JUDAISM AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO KABBALAH
Judaism, in general, is a rich and diverse tradition. It is filled with ritual and observance. The study of Torah and Talmud is extraordinary. The daily life of a practicing Jew is quite demanding, requiring close attention to details in every matter, how and what we eat, when to pray, how to relate to others, the ethics of business, moral codes of behavior, and, of course, how we relate to God.
The mystical component of Judaism, often called Kabbalah as a generic, is more interested in the esoteric nature of creation. What is God? How did creation occur? What are the hidden meanings of the teachings of the Torah? What is the architecture of the cosmos? What is ultimate truth? This is not an easy field of study. Much of it is veiled behind technical language, arcane concepts, and intentionally obscure codes. Only a handful of Kabbalists wrote about their experiences. Most, however, chose to remain hidden in anonymity.
In addition, virtually all of the commentary in Jewish religious literature is from the male perspective. Almost everything written about the Kabbalah tends to be intellectual and abstract, more theoretical metaphysics than practical wisdom. I was seeking meaning in life, not a system of abstruse concepts, and the first couple of years were quite challenging.
I turned back to my meditative practice, which I knew held the key to deep spiritual wisdom. All of the major religious traditions use meditation in one form or another. In silence, when I allowed my cognitive function to rest, a deeper understanding invariably arose.
It is important to note that sitting quietly is precisely the opposite approach to that of normative Jewish learning, which engages the mind in complex problems and analyzes every facet of an argument in extraordinary detail. I had experienced this process of pilpul (dialectics and debate) in yeshiva (an institution of Jewish higher learning) for a number of years, but it had not taken me to the wisdom level I was seeking. This kind of learning nurtured my hunger for information, and working with the Talmud is a highly satisfying experience, but I wanted to be more in communion with God; I needed to feel surrounded by the presence of the Divine at all time. This seemed to arise primarily during contemplative practices, so my need for silent meditation became more urgent.
At this time I encountered vipassana, insight meditation, a school of Buddhism that utilizes an intense practice of silence for extended periods. On retreat, it is not unusual for a student to sit in meditation for nine or ten hours a day, in forty-five to sixty minute segments. During the periods between sitting, walking meditation is performed, adding up to another six to seven hours each day. The goal of the practice is to maintain a meditative state throughout all of the waking hours, including mealtimes.
Although this may seem to be a severe schedule, most students of vipassana discover that after an initial adjustment of three or four days of practice, the rhythm of constant meditation quickly leads to an altered state of consciousness that opens gates of penetrating insight. This practice was precisely what I wanted.
Westerners who experience Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, or other contemplative traditions, are often transformed by the state of mind that can be induced through serious meditative practice. At times this transformation is so overwhelming, the meditator chooses to "convert" to a new religion. However, many have found that their contemplative experiences actually open new gateways into their original spiritual heritage. This was my experience. Suddenly, I discovered new depths in my Jewish practice; the commentaries to the Torah became alive and my study of Kabbalah took an entirely new turn.
I had not fully appreciated the difference between learning Kabbalah as an intellectual exercise and experiencing Kabbalah through mystical insight. Some of the writings of Jewish mystics clearly indicate that much of their Kabbalah came through contemplative experience. For example, Eleazar Azikri (16th century), a member of the kabbalistic circle of Moses Cordovero in Safed, stated that hitbodedut (isolation) was "helpful to the soul seven times more than study, and according to one's strength and ability, he or she should concentrate and meditate one [entire] day a week."
Concerning one's practice, Azikri gives the following advice: "At every moment one should try to unite names [of God] with joy and trembling. One should flee from society as much as is possible and be completely silent, in a brilliant flame, alone, fearful and trembling. The light which is above your head make always into your teacher."
There are dozens of examples similar to the writings of Azikri, but finding a living teacher in our day who exemplifies these teachings in not easy to do.
Quite simply, Kabbalah cannot be comprehended solely through the intellect. Rather, Kabbalah is a way of life and a way of looking at things. One becomes a Kabbalist by bringing a new level of awareness to every act, every word that flows out of one's mouth, and every thought that arises in the mind. We do not gain kabbalistic insight just because we want to; we gain it by the way we live our lives. This includes an integration of study, daily practice, and contemplative exercises. We immerse ourselves in different aspects of kabbalistic teachings, and from this mystical awareness arises.
The mystery of life is and always has been the central focus of the contemplative mind. Almost everyone spends their early years as natural mystics wondering about how things work. What holds us to the earth while birds seem free of all restraints? Where does the wind come from and why are all those stars in the sky? As we grow older, many explanations are given, but new questions arise that ultimately lead to a shrug of the shoulders of our parents and teachers, and eventually even philosophers.
Somewhere along the way, as we mature sexually, our focus of attention shifts dramatically. We become absorbed in the mysteries of love, relationship and individuality. As we become identified with in this process, the eternal questions of life become more internalized. We are embarrassed to tell others about what is happening inside of us, and often we struggle with these secrets of life in silence.
As adults most of us are so preoccupied with financial and family issues that we spend little, if any, time contemplating life's predicaments. Nonetheless they present themselves, suddenly and overwhelmingly, throughout our lives. Often this happens as the result of highly stressful and traumatic events: violent accidents, severe illness or death.
Kabbalistic teachings are quite clear. Things are more than we think they are. This world is a reflection of and is in symbiotic relationship with other realms of reality. Each event that we experience has a deeper message if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Everything has mystical meaning and significance. Life is enormously rich and purposeful once we are able to penetrate its veils.