Kabbalah has roots in Jewish mysticism that have taken various forms over the centuries. This article will draw heavily from ‘Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism’, a classic text by Gershom Scholem, in an attempt to accurately trace the history and development. Since that text however Kabballah has been popularised, and become increasingly cosmopolitan, following the efforts of Rav Berg and his family through their books and Kabballah centres starting out in Los Angeles, attracting Hollywood stars and celebrities, that are now worldwide. The means of interpreting the text, the use and meaning of gematria, the ten sefirot and the problem of sin will be examined in the light of biblical teaching and then finally a brief summary of the most recent form will also be compared alongside Scripture.
The development of Kabbalah
It is difficult to define either kabbalah concisely or precisely. Nevertheless, it is possible to examine characteristics through the respective forms and stages of development. In ‘Major trends in Jewish Mysticism’ Scholem commenced by writing/lecturing about earlier general characteristics of Jewish mysticism, moved onto Merkaba Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism and other matters before introducing the Kabbalists as a recognised group.
Gershom Scholem writes, ‘As from the year 1200, the Kabbalists begin to emerge as a distinct mystical group which, while still not numerically significant, had nonetheless attained considerable prominence in many parts of Southern France and Spain.’[i]
The Zohar, which is the predominant text in Kabbalism was irrefutably successful amongst the Kabbalists and following the Spanish inquisition and the expulsion from Spain among wider Jewry.[ii]. It was written around 1290. Some say that the Zohar was revealed to Moses at Sinai by God, others that it was written down by Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai), though generally scholarship affirms that it was written by Moses de Leon and others.[iii]Scholem considered Moses de Leon to be the author also;[iv]though interestingly he notes that Moses de Leon set out following Maimonides and only gradually became drawn to study Kabbalism. [v]In his early, days Moses de Leon studied Maimonides and only later Neoplatonism, though he gradually took an increasing interest pondering the mystery of the Godhead as understood by the Kabbalistic theosophy of his time.[vi]
As Gershom Scholem commences his seventh chapter/lecture, concerning Isaac Luria and his school, he notes that following the 1492 Exodus from Spain (resulting from the Spanish inquisition), the Kabbalistic form of Jewish mysticism experienced a radical transformation.[vii]Why was that the case? The horrifying reality was that gruesome year had been predicted as the year of redemption.[viii]Hence there was a shift of focus from Messianic eschatology to creation resulting in a non-Messianic and personal mode of redemption or salvation.[ix]
The eighth chapter is entitled ‘Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy’. Shabbetai Zevi was the false Messiah and central figure who was convinced by Nathan the prophet who practised kabbalism, that he was the Messiah, before he was persuaded under the threat of his life to convert to Islam. That occurred in 1666 and it must be remembered that prior to this disturbingly 300, 000 Jews were killed in Ukraine by the Cossacks in 1648-1649.[x]
Obviously, Gershom Scholem wrote in his time and his last chapter is entitled ‘Hasidism: The latest phase’. The Baal Shem Tov advanced a new means of religious consciousness in which rabbinical learning irrespective of the inward importance played no critical contribution.[xi] Chabad.org also links the Baal Shem Tov and kabbalah with Messianic expectation.
‘Of greatest significance, however, was an event that occurred one Rosh Hashanah. The Baal Shem Tov used Kabbalah to experience an elevation of the soul to the heavenly realms. It was here that he met with Mashiach. The Baal Shem Tov asked, “When will you arrive?” Mashiach replied, “When your teachings will be widely disseminated.” This indicated to the Baal Shem Tov that the time had come for the mystical tradition to fill the world, for the dissemination of the inner dimension of the Torah was needed to usher in the era of Mashiach.’[xii]
Today, Rav Berg and his family and associates have made Kabbalah much more accessible though undoubtedly it has taken a different form, certain characteristics and concepts have remained. Previously kabbalah was the pursuit of the academic elite and those who had studied extensively from the Talmud and most likely not even looking at the ‘sod’ apparent deeper underlying meaning until aged 40. In recent years this has drawn interest from general journalism and various Jewish press outlets both concerning its origins and how it is practised in contemporary circles.
Traditional Jewish interpretation includes the use of the peshat, remez, drash and sod. In a nutshell, peshat is the plain meaning and remez the hinting or more allegorised version. Therefore the plain meaning in context is considered thoroughly before progressing to consider what the text might also be hinting at. The drash incorporates the use of similar or related texts which may shed light and bring further insight upon the wider context. The use of the sod takes on a much deeper meaning which is the focus of Kabbalistic interpretation. Until contemporary forms of kabbalah were introduced, this was for the most part, solely the practise of those over the age of 40 who had studied Torah extensively and were prepared for that discipline.
There is an account in the Talmud where Rabbi Akiva and three other rabbis engaged upon the pursuit of the ‘deeper meaning’ and the result was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went mad Elisha ben Avuya lost his faith and only Rabbi Akiva remained unscarred.[xiii]
This gives a whole new meaning to what the text is actually saying or could mean. Scholem writes that:
‘Language in its purest form, that is, Hebrew, according to the Kabbalists, reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world; in other words, it has mystical value.’[xiv]
‘For the kabbalist too, every existing thing is endlessly correlated with the whole of creation; for him, too, everything mirrors everything else. But beyond that he discovers something else which is not uncovered by the allegorical network: a reflection of the true transcendence. The symbol “signifies” nothing and communicates nothing, but makes something transparent which is beyond all expression.’[xv]
Sometimes when we try to express the sentiment that the meaning of something has been stretched by obscuring the actual intended meaning, we commence by stating “if words mean anything…” Here is a classic point in case. Through the use of the ‘sod’ words do not take on their literal meaning within the context of the passage or the text itself but have a hidden meaning, which is essentially a gnostic interpretation. The interpretation is extended even beyond allegory. Though a ‘higher’ meaning is sought, it inevitably contradicts the plain meaning of the text, continues beyond allegory and is not concerned with other related texts that can be helpful to establish and clarify wider context and meaning and can be used to say almost anything.
How are those hidden meanings uncovered? We will now take a closer look at gematria.
Gematria has been used in both Hebrew and Greek since both alphabets have a numerical equivalent to their respective letters. However, we are more interested in the Hebrew usage here. Once the numerical value of a word is calculated it can then be compared with other words that have the same numeric value to try to ascertain links and further meaning. Although gematria was used from time to time in the Talmud, it comprised only a part of the exegetical process and certainly was not dependent on it. On the other hand gematria is critical and formative of kabbalah since the underlying preposition is that God created the world through the power of Hebrew letters that have numerical values.[xvi]
This particular method of gematria is not a Biblical practise and goes beyond what scripture permits . There are legitimate forms such as recognising the number 7 as spiritual perfection, 8 as completion and 40 of testing and judgement. The gematria of “Jesus” in Greek in 888 and the number of fish caught in John 21:11 was 153 which also equals 888.[xvii] Even 666 as the number of the antichrist in Revelation 13:18 is designated, though in the latter case that is specifically applied in context from the text and asks for wisdom to calculate, not intuitive and elaborate methods!
Sadly, people have wasted inordinate amounts of time trying to ascertain if a new political figure is the antichrist and have completely ignored the context and related passages. Some have even tried to use 6 as the number of man and developed their own English gematria from A=6, B=12 and so forth. Unsurprisingly, If you look at enough words and their numeric links you will inevitably find ‘remarkable coincidences’.
A number of years ago there was a phase of interest in ‘The Bible Code’ where computers were used to find hidden words of famous people. Predictably, in a book of that length and the searches being administered horizontally, vertically, diagonally and in reverse directions, names could be found though the actual words were arranged almost like a wordsearch and at random and there was nothing that resembled any sort of sequence order or actual code if it was considered objectively.
Good biblical interpretation involves studying a passage in its grammatical historical context and examining what is written before a passage and after, and how it fits within the book of the Bible itself and within the whole of the Bible. Scripture can also be used to interpret scripture. Hebrews provides a helpful commentary on many aspects of Leviticus. The psalm writers often comment on events from the Torah. Similar related texts can be compared to provide insight.
The ten sefirot
The idea here is that ten forces engage between the infinite, unknowable God and creation.[xviii]These represent ten spheres of divine manifestation in which God emerges and Scholem comments that the way the Sefirot are described in the Zohar shed light on the degree to which the concept of God’s mystical qualities have been removed from the conception of divine attributes.[xix]In other words, the Ten Sefirot are akin to a mystical tree of life. Scholem further notes that in the history of kabbalism, theism and pantheism have competed for supremacy and the majority of the texts and especially those writings of the classic theosophic contain parts of both.[xx]
It is noticeable that Scholem so readily expresses the fact that most of the history of kabbalism combines elements of theism and pantheism. This is in contrast to the Bible which is strictly monotheistic. The first two commandments remind us the God of the Bible is a jealous God and that we should have no other gods before Him and should not bow down or serve any other God (Exodus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 5:6-10). Isaiah 44:6 tells us “I am the first and the last” and 45:5, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me.
God is not to be represented as a force since the Holy Spirit is a Person and we must not grieve the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30). The Bible affirms unmistakably that God is knowable and wants us to understand Him (Jeremiah 9:23-24; c.f. John 10:14; 1 John 2:3-4). Neither can the representation of God’s character be limited to the ten sefirot.
The problem of sin
Gershom Scholem notes the following regarding the mystic compared with the Kabbalistic problem of sin.
‘I have said that the mystics were deeply concerned with the problem of sin and, especially, with the nature and meaning of Adam’s fall, and that this problem was amply discussed in Kabbalistic literature. This is true with but one exception, that of the Zohar.’[xxi]
‘Evil fell upon the world not because Adam’s fall actualised its potential presence, but because so it was ordained, because evil has a reality of its own. This was also the doctrine of Gnosticism: evil by its very nature interdependent of man; it is woven into the texture of the world, or rather into the existence of God. It is this thought which leads the Zohar to interpret evil as a sort of residue or refuse of the hidden life’s organic process.’[xxii]
Those concepts are alien to the biblical understanding concerning the problem of sin. God created the world in a perfect state and was described as good and also ‘very good’ throughout Genesis 1. God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). When David was confronted by Nathan concerning his sin after he had gone into Bathsheba said, “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).” Romans 5:12-21 explains unequivocally that sin entered through the offence of Adam yet through Jesus the Messiah and His righteous act, there is the certainty of eternal life through His grace.
What can be said of the ‘new Kabballah’ accessed by many and springing up in centres worldwide? It may present a new flavour though it retains the Zohar and many pantheistic concepts which are in direct contrast to the God of the Bible such as the ten sefirot. The En Sof is impersonable and unknowable, yet the God of the Bible delights in those who know Him and understand His ways (Jeremiah 9:23-24). It sells various amulets such as ‘red string’ the idea of its use as an amulet is not biblically grounded, and it is to God alone who we must put our trust in. It also endorses astrology which is forbidden in the Scriptures (Isaiah 47:13).
God has revealed Himself through the Bible and trying to read it through the ‘sod’ interpretation obscures rather than interprets the text accurately. Gematria taken to the extreme is more of a hindrance than a help and ignores the plain meaning of the text and by using elaborate methods creates other ‘meanings’. God has also revealed Himself through the prophets and through His Son, Yeshua the Messiah. The prophets spoke of Yeshua who fulfilled prophecy and is coming again. He has paid the price and dealt with the problem of His Son by making atonement through His blood. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).
[i] Gershom Scholem Major trends in Jewish mysticism (Schocken Books, 1995; New York), p119
[ii] Ibid, 156
[iii] Hila Ratzabi Mysticism The Zohar https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-zohar/
[iv] Scholem, 159
[vi] Ibid, 203
[vii] Ibid, 244
[viii] Ibid, 246
[ix] Ibid, p245
[x] Matt Plen Who was Shabbetai Zevi? https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbetai-zevi/
[xi] Scholem, 335
[xii] Nissan Dovid Dubov The Baal Shem Tovhttps://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/361879/jewish/The-Baal-Shem-Tov.htm
[xiii] Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer The origins of Kabballah December 9th 2008 https://www.thejc.com/judaism/books/the-origins-of-kabbalah-1.6753
[xiv] Scholem, p17
[xv] Ibid, 27
[xvi] Hila Ratzabi What is Gematria? https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/gematria/
[xviii] Kabbalah: The Ten Sefirot of the Kabbalah https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-ten-sefirot-of-the-kabbalah
[xix] Scholem, p213
[xx] Ibid, p222
[xxi] Ibid, p231
[xxii] Ibid, p238