What is Kabbalah?

People get confused about Kabbalah. Is it Kabbalah? Or Cabala or Qabalah? Is it a sect? Is it about the Kabbalah Centre (you know – “the Madonna place”)? Is it just for Jews? Are women allowed to study it? Is it only for Jewish men over the age of 40? Is it anti-Christian? Is it flat-out wrong?

This blog is the place to come to in order to ask any questions you might have about Kabbalah (and yes, that’s how I’m going to spell it, even though, truly it “should” be Qabalah because it comes from the Hebrew letters QBLH. However one of the things I’d like to dispel here is the idea that “should” has anything to do with it.

But then I would say that because I’m a woman and I’m not Jewish.

Kabbalah is Hebrew for “receive.” This Western Mystery Tradition is simply an oral tradition which works as scaffolding for understanding the relationship between Divinity, the Universe and Humanity. There are lots of different forms of this and lots of people may tell you that there is only one way to study it.

Why does it exist? Because as soon as any tradition of faith is written down it becomes crystallised — locked in the culture and social mores of its time. To remain relevant, it must be accompanied by a parallel Living Tradition which knows how to update the teaching within its basic scaffolding so that it makes perfect sense today. All faith traditions have an oral, living tradition. This is the one for Judaeo-Christian world.

I love this particular tradition which has helped me heal deep wounds from within both Judaism and Christianity. However, what I want to make clear here is that you are the one who gets to choose which system works for you and as soon as any tradition starts throwing bricks at other folk who do it differently, then you are working from a crystallised mindset, better known as a religion. And a religion is where the trouble starts…

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This is one of my books on the subject of de-mystifying Kabbalah.

How Many Kinds of Kabbalah Are There?

Lots. Here’s a brief guide.

In the modern world, Kabbalah is associated with:

  • Orthodox Judaism which focuses deeply on the spiritual symbolism and revelation within the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet and limits Kabbalistic learning to men aged over 40 who have studied Hebrew and are married. This ruling was brought in after “the false Messiah” Shabbetai Zvi who brought Kabbalah into disrepute in the 17th century.
  • The Kabbalah Center which teaches a sometimes controversial New Age version of the tradition and has its own brand including Kabbalah Water, red string and accessories. This is also known as “the Kabbalah of the Famous” because of its popularity with celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore and Rosanne Barr. Although it ostensibly follows the Lurianic system, the Kabbalah Centre also teaches the precept of self-responsibility and that our lives are created by our own thoughts and feelings.
  • Lurianic Kabbalah. Founded by the charismatic Rabbi, Isaac Luria, this is the most popular form of Kabbalah in the modern world. It came about after the 15th century Inquisition where thousands of Jews who had survived the horror of the autos de fé had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. They could not understand how such a terrible thing had happened to them and how a benign God could have permitted so much suffering for his chosen people.Luria’s inspiration was to reveal that when God created the Universe, a mistake was made which led to the Sefirot or vessels which were transmitting the Light of Creation shattering. The shards from these broken vessels (known as Klippot) became a form of external evil which attacked the good. This answered the perennial question of “why do bad things happen to good people?” This is very similar to the Christian concept of the Devil which had become stronger in the Middle Ages so Christian mystics found it easy to be in tune with the new, Lurianic, system.
  • Christian Kabbalah. This came into being after the invention of the printing press which made Kabbalistic documents available to all. It thrived during the later Renaissance through Christian scholars who perceived that mystical aspects of Judaism and Neo-Platonism were compatible with Christian thought. It has not become of mainstream interest to Christianity because it became mixed in with occultism in the 18th century.
  • Alchemical Kabbalah. Alchemy dates back to pre-Biblical times and has always been closely associated with Hermeticism (“as above so below”). Alchemists are renowned for the search for the Philosopher’s Stone and the secret of turning base metal to gold. Kabbalistic Alchemists regard both as metaphors for transforming the base elements of the psyche into the gold of spiritual enlightenment.
  • Golden Dawn Kabbalah or The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a complicated mix of initiation, ritual magic, Rosicrucianism, Egyptology, metaphysics, astrology and Tarot founded by S. L. “MacGregor” Mathers and William Wynn Westcott in the 19th It was made famous by the teachings of Dion Fortune and Israel Regardie and infamous by the frightening antics of Aleister Crowley.
  • Toledano Kabbalah which takes the teaching back to its pre-Lurianic origins and which, despite its ancient lineage, is the system most in line with modern-day understanding of Karma and the Law of Attraction. This school, led by Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, is primarily Jewish although it involves those of other faiths as well.

Also worth mentioning as they involve aspects of Kabbalah are:

  • Tarot which has a 22-card Major Arcana which is parallel to the 22 paths of the Tree of Life and four suits which equate to the four worlds of the second Kabbalistic diagram Jacob’s Ladder.
  • Freemasonry which shares many Kabbalistic principles and temple-building symbolism from the Old Testament. The temple and the ability of the high priest to pronounce the name of God correctly while in the Holy of Holies was a vital part of the Jewish High Holy days of worship in ancient times. The activities of the high priest within the Sanctuary are featured in the Royal Arch Degree.
  • Magic which uses many similar symbols. Magic has come to mean many things in the modern world but in Kabbalah is defined as using personal will to affect the workings of the universe as opposed to aligning ourselves to God’s will. An example would be casting a spell to make a particular person love you — which is a violation of the other’s free will and carries nasty karmic repercussions.

What is a ‘Mystery Tradition’?

A Mystery Tradition is an oral tradition which includes discussion, ritual and practice. An oral tradition is vital to the health of any written tradition in order to ensure that the written tradition can be understood and updated with discernment and mercy era through era.

The Western Mystery Traditions include Alchemy, Gnosticism, Tarot, Paganism, Runes, the Knights Templar, Anthroposophy, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism. They are different from the Eastern Mystery Traditions such as Yoga and Tantra in that they are more intellectual, although they do also use meditation and movement as tools.

Kabbalah exists within nearly all the Western Traditions as a kind of underpinning theme. Tarot, in particular, is a ‘Kabbalistic game’ with the 22 cards of the Major Arcana representing the 22 paths on the Tree of Life which, in turn, represent the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Four Suits represent the Four Worlds on Jacob’s Ladder.

Tarot is often dismissed as a fortune-telling device but it is a very useful tool for those who wish to understand the complexities of the 22 paths of the Tree of Life; a study which, undertaken academically, would require a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew language.

The Complete Western Mystery Tradition

The reason why Kabbalah is known as the ‘only complete’ Western Mystery Tradition is, primarily, because of the diagram of the Tree of Life. Kabbalah teaches that this is the basis for the saying that ‘God made man in His own image.’ This one diagram demonstrates all of human design, knowledge and experience.

When the Universe itself is described Kabbalistically, it is done through repeating the same diagram as viewed from four different levels – as in the diagram of Jacob’s Ladder.

The template for the designs of the Tree and the Ladder can be traced back to the Book of Exodus and the whole of the Bible is filled with Kabbalistic symbolism. As the Torah (the first five books of the Bible and the Jewish holy books of the Law) underpins the three major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Kabbalah can also, fairly, be said to be the Mystery Tradition which underpins all three of those faiths. This is very useful for interfaith studies and the reason why Kabbalah is known as The Work of Unification.

What Use Is Kabbalah?

Good question!

Kabbalah is a wonderful tool for Interpreting Religious Texts

Nowadays, many people who want to learn about Kabbalah are not religious and they may even have a resistance to the idea that Kabbalistic teaching is integral with the three major religions of the Western World.

However, even if you have no interest in the esoteric roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Kabbalah is a wonderful tool for developing self-knowledge and spirituality.

The power of Kabbalah to heal the wounds that many people feel have been caused by religion should not be underestimated. Those who have deep issues with Torah, the Bible in general, Jesus, Christianity and the New Testament have found great peace through using Kabbalah to show them the inner meanings of what can seem to be impenetrable – and often harsh – teachings.

Kabbalah is also associated with numerology and many efforts have been made to work out hidden teachings and prophecies in the Bible based on the numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

But the Tradition can be used far more simply than that in identifying and translating the patterns and themes in the Bible so that they are entirely relevant – and helpful – to the present day.

What is the Origin of the Tree of Life Diagram?

KabEasyFig2The Tree of Life diagram is based on the seven branched candelabrum known as the Menorah from the Biblical Book of Exodus (35:21-35). The menorah was made out of one piece of gold smelted from the treasures the Israelites brought with them from Egypt.

It was built to a design precisely described in Exodus and placed in the tabernacle of the moveable temple built by Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. It has been referred to by mystics through the centuries as the source of the oral Torah (Law); the first five books of the Bible and its design and markings represent the Sefirot, the paths and the four different worlds or levels in Kabbalistic teaching.

The first written correspondences between the Menorah and the Tree of Life were outlined by the early Christian Church Father Iraneus, and later by the 18th century mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato. The concept was further developed by the 20th/21st century father of Toledano Kabbalah, Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi.

The Tree of Life design as we know it today is believed to have been adapted from the design of the Menorah by Rabbi Yizhak Saggi Nehor (1160-1235) who was known as Isaac the Blind. The Rabbi or his students are also credited with clarifying Kabbalistic teaching on reincarnation and Karma and naming the Sefirot.

Rabbi Isaac believed that contemplating the aspects of the Sefirot with sacred intention, known as Kavana, could bring people into direct contact with divinity.

Kabbalah, Cabala or Qabalah?

Kabbalah is spelt in three different ways. In Hebrew it is QBLH but, as the first letter can be equally translated as a ‘K’ or a ‘C,’ different schools have used different spellings down the ages.

  • Kabbalah is the name usually used in Jewish, interfaith and modern spirituality circles and is the most popular of the three. It includes Platonic, Neo-Platonic and other Greek-influenced traditions.
  • Cabala is usually used within esoteric Muslim and Christian circles.
  • Qabalah is used within the magical tradition and many of the other Western Mystery Traditions which focus on tarot, alchemy, numerology and sacred geometry.

However it may be spelt, Kabbalah is Hebrew for ‘receive.’

Kabbalah is the only complete Western Mystery Tradition and underpins the three main Western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). A ‘Mystery Tradition’ is the name for the inner – or esoteric – teaching of any particular religion or belief.

Kabbalah is both a path of personal development and a way of understanding how the Universe works. Although it is traditionally believed to be Jewish, it pre-dates Judaism – in fact it is said to be as old as humanity itself. It can be practised by anyone seeking a more balanced and happier life, regardless of their religion, nationality, gender or personal belief system.

Kabbalah is now very much in the public eye. The Kabbalah Centre has brought it onto the front page of our newspapers and many people who are interested in spirituality have begun to investigate it.

At first it may seem difficult to understand how a subject which, for centuries, has been closely guarded within the Jewish religion, taught only to men aged over 40, and which is deeply complicated and imbued with sacred ritual, can be the same tradition as the simple, positive-thinking, inter-faith philosophies taught in books and workshops nowadays.

However, the two can live side by side very comfortably because the secret of Kabbalah is that it is a road map to individual growth which can be adapted for each and every individual. It can be used within a religion very successfully but it can also be used outside of any conventional faith.

Kabbalah provides a structure for study, growth, belief and self-realisation rather than a form. Structure is like scaffolding. It is there to demonstrate certain simple principles of how the Universe and humanity work. But, within that scaffolding, we can grow in whatever way is right for us.

The two structures that are Kabbalah’s main tool for understanding are the Tree of Life and Jacob’s Ladder. Interpreting these gives us the ability to plot our route on our own personal life-map.