Until the 16th century Kabbalah, like modern-day spiritual teachings, worked on the premise that the world was predominantly a place of well-being and abundance. As Kabbalah has for many centuries been held within the heart of the Jewish faith, it followed the belief that when God created the world it was perfect.
This is based on the first chapter of the Biblical book of Genesis (1:31 ) “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”
Mystics from the beginning of time have taught the principles of responsibility; that we are stewards of the Earth and that every action has a consequence. Therefore the tragedies and misfortunes that can fall on humanity were seen as being caused by the misuse of human free will. But in the 16th century, for the Jewish people who were persecuted in the Inquisition and expelled from their Spanish and Portuguese homelands, this teaching was both unhelpful and possibly even cruel. They had done nothing to deserve such ill-treatment and it was too hard to expect them to believe that they had, themselves, persecuted others in a previous life.
Therefore, a new impulse was needed in the Kabbalistic mystical tradition which was attempting to hold their faith together as the Jewish nation scattered around the World.
This was given by a charismatic young man called, Isaac Luria. Luria was a mystic who spent years in seclusion communing with the higher worlds and who believed that he was guided by the prophet Elijah. Luria joined the school of a respected rabbi and author, Moses Cordovero in Safed, Israel. On Cordovero’s death, he took over the group and began to teach a brand new line of Kabbalah which helped to explain the tragedy of what had happened to the Jewish nation. He taught that when God created the Universe, He made a mistake: that the great Divine vessels which were created to hold the light of emanation were not strong enough and broke. This sent shards of matter throughout the Universe which became evil impulses. They are the cause of bad things happening to good people; an external evil which strikes at random.
Later Lurianic Kabbalists explained the apparent dichotomy of an omnipotent God being capable of error by saying that the Holy One intended the mistake to happen in order to be able to test humanity.
Lurianic Kabbalah spread like wildfire, not only because it bought comfort but because it emerged at a time when the printing press had been established and people could spread the word in literature.
Ironically, Luria himself forbade his followers to write down his words but, being human, they did.
So, most Kabbalists believe in a similar system to Christianity’s belief in the devil – that there are outside forces that attack us.
However, a curious thing happened with the dissemination of Isaac Luria’s teachings by his followers: Jacob’s Ladder was not taught … and it disappeared from conventional Cabalistic study for the next 400 years. No one is certain why this happened. Instead, Luria’s own diagrams were taught. These are so various and (to our eyes certainly) so complicated with the links between levels and worlds so easily misunderstood that it is not surprising that students of Kabbalah began to study the tradition in alternative ways. The Tree of Life is still seen as relevant but the diagrammatic part of Kabbalah became less important in favour of the study of the significance and power of the Hebrew alphabet.