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2. Mystical Qabalah - Background

D. Mystical Qabalah and Rabbinical Jewish Kabbalah

Only a very small percentage of all Jews study their own mystical tradition. The vast majority of people who do study the Jewish Kabbalah are mainstream orthodox and Chasidic Jews of European descent. It is but a footnote for most conservative and reform Jews, though there is a resurgence of interest among those in the Jewish Renewal Movement. The vast majority of the written works of Jewish Kabbalah originated or "reemerged" within the last 800 years. Rabbinical Jews spend many years studying the voluminous Babylonian Talmud in order to learn and carefully adhere to the detailed halachic interpretations of how to fulfill the 613 "mitzvoth," or righteous deeds, prescribed in the extant version of the Ezra Torah. They generally regard the current version of the Torah to be the exact original, faithful in every detail to the one penned by Master Mosheh. Hence, they consider every word and every line to be irrefutably "delivered by the hand of God."

Like all traditional religions that center primarily upon a conventional, dualistic understanding of scriptures, the principal intention of the majority of religious Jews is to cultivate purity and righteousness for the redemption of their souls and to "secure a place in heaven in the company of the righteous." From a qabalistic perspective, this would correspond to ascending the Tree via the Column of the Right "Way of the Angels of Elohim") to become like angels and gain access to the lower heavens. While many contemporary religious students of the Jewish Kabbalah make pretense to mystical aspirations, it has become more of an intellectual exercise than the active pursuit of mystical awakening for most of them. The small minority who do aspire to mystical awakening are an eclectic group. They range from mainstream orthodox Jews to the sect of Chasidus founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), and Nachman of Bretzlav. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer is often referred to as the "Besht," which is an acronym formed from the first letter of each of the three words "Baal Shem Tov." He did not leave a firsthand record of his teachings. Rabbi Nachman was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, and is the source of the Bretzlaver tradition of Chabad Chasidism.

The bulk of the mainstream orthodox Jewish Kabbalists focus primarily on the Sefer HaZohar (Book of Splendor) and the Etz HaChayyim (Tree of Life). They engage in practices of spiritual refinement (avodah) and meditation (devekut, "cleaving to God") gleaned from the writings left by Abraham Abulafia, Azriel of Gerona (disciple of Yitza'aq the Blind), Chayyim Vital (recorder of the teachings of Yitza'aq Luria), Dov Baer (Mezhirecher Maggid and successor to Israel ben Eliezer), Nachman of Bretzlav, and others. These practices include a variety of visualization techniques, breathing exercises, movements coordinated with the permutation and combination of Hebrew letters, mantric intonation of sacred phrases, meditative prayer, and chanting devotional songs.

A central contemplative practice among the Lubivitcher Chasidim who study the Jewish Kabbalah is called Hitbonenuth. Hitbonenuth is a practice involving intense directed thought within the context of proper intention (kavanah). The process of Hitbonenuth and how it differs from passive thought-meditation is described in detail in a Hebrew manuscript roughly 200 years old, titled Ma'amorim Ketzarim, written by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi.Zalman, Rabbi Schneur. Ma'amorim Ketzarim Inyonim, p.133, published in 1986. Hitbonenuth, as described by Rabbi Zalman, "requires intense mental exertion to increase one's awareness of the open, simple and revealed meaning of an idea, to scrutinize and elaborate on a concept's many details, facets and ramifications, and not to allow the mind to contract and settle on one point alone."

Rabbinical Jews often feel that any qabalistic practice outside the context of religious Jewish observance is not legitimately connected with the mystical tradition of the children of Abraham. They generally regard such Qabalah as either hybrid variants adulterated by admixtures of ideas from other mystical traditions, or as the purview of occultists and the Practical Qabalah. This is not surprising. The orthodoxy in all organized religions has historically viewed the study and practice of mystical ideas as a threat to their authority. At the same time, in order to cull new members from older, often indigenous populations, they have on numerous occasions absorbed and assimilated mystical ideas and holy observances that posed no serious threat, and with which the newcomers could identify and feel comfortable. To see a clear example of this, consider how many of the so-called "pagan" traditions (ignorantly labeled as satanic witchcraft by fundamentalists) were assimilated into orthodox Western Christianity.Christianity assimilated December 25 as the birthday of Master Yeshuvah. Before that, the indigenous peoples of Western Europe, whom the Christians called "Pagans," had celebrated it as Yule, and a number of other traditions as the birthday of solar saviors. The Mithraists, for instance, regarded it as the birthday of Mithra. The Romans celebrated the date as Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, "Day of Birth of the Undefeated Sun." The Christian observance of the Pentecost replaced the tradition of Whitsunday, the holy day of the Goddess Frigg, the Norse Queen of Heaven and consort of Odin. Easter absorbed the Pesach of the Jews, and was named after Eostre or Ostara, the Pagan goddess of Spring.

The rabbinate responded in a similar manner to diffuse the powerful influence and popularity of the Karaite movement, which originated in Persia. "The Karaites arose in reaction to and as a revolt against Rabbinical Judaism in the eighth century CE, and were not fully put down until the fifteenth century CE. From its earliest beginning, it (the Karaite revolt) spread throughout the Jewish Diaspora into every stratum of society. 'Karaism' derives from the Hebrew word karah (lit. to read) i.e. to read the Torah without the intervention of rabbis. They rejected the Talmud as a conspiracy of the rabbis to separate ordinary people from the simplicity of the Torah. For them, the Torah was the sole source of religious laws. Karaites created different oral laws to deal with modern life. Many Talmudic dietary laws were abolished and the use of tefillin (phylacteries) was abandoned. In response to the threat that the Karaites posed to their authority, the Jewish rabbis were able to prevent a final schism in Judaism by co-opting many acceptable Karaite ideas and reforming abuses. Gradually, the Karaite revolt dissipated and ceased after almost 700 years.Dimont, Max. Jews, God, and History, Simon and Schuster, New York p. 205., 1962." It is also relevant to note that the Karaites attacked the provocative anthropomorphism of the qabalistic doctrines.

While few contemporary Jews know anything about the Karaites, the impetus for their revolt is similar to conditions in modern Judaism. Many Jews today feel ambivalent about and tenuously connected to Rabbinical Judaism. Many orthodox Jews regard the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism as "heretical sects," declaring them to be Jews only in the biological sense. In recent decades, an extraordinary number of people born and raised by Jewish parents have set out to explore the ideas and practices of other mystical traditions, as if in search of traces of their own. We hear the colloquialisms "HindJews" and "Jewdhists," reflecting the many Jews who have passionately embraced the Hindu and Buddhist mystical traditions. Some Jews, who seriously studied and engaged in the meditation practices of other mystical traditions, have recently come back to Judaism only to discover or see in a new light their own Mystical Qabalah. This has been one of the major factors involved in the Jewish Renewal Movement.

As a final note, anything that runs counter to an ingrained sense of religious identity can be perceived as a threat to that identity. Those with an orthodox or fundamentalist viewpoint may therefore feel uncomfortable with or disturbed by the universal perspective of this book, perhaps dismissing it outright as New Age synthesis or ashram spirituality. Each of the religious vessels through which the universal mystical spirituality has been filtered and uniquely clothed is a precious asset to be respected and afforded its "place at the table." At the same time, none of them should assume that they have been assigned an exclusive licensing agreement or that only their watch tells the correct time.

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