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Kabbalah: A Judaism That Can Surprise Us

03/13/2018 05:42:25 PM


Rabbi Benjamin Shalva is a rabbi, writer, yoga instructor, meditation teacher, and musician. Rabbi Shalva's Experiential Kabbalah class at the Soul Center will help you find inspiration in everyday life. In advance of his final Experiential Kabbalah class (happening on March 20th), Rabbi Shalva shared some insights about Kabbalah, its history, and usefulness in everyday life.

  1. What is Kabbalah?

    Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism - the philosophy, and practice aimed at understanding the secret meaning of the universe. It refers to a body of text that spans over 2,000 years and includes many different teachers, schools of thoughts and movements. All of this is under the umbrella of mysticism and Jewish mystical practice. If someone is studying or exploring Kabbalah, it could mean they're reading books, ideas, and philosophy about Jewish mysticism or practicing Kabbalah through meditation or prayer practices aimed at experiencing the secret meaning behind creation. 
  2. Another name for Kabbalah is Torat HaSod, which means “the teaching of a secret.” What's so secretive about Kabbalah?

    For a long time, the actual Kabbalistic teachings themselves were secret. There were fraternities of Kabbalists, and it was tough for outsiders to access these enclaves of mystic practitioners. You couldn't just show up and practice. To get in the door, you would have to demonstrate a level of understanding, knowledge, sophistication, and dedication. Today, Kabbalistic concepts are widespread and accepted by mainstream Jewish communities. The beautiful irony is that just because you study Kabbalah, doesn't mean you truly believe in the ideas. That's where we move from study to practice: someone can learn for decades and still not have realized Kabbalah because the wisdom has stayed entirely cerebral. What I focus on is how can we take these practices, which are not so secret anymore, but get to the secret root. 

  3. Do you need to be Jewish to study Kabbalah? How is Kabbalah related to “mainstream” Judaism?  

    Every religion I've explored has a mystic aspect or discipline. Very similar to Judaism, there are Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim mystics who aim to uncover the secret meaning of their respective religious practices. Mysticism takes normative spiritual practice, unpacks it, and peels away the layers to see what's at heart. 

    The Code of Jewish Law stipulates that a Jew is supposed to pray three times a day. So, saying specific prayers at specific times of the day has become a normative Jewish practice. A Kabbalist will take Jewish traditions and explore the hidden aspects of these prayers to uncover secret meanings and deeper significance. For example, a Kabbalist might chant one word, of one prayer, over and over again, to get into a trance-like state or walk deep in the woods at midnight to meditate on one line, of one prayer. Kabbalists take mainstream Judaism and mess with it - expanding, contracting, adding to it, and twisting it in different ways to shed light on it. 

    Kabbalists frequently expose a universal marrow of religious practice. That does not mean what Kabbalah fails to incorporate Jewish teaching and practice. But when you get down to it, Kabbalah makes mainstream Jewish practices feel and sound more universal. 

  4. How can the study and practice of Kabbalah help everyday people? 

    Kabbalah is wonderful at providing helpful frameworks that you can use to make sense of and take meaning from daily experiences.

    One framework is the Four Worlds, which teaches that we live not in one world, but in four simultaneously: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. These worlds influence and affect each other - all the time. Our actions in one of the four worlds create reverberations that shape our experiences in the other worlds - all the time. Meditating on the Four Worlds enables us to become more mindful. Let's say your friend tells you some bad news. In the physical world, you might observe reactions like increased heart rate and a tightened jaw. In the emotional world, you might notice feelings of panic, anxiety, or anger. Intellectually you would become conscious of your mind racing with ideas and opinions. And, after becoming aware of the reverberations of the physical, emotional, and intellectual worlds, you would experience the calming sensation of being in deep, still water; that is the soul grounding itself in the spiritual world.

    In this way, Kabbalah takes apart the psyche and helps us understand what's going on inside of us as we move through life. Kabbalah gives us perspective. In time, Kaballah empowers us to perceive each moment - from the mundane to the most significant - within the larger context of our growth and development as human beings over the scope of our lifetime. 

  5. Throughout the 2000s Kabbalah moved to the forefront of popular culture, as celebrities began to study. They approached Kabbalah as a “new-age self-help” practice, but that seems at odds with Kabbalistic tradition. What is the danger in misinterpreting or misunderstanding its teachings? How is Kabbalah intended to be studied?

    Kabbalistic practices are metaphysical. They point at the invisible structures and scaffolding of the universe. That is very ethereal, theoretical territory. For some people, that's the wrong place to go. Kabbalah can destabilize one's mental state if they are already in a fragile place. Traditionally, you weren't supposed to study Kabbalah until you were 40, which is to say, your life was well established in solid, rhythmic productivity. Before exploring mystical philosophy and deep existential questions about the nature of life and the universe, it's first necessary to be grounded in reality. Normative, mainstream Jewish practice helps ground us. I would counsel someone who wants to begin exploring Kabbalah to light candles on Shabbat or try keeping kosher with a mindful eating practice. Similarly, if you're single then start dating, if you're unemployed then find a job. Kabbalah encourages us to plant meaningful roots in reality before beginning to deconstruct that reality.

  6. Right, there's a need to balance reality with the metaphysical. Being productive in one's career is one way to stay grounded, but in your book “Ambition Addiction,” you mention that achievement does not always lead to fulfillment. Given the blind ambition which permeates our contemporary culture, how does Kabbalah fit into the modern world?

    Kabbalah is such a powerful antidote to the crazy culture of work-worship. 

    It's easy to become destabilized with your head in the clouds. But it's also just as easy for one's mundane reality to take over and become their only reality. Often, the problem isn't that people get lost in the ethereal questions of life and death, but that they've become so grounded in reality that they forget there's anything else. Yes, it's important to have your feet on the ground, but people become gritty worker bees and forget they have wings. In American society that's a huge issue. Kabbalah says the world we take in through our senses is just one of four worlds. Let's say that your only ambition in life is related to the acquisition of awards, accomplishments, money, power, and prestige. You've confined yourself to the physical world and neglected the intellectual and spiritual worlds. 

    How can you grow there? What about your spiritual ambitions? How can you deepen your life and make a difference? 

    Kabbalah teaches us to balance between the physical and ethereal realities - what we see and what we don't. 

  7. What's one take-home message you'd like people to understand about Kabbalah? 

    The general predisposition many of us have to Jewish life is that it's an intense, serious, body of practice and literature. It's ritual, big sanctuaries with big voices and big prayer books - it's intense. Kabbalah feels like a beautiful dance. When it comes to the study of Kabbalah it's important to be lighthearted and joyful, then see how that opens up your life. Exploring Kabbalah is great for people who are looking for a Judaism that can surprise them and help them feel that life is an adventure. 

Don't miss Rabbi Shalva's final two Experiential Kabbalah classes happening on Thursday, March 15th and Tuesday, March 20th. Please visit the Soul Center's website to register for Experiential Kabbalah. To learn more about Rabbi Benjamin Shalva, his teachings, and published work, please visit his website


Sat, July 24 2021 15 Av 5781