The World is Not Enough

The Mystical Realm of Kabbalah

If Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Madonna were to sit down and choose a trendy philosophy to follow, you would not expect them to rush headlong into the male-dominated world of Kabbalah. Yet this ancient form of Jewish mysticism has been westernised, commercialised and re-invented for the post-modern girl in the post-modern world. Recently described as “the trendiest faith around”, Kabbalah is fast becoming the spirituality of choice for many celebrities, and where the idols have led the worshippers are sure to follow.
An Ancient New Age

It should come as no surprise that Jewish mystics, both ancient and modern, wish to claim their place in the so-called New Age Movement, yet the Kabbalah of Hollywood is very different to the mysticism of ancient Israel.

The word Kabbalah is derived from the Hebrew kabbal which means “to receive” or “to hand down”. Kabbalah, therefore, represents a set of spiritual traditions handed down from ancient times and kept secret from the majority of people, possibly for fear of leading them into heresy. Such teachings were passed on “from mouth to ear” and, over the course of time, were intermixed with many elements from the surrounding nations. There is no doubt that such mystical teachings influenced the writers of the Talmud prior to the sixth century AD, but it was in the Middle Ages that Kabbalah flourished and from then onwards the word became synonymous with Jewish mysticism. By this time, the teachings had been written down and much of modern Kabbalah has its origins in the Zohar, a work which first appeared in Spain during the 13th Century.

Into the Mystic

There are three main strands within Kabbalah. Theosophical Kabbalah focuses on “God” and how our actions influence or mirror “the Divine”. For example, Theosophical Kabbalah teaches that mitzvot (good deeds) have a mystic power.

The second strand, ecstatic Kabbalah, is egocentric, focussing on the mystic’s spiritual growth and personal experience. It emphasises methods for attaining union with the Divine and closely resembles much that is present in Eastern mysticism.
The third category, practical Kabbalah, is interwoven with superstition and folklore. It involves “magical” uses of the Bible and of the various names of God, knowledge of demonology and angelology, exorcisms and the creation of protective amulets.

In the 18th Century knowledge of Kabbalah increased rapidly with the founding of the Hasidic movement, which stressed human desire to cleave to God and brought together both theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalism. Indeed, the Lubavitch Hasidic movement sees its mission as spreading “the wellsprings”, its teachings, to those outside Hasidic society. This is based on the belief that redemption depends on revealing Kabbalah secrets to the masses. However, other Kabbalists have consistently opposed the popularisation of mystical doctrines.

Into Darkness, Light

From a Christian perspective, Kabbalah will doubtless be filed under “O” for Occult.

Yet Alfred Edersheim, the well-known 19th Century Hebrew Christian, writes that Kabbalah is the branch of Jewish theology that, in some respects, is the most interesting for the Christian student. He goes on to say, “Much that is found in Cabbalistic writings approximates so closely to the higher truths of Christianity, that, despite the errors, superstitions, and follies that mingle with it, we cannot fail to recognise the continuance and the remains of those deeper facts of Divine revelation, which must have formed the substance of prophetic teaching under the Old Testament, and have been understood, or at least hoped for, by those who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (Sketches of Jewish Social Life, chapter 18).

So how can we approach followers of Kabbalah with the gospel? What might they respond to positively? Mysticism, almost by definition, involves a searching for something or someone beyond ourselves. Indeed, Kabbalah has been described as a method through which the Creator is revealed to people in this world. So, the mystic is at least making a declaration that the world is not enough. In a culture steeped in materialism that is a bold, positive, statement. But we can take people further and show them God’s true revelation, not a method but a Messiah, “God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1).

Kabbalists believe in a Divine Light, a force behind the word of Torah, a Living Word perhaps; they speak of the Tree of Life, and of power in the names of God. They speak of God “creating” through “wisdom”. These are concepts with which Christians ought to be familiar. Kabbalists may have distorted images of the truth, but the structures are in place. They simply need to be filled with the true light of the world: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1,4-5).

Kabbalists believe in continuous revelation. We may view that as a barrier or a problem but it ought to be remembered that, from a non-believing Jewish perspective, Christians claim a new revelation in a book called the New Testament and the man Christ Jesus.

Kabbalists also believe that God has a complex nature and are interested in the paradox of a God who is immutable and yet active in his relationship with his creation. They speak of the mysterious Metatron, an archangel who sits beside God and who is called “king of angels”, “prince of the divine presence” and even “the lesser Yahweh”. His appearance is described as “a pillar of fire, his face more dazzling than the sun”.

Mysticism and Messiah

Some Kabbalists accept the need for an intercessor and even the concept of atonement through the death of a tzaddik (“righteous one”). Chaim Potok, in his semi-autobiographical novel The Chosen, refers to Hasidic groups who believe that a tzaddik is a superhuman link between them and God and that every act of his and every word he speaks is holy. Although a work of fiction, Potok’s observation is based firmly on historical fact. Indeed, within the past decade, the Lubavitch Hasidic movement has proclaimed Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died ten years ago, as King Messiah and he has been described as the “Essence and Being of God enclothed in a body”.

Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that Western Kabbalah, in the form of the Kabbalah Learning Centre (with branches in eighteen countries), has been criticised by some rabbis in terms formerly reserved for organisations like CWI. It has been called a “dangerous cult-like organisation that preys on vulnerable people” and Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has publicly disassociated the Jewish faith from the London Kabbalah Centre due to claims of abuse and profiteering. However, although some may see “celeb-led Kabbalah” as simply a way of making money, it is obviously meeting the needs of many in a generation that prefers relationships to rules. Orthodox Jewish students are growing tired of an ideology that leaves little room for spirituality. They have been described as “emotionally and religiously dehydrated” and Kabbalah has given them a back door to their Jewish roots. Should we not show them the true door, Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Howard Fleming
This article first appeared in the autumn 2004 edition of the Herald

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