What is kabbalah (Jewish mysticism)? Or can anyone say? Does kabbalah/Jewish mysticism contradict itself or resolve itself? Is kabbalah/Jewish mysticism to be encouraged or discouraged? Or does it all depend?
Students who start with questions will become teachers before answers are complete. Yet incomplete answers are sufficient, and complete answers are insufficient. So with a hearty welcome to fellow-students, let us study the Jewish kabbalah together.
As a first division of the material of mysticism, consider Self and Other. Self is what is you and your experience; Other is what is not. Self is taken to exist by Reason, because experience is axiomatic and Self is what experiences. But experience of Other is part of Self; Other is not taken to exist by Reason, but by Faith, because existence of Other is harmonious rather than axiomatic. Reason provides evidence of Other, Faith accepts incomplete evidence as sufficient proof, and Will acts upon the proof.
Faith that there is more than Self, and Will to pursue what is more than Self, is central to Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah is founded on commitment to pursue the Other, regardless of Self: not to pursue experiences of the Other, which is only pursuit of Self. These thoughts were summarized cogently by Rabbi Hillel (died A.D. 11), when he said, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
Both historic and modern spiritual forces resonate heavily in kabbalah/Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah, meaning what is “received”, is like reflective light: a body of tradition, teaching, and
revelation representing experience of an absolute Other. Torah (the five books beginning the Hebrew Bible) is taken as the absolute Other and light itself. Indeed, both kabbalah/mysticism and Torah predate Moses.
The four methods of interpreting Torah are pshat, remezh, drash, and sodh (acronym “pardes”, literally “paradise”). For an English mnemonic, we translate as: (1) Plaintext, clear primary intent, given passage grammar and history; (2) Research, allegorical synthesis of multiple texts with identical words or pictures; (3) Derivation, homiletical use of a setting to teach parallel truths; and (4) Secrets, Jewish mysticism, numerology, gematria, encryption, and other reliance on universals like numbers and letters.
Kabbalah is universally agreed as dependent upon Torah; proposed halakhah not traceable to Torah is rejected. However, “kabbalah” usually refers to the more esoteric methods, primarily sodh, pronounced with a long O; the simpler methods yield less controversial interpretations. Mysticism is at risk of extreme abuse in ways that lower textual criticism is not: anyone can claim smikhah and credentials and propose “new” secrets of questionable derivation, which are often uncritically classed together with kabbalah that truly reflects Torah. Thus visible Jewish mysticism is contradictory, yet kabbalah’s invisible foundation of Torah is eternally self-consistent.
Kabbalah/Jewish mysticism is also personal and immediate. We use the divided form “kabbalah/Jewish mysticism” because “kabbalah” emphasizes the historical grounding in Other, while “Jewish mysticism” emphasizes the personal experience of that grounding becoming visible. We primarily use “kabbalah” for the explained (what an individual has received), and “mysticism” for the unexplained. Widening personal experience by bringing the unexplained into the explained is the primary method of pursuing Other by harmonizing Self.
Every person can follow kabbalah; we have already begun. Many have also been graced with increased harmony and notable deeds. Pursuing harmony or deeds in themselves is not kabbalah: it is pursuit of experience of the Other, rather than pursuit of the Other on its own terms. Seeking health, wealth, fame, name, power, or miracles does not bring them; but unilateral pursuit of the Other brings them as byproducts. For these reasons, kabbalists often dissuade all comers, so that only the sincere remain for encouragement.
In short, begin by committing to pursue what is more than Self. The unique traditions, understanding, and wisdom that resonate with this new commitment will pursue and overtake you. Even student Roseanne Barr said in 2004, “To think about something bigger than yourself is so cool, to get out of your own ego.” If not now, when?