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An Introduction To Kabbalah, Part 1: What Is Kabbalah?

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I first encountered Kabbalah eighteen years ago, as a student at Columbia College. I had no idea that its obscure texts and abstruse concepts would one day become a central part of my life -- let alone Britney's, Madonna's, and Demi's.

Despite all the fame, or maybe because of it, it's often quite hard to get a clear answer to what Kabbalah actually is. It seems to depend on who you ask. A scholar will tell you it's a library of medieval texts. A contemporary teacher might tell you it's the secret to getting everything you want. Someone else might try to charge you to learn more.

Over the next few weeks, I'll try to give a thorough, objective, and uncompromising introduction to Kabbalah. I'll do so as a scholar (I'm currently finishing my Ph.D. in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University, focusing on Kabbalah), a spiritual teacher, and a cultural critic (I've written and spoken about the Kabbalah Centre many times, and have much to say about it). My goal? To give people interested in Kabbalah, either personally or simply as spectators, an introduction to this strange system of thought that is often distorted, often vulgarized -- yet frequently quite beautiful.

Let's start with the word itself. What does "Kabbalah" mean? Here are four answers (fans of Kabbalah will already have noticed that I've used some significant spiritual numbers... all just part of the fun):

1. Literally, it means "receiving," as in a received tradition. Some Kabbalistic teachings go back thousands of years, and were passed from master to disciple. Others were invented yesterday. Kabbalah was an oral tradition, and even once books were written, they were often concealed from the general public. You had to "receive" Kabbalah from a teacher.

2. Figuratively, it also means "receiving," as in receiving the truth of what is happening right now. One core of that truth is that everything is God -- you are God reading about God on a screen which is God. Of course, most of us don't really "receive" that truth fully, because of how our mind, body, and heart works. The forms of Kabbalah can help you receive more of it.

3. Historically, "Kabbalah" refers to an ancient, fascinating, and complex system of Jewish mysticism and esoteric knowledge. Rich in symbols, myth, and literary merit, the Kabbalah "library" contains thousands of books written over many centuries. Scholars generally date the beginning of this written literature to the 12th century, with additional "waves" in the 16th and early 19th centuries.

4. Literarily, Kabbalah may be understood as a way of reading texts, and the world, on multiple levels of depth. Kabbalah is all about levels of reality, and balance among them. We strive not to move from "lower" to "higher" but to integrate them; not to favor one side of our lives over another, but to balance them. Reading and seeing deeply enables us to do that.

Now, Kabbalah is rooted in the Jewish tradition, which speaks of the One in terms of "God." Yet as you will see if you learn Kabbalah, that word does not mean what you think it means. The "God" of the Kabbalah does not exist -- it is Existence Itself. But it is also not the same as the Brahman or the Tao or the All: the God of the Kabbalists is also a mythic, sexual, anthropomorphic family of personalities; a dynamic structure of energies and potentials; and very, very unlike the Old Man in the Sky we know from Sunday School. In large part, Kabbalah is about the multiple levels of reality, from Oneness to Multiplicity and back, and about balancing the various energies of reality on all those different levels. So it includes both "all is one" and "all is many." More on this in a future post.

Scholars often define Kabbalah as "Jewish mysticism." Mysticism means a direct experience of Ultimate Reality -- which in Western religions means, a direct experience of God. Rather than reading about God in the Bible, or praying to a God we don't experience, a mystic meets God "face to face." That scholarly definition -- Jewish mysticism -- is about half right. Kabbalah does contain accounts of mystical experiences, and techniques for having them yourself. These techniques work, in my experience, and you can try them too. We'll get to some of them later. But Kabbalah is more than just accounts of, and guides to have, mystical experiences. It also contains what might be called "esotericism," or, deeper readings of texts and life. It contains folklore, magic, legend, myth, philosophy, guides to meditation, music.

Some of the questions Kabbalah has asked over the 800 years of its existence include: What is the world? Who are we? What is the significance of our lives and actions? What is God? How can we come to know ultimate reality in our own experience? How do the body, heart, mind, and spirit fit together? And what are the roles of myth, ritual, morality, eroticism, meditation, ecstasy, sacred text, and prayer on the spiritual path? There is no fixed canon of Kabbalah, and different texts give different answers to these questions. But they do tend to focus on these sorts of topics more than others.

So -- if this has struck your interest, there'll be more here next week. I look forward to your questions and feedback. Stay tuned!

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