A General Definition
"Kabbalah" (קַבָּלָה, "reception," from קִבֵּל, "receive") is usually defined as the mystical and esoteric tradition of the Jewish people, though it might more generally be regarded as the "spiritual philosophy" of Judaism. As such, it attempts to explain or otherwise justify the visions, theology, rituals, spirituality, and traditions of Jewish faith. Understood in this way, it is inaccurate to speak of "the" Kabbalah as if it were a single, mutually agreed upon system of thought. No, just like there are different schools of thought within other religious traditions, so there are different emphases and approaches to spirituality in Jewish thought. Nonetheless, Kabbalah represents a distinctively Jewish approach that is intimately bound to the Scriptures, teachings, and shared customs of the Jewish people. In fact, genuine Kabbalah (as opposed to popular "self-help" versions) is hardly comprehensible apart from intimate familiarity with the Torah, the Prophets, the Mishnah/Talmud, midrashic literature, rabbinic literature, the liturgy (i.e., prayers and blessings found in the traditional prayerbook), and the minhagim (customs) of the Jewish people.
Origins of Kabbalah
If you're surprised to learn that Rabbinical Judaism believes that two Torahs were given to Moses at Sinai (i.e., the written and the Oral Torah), you might even be more surprised to learn that according to Kabbalistic tradition a third or "hidden" Torah (Torat Ha-Nistar) was also revealed at that time. This third Torah contained the essential wisdom of sefer ha-Zohar - the book of the Zohar - which gives a mystical commentary on the contents of the written Torah.
The Zohar (זהר) was compiled by Moses De Leon (1250-1305) who claimed that it contained the mystical writings of the 2nd century sage Simeon bar Yochai (i.e., רשב"י [rashbi], from Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai), who was the disciple of the famous Rabbi Akiva (50-135 AD). Most modern scholars consider De Leon as the original author, though many kabbalists regard the Zohar as an authentic compilation of mystical traditions dating back to the time of Moses (or even to Adam in the Garden of Eden).
Kabbalah is said to derive from "received" oral traditions that span thousands of years, and there is warrant for this doctrine. Mystical visions were part of the prophetic literature from the earliest times, as Ezekiel's and Isaiah's visions attest, and other apocalyptic literature dates back to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Philo of Alexandria (20 BC- 50 AD) also wrote of mystical Judaism in light of Greek and Egyptian philosophy. After the destruction of the Second Temple we find passages in the Talmud warning against it, perhaps because the sages (i.e., rabbis) wanted to be regarded as the sole religious authorities of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Nonetheless, various oral traditions later produced different written works, including the Heichalot literature (i.e., discussions about the Chariot vision of Ezekiel), the Sefer Yetzirah (i.e., the "Book of Formation" which gives first mention to ten divine emanations), the Sefer Bahir (an esoteric midrash on Genesis), and (as mentioned above) the Zohar. Today the Sefer Yetzirah, the Bahir, and the Zohar are considered the most significant works of Kabbalistic tradition.
Types of Kabbalah
Though it is inaccurate to speak of "the" Kabbalah as a monolithic system of Jewish thought, scholars have identified three basic types or schools of Kabbalah that have developed over the centuries. Each of these three approaches vary more by emphasis than by content:
- Theoretical Kabbalah. This approach endeavors to cognitively understand and describe the divine realm. Following Maimonides, the Torah is regarded as written in human language, and anthropomorphic descriptions of God are to be "decoded" by reason. Among other things, this approach studies medieval theology, philosophical cosmology, metaphysics, emanations (i.e., "sefirot"), spiritual worlds, depth psychology of souls, the roles of angels, etc. Theoretical Kabbalah is perhaps best expressed in the Zohar (compiled by Moses de Leon in the 13h century) and in the interpretations of the followers of Isaac Luria (1534-1572). It later became the basis for much of the spiritual philosophy behind Chasidism and therefore became the most widespread form of Kabbalah study in the world.
- Ecstatic Kabbalah. This approach seeks to attain mystical union with God or a state of prophecy through various meditation practices such as employing the Divine names (as mantras), tying tzitzit knots, studying Hebrew letter permutations, and so forth. This is sometimes called devakut ("cleaving") in the literature. A variation of this approach is sometimes called "prophetic Kabbalah" where the goal is for the student to attain mystical visions like Isaiah and Ezekiel did (i.e., "Throne mysticism" or "the work of the chariot" - ma'aseh merkava). Perhaps the chief exponent of this approach to Jewish spirituality was Abraham Abulafia (1240-1296).
- Theurgic Kabbalah. This approach attempts to "influence" both God and the world through ritual acts and magic. Theurgic Kabbalah attempts to invoke the Divine names for use with "incantations" (i.e., abracadabra), ascribes power to amulets, and engages in various occultic practices. This kind of Kabbalah is also sometimes called "Practical Kabbalah" and is associated with the Tarot, new age mysticism, and magic.
It should be noted that there is some overlap between these different approaches. For example, theoretical kabbalists discuss tikkun olam ("repair of the world") in terms of influencing God's Presence in the world (i.e., "partners with HaShem"), and they also refer to devakut and ego dissolution as the way for personal union with God. Moreover, the Zohar suggests that we can "influence God" through our actions (i.e., by performing mitzvot), and the spiritual goal is ultimately to "address God's needs." Hence the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) later stated that human existence is "for God's sake." Man becomes a "channel" of the divine, and every action has metaphysical effects: "As below, so above." We can produce "balance" or unity in the cosmos/God (sefirot) through our lifestyle choices. Since our behavior can influence the "divine disposition," people have a sort of "magical" power in their choices. The rebbe - a sage of great spirituality and piety - is considered a "pipe" or channel to others: a "bridge" to God in this world.
Despite the interplay between the various approaches to Kabbalah studies, the most fundamental (and well-received) of these is clearly that of theoretical Kabbalah. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but primarily because it attempts to coherently provide a rational framework for any sort of Kabbalistic philosophy at all. Moreover, its metaphysical system attempts to explain the ultimate reason for the existence of the universe and our place in it, as well as the nature of the Godhead itself. Theoretical Kabbalah is also more accessible than the other approaches, since it finds its clearest expression in the Zohar and in the later teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534-1572), otherwise called "the Ari," who is regarded as its most influential commentator. Luria's views have become more or less dominant in Chasidic thought to this day, and "Luranic Kabbalah," as it's sometimes called, is pretty much the "mainstream" view of Jewish spiritual philosophy to this day.