Whether Jewish of non-Jewish, people everywhere have developed a fascination, even an obsession, with Jewish mysticism what has colloquially become known as Kabbalah. In popular usage, the term is something of a misnomer. Kabbalah, literally reception actually refers to the national revelation at Sinai 3320 years ago when the Jewish people received the Torah in its entirety, both Written and Oral, as given over by the Almighty to His servant Moses.
The Torah communicates the divine word on four distinct levels of meaning. The first is the simple level, or p'shat, which refers to the most basic interpretation of the words: the letter of the law, the events of history, and the moral ideals that make Judaism a way of life rather than merely a religion. The second level is called remez, or allegorical understanding, through which the Torah teaches the deeper philosophical underpinnings of spirituality.
The third level is called drush; this refers to the analytical or exegetical process of deducing the subtleties and nuances of Jewish law and practice through the scholarly examination of textual anomalies all according to a process of deduction taught to Moses at Sinai.
The final level is called sod (pronounced with a long "o"). This is the level of the secret, or mystical, teachings of Torah, relating to the nature of higher worlds and divine emissaries, ritual purity, and the afterlife. Such is the depth of these mystical secrets that, according to tradition, one who attempts to plumb their depths without sufficient grounding in the first three levels risks blinding his mind's eye by exposure to the unfiltered radiance of divine light. The Talmud records cases of sages who revealed mysteries too profound and drove themselves insane.
Despite these dangers, for centuries the attraction of spiritual clarity and proximity to the divine has drawn scholars and laymen to the study of Jewish mysticism. This is what we call Kabbalah. And, according to Talmudic teachings, the origins of kabbalistic teachings as they have been handed down provide a story as tantalizing as the mystical secrets themselves.
THE BEGINNINGS OF A NEW REVELATION
During the height of the Roman oppression in the second century CE, it happened that the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai overheard another scholar praising the works of the Romans. Rabbi Shimon replied with indignation: "Anything they have done was only for their own benefit. They have constructed roads only to send harlots into them, bath houses only for their own indulgence, and bridges only to exact tolls." When the Romans learned of Rabbi Shimon's criticisms, they sentenced him to death.
Rabbi Shimon fled with his son, Rabbi Elazar, into the wilderness. For twelve years they hid in a cave, sustained only by a spring and a carob tree, both of which sprang miraculously from the earth. With no distractions from the outside world, they delved deeper and deeper into the secrets of the Torah, ultimately uncovering the profound mystical insights recorded a thousand years later in the Zohar, the kabbalistic Book of Splendor.
At the end of the twelve years, Rabbi Shimon learned that the Romans had annulled the decree against him. However, when Rabbi Shimon and his son emerged from the cave and returned to civilization, they were aghast to discover that Jews were engaged, not in the study of Torah, but in such mundane activities and plowing and harvesting. Incensed by this lack of devotion to Torah, each of them caused the earth to burst into flames wherever he directed his gaze.
"Have you come out to destroy My world?" asked a heavenly voice. "Go back into the cave." After a year, they emerged once again. This time, although the gaze of Rabbi Elazar set fire to the land, the gaze of Rabbi Shimon healed all the damage. "It is enough, my son," said Rabbi Shimon, "that you and I learn Torah." And so the two of them returned to live among their community.
During their 12 years in the cave, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar had developed such an intense passion for Torah study that they could neither understand nor tolerate any Jew capable of devoting even an instant to any other activity. In such a state of mind, they could not function as members of Jewish society. They needed even more time to learn how to maintain their lofty spiritual level while living among Jews who had to strike a more pragmatic balance between the spiritual and the material.
TWO PATHS TO A SPIRITUAL LIFE
What Rabbi Shimon came to understand during his final year in the cave was that every Jew serves the Almighty in differently: some as farmers observing the laws of agriculture, some as merchants observing the laws of business, some through Torah study itself, and most through a combination of different ways. At the level that Rabbi Shimon and his son had attained, they at first found it incomprehensible that anyone could squander time on material pursuits, even within the context of Torah observance. But it is not possible, nor even desirable, for every Jew to aspire to become a Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In the end, Rabbi Shimon came to appreciate that every Jew can fulfill his own unique potential by serving G-d according to his own abilities and his own temperament.
This, however, did not temper Rabbi Shimon's own approach, and he guided his Talmudic academy according to his ideal of Torah bli derech eretz Torah with no worldly involvement. According to Rabbi Shimon's philosophy, any scholar possessing a combination of Talmudic brilliance, academic diligence, and absolute faith in the Almighty could commit himself to total immersion in Torah study and count on G-d to sustain him through the mysterious ways of divine providence.
Many tried and failed to follow the path of Rabbi Shimon. Those who did not succeed (along with those not inclined to try) became disciples of Rabbi Yishmoel, whose guiding philosophy was Torah im derech eretz Torah together with worldly involvement. These two academies were not in competition; rather, by providing the opportunity for different individuals to study and develop according to their own individual natures, they collaborated in producing a new generation of Torah scholars, diverse in style but united in their passion and commitment.
For over a thousand years, the mystical traditions uncovered by Rabbi Shimon and his son were handed down orally, from teacher to student. Parts of the tradition may have been written down, but these writings were kept secret and guarded carefully, ensuring that only those scholars with sufficient intellectual, moral, and spiritual capacity would become custodians of the secret discipline. Over time, however, as scholars could no longer retain mastery over such profound and complex teachings, the time arrived for the Kabbalah to be set down in writing.
Around the year 1300, it is believed that the Spanish kabbalist Moshe de Leon began circulating the first complete text of the Zohar, although the actual source of his manuscript remains uncertain. However, the Zohar became widely disseminated only with the publication of the Mantua and Cremona edition, on the 20th day of the month of Av in 1558 CE.
The popularizing of Kabbalah has been a double-edged sword. Christian scholars cited it either as proof of Jewish heresy or proof of Christian doctrinal authenticity. As with so many jewels of great value, overexposure cheapened the priceless teachings of Rabbi Shimon in the eyes of many, while rabbinic leaders feared the consequences of its misinterpretation and misuse.
In our times, evidence of their fears is obvious, as pop-Kabbalah centers run by charlatans portray Kabbalah as little better than hocus-pocus. However, those who sincerely seek the hidden wisdom of the divine word can find it if they have the discipline to do what is necessary to succeed: acquire knowledge of the revealed word first, and cultivate the discerning judgment to find authentic teachers.