I often have been asked by non-Jews: do Jews believe in heaven and hell? Does Judaism believe in aÂ Messiah,Â angels or the devil? Do we believe in life after death? What is our perception ofÂ G-dÂ and the universe? Judaism allows these cosmological issues to be wide open to personal opinion. Judaism is very much a knowledge- based faith and places far less emphasis on mystical issues than in other religions. The areas of Jewish thought that most extensively discuss these issues, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, were traditionally only taught when students had completed their education inÂ TorahÂ andÂ Talmud.
In its narrowest sense, the Torah is the first five books of the Bible.Â The concept of afterlife is not mentioned in The Torah and does not show up prominently in Judaism until about the third century a.d. This concept showed up in the Talmud very possibly influenced by Christianity and Greek philosophy. The Talmud is the most significant collection of the Jewish oral tradition interpreting the Torah.Â Gan Eden as an internal reward is linked prominently to the treatment of others by the Talmud and its teachers of that era. Living by "The Golden Rule" was supposed to bring eternal bliss.
The Talmud tells a story ofÂ Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. A pagan came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of theÂ TorahÂ in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary".
Mysticism and mystical experiences have been a part of Judaism since the earliest days of our faith. The Torah does not refer to an afterlife but does contain many stories of mystical experiences. From the visitations by angels such as the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah to foretell the birth of Isaac. JudaismÂ oftenÂ references prophetic dreams and visions;Â Joseph had the ability to understand dreams and make prophecies based on this knowledge. Â Jewish tradition tells that the souls of all Jews were in existence at the time of the Giving of the Torah and were present at the time and agreed to the Covenant.
In the middle ages, many of these mystical teachings were committed to writing in books like the Zohar. Many of these writings were asserted to be secret ancient writings or compilations of secret ancient writings.Â TheÂ ZoharÂ is the most basic work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known asÂ Kabbalah.Â It is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of theÂ TorahÂ and scriptural interpretations as well as material onÂ Mysticism.Â The Zohar contains a discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, redemption, the relationship of Ego to Darkness and "true self" to "The Light of God," and the relationship between the "universal energy" and man. ItÂ can be considered anÂ esotericÂ form of theÂ Rabbinic literatureÂ known asÂ Midrash, which elaborates on the Torah.
The mystical school of thought came to be known as Kabbalah, from the HebrewÂ rootÂ Qof-Beit-Lamed, meaning "to receive, to accept." The word is usually translated as "tradition." In Hebrew, the word does not have any of the evil connotations that it has developed as the result of manipulation of the Kabbalah. I am currently studying the history of the Kabbalah at a Masorti or conservative movement Synagogue in Haifa. We have learned that some of Jewish mystical teaching has been integrated into traditional Judaism while some Kabbalah practitioners are seen as charlatans.
Historically, Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th- to 13th-centuryÂ Southern FranceÂ andÂ Spain, later becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-centuryÂ Ottoman Palestine. It wasÂ popularizedÂ in the form ofÂ Hasidic JudaismÂ from the 18th centuryÂ onward. Â The current interest in Kabbalah has produced a cross denominational interest in Jewish mysticism.
The basis of the Kabbalah is the concept of Ein Sof, orÂ universalÂ creator, the Ten Sefirot, and the tree of life.
According to the Kabbalah, the true essence of G-d is so overwhelming that it cannot be described. This true essence of G-d is known as Ein Sof, which literally means "without end," encompasses the idea of a lack of boundaries in both time and space. In this truest form, the Ein Sof is so powerful that It cannot have any direct interaction with the universe. The Ein Sof interacts with the universe through ten emanations from this essence, known as the Ten Sefirot.
These Sefirot correspond to qualities of G-d and Godliness in mankind. They consist of, in descending order, Keter (the crown), Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (intuition, understanding), Chesed (mercy) or Gedulah (greatness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (glory), Netzach (victory), Hod (majesty), Yesod (foundation) and Malkut (sovereignty).Â The Ten Sefirot include both masculine and feminine qualities. Kabbalah pays a great deal of attention to the feminine aspects of G-d.
The Sefirot are commonly represented as in the diagram above. This diagram is commonly known as the Tree of the Sefirot or the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. There is a great significance to the position of these various attributes and their interacting relationships.
The Sefirot are not separate deities, as some might think by taking this too literally. They are intimately a part of G-d, and yet they are in contact with the universe in a way that the Ein Sof is not. The Sefirot connect with everything in the universe, including humanity. The good and evil that we do resonates through the Sefirot and affects the entire universe, up to and including G-d Himself.
Divine creation by means of the Ten Sefirot is an ethical process. They represent the different aspects of Morality. Loving-Kindness is a possible moral justification found in Chessed, and Gevurah is the Moral Justification of Justice and both are mediated by Mercy which is Rachamim. However, these pillars of morality become immoral and harmful once they become extremes. Kabbalah teaches the concept of Izun or balance in all aspects of our lives.
The position of the Kabbalah is that the human soul is divided into three parts:
Nefesh : the lower part, or "animal part", of the soul. It is linked toÂ instinctsÂ and bodily cravings. This part of the soul is provided at birth.
Ruach: the middle soul, the "spirit". It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish betweenÂ goodÂ andÂ evil.
Neshamah: the higher soul, or "super-soul". This separates man from all other life-forms. It is related to theÂ intellectÂ and allows man to enjoy and benefit fromÂ the afterlife. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.