This is a paper I wrote for the 2010 Interfaith and Social Change: Engagements from the Margins Conference at the University of Winchester.
Kabbalah (Judaic Mysticism) as a Tool for Interfaith
Rev. Maggy Whitehouse.
Kabbalah is a Hebrew word, most frequently translated as “receive.” In the hermetic and alchemical traditions the word is spelt as Qabbalah; in the Christian tradition it is spelt as Cabala. The Mishnaic Hebrew (קבלה QBLH) translates it as “reception, received, tradition,” cf. Arabic qabala “he received.” However, in the Judaic tradition which is the one used here, it is popularly translated with a ‘K.’
The aim of this article is to demonstrate that if you interpret accepted religious texts (in this case, the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible) through the filter of the oral, mystical tradition that was existent in that time — and still is today — you may see that there are different levels of interpreting the writing in order to see a wider picture within our religious beliefs.
In Biblical times very few people were literate, so stories that could be interpreted on many levels were the way of spreading the faith. It was important to have some kind of structure on which to hang these stories so that they did not become just inaccurate Chinese whispers. Many experts believe that this structure was based on the design of the Menorah (seven-branched candelabrum) in the Holy of Holies in the First Temple (Irenaeus, 3rd century; Luzatto, 18th century; Barker 2007; Halevi 2010). This, as we shall see later, was the forerunner of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. If a story fulfilled all the criteria of the ten specific buds, knops or bulbs (as they are variously known in different translations of the Hebrew) on the Menorah (Exodus, chapter 25) then the story was sound. This is not entirely dissimilar to how Catholics use the Rosary with which to pray.
These attributes on the Menorah expressed the ten principles or Sefirot (plural; singular Sefira) by which, Kabbalah teaches, the world came into existence. Together they make up a matrix formed by observation including both astronomical and astrological principles (Josephus, 110) as well as the numerical values of words (gematria) or the spaces between words. Kabbalists try to ensure that every action they undertake is perfectly balanced by taking the aspects of all the Sefirot into consideration. To do this does not require you to follow any religion whatsoever, although it is fair to say that Judaism is a founding source and justifiably protective of Kabbalistic teaching.
In Biblical days, sacred texts were few and far between and these were read out loud to groups to be interpreted and discussed rather than read in private (Ehrman, 2005). In addition, the Bible texts have often been inaccurately copied and translated. On the subject of textual inaccuracy, Prof. Ehrman states:
“They could not be produced en masse (no printing presses). And since they had to be copied by hand, one at a time, slowly, painstakingly, most books were not mass-produced. Those few that were produced in multiple copies were not all alike, for the scribes who copied texts inevitable made alterations in those texts — changing the words they copied either by accident … or by design.” (Ehrman, 2005, p46).
It is also important to note that the Kabbalah of Biblical times was not the same system as is popularised in the modern day by the Kabbalah Centre, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Hasidic tradition or even the writings of such revered Kabbalists as Gershom Scholem. The older tradition has been existent within the oral tradition but was revitalised in the public domain in the 1970s, primarily through the work and books of Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi.
The more commonly-known “modern” Kabbalah is the result of a re-interpretation of the creation story postulated through the teachings of a 16th century rabbi, Isaac Luria. Luria’s theory is that when God created the Universe he made a mistake (some say a conscious mistake), leading to the shattering of the vessels (Sefirot) that were intended to receive the light of creation (Luria/Klein, 2005). In layman’s terms, this theory postulated that the Divine error was the cause of an external evil which attacks humanity (why bad things happen to good people).
On Luria, Halevi (2006) states:
“Luria set up his own group and began to teach a doctrine that stated that the Divine Sefirotic Tree had been shattered when the power of the first emanations had broken the seven lower vessels. This, Luria claimed, had caused the organisation of Existence to be distorted as sparks of Divinity fell and were scattered throughout the lower Worlds. This, he maintained, explained the origin of Evil and cruelty in history. The idea had great appeal to Jews who had suffered devastating persecution for centuries. So it was that Lurianic Kabbalah came to overshadow the classical integrated tradition.”
Luria’s new interpretation was an important teaching at that time when the Jewish nation had just endured the torment of the Inquisition and the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. It became the most accepted version of Kabbalah, partially due to the recent invention of the printing press spreading written versions of Luria’s teaching.
However, the Kabbalah before Luria’s time was based on the belief that God created the world perfectly without error. This is expressed by the Hebrew Bible itself in Genesis (KJV):
“And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25).
Also at the end of the same chapter of Genesis:
“And God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
This earlier Kabbalistic and Biblical teaching postulates that all evils that beset humanity are caused by our own choices or lack of conscious decision-making — the perennial question of free will. Both systems, however, rely on humanity to rise above the unconscious level and training of the ego to right the wrongs of the world however they are perceived to have arisen.
On this, Halevi (2007, p 227) writes:
“An individual can aid the redemption of the Worlds by his conduct and a knowing contribution towards harmony … the self-centred will of individuals and nations is slowly curtailed into self control and then into the voluntary choice to submit to the will of Heaven which supervises the good for all despite its — to most of us — strange ways of going about it.”
As this article — and this website — is using mystical interpretation of stories within the Hebrew Bible it is based on the earlier system in order to be as close as can be to the Kabbalah of Biblical times and in order to demonstrate that it is our own decisions (or lack of decision) that cause the pain in our lives.
The “original” Kabbalistic tradition is mostly known nowadays as Toledano Kabbalah after the Golden Age of Spain in the 11th-12th centuries CE where Jews, Muslims and Christians worked together in relative peace in the Spanish city of Toledo. It is also referred to as Cordoveran Kabbalah after Luria’s teacher, Moses Cordovero, author of Pardes Rimonim/Garden of Pomegranates, (1542) — not to be confused with the 1932 book of the same name by Israel Regardie — and Tomer Devorah/The Palm Tree of Deborah (1550 approx). Cordovero encapsulated the Kabbalistic teaching of previous generations and clarified the four levels of interpretation of sacred texts which are first mentioned in the seminal Kabbalistic text The Zohar (published 13th century; date of writing disputed).
These are also described (Griffith Dobbs, 1999; Trimm, 2006) as encompassing the teachings of the New Testament not just the Hebrew Bible.
The four levels are:
- Literal (simple — basic storytelling — this may or may not be true)
- Allegorical (the hint — or the implied meaning)
- Metaphysical (the search — how does this relate to me?)
- Mystical (hidden — God’s wider plan)
On this, Halevi (2006, p 17) states:
“According to tradition, the Bible has four levels at which it can be comprehended. The lowest level of understanding is the literal; the second the symbolic; the third, the metaphysical and the highest, direct mystical experience. Kabbalah takes into account all these levels as each has its contribution to make as regards the aim of Existence, the purpose of humanity and its relation to the Deity.”
These four levels mean that when we read a story such as the Exodus from Egypt we are reading about a real event (in this particular case one that is now questioned by historians); a story with a moral, i.e. an example of stepping out of ego consciousness (Egypt) into the wilderness to find a life that is better and happier on all levels in the Promised Land.
The third story is our own spiritual development. For us, the stepping out into the wilderness may be a personal story of ending a marriage which has become damaging to us and our partner or questioning the exclusiveness of our religion in a multi-cultural world. In doing either, we would be starting a new and challenging life away from the accepted role which had, until then, defined our life. It is often a tough journey of questioning of trained beliefs, self-realisation and co-operation with others.
The final level refers to the growth of humanity itself; how we develop as an ever-evolving species under the guidance of the Holy One.
There is much to associate Kabbalah with the Judaic tradition, not least the matching patterns of the Kabbalistic diagram, The Tree of Life and the stories of the Torah and the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. However, the concept of a Tree of Life has been used by faiths all over the world since the beginning of time.
There are Phoenician, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian Trees of Life dating back to 4,500 years ago (Freer, 2011) and debate over whether these ancient trees were the origin of the Judaic tree.
There is also Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Nordic fame, around which extend nine worlds.
Professor Simo Parpola of Helsinki University (1993) has proposed that the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is based on a family tree of the gods from an Assyrian perspective with elder gods representing the four elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire.
Carl Jung, after years of studying the language of the unconscious, interpreted the Tree of Life as one of the universal unconscious’s synonyms for the Kundalini, the essential life-force and libido that is said to lie like a snake at the base of the spine until awakened to rise through the human energy system (Spiegelman, 1982).
In First Temple theology, the tabernacle of Moses and the First Temple built in the same design (as laid out in Exodus, chapters 26 and 27) was set out in four sections, each of which was supervised by an aspect of the Divine. These were known as the Wonderful Counsellor (Fire), the Mighty One of God (Air), the Eternal Father (Water) and the Prince of Peace (Earth). After the Babylonian exile they were named as the Archangels Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel (Barker, 2007. p 26).
In my own books, Illustrated History of Kabbalah (2006) Total Kabbalah (2007), and Kabbalah Made Easy (2011), I have examined the possibility that the four Gospels of the New Testament are reflections of these four levels of the first Temple. This would explain the finalisation of only four Gospels in the official canon of the Christian church.
Iranaeus (n.d. 3.1.8) states:
“The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, ‘O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself ‘ [Psalms 80:1]. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these.”
The four creatures refer to Revelations 4:7-8. Irenaeus later compares them to the Gospels according to John, Luke, Matthew and Mark respectively.
The Tree of Life, as interpreted in the Judaic tradition, is based on the design of the Menorah, the seven-branched pure gold candelabrum set in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. This theory is supported by Irenaeus (n.d), Luzatto (approx 1725) and has been developed extensively by Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi (2008).
The design of the Menorah is believed, by many sources, to have been translated into the Tree of Life of today by the 13th century French Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, better known as Isaac the Blind (Scholem 1991). As Kabbalah is an oral tradition it is a challenge to pin it down in written text. It is intended to update as humanity progresses. However, it has a structure in the Tree of Life diagram. The Tree’s ten Sefirot, each reflect an attribute of the Holy One and a human being. As defined by the published authors on Toledano Kabbalah including Wagner (2000), Halevi (2008) and Hattwick (2010) they are:
The human body and its basic needs and requirements. Our primary life force. Survival and reproduction.
The ego-consciousness, our instincts, our ‘place in the tribe’ and our automatic reactions to life.
- Hod — Splendour (in Greek ‘the way’).
Our thought processes and intellect. Information as opposed to knowledge or wisdom.
- Nezach — Eternity (in Greek ‘life’).
Our active processes, sexuality, addictions, doing rather than thinking.
- Tiferet — Beauty (in Greek ‘truth’).
Our conscious self; the part that responds rather than reacts. Being awake where Yesod is sleeping.
Discipline, strength, discernment, the ability to say a conscious ‘no.’
Mercy, unconditional love, justice (as distinct from law or judgment), the ability to say a conscious ‘yes.’
Boundaries, experience, comprehension, clarity.
Inspiration, direct contact with the Source.
Our ‘higher self’ or God-self. Direct contact with the Divine beyond all religion or tradition.
There is also a non-Sefira known as Daat which is a dark sphere on the column between Keter and Tiferet. This is the veiled passageway between our consciousness and the Holy One. The veil parts when we contact the Divine in prayer or gratitude or if we receive a direct message from God.
Together with the ten Sefirot and one non-Sefira, the Tree has three columns: the left-hand receptive, feminine pillar, the central, consciousness pillar and the right-hand active, masculine pillar.
It also has four levels, marked by the horizontal lines, representing the four areas of the Temple. The lowest (Earth—physical world—Uriel) represents the roots of the Tree, the next (Water—psychological world—Gabriel) the trunk of the tree, the next (Air—spiritual world—Raphael) the branches and leaves of the Tree and the highest (Fire—Divine world—Michael) the blossom and fruit of the Tree.
According to Halevi, Wagner and Hattwick, the roots of the Tree (Malkhut, Yesod, Hod, Nezach) are our basic instincts of survival and our tribal lore — the teaching which keeps us in a certain religion, culture and social system. The trunk of the Tree (Tiferet) is our individuality when we step out of the tribe and learn both to think for ourselves and begin to open up to there being valid beliefs other than ours. The branches and leaves of the tree (Gevurah, Hesed) are our joining with the greater community of humanity which is where we can transmute tribal and religious belief. We may certainly keep our roots — the religion of our birth — but we no longer need to say that it is the ‘only’ one, no matter what conventional religious texts may say. At the level of the branches, our contact and communion with the Divine is constant, personal, expansive and continually refreshed.
Kabbalah does not teach that any religions are ‘wrong’ — they may be the foundations of our life — but we are meant to grow from those foundations to experience our own spirituality. In the same way that we are expected to leave the ‘slavery’ of Egypt in the story of the Exodus, we must grow out of the ego-consciousness of tribe or religion so that we can be of greater use both to the world and the evolution of humanity.
This evolution is demonstrated in many Biblical stories but the ones we will look at briefly in this article concern the evolution of the feminine soul through the stories of the matriarchs and heroines of the Hebrew Bible.
As outlined in my own book. A Woman’s Worth – the Divine Feminine in the Hebrew Testament (2013) the importance of the women in Biblical times is not to be underestimated. Whatever the implication of texts such as Midrash or Talmud on “a woman’s place,” historical evidence shows plainly that Jewish women both could be and were presidents, priests, elders and leaders of synagogues (Brooten, 1982).
However, the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, while respected, act like characters in a modern TV soap opera; they represent the undeveloped parts of ourselves which are ruled by tribal belief, survival and social position. All these women are also defined by their value as wives and mothers.
Each one represents an aspect of the Tree of Life chronologically from the base (Malkhut) up to the seventh Sefira of Hesed which is the highest point before becoming truly Divine (fig 4). The matriarchs are the roots of the tree and the heroines (from the books of Judges and Kings) are the trunk and branches. We ourselves are to be the leaves while the fruit and blossom are the development of the Divine plan for humanity.
The following is a shortened and simplified interpretation of the stories from the Hebrew Bible, seen through Kabbalistic eyes.
- Malkhut — Sarai/Sarah (Genesis 11:29- 49:31), the wife of Abraham who became the mother of Isaac.
Abraham was told by God that Sarah would become the mother of nations and the ancestor of kings (Genesis 17:16) but she did not believe it because she was beyond the age of child-bearing. Sarah gave her handmaiden Hagar (Islam calls her a princess and the Zohar refers to her as a daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh) to Abraham so that he could have a child. Hagar gave birth to her son Ishmael. Hagar wanted to take pride of place as the mother of the heir and the two women clashed through jealousy. Later, Sarah herself miraculously gave birth to her son, Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael were sent away (Genesis 21:14). Isaac is the ancestor of the Jewish nation and Ishmael the ancestor of the Islamic peoples. The Hebrew Bible says that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac on God’s command but the Koran says that this story is about Ishmael, not Isaac. This is the core of the trouble between Islam and Judaism — an issue caused by the inability of one woman to believe the word of God; her willingness to treat another human being as a possession and both women’s struggles with power and jealousy. It is a point worth postulating that women now could play a large role in ending the continuing conflict in Israel by refusing to sacrifice their sons (and daughters) to a tribal war, preferring instead to seek peace.
- Yesod — Rebekah (Genesis 24:15-49:31)
Rebekah is the second matriarch. She was the wife of Isaac and mother of twins Jacob and Esau. Esau, as the elder, was due to inherit his father’s birthright but he gave it away to his younger brother on a whim for a bowl of supper. Jacob took this seriously but his father Isaac intended to pass his blessing to Esau. Rebekah favoured Jacob and encouraged him to dress up as his brother to deceive his now-blind father. Isaac was fooled and conferred his blessing on Jacob (Genesis 27:27). However, Esau was incensed and Jacob ended up exiled and Rebekah lost both the son she loved most and the respect of her husband and her other son. This is another story about lack of trust in God and the need to control the outcome of a tribal situation, this time through direct deception.
- Hod — Leah (Genesis 29:23-49:31)
- Nezach — Rachel (Genesis 29:06-46-7)
The stories of the third and fourth matriarchs, Leah and Rachel are told together with each representing a different Sefira at the same level of the Tree of Life at the boundary between the root system and the trunk. This is the area which represents how we follow our instincts to survive and learn to live in community and harmony with family and tribe (Wagner 2000).
Leah and Rachel were sisters who became Jacob’s wives. He wanted only to marry Rachel but was tricked by Leah and the girls’ father and ended up married to the wrong sister (hence receiving his karmic reward for tricking his own father). He married Rachel also a week later. The two sisters were perpetually at war with each other over their husband’s favour and Leah’s ability and Rachel’s inability to have children. Rachel gave her husband her handmaiden Bilhah (Gen 30:04) so that she could have a child by proxy and Leah retaliated with her handmaiden Zilpah, so repeating the pattern of Sarah and Hagar. Rachel also dabbled in magic and stole her father’s idols in order to try and have a child. Eventually Rachel did conceive but she died in childbirth with her second son. (Genesis 35:18). So this was another war between women over status and children with very little learned from the past. Where the sisters could have worked in unity within their tribal situation they reverted to conflict.
However, from here onwards, the women’s stories take on a different timbre as they move successively up the Sefirot of the Tree of Life. From now on they cease to be defined by their husbands and sons and become individuals — heroines — choosing their own lives. Even more significantly, they are no longer defined by their religion.
- Tiferet — Ruth (The Book of Ruth)
Ruth is not an Israelite but a Moabite. Ruth and her sister Orpah became daughters-in-law to the Jewess Naomi when she and her husband Elimelech left their homeland due to famine. However, after Elimelech and their two sons died, Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem. Orpah chose to stay in the country with the tribe of her birth but Ruth loved and admired Naomi and decided to follow her to Judah and to adopt her mother-in-law’s beliefs. Ruth marries a cousin of Naomi’s, Boaz, and becomes the ancestor of King David, demonstrating that one of the great kings of Israel had mixed blood. Ruth’s story is important as she decides for herself who and what she will become; which faith she will choose and how she will live her life. It also indicates our first Biblical story of peace and co-operation between women.
Ruth’s choice is made in one of the most beautiful pieces of Biblical language we have (Ruth 1:16 KJV):
“Entreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God, my God.”
- Gevurah — Deborah, who tells the story of Jael (Judges 4:4-5.22).
Following Ruth comes the story of Deborah and Jael. Deborah is one of the Judges of Israel, a king in all but name, at a time of war. She is entreated by Barak, the leader of the Israelite forces, to lead them in victory against the Canaanites. Deborah says she will do so but that victory will be given to them at the hand of a woman.
The Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-22) is the story of that woman. It tells how Jael, a Kenite, a neutral tribe — her name means ‘wild gazelle’ or ‘wild goat’— ends a war between the Israelites and the Canaanites by killing the Canaanite commander Sisera (Judges 4:17-24, 5:24-27). Jael breaks the traditional code of hospitality by feeding Sisera and then slaying him, taking her fully out of the tribal mentality and to the level of the Sefira of Gevurah which represents the Samurai or warrior, doing what has to be done to save the land and the people which have suffered from years of war between two rival forces that were destroying the neutral land between them.
- Hesed — Esther (The Book of Esther).
Following these powerful women is Esther whose story is an integral part of the Jewish festival of Purim.
Esther is a Jewess in exile in Persia. She is the ward of a Jewish man called Mordecai who encourages her to enter a lottery to find a new wife for Ahasuerus, the King of Persia (Esther 2:8). This, in itself, is a non-tribal act as the orthodox Jewish faith then, as now, discouraged interfaith marriages. Esther finds favour with Ahasuerus and marries him, although she does not tell him she is a Jew. Mordecai, meanwhile, makes an enemy of Haman, a powerful statesman and an Agagite — a tribe which is an ancient enemy of the Jews. Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, demonstrating old enmities and tribal pride. In retribution, Haman persuades the king to organise a massacre of the Jews in order to hide his intended murder of Mordecai (Esther 3:12). To cut a magnificent story short, Esther saves her nation by truly becoming queen, revealing her true self at the perfect moment and demonstrating her willingness to give her life for her people. This raises her to the Sefira of Hesed (mercy, compassion and unconditional love).
In this story, Esther steps out of the rules of her tribe to marry a man of both different lineage and faith and can then heal the damage caused by Mordecai’s pride. She becomes a true queen with power over destiny. She has to be encouraged to step up to do this as, at first, she feels there is nothing she can do; but with the support of her people in prayer she is able to find the courage to speak out. Instead of choosing to destroy another, she offers her own life, trusting to God that all will be well.
At the literal level these are just stories of prominent women in the Hebrew Bible. At the allegorical they show the unhappiness created by slavish adherence to the rules of the tribe or by trying to circumvent them through deceit or magic, followed by the challenge but ultimate happiness of embracing a wider view and daring to step out to find our own truth.
At the metaphysical level we can see ourselves and our attitudes and our personal growth. Have we got the courage to own up to our own strengths and decide for ourselves what path to follow in life? And can we cut away the enemy (our resistance) and offer our life to a higher purpose, even if it involves embracing the new and possibly frightening alternatives in order to save our own spiritual life as well as lighting the way for others?
At the mystical level it can be seen as the development of the feminine soul over generations, giving us examples of how humanity itself is capable of evolving. Women can be the cause of great conflict; support within great conflict or the healing of great conflict.
The quarrels of the women, at the root level of the Tree of Life, lead to war and unhappiness. The individuation, daring and willingness to be different of the women at the trunk and branch levels lead to peace and reconciliation.
Perhaps the lesson we can take from this (and it is not an easy one) is that if we are to grow in faith, discrimination, compassion and service we cannot do it when tied by the boundaries of what we ‘should’ believe nor by the boundaries of the religion, tribe or belief system of our birth. We must embrace the possibility of difference in order to be of a greater service to God through our own self-development and our compassion to others. We must become the branches and leaves of the Tree of Life, nurtured by the lessons of the root and the trunk.
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)
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