Kabbalah and Kabbalist Meditation
Aspects and techniques found in one of the oldest esoteric secret societies, Kabbalah. This deep mysticism originating in the oral traditions of the Jews has traveled the world over. Kabbalah has seen many changes and many interpretations from the first signs (written history) of Kabbalah to today. I will discuss some of the views of kabballah origins, the ways in which people have, and are currently practicing kabballah and some similarities between kabballah spiritual practices and those of the far east. However, to begin on this journey I will need to lay a small foundation through which to observe the kabbalah from - with a summary of the Jewish faith.
It is difficult to find a single definition for a Jew. A Jew is one who accepts the faith of Judaism. That is the religious definition. Professor Mordecai M. Kaplan, of the Jewish theologian seminary, calls Judaism "a civilization" and describes the Jews as a cultural group, primarily religious, but not exclusively so, linked together by a common history, a common language of prayer, a vast literature, folkways , and above all, a sense of common destiny ( Kertzer, 3).
The Jews were a group of nomads in the area we now socially refer to as the middle east. The Jews claim the start of their religious history to go back to a patriarchal leader by the name of Abraham approximately 6000 years ago. The history of the Jewish people and their faith was passed down for thousands of years orally (as were many ancient customs) until with the advent of writing the oral traditions that make up the Torah were scrolled out on scrolls in the language of the Jewish people - Hebrew. Many Jews believe that these writings, called the Torah or Pentateuch, were penned by their prophet Moses, directly from the word of God on Moses's trip to Sinai, on the same trip Jews believe Moses received the ten commandments. (also many sects of Jews believe that on this trip Moses received the oral law of the kabbalah, but, we will come to that later). These oral traditions - the Torah - make up the trunk, the heart of what Judaism rests upon. What the Jewish faith finds its base in. Today there are five major sects of Judaism: 1) Reconstructionist 2) Reform 3) Conservative 4) Orthodox 5) Hassidic.
The Orthodox tend to see the Torah as "word for word" of God and try to follow all rules within this religious text to the best of their ability - where as the reconstructionists tend to see the Torah as a work of man - listing laws and philosophies laid down by wise men and teachers. Some reconstructionists don't hold a belief in god or a belief in prophetic vision. And there is a wide range of belief between these two extremes. Two strands that hold true through all of the sects are the Torah (in many different capacities) and the oneness of the eternal. The major tenant of the Jewish faith is the line "Pay attention people of Israel the Lord our God, God is one" (Duteronomy 6 v4-9). (To the Jewish atheists and agnostics this is often expressed through a view of mankind as one or the energy of the universe as one.)
Many Jewish off shoots have also developed (some more recent then others) One off shoot of the Jewish faith came some two thousand years ago when a group of Jews proclaimed their rabbi to be the messiah (the bringer of the end of time). This group is now called Christianity and has also broken into many sects ranging from roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodox to Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, and Unitarian Universalism. Some of the more recent off shoots of these two faiths include the messianic Jews (or Jews for Jesus) and the plethora of new age religions.
Members of all of these religions (not to mention Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist) have found great significance and conjectured on personal origins through the Jewish oral traditions and esoteric kabbalah.
In the beginning kabballa was basically a Jewish system, an esoteric or secret tradition for most of history. Kabbala was a oral tradition passed on from master to student. The history of kabbalah is hard to figure out. (Dr. Holt, 99) Some say that Adam (from the Jewish creation story) was taught kabballa ( kabballa translates to "handed down by tradition") by an angle after he was kicked out of the garden of Eden. Another legend is that of the patriarch Abraham as the first kabbalist. And one of the most detailed stories is that of Moses bringing the kabbalah down from Mt. Sinai then, after seeing the people Israel's idols and knowing that they were not far enough along (spiritually) to receive the kabbalah , he destroyed it.. Moses returned , then, to his people with only the laws (10 commandments /Torah). Only Aaron (Moses's brother) was allowed to know the kabballa and Aaron chose to teach it to his deciples.
There are many more histories and stories but the heavy historical evidence starts to appear in written form in the late twelfth early thirteenth century in Spain. (There is some light reference to kabbalah meditation in the Talmud - written between the first and seventh centuries)
During this time period a number of kabbalists began to teach the secret methods openly. One of the first writings on the kabbalah was the Bahir written by rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1295). Most kabbalists consider his methods to be authentic and based on a reliable tradition. (Kaplan,8). Almost all of the kabbalistic writings of this century were eclipsed by the publication of the Zohar in the middle of the 1290's. Scholars believe the Zohar was written by the Spanish rabbi Moshe de Leon.
The Zohar became the central text for the study of kabbalah. Even though the printing of the Zohar allowed a higher number of people to read the esoteric text, it was still secret and secluded to those without a high understanding of Hebrew text and language. For over two hundred years the study of kabbalah consisted mainly of the Zohar. In the early fifteen hundreds (1516) the texts were re examined and written into Latin for the non Hebrew effluents and the non Jewish westerners . This caused the translators to be shunned by many circles. In 1517 (one year later) a Christian mystic wrote a book and stated that the kabbalah was Christian mysticism in disguise & told the Pope not to interfere with the Jewish kabbalists in the Spanish inquisition.
Many different schools of kabbalah formed out of these three major writings. From the Christian mystics work we start to see a unique form of Christian kabbalah form. The Christian kabbalah brings in Tero cards (22 major arcana, 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet - coincidence?), Egyptian gods, Celtic gods and other mystic origins. The Christian kabbalah really starts to form during the European renaissance surrounded by alchemy, astrology and mysticism. "Kabbala was a safe way for priests and aristocrats to dabble in the occult" (Holt,99) Hebrew kabbalists never gave much attention to the westerners tero cards, possibly because of the Jews oversion to images.
Half way through this century Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 -1572) who was often referred to as the Ari , began to heavily study the Zohar and showed how the various letter combinations in the zohar were used as meditative devices. Although the Ari wrote nothing himself his deciples wrote huge volumes of texts on his teachings. "Just as the Zohar had overshadowed everything when it was published, so did the writings of the Ari overwhelm the other schools three centuries later." (Kaplan, 8)
Prior to these major works, one had to find a master in order to study kabbalah and a master didn't tend to find you an acceptable student unless you were over forty years of age, male and married. Plus spiritually sound. Spiritually sound includes years of Torah study, Talmud study and a deep understanding of folk lore and prophetic history alike. Also many schools of kabbalah placed limitations on how many deciples any one master may have. Needless to say it was more difficult in the past to become an active Jewish mystic.
Since the fifteen hundreds however, hundreds of other books on kabbalah have been written. All by individuals with different years of kabbalist training and by different masters - some after primarily personal study and some of mixed discipline backgrounds.
"Kabbala Goes Mainstream" Screams the headline of the November 1999 Jewish report Magazine. hundreds of thousands of Jews are starting to practice kabbalah in Israel and all over the world. "Only in the last decade has kabbalah become a force in Israel. A generation ago, a few Hasidism and Sephardi scholars were virtually the last remnant of Jewish mysticism" (TJR,14) "In the past five years, enrollment in kabbalah classes at Hebrew university has tripled" Says Melilah Helner , who teaches courses on Zohar there. so what is it that is bringing people to Jewish mysticism. Some say it is the possibility of actually experiencing the divine. Some say that it is the hope of finding a oneness and peace in humanity. Prof. Danny Matt, a scholar recently commissioned to do the first complete English translation of the Zohar states "It (kabbalah) emphasizes that God is the infinite one, the one that cannot be named. It gives man a role and responsibility in the whole cosmic drama. And it brings back to Judaism - which without kabbalah, is so patriarchal - the feminine aspect of god, the shekhinah." (TJR,17)
Modern Jews and gentiles are not only finding religion and spirituality in Judaism, many are also finding truths of science and reality. Many Kabbalistic scholars believe that modern physics and science are only starting to figure out things that are laid out in the texts of the kabbalah, including kabbalistic references to the big bang and relativity.
Moshe Schatz a modern kabbalah scholar Stated "Kabbalah teaches us not to reject anything. We can integrate the insights not only of science but of Buddhism, Hinduism, and all human knowledge." Schatz went on to say "I can tell you for sure that some of the gurus in India are teaching very high Kabbala" (NJR,17)
There are some kabbalist teaching which point to a section of the Torah in which Abraham sends some of his sons to the east. These kabbalists state that the sons of the Jewish patriarch took the ideas of the kabbalah to the east with them some five to six thousand years ago.
One major difference between most eastern religions and most kabbalist traditions is that within kabbalah you are taught to study and follow the traditions within society. Meditate and study within the social construct of your group.
As I have sat here for the past hours , I have found that kabbalah fights a singular definition. It draws on hundreds of works from thousands of practitioners over handfuls of different faiths and mentalities, with dozens of different beginnings and ends though out hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. "Kabbalah is still a secret teaching with many of the major works encoded so that only "true desciples" would understand its meanings. With out a deep understanding of the culture, language and teaching of the Jewish people and the middle east, you will not even have a clue ( as to the study of kabbalah) " (Jim Kirkwood, 99)
Below are ten "Handy Dandy" (Holt) Steps to understanding the Kabbalah.
"1) Zohar: Kabbalah's central text, an account of the wanderings of rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and his disciples. Scholars believe it was written by 13th century Spanish rabbi Moshe de Leon
2) Tikkunei Hazohar: A companion work, presenting 70 reflections on the words "In the beginning He created."
3) Infinite Light: Filled all existence before Creation. God withdrew His light to make room for other beings, a contradiction called Tzimtzum.
4) Sefirot: Ten qualities from which the world is composed. The sefirot are both divine light, and the vessels holding it. The sefirot are usually called Crown, Wisdom, Understanding, Love, Power, Beauty, Eternity, Splendor, Foundation, Kingdom.
5) Breaking of the vessels: after Tzimtzum, God poured light back into the world through 10 vessels; the seven lower ones shattered; divine sparks "fell" into reality. The process explains evil and our fragmented world.
6) Berur Tikkun: Our task as human beings is to rescue the divine sparks from darkness (berur) and strengthen the human and cosmic vessels (tikkun) so they can hold light without shattering. when the process is complete, the messianic age will arrive.
7) Kavanot: Kabbalistic meditations that accompany prayer and performing commandments. Through kavanot, human beings can participate in bringing the flow of divine light into the world.
8) Soul and Body: Kabbalists believe in reincarnation, and in physical resurrection at history's end: the body, like the soul, is eternally perfected.
9) Ecstatic kabbalah: most of these terms come from "theosophical" kabbalah. Ecstatic Kabbala focuses on reaching God directly, through meditation and prayer, Hasidism fused both.
10) Practical Kabbalah: Asserts that by manipulating names of God, invoking angles and writing amulets, reality can be effected. Looked down upon by serious kabbalists, "practical kabbalists" can be found all over Israel today. " - (YJR,13)
Kabbala is full of thoughts , transcending and images. Saturated with practices and images which are to be imagined and cannot (so I am told) be explained in language.
In my next section I will talk about some of the deeper, spiritual aspects of kabbalah ... I will try to point a flashlight at the unexplainable the inexpressible so as to maybe catch an image of the shadow of kabbalah.
A thirteenth century Jewish mystic was approached by a deciple who wished to learn the art of hitbodedut, or meditation.
"Are you in the condition of perfect equilibrium?" asked the master.
"I think so, " Said the deciple, who had prayed religiously and practiced good deeds.
"When someone insults you, do you still feel injured? When you receive praise, does your heart expand with pleasure?"
The would be deciple thought for a moment and replied somewhat sheepishly: "Yes, I suppose I do feel hurt when insulted and proud when praised."
"Well then, go out and practice detachment from worldly pain and pleasure for a few more years. Then come back and I will teach you how to meditate." (Handout, Holt ,99)
I am told by Jews that this disciple didn't have to go out and live in a cave in the desert to find seclusion and learn how to live a detached life. He only had to learn to live a religious life. How to be detached from pride and grief could all be found in a prescribed Jewish life. The way he could find this detachment was through love of his daily prayers and in his joy of the ordinary. He could discover the sensations found in eating and sleeping and making love. He could find out outward instances that could add to his world without clouding his vision or distracting him from other tasks.
Many Kabbalists believe to learn Jewish Kabbalah, specifically kabbalah meditation (as mentioned previously) one should have a deep understanding of Judaism, its history, it's writings, its scholars and it's practices. Plus one should have lived a fulfilled insightful life. Again why many were not allowed to study kabbalah until they were 40 +.
One of the problems I am going to have in discussing meditative processes has plagued many modern English writers of this subject. There is only a limited vocabulary in English within which to discuss meditation, So I am going to have to borrow words from the east, words such as "mantra" and "mandalla." I use these not to imply that there is any connection between the meditative practices in kabbalah and those of the far east, but because they are terms that are familiar to the average westerner and make this paper more readable.
A lot of people .... including myself, are surprised to hear that Jews and kabbalists have a structured meditative system, and that it "......at least in its outward manifestations, resembles some of the eastern systems." (Kaplan,3). The resemblance between the Kabbala and the east is noted in "...the Zohar , which recognized the merit of the eastern systems but warned against their use" (Kaplan,3)
Aryeh Kaplan in his book "Meditation and Kabbalah" goes on to say "The fact that different systems resemble each other is only a reflection on the veracity of the technique, which is primarily one of spiritual liberation. The fact that other religions make use of it is of no more consequence then the fact that they also engage in prayer and worship. This does not make Jewish worship and prayer any less meaningful or unique, and the same is true of meditation. It is basically a technique for releasing oneself from the bonds of one's physical nature Where one goes from there depends very much on the system used." (Kaplan,3)
The word meditation first appears in kabbalistic works in the 1300's. Meditation referred to the concentrating on supernatural lights of the divine world and the spiritual world in general. Hitbedut is the word most commonly used by commentators , philosophers and kabbalists to denote meditation in Hebrew.
The word Hitbedut is derived from the word Badad - which means "to be secluded". Some times this means a seclusion of mind from the physical world and common tasks, at other times it is referred to quite literally as a seclusion of all things - from all things. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) considered by some to be one of times greatest kabbalists stated "One must seclude himself in his thoughts to the ultimate degree." Vital went on to say " The more one separates himself from the physical, the greater will be his enlightenment."
Kabbalists didn't make a distinction between the words contemplation and meditation as is often prevalent in Christian mysticism. However, there are great differences between the meditative techniques employed by the Jewish kabbalists and the Christian mystics.
"The difference between the Christian and kabbalistic doctrines of meditation resides in the fact that in Christian mysticism a pictorial and concrete subject, such as the suffering of Christ and all that pertains to it, is given to the mediator, while in kabbalah, the subject given is abstract and cannot be visualized, such as the tetragrammaton (tree of life) and its combinations." (Scholem,371)
Jewish kabbalists meditate on ideas, on letters of the Hebrew alphabet, on holy names and words. One of the most prevalent areas of meditation is based around the ten sefirot. "The concentration on the word of the sefirot is not bound up with visions, but is solely a matter for the intellect prepared to ascend from level to level and to meditate on the qualities unique to each level" (Scholem, 370)
There is a Jewish folklore of a man who walks into temple for Saturday morning service. Everyone else is chanting A more traditional Jewish tree of life and praying, bowing and singing. Where as, he just sat on the back row and read off the letters of the alphabet one by one... unstopping until he reached the last letter then he would start over. The letters came out with different amounts of intensity through the service and with different volume. Several of the congregates were confused. Why was this man sitting in the back reading off the letters? So they went to the rabbi. The rabbi didn't know this man so after service the following week he asked "Why do you chant off all of the letters?"
"I don't know how to read Hebrew" Said the Jew "I went to religious school and all I was taught were the letters, so I was hoping that God would put them together in the right way for me."
And the rabbi returned to the congregation and said "That is the most religious man I have ever met"
Many Kabbalists believe that the letters have power, as well as ones actions and desires, hopes, wishes and meanings. Judaism believes that God knows your intent and some forms of meditation say that through proper meditation with proper intent you can see aspects of the divine.
There are Hebrew kabbalistic Breathing exercises. Chanting of words and letters, silent and aloud. Mixing of letters and rearranging of power words (though that is often shunned by the higher orthodox kabbalists) repeated over and over like a mantra. Many times a meditative experience starts with focusing on one point or one color , a feeling or an emotion. I have read of meditations that originate with the concentration on a mondalla, a formless image.
Many meditations take place before and after prayer, as a way to prepare one for prayer and then, after, to contemplate on the eternal. With three prayers a day and an hour before and after each prayer that comes out to a hefty nine hours a day!.
Sadly I am not well enough versed in Jewish tradition nor do I read fluent Hebrew, and sadly I am under forty , under thirty, slightly over twenty. I cannot share any of the deep meditative practices from discussion (I have no one to ask) , observation or personal experience. But, I have found a few modern "beginner" meditations located in three books printed in English and two new age web pages. So I will share a few of those.
1) There are 22 letters in the Heb A tree of life from the Christian kabbalah tradition rew alphabet and three of them are referred to as mother letters, where as the sounds of all of the other letters can be derived from these three. The three are shin , mem and alef. Shin makes the shhhhhhh sound, this sound can be heard by listening to the static on your radio or tv. It is a disjointed sound which creates a disjointed speratic wave length. The next is the letter mem which can be pronounced Mmmmmmmmm. This letter has a distinct wave length and can be seen if recorded. The last is the alef, the alef holds an empty sound and is soundless. It takes on whatever sound is placed with it (kind of like tofu when used in cooking). A nice beginning meditation includes going through these sounds .... either internally or aloud. Just let the sound exist, clear your mind and think of the sounds, experience them as you alternate from one to the other in a cycle. Do not try to find meaning in the sounds just let them resonate through your body. Alternate from one to the other so that you may keep control of the experience. Of course if you are making the sounds orally you will also have to allow breath flow in-between each round of sound. After you are comfortable with this try to contemplate the sentence from the bible "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." Continue the mantra and allow the world to exist without distracting you.
2) There is a well know Hebrew word that contains all of the information stated in 1 - Shalom. It incorporates the "Shhhh" and the "Ommmm". Interestingly, the "Om" sound is found within this ancient Hebrew word meaning peace, wholeness, greeting and farewell.
In chanting or orally meditating upon this word you begin with the "shhhh" sound and then blend in the "Mmmmm" sound. Kabbalists teach that we must not enter into the Mmmmm level immediately but just touch it and then come back to it.
You can adjust to our own preferences the length of the Shhhh and the "Mmmm" sounds. They do not have to be of equal length
Some believe that this exercise goes all the way back to the book of Ezekiel, where there is an allusion to a "running back and forth". Historically kabbalist have viewed this phrase as referring to methods of meditation like this one.
3) I scanned in some word meditations from (Kaplin, 90-91) they can be seen below.
In conclusion I would like to state that this paper was one of my larger endeavors I have undertaken under university conditions. And yet, I am still only scratching the surface of kaballah. There is so much more information I want to impart but couldn't find room for under this context. Kabbalah is a study that I could make, that could take many years.... maybe more years then one man has. Hundreds of scholars for hundreds maybe thousands of years, with more and more popularity in the modern works. People of my generation are reaching out for spirituality, trying to find something to grab on to , hold on to in this ever changing world of technology and speed. Kabbalah gives one a hope , a hope for the possibility or answering "tough" questions and maybe a chance at touching the infinite. Is Kabbalah just "the opium of the masses"? I don't know. Maybe it needs more study, rather than just a taste.
P.S. For your safety never meditate while driving or operating dangerous heavy machinery.
Dr. Ron Holt
Magic, Shamanism and Religion
Weber State University Fall 1999
Paul W. Draper
The Jerusalem Report Magazine November 8, 1999 Headline: Kabbalah Goes Mainstream
Kabbalah By Gershom Scholem Pub. The Penguin Group 1978
What is a Jew By Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer Pub. Macmillan Publishing Company 1978
Path of the Kabbalah By David Sheinkin, M.D. Pub. Paragon House Publishers 1986
Meditation and Kabbalah By Ayea Kaplan Pub. Samuel Weiser 1985
Dr. Ron Holt lecture Weber State University Anthropology 3900 Fall 1999
Several Handouts from Anthro3900
Phone interview with Jim Kirkwood December 1999
Several web pages found through Yahoo by typing in "Kabbalah Meditation" and "Kabbalah" Including: http://kavannah.org/meditation.html and www.goldendawn.org