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Treasures in the Basement: An Introduction to Kabballah

04/06/2015 08:23:00 AM


Treasures in the Basement: An Introduction to Kabballah
Yom Kippur 2003 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

True story: One Shabbos afternoon, a few weeks after we moved into our home here in Encino, a man appeared at our door and identified himself as an attorney from Minneapolis, representing a former occupant of our home. According to this attorney's story, our home's former occupant was world famous scientist who had rented the house but could never afford to buy it. The scientist had just published a major discovery and was currently negotiating its sale to a group of investors. Included in the terms of the sale was his desire to own our house. How much, the attorney asked, would it take to buy the house?

This was 1995, a year after we had lost a home in the earthquake and had moved a family with three young kids and a dog four times. Three times I told him the house wasn't for sale, but he persisted. So I told him the first number that popped into my head: five million dollars. This is a little more than we'd paid for the house, but I was thinking about what it would take to tell Nina that we needed to pack once again. The attorney remarked that this was more than he'd expected but reasonable under the circumstances and I should expect a contract in the mail. And it did, together with a check for earnest money. . .in the amount of $1.

Now we wondered and we worried: What's hidden in the house that was worth so much. Was there some hidden panel that led to some secret room filled with who knows what? Was there something or someone buried in the garden?

Well, the remaining $4 million and change has never materialized. We're still waiting. We love living in the house. And whatever secret there is, it is still secret. But occasionally, I wonder.

Jews today are in a similar situation. We live in house that we've come to love, a house that we know well, a house that's become home. But it's a house with a secret: There's basement to this house that's been sealed and hidden for years. Were we to find the hidden passageway, the lost keys that open this basement, we'd be amazed at what's down there: Valuable treasures, antiques and relics, records and images of a past, our past, that we could never have imagined, and -- junk, rubbish, even poisons.

The house we call Judaism and the secret, hidden basement is Kabballah. Alongside the official religious traditions of the Jewish people, alongside Jewish law, Talmudic learning, the organized communal traditions, there has always lived a secret, hidden tradition of religious imagination, mystical experience, spiritual searching, fantasy, myth and religious rebellion. That's Kabballah, the traditions of Jewish mysticism. It's always been there -- it has always been part of Judaism. It is found in nascent form in the Bible, it is present in the Talmud and Midrash of the Rabbis, it flowered in the Jewish Middle Ages, in Spain and in Israel, it fueled the great spiritual revolution known as Hasidism in Eastern Europe and it is alive again today.

The mystic seeks direct, intimate unmediated experience of God. Kabballah was a tradition for those unsatisfied with the normal forms and explanations of Jewish life. In the beautiful description by Abraham Heschel, it was a tradition for "those who refuse to convert realities into opinions, mysteries into dogmas, and ideas into a multitude of words, for they realize that all concepts are but glittering motes in a sunbeam. They want to see the sun itself. To the cabalist, God is as real as life, and as nobody would be satisfied with mere knowing or reading about life, so they are not content to suppose or to prove logically that there is a God; they want to feel and to enjoy God; not only to obey but to approach God. They want to taste the whole wheat of spirit before it is ground by the millstone of reason."

Revolutionary as it might be, Kabballah was never isolated from mainstream Judaism. The masters of Kabballah were themselves the authors of mainstream Jewish tradition: Rabbi Akiba and his student, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, in the time of the Talmud, Nahmanides in the Middle Ages. Yosef Karo spent his days authoring the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, and his nights touring the mystical universe with an angelic muse who arrived each evening to take him on a journey into the heavens. Hold that image: Kabballah as the nighttime tradition of the Jewish mind, its dream world, the source and the storehouse of its fantasies and imagination. Kabballah reflects the creative sub-conscious of the Jewish tradition. We go down into the basement, and what do we find? That our sweet, pious grandmother spent her spare time painting erotic nudes. And they're good!

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Kabballah was driven underground; sent into the basement by the Jewish community's desire to see ourselves as rational, modern citizens of a scientific world. Then, there was no room for a tradition of fantasy and superstition, of ecstasy and excess. Now, a generation or two later, we have discovered that while science and its rationality can bring many good things to life, it isn't enough to make human life whole. A generation or two later we've discovered that in sealing up that basement, our predecessors sealed off from us a part of ourselves, a part we sorely miss. We have longings, needs, hungers, that only the stuff in the basement can satisfy. We have intuitions, insights, glimpses of realities that only the stuff in the basement can help us express. And so Jews, and many others are returning to the basement to recover the lost treasures.

Tonight, I'll take you down there. And during the course of the coming year, we'll make a few forays down there and see what we can dig up. But first a warning. A sincere warning. There are dangers down there. Among the reasons our predecessors locked and sealed the basement was their awareness of the poisons down there. Kabballah is a tradition of great truth and beauty. But it also has its dark side. Magic, manipulation, control, fear. That's all down there too. We need to be careful. Ready?

What is God's name? In the Torah, God has proper name. But it's a name we don't pronounce. Yud a Hay Vav Hay. We see these letters before us, but we pronounce the word "Adonai," "My Master."

Once, according to the historians, Jews might have used God's name. But the leaders of the community took it away to keep it safe. They gave it to the priests who were permitted to pronounce it only once a year, on Yom Kippur, as part of the ritual to purify the people. The High Priest came out of the Holy of Holies, the sacred inner chamber of the Holy Temple, pronounced the name and proclaimed the people cleansed. But at that moment, everyone threw themselves onto their faces and screamed, Baruch Shem Kvod. And no one heard the name. So that when the Romans destroyed the Temple, the name was lost. And to this day no one knows how to pronounce it. No one except me. And I'm willing to teach it to you.

Yud a Hay Vav Hay. God's holy name is the sound of your every breath. Of course. Because that's how we were created: Genesis 2: 7the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. You are I are alive because we are vessels of Nishmat Hayim, God's breath of life. God is as close as your next breath as mysterious as the gift of life itself.

For Judaism, like most of Western culture, the controlling religious metaphor is vertical: religion is a matter of up and down. Ask any 3-year old where God lives and she'll tell you, "up in Heaven." God is up there. We're down here. Jacob sees a ladder extending into heaven with God at the top. Moses goes up the mountain to bring the Torah down.

We inherited this vertical metaphor from our ancestors of the ancient Near East. In all the ancient Near Eastern mythologies, reality begins in the cosmic victory of the sky god over the sea god. The revolution of monotheism swept away the many disparate gods, but maintained the vertical metaphor.

This vertical metaphor represents a sense of separation from God. It emphasizes transcendence: A God distant, far away, unreachable, unapproachable.

The corollary metaphor is the image of God as king: melech al kol ha-aretz. God is king above, we, His subjects below. God above commands, we down here obey. According to traditional Rabbinic Judaism, there exists the body of commandments mediating our access to the divine. Asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav. We perform mitzvoth to gain connection to God. The greater the distance we feel from God, the greater our impulse to fill the intervening space with religion. Until, at its worst, we end up with a religion so invested in all the mediating forms, one wonders if we've forgotten all about the God we set out to worship.

There is another metaphor. It's not new or radical or untraditional. It has existed alongside the vertical metaphor since the beginning of Judaism.

In addition to climbing mountains, our ancestors were known for digging wells. Think of God, not above, but within. Imagine the spiritual journey is not upward but inward, and God's transcendence not far up in the heavens, but deep within the unreachable depths of the human heart and mind.

In the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses, preparing now for his death, says to his children: [11Surely,] this Mitzvah (truth) which I teach you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 14No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to live it.

A God not far above, but deep within. When Abraham is commanded, lech lecha. The midrash understood this to mean more than the imperative: "Go from your father's house!" But lech lecha, go to your self, go into yourself to find the place of God. To truly know the self is to truly know God. That's the promise of Kabballah. And its deepest commitment: That the core of religion is the personal experience of God, the intimate knowledge of God. And the way to knowledge of God is to know the full truth of the self.

In the Torah's depiction, Moses goes up Mt Sinai, and the Voice of God, amidst the thunder and lightning, comes down from the heavens. In the Midrash, Moses is identified with Elijah. Like Moses, Elijah was a zealot for the one God and an outcast. And like Moses, Elijah finds himself seeking God on Mt Sinai. But he hears no commanding voice from above. The thunder, the lightning, the fire, the earthquake are all there, but God isn't in them. They're all distractions. After the storm and the quaking, Elijah finds God, in the Bible's remarkable phrase: kol dimama daka. In the delicate voice of silence. He finds God in the still silence of the soul.

According to the Midrash, when God spoke at Sinai, no one breathed. No bird chirped, no dog barked. The ocean ceased its roar and the wind its howl. Hasidic master, Reb Mendel Torem of Rizehn added that when God spoke on Sinai, God did not speak the words of Torah, not even the Ten Commandments. All God revealed was the first letter: the aleph, a silent letter. On Sinai, God revealed the Torah of silence. Sinai is not a place in the desert far away. Sinai is the place of stillness within.

The purpose of religion, the function of tradition and its commandments, is not to mediate access to God, not to fill the space between us and God, for there is no distance. The role of rituals and mitzvah is to open the way to the stillness within.

The Baal Shem Tov told a story of a king who was a master at creating illusion. He built a great castle made entirely of illusions. In each of the castle's chambers, the king placed illusory treasures: Bags of money; precious possessions of every kind; positions of power and prestige; celebrity, recognition and fame; sexual pleasures. Then he had proclaimed throughout the land and invitation to come and visit and stand before the king. People came to the castle. But one by one they gave up the opportunity to behold the king, and settled for the illusory treasures. Until, at last, the king's son came, and saw that it was all an illusion. He saw only his beloved father, the king in plain view, waiting for him.

To help us on our journey, past the obstacles and distractions we need a map. Kabballah is a tradition of maps. That's what we find down in the basement. Old maps. Treasure maps. But it's very important to know what your map shows. The Kabballah maps chart the journey inward: the way of the seeker into the truth of the human soul, and the way back to return to the world of everyday life with treasures of new wisdom.

They provide no magical shortcuts to success, to love, to happiness and wholeness. Red strings tied around the wrist may remind me that I belong to a community that cares for me, and that may give me strength to face the tragedies of my life. But red strings, even ones blessed by great rabbis, do not bring protection from catastrophe. Neither does water blessed by rabbis. Or scanning letters or books in languages we don't understand. Kabballah is indeed powerful. But its power is in guiding the journey of the seeker toward truth.

What will the inner journey disclose? What is the truth of the inward journey? What treasure does the map disclose?

At the end of the 19th century, lived a remarkable Hasidic master, Rabbi Arye Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe. The Gerrer lived in a world rapidly succumbing to modernity. On the last Pesach of his life, he wrote with great candor to his children and grandchildren the truth he had discovered:

The proclamation of oneness that we declare each day in saying, "Shema Yisrael, Hear, 0 Israel, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Ehad, God is One" really needs to be understood according to the holy writings of great kabbalists: The meaning of "Adonai is one" is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true!), but the meaning is deeper than that: There is nothing else but God. Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God Himself. It is only because of God's contraction [tsimtsum] that holiness descended rung after rung, until actual physical things were formed out of it. Because of this, every person can attach himself [to God] wherever he is, through the holiness that exists within every single thing, even corporeal things. A person in such a state lacks for nothing, for he can attach himself to God through whatever place he is. This is the foundation of all the mystical formulations in the world."

The simple message of all mysticism according to the Rebbe: There is only One. God is the Oneness of all. Ki Adonai hu eloheem, bashamayim meemal, uv'aretz mitachat, ein od. The last line of the Aleynu prayer, taken from the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy. Adonai is our God, in the heavens above and on the earth below there is no other. But the mystics read it more assertively: in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is nothing else but God. It's all God. All of reality is one. Therefore, God is accessible in all things, at all times. And all things at all times have the potential for holiness.

The multiplicity of being that see around us, is a lesser truth -- only the surface not the deep structure of reality. The sense of separateness that distances us from one another is an illusion. The task of spiritual life is to dispel the illusion, to recover the consciousness of oneness, and to live accordingly.

But you ask: If Oneness is the ultimate truth of the world, Why is it that we do not experience the world this way? Why do the separations and distinctions -- self and other, God and the world, good and evil, light and darkness -- seem so real? This is mysticism's greatest question. The joy of learning Kabballah is to watch how this is worked out. There are many answers.

According to the Midrash, the Torah begins with the letter Bet, because the shape of Bet is three-sided: Closed on top, below and behind, open forward. And so, the Midrash taught, it isn't for humans to know what's above or what's below -- we shouldn't ask what came before. Only look forward. Only deal with the world as it presents itself. That's Rabbinic Judaism. But the Kabballists disregarded this advice. To understand the world, they believed, and to cope with it, we have to open up the Bet: To look above, below and behind to find the secrets that explain our existence. The Hebrew word for ìworldî is Olam, which the Kabballists associate with root Alam, meaning ìconcealed.î Reality is all about what's concealed, what's hidden. And what's hidden? The Light.

The greatest of Kabballists was Isaac Luria, who lived in 16th century Tzfat, in Israel. Luria was the Mozart of the Jewish tradition. He arrived in Tzfat in 1569 at the age of 35. Wrote almost nothing down and died in 1572 at the age of 38. In only three years, he revolutionized the whole world of Kabballah.

Luria was a refugee, born in Egypt to parents exiled from Spain. His community of Tzfat Kabballists were also refugees who knew from bitter personal experience the taste of exile, of homelessness, and helplessness. In Luria's Kabballah, it's not just his community and the Jewish people who suffer exile. The universe suffers exile. God suffers exile.

Luria's Kabballah begins with God who is Ein Sof: An infinite God who fills all of reality. To create the world, God must withdraw and make space. Tzimtzum, the self-contraction of God is the first movement of creation. God withdrew into God's self, to create a zone of reality which is not-God. Into that zone, God projected a series of structures, structures that were to be the metaphysical foundations of our finite reality. But the structures were lifeless, motionless, cold. So into them God beamed a single ray of pure creative light.

But something went wrong. Some say that God loved the world so much, He released into the world too much energy. The energy overwhelmed the structures. And they exploded. The world began in a Big Bang. The structures shattered, filling reality with broken shards, each containing sparks of the original divine light, sparks concealed within the broken fragments. That's the world of our experience: a world of shattered pieces, shards, with jagged edges and sharp corners. Each concealing sparks of the divine light. And each yearning to be connected again with the source of all light.

We too reflect the brokenness of the universe. We too are broken vessels filled with divine light. We are timeless souls who live in time. Each human being a unique personality, unique in wisdom, humor, temperament, filled with God's light, living in bodies of such fragile material, vulnerable to time: to aging and decay, to disease and accident, to the contingency. We love each other, we give ourselves to one another, we wrap our arms and our souls about one another knowing well that we are destined to lose each other. And yet we are determined to love. Because in loving we repair ourselves, we make ourselves whole, we combine the light that's hidden in each of us, to let it shine brighter.

In the Kabballistic imagination God too suffers exile. In the great explosion that destroyed the wholeness of the world, God's wholeness is shattered as well and the Shechina, God's Presence, is separated off from the structure of divinity. Shechina, the Hebrew word for presence, is a noun in the feminine case. The Kabballists fastened upon this grammatical quirk as an opening to construct a new divine persona expressing the feminine side of God. In this, they open within Judaism a world of mythic imagination and poetry.

Who is the Shechina? According the Zohar, the 13th century masterpiece of Kabballah, she is the archtype mother, who accompanies her children into exile, who knows and feels their pain, who responds to their cries with soothing melody. For the Kabbalists of 16th Century Tzfat, The Shechina is the abandoned Bride miraculously reunited with her Bridegroom each Sabbath as a hint of the wholeness that lies latent in the world. So that each Friday night we sing the wedding song of Isaac Luria's student, Shlomo Alkabetz,

Lecha Dodi likrat Kallah, pnai Shabbat nikablah.
Come my beloved, to welcome the bride, to receive the presence of Sabbath.

For the 18th Century Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, the Shechina is the lost Princess, paragon of compassion, cut off from her Prince, the embodiment of power, and longing, yearning for reunion and redemption.

You don't just read Kabballah, you must feel it. Kabballah is the repository of the erotic in Judaism. (Interesting stuff down in this basement!). Kabballah is about longing, about loving, about passion, about the pain of separation, the bitterness of exile, and the joyful realization that light and the life and compassion lies concealed in the world. Isaac Luria left no discursive theological writing. But he did leave poetry.

Yedid nefesh av harachaman, 
Meshoch avdecha el retzoncha, 
Yarutz avdecha kmo ayal, 
Yishtachaveh el hadarecha 
Yerav lo yedidotecha, 
Minofet tzuf v'kol taam.

Soul mate, loving God, compassion's gentle source, 
Take my essence and shape it to Your will. 
Like the darting deer I rush to You, 
Before Your glorious presence I fall. 
Let Your sweet love delight me with its thrill, 
Because no other sweet dainty can quell my hunger.

The story is told of a Kabballist who achieved the highest level of contemplation and stood, open-eyed and fully aware in the highest of heavens, in the holy presence of God. As reward for his holiness and piety, God offers him immediate entry into eternity. Then God offers blessings for his wife and children. And just then it occurs to this Kabballist that he hasn't thought at all about his wife and kids. And he worries, what would happen to them if he didn't return from his mystical journey? As gracefully as he can, he excuses himself from this inner sanctum of the divine presence, and rushes home. As he enters his home, a voice on high proclaims that eternity is his whenever he's ready.

The inward journey is only a part of life. It was never meant to be the totality of life or a replacement for life.

The goal of life, according to the Kabbalists, is indeed to live in the light of God's presence, but in this world, engaged in the work of this life. According to the Zohar:

"God's only aim and object in sending the human being into this world is that he may know and understand: Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai the Ein Sof, [the Infinite Source of all Being,] is Elohaynu, the Shechina, [the loving Presence we encounter in our compassion for the world.] This is the sum of the whole mystery of faith, of the whole Torah. All that is above and below forms one unity."

The inward journey places a demand upon us: To return to the world of everyday experience and do Tikkun -- to become witnesses to the oneness, to recognize that everything in Creation is tied together into one dynamic divine ecology, to fit the broken pieces together and bring Oneness to reality in this world.

It is within the capacity of human beings to renew all of Creation "taught the Gerrer Rebbe, for God is the Creator, and we are God's image in this world. In this world, we are the instruments of God's creative power. The Gerrer taught: ìIn everything there is a living point from the Root of Life. But that light lies hidden in this world. The Jew can arouse and reveal the light that lies within all thingsÖ.Each person has to give light to the hidden point, which is as though in prison until we have the strength to light up all the world's darkness." God entrusts to human beings the task of returning the world back to Oneness.

Sounds impossible? According to an old mystical tradition, a moment before each of us was born into this world, an angel met us to take us on a journey. The angel shined forth a tiny ray of the original light of Creation, and with it showed us the entire universe of space and time. We saw the galaxies, the stars and their planets across the farthest reaches of the universe. We into the depths of our world even into the hidden secrets. We witnessed all of time, from the origins of all reality until the very end of time. We saw our ancestors, we experienced their struggles, their suffering, their joy and their triumph. And we saw how it's all one. One world. One God. One reality. We saw this with our own eyes. We knew this. But just a moment before we were born, the angel tapped up on the upper lip, and induced amnesia, and so each of us was born into the world crying from the coldness and pain of separation, the disjoining, the disconnection. And we cry still. If only we could remember: remember the light, the wholeness, the oneness. Maybe down in the basement there are enough reminders to help us regain the concealed memory.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780