Jonathan Wolfman's Blog
DECEMBER 28, 2011 7:04AM

Kabbalah--Jewish Mysticism: What It Is/What It Isn't

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      Kabbalah (in Hebrew)   (Kabbalah; Jewish Mysticiam)

     Among the many comments at Judy Mandelbaum's terrific and ironic Tuesday post about how best to handle some ultra-orthodox Jewish sects' continual and vile derision of Jewish girls and women in New York and Jerusalem, one or more readers mentioned Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah, and, unwittingly, in a misleading way. I thought to share, here, what Kabbalah is and isn't because what becomes clear is that people have absorbed recent, pop-culture/new-age articulations of Kabbalah, ideas about it that are simply inaccurate and have about as much to do with genuine Kabbalah as Manischevitz 'wine', that $5.95/bottle shoe polish, has to do with very old, fine wine or excellent, antique port or aged brandy.

     I share this here as a secular Jew nonetheless devoted to the Wisdom Texts of Judaism (and to the regular study of Christian religious texts as well.) I have taught courses in the religious split between Jews and the earliest Christian movements at Jerusalem. I have no religious or ideological axe to grind aside from accuracy. My hope is that what I share here will contribute to your broader understanding.

     We must be clear about this from jump:

     No rabbi, no Jewish teacher of any standing and education regards the so-called 'Kabbalah Centers' that have cropped up online and throughout the world as anything but bunk.

     That's not so much a matter of opinion; it's about the nature of genuine Kabbalah and the prerequisites for its study. As most Jews know, no rabbi worth his or her degree and training will (if steeped in kabbalistic study) will even welcome a student to study Jewish Mysticism until the potential student will have studied Talmud--the Oral Law--...not simply Torah (the Five Books of Moses)...for twenty years or so. That's the kind of preparation and knowledge  necessary.

     It would be as if a graduate school physics professor were to offer quantum theory seminars to students whose top preparation has been a high school general physics class.

     This is to say, in fact, that the overwhelming majority of even Orthodox rabbis are not Kabbalists and are not prepared to teach Kabbalah.

     I want to make two ideas clear. 

     First, as to Kabbalah itself:  Kabbalah is not a branch of  Judaism, nor is it a sect within Orthodox Judaism. The standard and traditional branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and, beginning in the early part of the last century, Reconstructionism. Kabbalah is a complex content study-area, a discipline; it is a highly-layered mystical set of teachings and understandings whose purpose is to bring a person to a deeply intimate knowledge of the ways of God. It cannot be usefully cherry-picked for nifty sayings and turned usefuly into Enlightenment. I cannot successfully compare it to any other discipline or study that you may know, such as, say, Zen, or Christian Mysticism. It is sui-generis, that is, it is of its own nature, unique.

     Second, since at least one of the commenters in Judy's thread talked about, again sincerely, being 'part Jewish', I want to address that.

Every religion gets to make the rules about who qualifies as a member of the religion and who does not.

Who Is A Jew is a fairly simple matter but the question has caused enormous misunderstanding. Put briefly, being a Jew under Jewish Law (or 'halacha'--Jewish Law) is for most purposes straightforward.

     . A Jew is anyone born to a Jewish woman.

     . That person is forever a Jew regardless of religious practice, institutional affiliation, or stated or inward belief. This is why Judaism is, at times, seen as both a religion and as a culture, and even as a kind of ethnicity.

     . There is no belief-requirement. I said above, for instance, I'm both a Jew and secular in my outlook. There is no contradiction whatever.

     . This, along with the fact that Jews do not seek converts, has caused confusion not only within the non-Jewish world but among those Jews not adequately educated in Jewish law's basics.

     . In other words:  according to Jewish Law, a person born to a Jewish woman is a Jew and will die a Jew whether or not s/he believes in God, converts formally to another well-known religion, believes God is a Sheep in Sheboygan, curses God...or even if he thinks the $25,,000 "Kabbalah Kourse" he took alongside Madonna is real. The person remains a Jew. (How other Jews regard his character and commitment and reliability is another matter...but he's a Jew.)

     . Judaism, while it does not seek to convert non-Jews to Judaism, does rigorous offer pre-conversion study and conversion to those seeking it. The various branches approach conversion to Judaism in their own ways. A convert to Judaism is considered fully a Jew, as if s/he were born to a Jewish woman.

     . As to the idea of Jews being "Chosen": The "chosen people" idea has, too, created confusion, if not consternation, both within the community of less educated Jews and, of course, among non-Jews. Put simply, being chosen has nothing whatever to do with imagining that we are better than others. It means that traditional Judaism holds that God chose Jews from among numbers of ancient Near East tribes and clans to be required to adhere to 613 Commandments, ten of which are very well-known and which serve almost as category-titles for the remaining 603. That's pretty much it. And that a Jew is to feel privileged that s/he has these obligations.


     For a more complete explanation of the guts of Kabbalah than I could ever hope to give over to you here, try the topic at The classic book on the subject, if you're interested, is by the gifted writer, Gershom Scholem, simply called KABBALAH.


Kabbalah (Meridian)


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While I have read Gersom Scholem's book, I have never formally studied Kabbalah. Torah (and a little Talmud here and there) are quite challenging enough for me. :)
Wow, thank you, Jonathan. I learned something this morning...~r
Before the current rip-off of Kabbalah, which at least is headed by a Jew (correct me if I'm wrong - this is from Wikipedia: [head guy] Philip Berg (a traditionally trained orthodox rabbi who had left the religious clergy and became an insurance salesman before learning Kabbalah) and his wife, Karen Berg.[1] The Kabbalah Centre comprises Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and students.), some centuries ago Christian mystics and 'magicians' ran with the concept and mangled it in their own way. Kabbalah (or 'Kabbalah') is an intrinsic part of the old-fashioned studious occult systems.

(We Wiccans, while usually aware of a simplified notion of Kabbalah (or 'Kabbalah') - from the 'magical' trad, not the Madonna - are more into the ecstatic experience than the studious one.)
Myriad I understand whereof you speak and the distinctions you're drawing here. Mr. Berg is of course just one of numbers of frauds-for-profit.
And, btw, in traditional Kabbalist study, there's said to be ecstatic experience, too.
I browsed (I didn't read every page) a book by Rabbi Davis Kooper titled:`
God is a Verb
Kabbalah and
the practice of
mystical Judaism.
This makes me wish to read the book slowly and assimilate what the author has to teach. Jack Kornfield recommend it. He wrote a new book `A Path With Heart.

Rabbi Davis A. Cooper studied mystical Judaism in Jerusalem's Old City for eight years.
He wrote several books.
One is titled`The Mystical Kabbalah.
These writings do stretch the `Mind.
I Love the post. I Love 7:1/2 yr/olds?
Alice's 'Adventures in Wonderland'`
Nice reads . . .
Art thanks for these recommendations!
You really have broadened my understanding, Jonathan, and not just about the Kabbalah. I app[reciated being under your tutelage this morning. Thank you for this crisply written and informative post.
I grew up as a secular Jew but in those days, few girls went further than confirmation or Bat Mitzvah. I know one thing for sure....613 is a lot of commandments! I would have been expelled from the seminary had I been allowed to study.
Jerry You honor me (the writer that you yourself are). Thank you.
Ande to be even clearer: no one person is to act on all fact numbers of them applied to the ancient priestly rituals only.
An excellent, enlightening rundown! r.
Aside from those converted it seems being Jewish is genetic. I will be much interested in the possible DNA revelations in the matter. No doubt once that is settled the matter will be much clearer
Yeah, but we're into the cheap & easy ecstacy - who has time for all that study stuff.
Jan of course, there are the studies that purport to show that the Aharonic Priestly line and the Lemba tribe(s) of southern Africa are genetically related. I have only read of those studies and not the papers themselves.

And, of course, even if there is determined a genetic link among all born Jews...and I kinda doubt that'll be shown...but who knows...the conversion rules would still apply...that is, a convert under Jewish law is as much a Jew as a 'born' Jew.
Myriad hehehehe :) you made my morning!
Genetically, of course, patriarchal Jewish genes may complicate the matter but if there is a noted predisposition for chicken soup that may be the deciding factor.
So even if I convert to Judism my daughters (and THEIR daughters) would then considered Jews???

Seems kind of "one way", ya know? My life choices shouldn't be imposed on others, just as theirs should be imposed on me, by my thinking!
Amy no; Judaism makes no claim on your daughters. As your daughters were not born to a Jewish mother, they'd always have the option to convert on their own.
I have always thought Kabbalah(the kind many celebrities belong to) to be a cult of some sort. Perhaps I am overstating the "cultish" aspects of it but those groups make me extremely nervous.

Bud I think they are largely just profitable frauds.
Note: Amy's question deserves a fuller explanation/reply:

Judaism assumes that every person is an independent contractor when it comes to conversion, so, were Amy to convert, her daughters would remain as they are, according to Jewish Law, regardless of Amy's personal choice to convert.
Thanks for this thorough explanation of things.
This helps me in my devotion to the careful stepping around anything that smacks of mysticism - except for the Easter Bunny, of course.
Matt and I once won a 3 feet tall Chocolate Easter Bunny!
I first encountered the Kabbalah in Jorge Luis Borges. I think he understands it better than Madonna.
Con you Material-Boy you... ... ...
You sir, must be wrong. You see, Madonna is a Material Girl and I live in Madonna's Material World, therefore, if Madonna practices Kabbalah, them the Dudester is a Kabbalahist. This is Madonna's World my friend, we just live in it~~
Scanner and here I tht the owner of the Universe was my Tabby Cat, Ms Miryam Gumdrops. In her world, this one, I am The Help, the Wait-Staff.
Thanks for this lesson, I have always wondered what Kabbalah was.
I heard a woman speak about her father, who she said was a life long student of the Kabbalah. She said that he believed that everyone was born with a divine spark inside them and that it was his job to see it.
That is all I knew about it but I love the idea.
rated with love
Poetess Quakers, too, say this: " There Is That of God in Everone." I wonder.
There are some obviously pretty nasty people. That puts a strange outlook on divinity.
Jonathan, on Amy's conversion question: obviously children born before her conversion weren't born to a Jewish mother. What about children born after her conversion.

Nicely done explanation, as always.
Very good straight talk here, Jonathan. Thanks for that.

I view "pop Kaballah" as this decades answer to "Ramtha". When the world is full of fools with money seeking easy answers to unanswerable questions, enter the fraud peddlers.

Your clear essays about Kaballah run the risk ruining the fun and shallow sense of a secure place in the universe for a lot of flaky people out there. You are soooooo mean!
I sell a lot of this stuff and have not really looked at it.
I thought the red bracelet was cool:)
Thanks for this.. Now I know..
Just got up.. shame on me..:)
My tradition of Catholicism and my interest in all kinds of possibility leads me to ask you this, Jonathan:

What if IN A PAST LIFE I was born to a Jewish woman?

Am I still a Jew now?

Please say yes!
Very interesting and informative, Jonathan. I learned a lot from this. You say that Judaism does not seek to convert, but its inherent nature that anyone born to a Jewish mother is a Jew, makes the need for conversion unnecessary.

Islam is similar in its simplicity of requirement to be one, but doesn't assume anyone born to a Muslim mother is an unconditional Muslim forvever and more. All it requires to be a Moslem is to believe earnestly that Allah is the only god, and that Mohammed is his prophet. (The preceding prophets Moses and Jesus included).

Nerd as a person who converts to Judaism is a full-Jew, her children would be Jews. That, of course, isn't the situation Amy was asking about, but yes; in the case you raise, they'd be Jews.
FusunA Thanks.
Of course, there are historical reasons that Jewish Law works as it does as to the birth-mother determinat. That in another post!
Mhold as for me, of course, Welcome... ...but as far as I can tell, the Rabbis do not address past-lives in any way as to this.
Linda I am jealous of your sleep!
steve as IF those drawn to those frauds would listen to the likes of me hehehe :)
Always learning from you...always mystified at how much I do not know, outside my little world. Thumbs up.
Thanks for this, Jon. So, what about people who say things like "He looks like a Jew?" Considering the effect of both conversion and mixed marriages, isn't that idea kind of meaningless?

L pretty much, yes. And I know Orthodox Jews named Smith, and McCarthy, too!
I recall being wowed and just somehow impressed when Sammy Davis converted as I thought he was the coolest cat going. What I can say about the Kabbalah, with no claim to anything even remotely resembling scholarship, is that unlike most religious texts it is a real grabber of a read- the real deal; the obvious insight is immediately apparent and just goes to show we haven't changed that much overall as individuals in 3 millennia ... still need to learn the same old lessons. I also recommend the Hawaiian Pantheon.

Aloha Kakou
Thank you so much for this, Jon; relevant and enlightening. R
613 commandments! Holy sheep. ;)
B. :) following the first TEN are tough enough! :)
Kidding aside, I'm still not certain I understand why some convert to living their lives according to scripture or religions that've evolved after centuries of intrepid traditions and teachings.

I'm with you, Jon. The first ten are enough, thank you very much...
B. The rabbis teach that the Tem are really categories of the rest and in any case, no Jew is able to fullfill them all, bc a number presuppose the existence of a Temple at Jerusalem, and there isn't one.