OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

Is the Kabbalah for mystics or for everyone?

Mysticism and the meaning of life.

A 1558 edition of the Book of the Zohar. Source: public domain
A 1558 edition of the Book of the Zohar. Source: public domain
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Tuesday was Lag B’Omer. The day has much more depth than just the traditional bonfires scattered across the land. It is considered nothing less than the anniversary of the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is interred in Meron and whose yahrzeit falls on Lag B’Omer, is credited with being the father of the Kabbalah. Though some dispute it, tradition has it that he is the author of the holy Zohar, the “Bible of Kabbalah.”

Years ago, when I introduced a lecture series on “Kosher Kabbalah” in my shul, I was challenged by some who considered it forbidden and dangerous to share with the masses. After all, in the past, it was held that one should not study Kabbalah until over age 40 and steeped in classical Torah knowledge.

This is true and I did not dispute it. But my classes could be described as more of an Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, rather than pure, unadulterated Kabbalah. I fervently believe that every Jew is entitled and, indeed, obligated to understand the basics of Jewish metaphysics, i.e. that there is more to this world than what meets the eye.

To live a spiritually meaningful life requires us to be able to see beyond the superficial and appreciate that the material world we observe is only one side of the coin. There is a spiritual underpinning to everything physical, whether it is visible or not. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” pretty much sums up our world. It is both heaven and earth. There are spiritual and physical realms to the entire universe and everything in it.

While it is true that too much Kabbalah can lead to a spiritual overdose and prove dangerous, too little Kabbalah can lead to a life of emptiness and a world that is shallow and superficial.

Yes, the Talmud in Chagigah does tell the story of the four great sages who “entered the Orchard,” a euphemism for having pierced the veneer of this world and entered the secret chambers of the spiritual realm. The results were devastating and tragic: “Ben Azzai gazed and lost his life. Ben Zoma lost his mind and Elisha ben Avuyah lost his faith. Only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and emerged in peace.”

But my Kabbalah classes were nowhere near as powerful or profound as the Talmudic sages’ otherworldly experience. It was a basic primer that was quite kosher and, in my humble opinion, very necessary.

As dangerous as piercing the secret veil may be, having no insight into or appreciation of Jewish spirituality can be equally dangerous. How many millions of young Jews have found little meaning or satisfaction in their synagogues and temples? Finding it to be cold, empty ritual devoid of any flavor, depth, or inner meaning, they gave Judaism a failing mark; and too many wander off to the East seeking some spirituality to nurture the craving in their empty souls.

A Bar Mitzvah portion memorized by rote, never to be repeated, leaves our initiates unmoved and unimpressed. Then, when they discover the depths of a spiritual life in the Far East it is only natural to embrace Buddhism and Hinduism or other -isms that offer a deeper meaning to life than what the average Jewish day school syllabus delivers.

A Jewish soul genuinely seeks authenticity. There is a conscious, and often sub-conscious, need and desire for truth, and for a deeper meaning to life. You don’t have to be a philosopher to want more from life than a double burger and fries, a good game of golf, beautiful nails or even making a good living. Sooner or later, at some stage, every thinking human being realizes there is more to life than just enjoying its pleasures.

Money and materialism make it easier to live. But they tell us nothing about how to live or why we are here in the first place. So, a taste of Kabbalah, in the right dosage, an understanding of the basic principles of Jewish mysticism, can go a long way towards affording us a glimpse and an insight into the whys of life, the whys of being Jewish and the purpose of our existence on Earth.

I remember hearing a story of an elderly European rabbi who immigrated to America in the early 1930s. His American family was proud to show him the great wonders of the new world, in particular the just-built Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest building. When they came down from the observation deck, where the people look like ants and the vehicles like little toys, they asked him what he thought about the monumental, towering edifice.

The rabbi furrowed his brow, and replied, “Yes, it was very impressive. And I learned a very important lesson.”

“What was that?” they asked eagerly.

“I learned that if you raise yourself up but a little bit, you see how small and insignificant the world really is.”

Coming from Lag B’Omer, may we all be elevated to be more pensive, to look deeper and to be privileged to experience the meaning of life through the inner flame of Jewish mysticism, aglow in our hearts and souls.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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