Kabbalah is a Hebrew word (????) meaning tradition, that which is handed on. From the earliest days of the Jewish religion, mystics and thinkers have sought to find out what lies behind the Holy teachings, what is the real nature of God and of the Universe we live in. Before long, it became apparent that one very effective way to do this was to begin by understanding the inner nature of ourselves. A number of techniques and methods were developed and progressively refined over the course of many centuries, until they could be relied on to give many of the answers to the questions asked by the seeker on the path of spiritual knowledge. So successful were they that their application extends far beyond Judaism alone. All of these techniques are part of Kabbalah; but Kabbalah is more than the sum of those parts. It is a way of life, a discipline, a way of looking at the Universe and a way of relating to God. There are no hard and fast rules defining what is and is not Kabbalah - and that is one of its strengths. It has grown and developed over time, and will continue to do so in the future, to address the spiritual and practical needs and concerns of the people of the day.
The object of this page is to present just a few of the many aspects of the Kabbalistic tradition.
Classical Kabbalah: little is known about Kabbalah in ancient times, because of course there were no written records. However, by medieval times, when parts of the Kabbalah were written down for the first time, it had developed into three recognizable strands: Contemplative Kabbalah, Mystical Kabbalah and Practical Kabbalah.
Contemplative Kabbalah: by its very nature, this is the aspect covered by most written works on Kabbalah; it is, so to speak, the "thinking man's Kabbalah". Much of this branch of Kabbalah grew out of the study of the Holy scriptures. Various techniques of extracting the underlying meaning of the Holy texts were devised: Gematria, Notariqon and Temurah, devices based on the resonance of numbers and letters, were among them. Theories of how the Universe was created, and of the essential nature of man, were devised and elaborated, theories that could be summarized and epitomized in the potent glyph that we know as the Tree of Life.
Mystical Kabbalah: also known as Merkavah (Chariot) Kabbalah, the mystic sought direct contact with the divine essence through spiritual experience. In a meditative state, the soul would be carried away to Heaven in a Chariot-like vehicle. Several of the Prophets of the Old Testament record unmistakable descriptions of the Merkavah experience. In this Russian icon, Elijah is taken up into Heaven in a Chariot of Fire.
Practical Kabbalah: many would call this "magic", but it was actually a theurgic practice designed to bring about the practical effects desired by the operative, through the intervention of God. Examples are given in the Bible, such as Moses drawing forth water from the rock, or Aaron's staff being turned into a snake. However, in general, the Jews frowned upon the use of Practical Kabbalah. They had some justification for this: since, from a certain point of view at least, it could be seen as "interfering" with the proper and intended operation of God's Universe.
Lurianic Kabbalah: after the expulsion from Spain, a new centre of Kabbalistic learning was set up in Safed, in the Holy Land. By the middle of the 16th Century, it came under the leadership of Isaac Luria, also known as the Ari (the Lion). Luria revolutionized and recodified the Kabbalah - though he was a reluctant man of letters and it was left to his students to record most of his teachings. His new system was fantastically complex and in some instances raised more questions than it answered. Nevertheless, it did shed light on some of the more obscure corners of earlier writings, such as the Zohar. Luria advocated Mystical Kabbalah, but most of what was recorded was of a Contemplative nature. He shunned, and advised against, Practical Kabbalah, on the grounds that it was dangerous to interfere with the Universe in this way. These attitudes, coupled with the fact that after a lapse of many centuries, there was again a purely Jewish school of Kabbalah, operating in the Holy Land, away from non-Jewish influences, gave a renewed respectability to Kabbalah among the more Orthodox Jews. Central to Luria's ideas was the concept that the Universe we inhabit was the product of a kind of divine accident (Shevirat ha-Kelim, the "Shattering of the Vessels"), and that humanity's task is to assist in the Tikkun Olam, the "Restoration of the World". This concept has a special appeal today, when we are seeking to repair the physical nature of a world that has been damaged by our own carelessness in our treatment of the planet.
Christian Kabbalah: by the 17th Century, printed versions of the Zohar were available and in the middle of that century a Latin translation appeared of just a few dozen of the several hundred folios that it contained. The author of this work, Knorr von Rosenroth, had been struck by the content of the Zohar and by how readily its tenets could be applied to some of the beliefs that were considered central to the Christian religion. Sadly, Rosenroth's motives were far from pure: he imagined that, by using Kabbalistic arguments, he could persuade the Jews to convert to Christianity. With hubris like this, it is fortunate that the notion of a specifically Christian Kabbalah died out very quickly. Nevertheless, Rosenroth had (perhaps unintentionally) rendered a valuable and important service to the world; he had shown Christians that there was much in the Kabbalah that could help them to understand their own faith; and he had exposed the Kabbalistic texts to a wider audience in a freethinking age which included the traditions of Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and Templarism, all of which were profoundly influenced by the Kabbalah.
The Golden Dawn: leading out of the Christian Kabbalistic movement, a group of French mystics and occultists developed what they had learned of the Kabbalah into a coherent system in its own right. Their work was subsequently developed by the Golden Dawn, an organization operating in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It described itself as a Hermetic Order, thus placing itself firmly in the Alchemical tradition; but its members were from a variety of backgrounds, including Freemasonry and some of its Rosicrucian offshoots. The major contribution of the Golden Dawn was the establishment and development of an elaborate system of correspondences of the Paths of the Tree of Life, based largely on an old but hitherto neglected Kabbalistic text, the Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Creation). The Order also stimulated a revival of interest in the Practical Kabbalah.
Modern Developments: several different schools emerged from the Golden Dawn. Aleister Crowley and his followers emphasised the magical (or, as he would have it, "magickal") aspects leading to several modern Orders, a few of which, it has to be said, operate with questionable motives. Other lines of descent are typified by that of Dion Fortune, who emphasised the Mystical Kabbalah, through the technique known as "pathworking". In the middle of the 20th Century, few people familiar with Kabbalah failed to notice the strong resonances with Jungian psychology, which gave another "handle" on the application of Kabbalah to the human condition; and a generally increasing interest in Theosophy, with its background of the teachings of the Eastern religions, led to a new layer of correspondences that could be applied to the existing systems.
Ritual Magic: the interest in Ritual Magic continues to increase, no doubt in part because it can be exciting. Most modern magical texts, though they may be based loosely on the old Grimoires of Alchemy, frequently include much Kabbalistic symbolism. Ritual Magic undoubtedly has its place; on the other hand, there are highly cogent reasons to exercise considerable caution in approaching the discipline.
Jewish Orthodoxy: Orthodox Judaism has largely stood aside from the Kabbalah for some centuries, for the reasons already outlined. However, the 1930s saw the publication of an excellent scholarly translation into English of the greater part of the Zohar. This resulted in revived interest, although the Orthodox community not surprisingly rejected the non-Judaic developments that had been taking place elsewhere. The influence of Lurianic Kabbalah, with its fashionable idea of "repairing" a "broken" world, also began to make itself felt again among the Jewish community.
Toledano Kabbalah: Jews with a more liberal outlook and sympathetic persons of other faiths realized that there was scope for a return the "Golden Age" of Spain, where Christian, Moslem and Jew could debate Kabbalah side by side. The school is a model of tolerance of different faiths and belief systems; yet its approach is in a way fundamentalist, since it rejects much of Lurianic Kabbalah and almost all of Golden Dawn Kabbalah as being, if not actually wrong, at least irrelevant. Nevertheless, this school has been an extremely valuable source of good, new, original work in the Kabbalah, with particular reference to the application of the Tree of Life to a wide variety of human and spiritual situations.
Reintegration: all aspects of Kabbalah are necessarily impoverished if they do not incorporate the feedback from other groups, however diverse they may be. The correspondences make no sense without the Judaic background, but the Tree of Life without the correspondences is very hard indeed to understand. For example: if, as some scholars suggest, the notion of a 19th Century Frenchman that the Tarot was a repository of Kabbalistic symbolism was a mere fanciful invention of his own, then it scarcely matters because subsequent development of the Tarot pack has always been careful to incorporate such symbolism: so that it is quite fair to say that the Tarot is now a repository of Kabbalistic knowledge. And if, as many would agree, symbols are easier to read than words, then the Tarot is therefore not merely an admissible, but a valuable, field of Kabbalistic study. It is valuable because it works; purists would sometimes do well to remember that the Kabbalah is, after all, first and foremost, a working tool.