never developed a separate numerical alphabet. By converting letters to numbers, Kabbalists were able to find a hidden meaning in each word. This method of interpretation was used extensively by various schools.
There is no one fixed way to "do" gematria. Some say there are up to 70 different methods. One simple procedure is as follows: each syllable and/or letter forming a word has a characteristic numeric value. The sum of these numeric tags is the word's "key", and that word may be replaced in the text by any other word having the same key. Through the application of many such procedures, alternate or hidden meanings of scripture may be derived. Similar procedures are used by Islamic mystics, as described by Idries Shah in his book, "The Sufis".
Like the rest of the Rabbinic literature, the texts of Kabbalah were once part of an ongoing oral tradition, though, over the centuries, many have been written up. They are mostly meaningless to readers who are unfamiliar with Jewish spirituality and assume extensive knowledge of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Midrash (Jewish hermeneutic tradition) and Halakhah (practical Jewish law). Nevertheless, Kabbalistic literature uses powerful paradigms that are elegant, universal and easy for anyone to understand when pointed out.
Jewish forms of esotericism existed over 2,000 years ago. Ben Sira warns against it, saying: "You shall have no business with secret things" (Sirach iii. 22; compare Talmud, Hagigah, 13a; Midrash Genesis Rabbah, viii.). Nonetheless, mystical studies were undertaken and resulted in mystical literature, the first being the Apocalyptic literature of the second and first pre-Christian centuries and which contained elements that carried over to later Kabbalah.
Throughout the centuries since, many texts have been produced, among them the Heichalot literature, Sefer Yetzirah, Bahir, Sefer Raziel HaMalakh and the Zohar.
See Kabbalah: Primary Texts.
Historians have noted that most claims for the authority of Kabbalah involve an argument of the antiquity of authority (see, e.g., Joseph Dan's discussion in his Circle of the Unique Cherub). As a result, virtually all works pseudepigraphically claim, or are ascribed, ancient authorship. For example, Sefer Raziel HaMalach, an astro-magical text partly based on a magical manual of late antiquity, Sefer ha-Razim, was, according to the kabbalists, transmitted to Adam by the angel Raziel after he was evicted from Eden.
Another famous work, the Sefer Yetzirah, supposedly dates back to the patriarch Abraham. This tendency toward pseudepigraphy has its roots in Apocalyptic literature, which claims that esoteric knowledge such as magic, divination and astrology was transmitted to humans in the mythic past by the two angels, Aza and Azaz'el (in other places, Azaz'el and Uzaz'el) who 'fell' from heaven (see Genesis 6:4). In Islam, the angels 'Harut' and 'Marut' were sent to teach magic only as a test to mankind (see Qur'an, Ch. 2: 102).
The appeal to antiquity has also shaped modern theories of influence in reconstructing the history of Jewish mysticism. The oldest versions have been theorized to extend from Assyrian theology and mysticism. Dr. Simo Parpola, professor of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki, remarks on the general similarity between the Sefirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and the Tree of Life of Assyria. He reconstructed what an Assyrian antecedent to the Sephiroth might look like, and noted parallels between the characteristics of En Sof on the nodes of the Sefirot and the gods of Assyria. The Assyrians assigned specific numbers to their gods, similar to the numbering of the Sefirot. However, the Assyrians use a sexagesimal number system, whereas the Sefiroth is decimal. With the Assyrian numbers, additional layers of meaning and mystical relevance appear in the Sefirot. Normally, floating above the Assyrian Tree of Life was the god Assur (god), corresponding to the Hebrew Ay Sof, which is also, via a series of transformations, derived from the Assyrian word Assur.
Parpola re-interpreted various Assyrian tablets in terms of these primitive Sefirot, such as the Epic Of Gilgamesh. He proposed that the scribes had been writing philosophical-mystical tracts, rather than mere adventure stories, and concluded that traces of this Assyrian mode of thought and philosophy eventually reappeared in Greek Philosophy and the Kabbalah.
Skeptical scholars find attempts to read Kabbalah back into the pre-Israelite Ancient Near East, as Parpola does, to be implausible. They point out that the doctrine of the Sefirot started to seriously develop only in the 12th century CE with the publication of the Bahir, and that for this doctrine to have existed undocumented within Judaism from the time of the Assyrian empire (which fell from cultural hegemony in the 7th century BCE) until it "resurfaced" 17–18 centuries later seems far-fetched. A plausible alternative, based in the research of Gershom Scholem, the pre-eminent scholar of Kabbalah in the 20th Century, is to see the Sefirot as a theosophical doctrine that emerged out of Jewish word-mythology of late antiquity, as exemplified in Sefer Yetzirah, and the angelic-palace mysticism found in Hekalot literature, and then fused to the Neo-Platonic notion of creation through progressive divine emanations.
Although Kabbalah propounds the Unity of God, one of the most serious and sustained criticisms is that it may lead away from monotheism, and instead promote dualism, the belief that there is a supernatural counterpart to God. The dualistic system holds that there is a good power versus an evil power. There are two primary models of Gnostic-dualistic cosmology: the first, which goes back to Zoroastrianism, believes creation is ontologically divided between good and evil forces; the second, found largely in Greco-Roman ideologies like Neo-Platonism, believes the universe knew a primordial harmony, but that a cosmic disruption yielded a second, evil, dimension to reality. This second model influenced the cosmology of the Kabbalah.
According to Kabbalistic cosmology, the Ten Sefirot correspond to ten levels of creation. These levels of creation must not be understood as ten different "gods" but as ten different ways of revealing God, one per level. It is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes.
While God may seem to exhibit dual natures (masculine-feminine, compassionate-judgmental, creator-creation), all adherents of Kabbalah have consistently stressed the ultimate unity of God. For example, in all discussions of Male and Female, the hidden nature of God exists above it all without limit, being called the Infinite or the "No End" ( Ein Sof) - neither one nor the other, transcending any definition. The ability of God to become hidden from perception is called "Restriction" ( Tzimtzum). Hiddenness makes creation possible because God can become "revealed" in a diversity of limited ways, which then form the building blocks of creation.
- Later Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar, appear to more strongly affirm dualism, as they ascribe all evil to a supernatural force known as the Sitra Achra ("the other side") that emanates from God. The "left side" of divine emanation is a negative mirror image of the "side of holiness" with which it was locked in combat. [Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 6, "Dualism", p.244]. While this evil aspect exists within the divine structure of the Sefirot, the Zohar indicates that the Sitra Ahra has no power over Ein Sof, and only exists as a necessary aspect of the creation of God to give man free choice, and that evil is the consequence of this choice. It is not a supernatural force opposed to God, but a reflection of the inner moral combat within mankind between the dictates of morality and the surrender to one's basic instincts.
- Rabbi Dr. David Gottlieb notes that many Kabbalists hold that the concepts of, e.g., a Heavenly Court or the Sitra Ahra are only given to humanity by God as a working model to understand His ways within our own epistemological limits. They reject the notion that a Satan or angels actually exist. Others hold that non-divine spiritual entities were indeed created by God as a means for exacting his will.
- According to Kabbalists, humans cannot yet understand the infinity of God. Rather, there is God as revealed to humans (corresponding to Zeir Anpin), and the rest of the infinity of God as remaining hidden from human experience (corresponding to Arich Anpin ). One reading of this theology is monotheistic, similar to panentheism; another a reading of the same theology is that it is dualistic. Gershom Scholem writes:
"It is clear that with this postulate of an impersonal basic reality in God, which becomes a person - or appears as a person - only in the process of Creation and Revelation, Kabbalism abandons the personalistic basis of the Biblical conception of God....It will not surprise us to find that speculation has run the whole gamut - from attempts to re-transform the impersonal En-Sof into the personal God of the Bible to the downright heretical doctrine of a genuine dualism between the hidden Ein Sof and the personal Demiurge of Scripture." (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism Shocken Books p.11-12)
Perception of non-Jews
Another aspect of Kabbalah that Jewish critics object to is its metaphysics of the human soul. Since the Zohar was written, most Kabbalistic works assume that Jewish and non-Jewish souls are fundamentally different. While all human souls emanate from God, the Zohar posits that at least part of the Gentile soul emanates from the "left side" of the Sefirotic structure and that non-Jews therefore have a dark or demonic aspect to them that is absent in Jews.
Later Kabbalistic works build and elaborate on this idea. The Hasidic work, the Tanya, fuses this idea with Judah ha-Levi's medieval philosophical argument for the uniqueness of the Jewish soul, in order to argue that Jews have an additional level of soul that other humans do not possess.
Theologically framed hostility may be a response to the demonization of Jews which developed in Western and Christian society and thought, starting with the Patristic Fathers. By the Middle Ages, Jews were widely characterized as minions of Satan, or even devilish non-humans in their own right.
The Kabbalistic view concerning non-Jews can be compared with the Christian doctrine that baptized Christians form part of the Body of Christ while (at least according to Augustine of Hippo) all others remain in the massa perditionis.
In an article that appears in The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth, David Halperin theorizes that the collapse of Kabbalah's influence among Western European Jews over the course of the 17th and 18th Century was a result of the cognitive dissonance they experienced between Kabbalah's very negative perception of gentiles and their own dealings with non-Jews, which were rapidly expanding and improving during this period due to the influence of the Enlightenment.
For a different perspective, one might consult the first chapter of Elliot R. Wolfson, Venturing Beyond: Law and Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (Oxford University Press, 2006). Wolfson provides extensive documentation to illustrate the prevalence of the distinction between the souls of Jews and non-Jews in kabbalistic literature. He provides numerous examples from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, which would challenge the view of Halperin cited above as well as the notion that "modern Judaism" has rejected or dismissed this "outdated aspect" of the kabbalah. There are still kabbalists today, and many influenced by them, who harbour this view. It is accurate to say that many Jews do and would find this distinction offensive, but it is inaccurate to say that the idea has been totally rejected. As Wolfson has argued, it is an ethical demand on the part of scholars to be vigilant with regard this matter and in this way the tradition can be refined from within.
The idea that there are ten divine sefirot could evolve over time into the idea that "God is One being, yet in that One being there are Ten" which opens up a debate about what the "correct beliefs" in God should be, according to Judaism.
- Rabbi Saadia Gaon teaches in his book Emunot v'Deot that Jews who believe in reincarnation have adopted a non-Jewish belief.
- Nachmanides (12th Century) provides background to many Kabbalistic ideas. His works, especially those in the Five books of Moses (Pentateuch) offer in-depth of various concepts.
- Maimonides (12th Century) did not consider many of the texts of the Hekalot, particularly in the work Shiur Komah with its starkly anthropomorphic vision of God.
- Rabbi Avraham ben ha Rambam, in the spirit of his father Maimonides, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, and other predecessors, explains at length in his book Milhhamot HaShem that the Almighty is in no way literally within time or space nor physically outside time or space, since time and space simply do not apply to His Being whatsoever. This is in contrast to certain popular understandings of modern Kabbalah which teach a form of panentheism, that His 'essence' is within everything.
- Around the 1230s, Rabbi Meir ben Simon of Narbonne wrote an epistle (included in his Milhhemet Mitzvah) against his contemporaries, the early Kabbalists, characterizing them as blasphemers who even approach heresy. He particularly singled out the Sefer Bahir, rejecting the attribution of its authorship to the tanna R. Nehhunya ben ha-Kanah and describing some of its content as truly heretical.
- Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet, (The Rivash), 1326-1408. Although as is evident from his responsa on the topic (157) the Rivash was skeptical of certain interpretations of Kabbalah popular in his time, it is equally evident that overall he did accept Kabbalah as received Jewish wisdom, and attempted to defend it from attackers. To this end he cited and rejected a certain philosopher who claimed that Kabbalah was "worse than Christianity", as it made God into 10, not just into three. Most followers of Kabbalah have never followed this interpretation of Kabbalah, on the grounds that the concept of the Christian Trinity posits that there are three persons existing within the Godhead, one of whom became a human being. In contrast, the mainstream understanding of the Kabbalistic Sefirot holds that they have no mind or intelligence; further, they are not addressed in prayer and they cannot become a human being. They are conduits for interaction, not persons or beings. Nonetheless, many important poskim, such as Maimonidies in his work Mishneh Torah, prohibit any use of mediators between oneself and the Creator as a form of idolatry.
- Rabbi Leone di Modena, a 17th century Venetian critic of Kabbalah, wrote that if we were to accept the Kabbalah, then the Christian trinity would indeed be compatible with Judaism, as the Trinity closely resembles the Kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot. This critique was in response to the knowledge that some European Jews of the period addressed individual Sefirot in some of their prayers, although the practise was apparently uncommon. Apologists explain that Jews may have been praying for and not necessarily to the aspects of Godliness represented by the Sefirot.
- Rabbi Yaakov Emden, 1697-1776, wrote the book Mitpahhath Sfarim (Veil of the Books), a detailed critique of the Zohar in which he concludes that certain parts of the Zohar contain heretical teaching and therefore could not have been written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Opponents of his work claim that he wrote the book in a drunken stupor. Emden's rationalistic approach to this work, however, makes neither intoxication nor stupor seem plausible.
- Rabbi Yihhyah Qafahh, an early 20th century Yemenite Jewish leader and grandfather of Rabbi Yosef Qafih, also wrote a book entitled Milhhamoth HaShem, (Wars of the L-RD) against what he perceived as the false teachings of the Zohar and the false kabbalah of Isaac Luria. He is credited with spearheading the Dor Daim who continue in R. Yihhyah Qafahh's view of Kabbalah into modern times.
- Yeshayahu Leibowitz 1903-1994, brother of Nechama Leibowitz, though Modern Orthodox in his world view, publicly shared the views expressed in R. Yihhyah Qafahh's book Milhhamoth HaShem and elaborated upon these views in his many writings.
- There is dispute among modern Haredim as to the status of Isaac Luria's, the Arizal's kabbalistic teachings. While a portion of Modern Orthodox Rabbis, Dor Daim and many students of the Rambam, Maimonides, completely reject Arizal's kabbalistic teachings, as well as deny that the Zohar is authoritative, or from Shimon bar Yohai, all three of these groups completely accept the existence Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh B'resheyt mysticism. Their only disagreement concerns whether the Kabbalistic teachings promulgated today are accurate representations of those esoteric teachings to which the Talmud refers. Within the Haredi Jewish community one can find both rabbis who sympathize with such a view, while not necessarily agreeing with it, as well as rabbis who consider such a view absolute heresy.
Conservative and Reform Judaism
Since all forms of reform or liberal Judaism are rooted in the Enlightenment and tied to the assumptions of European modernity, Kabbalah tended to be rejected by most Jews in the Conservative and Reform movements, though its influences were not completely eliminated. While it was generally not studied as a discipline, the Kabbalistic Kabbalat Shabbat service remained part of liberal liturgy, as did the Yedid Nefesh prayer. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, Rabbi Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is reputed to have introduced a lecture by Scholem on Kabbalah with a statement that Kabbalah itself was "nonsense", but the academic study of Kabbalah was "scholarship". This view became popular among many Jews, who viewed the subject as worthy of study, but who did not accept Kabbalah as teaching literal truths.
According to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (Dean of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies in the University of Judaism), "many western Jews insisted that their future and their freedom required shedding what they perceived as parochial orientalism. They fashioned a Judaism that was decorous and strictly rational (according to 19th-century European standards), denigrating Kabbalah as backward, superstitious, and marginal".
However, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries there has been a revival in interest in Kabbalah in all branches of liberal Judaism. The Kabbalistic 12th century prayer Ani'im Zemirot was restored to the new Conservative Sim Shalom siddur, as was the B'rikh Shmeh passage from the Zohar, and the mystical Ushpizin service welcoming to the Sukkah the spirits of Jewish forbearers. Ani'im Zemirot and the 16th Century mystical poem Lekhah Dodi reappeared in the Reform Siddur Gates of Prayer in 1975. All Rabbinical seminaries now teach several courses in Kabbalah, and both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles have fulltime instructors in Kabbalah and Hasidut, Eitan Fishbane and Pinchas Geller, respectively. Reform Rabbis like Herbert Weiner and Lawrence Kushner have renewed interest in Kabbalah among Reform Jews.
According to Artson "Ours is an age hungry for meaning, for a sense of belonging, for holiness. In that search, we have returned to the very Kabbalah our predecessors scorned. The stone that the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone (Psalm 118:22)... Kabbalah was the last universal theology adopted by the entire Jewish people, hence faithfulness to our commitment to positive-historical Judaism mandates a reverent receptivity to Kabbalah".