Kabala is popularly understood as being Jewish Mysticism. The word Kabala is probably derived from the Hebrew verb KBL that means to receive something.
In actuality, Kabala is a set of respected teachings and understandings that the Jewish people have received from spiritual sources, among which are the prophets. As such they are not necessarily based upon human logic, discovery or invention. However, once they are mastered, one can apply logic and inference to arrive at a deeper understanding and thereby discover interrelationships between Kabalistic concepts.
Kabala provides an awesome dimension of meaning for such disparate concepts as how G-ds relationship to Mankind is understood, G-d's management of human history, the Torah, the human body, the world, and the Temple. It teaches that they are all reflections of a common architecture. The more one understands and applies this architecture, the more one becomes aware of the greatness of the Creator and that both the world and history are not the products of accident.
The Kabalastic literature is written on several levels. One can say that there is heavy Kabala and there is light Kabala. Regarding heavy Kabala, there are very few alive today or in recent generations who qualify as a heavy Kabalist. I know what heavy Kabala is all about, except that it looks spooky. Heavy Kabalistic literature is written in an extremely obscure manner. You can get a copy of an English translation of Zohar but after reading a few paragraphs, I'm sure that you'll see that it is waste of time for all but the most accomplished scholars of the Written and Oral Torahs. As far as light Kabala is concerned, this tour is based on the works of scholars such as Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, which are very readable and fascinating.
Due to the sublime nature and vocabulary of some Kabalistic literature, the opportunity exists for charlatans to move in, project competence in heavy Kabala, and exploitatively use their talents. Not so with traditional scholars who deal on the practical level of the Written and Oral Torah, and especially within learned communities where fakers are quickly obvious. One has to work hard to be accepted as a Torah scholar. To be a Kabalist, one may be able to pass with the gift of gab.
You can go to Israel today and find some weirdly dressed people about whom it's said that they are Kabalists. Groups travel to quiet areas and study Kabala. The Lag B'Omer holiday brings them out in numbers, on the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar. He is buried in Safed, formerly a great center of Kabala. 16th century Safed was home of the great Kabalistic master, the ARI.
I certainly do not wish to imply that anyone who has been or who is currently regarded as a Kabalist is a quack. We have had great Kabalists. There are Jews today who are seeking truth and have found mentors who are sincere and through light Kabala classes they bring these people back to authentic Jewish practice.
I do seek to set the stage for a discussion of the catastrophic events of the 17th century. In part, I also seek to impart a healthy attitude of suspicion, as we have been badly burned by falsifiers.
It is very significant to note that the study of Kabala was greatly popularized by Sfardic Jews, especially after the Spanish Expulsion and the
Exiled and dejected, Sfardic Jewry attribute their misfortune to their infatuation with Aristotelian philosophy, which diverted precious time and resources away from Torah study. As we will soon discuss, the 16th century Reformation will repudiate the philosophic teachings of Aristotle. Sfardic Jewry will thus be left with a dead cow and Kabala will become a natural replacement for it.
The victims of the Spanish Expulsion and of later persecutions will passionately grope to find meaning in their plight and they will turn to the Kabala. It will make the pangs of the exiles more bearable because the Kabala emphasizes and reinforces the following teaching: The Jewish people and all of Mankind are headed towards perfection, although this is not obvious, and that suffering is a necessary part of this process, unless Mankind exerts itself more.
Generally, Ashkenazic Torah scholars do not teach Kabala classes and they will discourage all but their most senior students from its study. The Written and Oral Torahs have enough in them to keep us quite busy, productive, and happy. We will find an exception to this in our discussion of the Chassidic movement, in the 18th century.
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