What is Kabala?

People hear or read that I identify myself as a kabbalist, a student of the Kabala, and frequently I am asked what that means. I do my best to explain why my life experiences resonate with the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabala. I also explain that what I study is not derived from commercialized kabala schools or kabala organizations, nor is it associated with any mainstream pop celebrity personality or pop culture.

I have been fortunate to have had many brilliant minds infusing my spiritual observance and study, including Rabbi Bruce Dollin and Cantor Goldstein at the Hebrew Educational Alliance in Denver, Colo. www.headenver.org

When I was living in Flower Mound, Texas, writing my book “We are Here for a Purpose: HOW TO FIND YOURS” I was most fortunate to study with another inspired rabbi who gave a superb sermon about kabala shortly after I moved there. Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis has graciously permitted me to share it here for you. His perspective is clear and accessible to virtually everyone. His words are an arc of light upon this exquisitely designed path of Jewish study. More closely than anything else I know, this is a way of being fully aligned with my life’s work and purpose. –Giselle M. Massi

WHAT IS KABALA? by Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Academically speaking, kabala is a catchall term for the many forms and disciplines of Jewish mysticism. Mysticism is that aspect of any religion that seeks higher knowledge and spiritual experiences than are commonly sought by us average folks. Mystics tend to be, in words of one of my teachers, religious virtuosos, people who are not satisfied with a life of normal piety. They crave to see past the processed products of religious thought, but rather seek the whole grain of direct experience. The mystic is also not satisfied to merely see G-d’s fingerprints on the world or even to experience G-d’s presence. The mystic desires a face-to-face encounter, to storm the very gates of heaven. Mysticism is the discipline by which such inspired seekers pursue the deepest knowledge of G-d and the unmediated personal experience of G-d’s presence.

Kabala, which means “received tradition” is the Jewish esoteric knowledge of how to have such experiences, passed from teacher to disciple in Jewish culture. Kabala also refers to a body of literature that is the written record of that knowledge.

That is an academic notion of Kabala. For the kabbalist him or herself, all things begin with a craving for G-d. He or she is like Moses, who for all his close cooperation with G-d, yet still asks for ultimate knowledge — to see G-d’s face. G-d demurred from showing Moses everything, but when Moses had his direct encounter with G-d in the Torah, G-d revealed 13 qualities. He said, “Yud Hey Vav Hey, Compassion and tenderness, Patience, Forebearing, Kindness, Awareness, Bearing love from age to age, lifting guilt and mistakes and making us free.” For most of us this is just a list. It is an exalted list, but still just a list. For Moses, the kabbalists believe, it was a revelation that allowed Moses to make sense of all existence. It gave him insight into the Godhead. And from that insight, Moses was better able to understand the universe, how it is interwoven and how Ultimate Reality underlies all things, even those things and moments that seem devoid of G-d. The insights of Kabala teach us to potentially transform all our instrumental and impersonal interactions with the world into personal and caring encounters. As the student of mysticism Martin Buber would put it, kabalistic knowledge moves us from a relating to the world in terms of “I and it” toward a relationship of “I and you.” One immersed in kabala learns mindfulness of the world, and heightened sense of connection to all being.

Kabala also teaches us how to gain this insight and knowledge, how to have a Mosaic-like encounter, through personal disciplines of meditation and prayer. It invites us to understand G-d as fully as Moses did by seeking a personal ascent to G-d’s presence and merging ourselves with the mind of G-d. In this sense, kabala is different than prophecy. In classical prophecy, the prophet seems to be sought out by G-d, and is seized and compelled to speak. The mystic, by contrast, deliberately seeks G-d out, pursues G-d until he, through his own self-discipline and control, brings about the encounter.

In many ways, Kabala is the spiritual equivalent of Himalayan mountaineering. It is extreme personal religion. Which is why teachers of Kabala usually require their disciples to be well grounded in the basics of Judaism and deeply involved in Jewish community. Only a person who is securely anchored can safely reach for the stars.

But even if pure Jewish mysticism is beyond most of us, there are still wonderful and less rigorous tools from the kabala that can bless us and strengthen us in our own piety and devotional life. Chief among them is the practice of meditation. Meditation, even if used only a few moments every day, can benefit us by making us feel less stressed, more focused, and more serene about our surroundings and ourselves.

… I will borrow a kabalistic metaphor, the metaphor of G-d as light, and encourage you to use your silent imagination. Imagine the light of G-d inside yourself. Fill your thoughts with light rather than words. Imagine light of such intensity that all darkness is negated. Illuminate every corner of your mind with that light. Let that light shine for a full minute. If you find your thoughts drifting, just return your imagination to wordless illumination.

…This is just a little taste of kabala. There is much, much, more. It is my hope that the current interest in Jewish mysticism is a door opening in the hearts of many Jews, a door toward greater spiritual understanding.

© 2000 Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis
Temple Kol Ami, Flower Mound, Texas www.kolami-tx.org