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An Introduction To Kabbalah Part 5: Choosing A Teacher

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Over the last few weeks, we've begun exploring what Kabbalah is, and how it can function as a contemporary spiritual practice. A number of you have asked how to find, and choose, a teacher, so I thought I'd address that question now.

As we've explored already, learning Kabbalah is different from learning other subjects. If Kabbalah is treated as a spiritual practice, then it is more than book learning, and the personal qualities of a teacher are essential. At the same time, if Kabbalah is separated from "book learning," it's quite far removed from classical Kabbalah itself, which is text-centered. Ungrounded learning also runs the risk of being, well, bogus - there are plenty of folks out there, well-meaning and not, who really just don't know their sources. What you get from them might be inspiring, but it's "Kabbalah" in name only. Let the seeker beware -- and let the seeker also be mindful about which approach she is choosing (academic, traditional, magical, commercial) and which approaches she might explore as well.

Choosing Kabbalah teachers involves more questions of trust than, say, finding someone to teach you Spanish. Because of the personal nature of the wisdom, because of its many faces, and because of its sheer size and breadth, what you receive depends in large part on choices your teacher makes -- choices to which you don't really have full access. Being a student means you don't know what your teacher knows, and therefore you have to trust that they are making skillful decisions in teaching.
I think there are a few basic principles which ought to guide how you look for a teacher. Some of these are common sense, others a little more specialized in nature.

1. Try to get to know your teacher as a full human being. There's a famous Hasidic story about a hasid going to learn with his rebbe not to learn any particular text, but rather to see how he ties his shoelaces. The point is that true wisdom affects everything about us, not just how we sit and read a book; the true teaching, as in Zen, is life itself.

So, in researching possible teachers, it might be useful to ask questions like: How much money is this person making from the teaching of Kabbalah? Does this person's family/personal life seem healthy? What motives does this person seem to have, in teaching Kabbalah? Is s/he patient, or quick to anger? Generous, or stingy? Of course, there are many mystical teachers who use anger or other aggressive behavior for the well-being of the student. But you should be able to see whether that's the case for yourself.

2. Trust the "vibe." I've met teachers of mysticism who have a lot of technical knowledge, but who seem emotionally unstable, or involved with a lot of anger or fear. I've met some who seem overly concerned with money. And I've met teachers who, in a profound way, just don't seem to "get it," at least not from a spiritual point of view.

What's more, many non-religious academic teachers of mine clearly do "get it" spiritually, in a way that many very religiously observant teachers clearly do not; you can't judge on appearances, or the length of someone's beard. Learn that balance between openness and vigilance, intuition and self-questioning -- and trust the vibe.

3. Get a sense of their priorities. Personally, I tend to emphasize the contemplative and theological sides of Kabbalah over, say, the astrological and magical sides. I am not particularly interested in magick, the occult, divination, and so on -- not because I don't think there's wisdom there, but because it has not been my path.

You should be able to tell pretty quickly where your prospective teacher is coming from. Do they regard Kabbalah as an academic subject matter, quirky and weird but ultimately just a curiosity? Do they leap to Aleister Crowley and other magick-oriented authorities to "unveil" the occult meanings? I prize a balance between intellectual rigor and spiritual openness. You may prefer skepticism, or enthusiasm, or something else. Be aware of these priorities.

4. Know the signals. Here's one simple, trivial one -- not very significant, but surprisingly accurate: spelling. Every intellectually rigorous teacher of Kabbalah whom I know of spells the word, in English transliteration, "Kabbalah." Spellings like Qabala, Cabala, Kabala, and Qabbalah (and, to a lesser extent, "sephirot") -- these telegraph, to me, less in-depth knowledge of the Kabbalah and more familiarity with, again, Crowley-esque readings of it. That's fine, if that's what you want -- but know the signals. (Ironically, Qabala is actually more grammatically accurate, since the Hebrew letter qoof is "equivalent" to Q, whereas kaf is equivalent to K.)

Also look for signposts like "who wrote the Zohar," which clue you in to how the teacher relates to academic scholarship: if they regard the Zohar as the work of the 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, they are preferring the traditional view to the academic one; if not, then the reverse. Which you prefer is up to you. For some students, academic rigor is a "must-have" if they are to gain confidence in their teachers. For others, it's a dry waste of time. For some students, teachers who emphasize the ritual mitzvot are trying to proselytize; for others, they're adding the necessary embodiment to the Kabbalah. Look for the signals, try out different approaches, and choose carefully.

5. See what they know - and whether it matters to you. Does your teacher read Hebrew fluently? Can s/he navigate the Aramaic of the Zohar? If not, s/he is unable to interact directly with the teachings of the Kabbalah -- period. Again, this may or may not matter. If someone has a deep and beautiful soul, but can't read the texts, that may be more important to you than having a learned scholar who's emotionally tone deaf. But at least you'll make that decision consciously. Other questions to ask might include: Who is your favorite Hasidic master? Where did you learn Kabbalah? Who were your teachers? To me, these questions count.

6. Follow the money. More on the Kabbalah Centre specifically below -- but in general, you should not be paying lots of money to learn Kabbalah. Never pay more than $50 for a book or a class. Kabbalah teachers don't need to be monks, but they shouldn't be making millions off of mysticism. It suggests the priorities are off.

7. What about the Kabbalah Centre? I'll have more to say about Madonna's teachers in a future post, and have written about them elsewhere already, but it's impossible to talk about finding a Kabbalah teacher without mentioning the Kabbalah Centre, which is the largest Kabbalah organization in the world. The situation is complex.

On the one hand, much of the media's coverage of the Centre is tainted by an overly skeptical view of mystical practice in general: most reporters who cover the Centre seem so dubious of mysticism generally, that of course they're going to find fault, call it a cult, and make fun of those who go to it. On the other hand, there are many aspects of the Kabbalah Centre's methodology which concern me. First, their products are needlessly expensive -- charging $30 for a package of red strings, or $700 for a Zohar, is really dubious. Just the amount of commercialism in the Centre in the first place (I have been to the Centre, as well as read many of its publications) is disturbing, and, I think, distorts what Kabbalah is.

Second, and relatedly, are the high-pressure ways in which students are called on the phone, encouraged to attend more classes, etc. This is either cult-like or commercial or both, and authentic teachers don't engage in such tactics. But even apart from financial matters , I think there are aspects of how the Centre teaches Kabbalah that should give one pause. The emphasis on enhancing one's own personal power, redolent of the human potential movement, is anathema to much of theosophical and prophetic Kabbalah; the Centre is basically teaching practical Kabbalah.

Similarly, the insistence that the Zohar and other texts have magical properties - that you can derive benefit from "scanning" or even just owning a copy - has roots in practical Kabbalah, but not in other forms. So too the use of Divine and angelic names, and the belief that everything that happens to you is, actually, somehow within your control. So, it's not that the Kabbalah Centre is completely inauthentic --it's that they are teaching the magical stuff, not the contemplative material which I and others believe is truly transformative. (This actually reflects the educational lineage of the Centre's founder, Rabbi Philip Berg.)

At the end of the day, I do not advise my students to learn at the Kabbalah Centre. There's too much money, too much pizzazz, and too much emphasis on magic for my taste. But I am not one of those who demean it either. They do have an interesting, skillful way of presenting the Kabbalah, and they have certainly succeeded at publicizing it. You should make your own decisions -- but watch your boundaries, and be mindful of the container you are entering.

8. And what about Chabad? Besides the Kabbalah Center, the most prominent organization teaching Kabbalah is the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidism. For many people, Chabad's messianism is an instant turnoff -- a large portion of the sect believes their deceased rebbe to be the messiah. But there is more to Chabad than messianism, and within Chabad you will find many very learned teachers of Kabbalah (as well as some who seem to be learned, but actually know hardly anything). Chabad, ideologically, has the mission of bringing Jews back to Judaism; they do want you to be "more religious," and they'll only teach you if you're Jewish. So, know that going in, and know that the degree to which this matters varies from teacher to teacher. Some will really try to persuade you to take on religious observance right away. Others never will. You'll have to see for yourself.

One aspect of Chabad that does not vary, though, is its essentially conservative view of Kabbalah. Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar. The Torah is absolutely the word of God. There is no difference between Talmudic and Kabbalistic Judaism. These are all very contentious positions (to say the least), but they are gospel truth within traditional circles, and Chabad, for all its outreach, mysticism, and relative worldliness, is very much a traditional circle. There is a great deal of joy and knowledge within Chabad, and also much to question and observe. Know what you're getting into, but keep your mind open as well; in a way, the process of learning Kabbalah is itself Kabbalah.

These are some basic principles if you choose to go looking for a Kabbalah teacher. I have decided not to list specific teachers I "endorse" here, for fear of stepping into a pile of controversy. But I think the general principles above can be helpful. Don't be deterred, though. Whether you're flying off to Tsfat to chant at the Ari's gravesite, or just taking a class at your local JCC, there is a wonderful literature, and a remarkable set of practices, awaiting you. More to come next week!

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

An Introduction to Kabbalah, Part 2: God Does Not Exist, God is Existence Itself

An Introduction To Kabbalah, Part 3: Three Answers To The Ultimate Question

An Introduction To Kabbalah, Part 4: Kabbalah As A Spiritual Practice

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