Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Some central themes in Kabbalah
Cosmic blessing – the whole of creation exists so that God can bestow blessing. The purpose of humanity is to increase the flow of blessing and to unite creation to receive blessing. This blessing is for all creatures, all beings, all levels of being, for the whole cosmos. Kabbalah is the first area of Jewish thought to propose that the Jewish covenant was given for the sake of all creation. Good or right actions increase the blessing that flows to all the world. Because of the brokenness of creation, the way for blessing to flow and enter can be impeded by sin, by God's judgment, and by simple human inattention or diversion.
Gilgul Reincarnation, and Redemption – the Kabbalah elaborated many versions and visions of redemption. Most significantly, there can be redemption for individual sparks in the world, and individual aspects of a person's soul or body. Kabbalah introduced the idea of reincarnation into Jewish thought, which was the process through which an individual soul could be redeemed. Human souls can be reincarnated into other animals or realms in order to achieve a specific redemption. Luria taught that additional souls could reincarnate in a person's body in order to fix themselves or to strengthen that person to accomplish a specific task – this was called the secret of the ibur embryo. Cosmic redemption entails the permanent conjugation/connection of those aspects of the Sefirot which can sometimes be cut off. This involves the unification of cosmic feminine with cosmic masculine according to some, or the attainment of equality between cosmic feminine and cosmic masculine according to others. There can be many cycles of redemption; according to one interpretation, we are in the world of Gevurah —judgment—in which redemption comes through overcoming judgment with compassion and love. According to another interpretation, the world goes through cycles of thousands of years, and we are in the sixth cycle, almost at the point of Shabbat, which is the Messianic seventh cycle.
Tzorekh Gavoha or "high need", the meaning of the mitsvot – Mitsvot or commandments fulfill a tzorekh gavoha – a high need – meaning, a need on high, a need within God or the cosmos on the level of the Sefirot. The commandments have a cosmic impact of bringing blessing, while sins can bring cosmic tragedy. For example, according to one interpretation, during the week there is a wall of fire between Shekhinah (or Malkhut – kingdom, the cosmic feminine) and the Holy One (or Tif'eret, the masculine), but on Shabbat the fire goes out so that they can unite. We don't light fire on Shabbat in order to help this happen. This was a radical rejection of what Jewish (and Christian and Muslim) rationalist philosophy. Philosophy had taught that God has no need whatsoever (this was a lemma to the concept of God's perfection), and that any idea to the contrary was heretical to monotheism.
The Infinity of Torah and her Sod or secret meaning – the nature of Torah as revelation is that it has infinite meaning – this of course was already understood by the rabbinic tradition. However, for Kabbalah, that infinity of meaning has a hierarchy, and the level which points to the reality of the Sefirot is the highest. Every story, every character of the Bible, is a symbol of this hidden hyper-real world within God. Avraham is Chesed – love or lovingkindness; Yitzchak is Gevurah – might, judgment, strictness. The binding of Isaac is a story of Love overcoming Judgment. For the Zohar, when Tamar sits at the crossroads of Petach Einayim (lit. "the opening of the eyes"), she is Yesod, foundation (associated with the genitals, the brit), sitting between Netzach, eternity or victory and Hod (majesty); which together represent prophecy, that is, the opening of the eyes. In that position, Tamar is capable of bringing redemption, which is fufilled through Malkhut , represented by King David, Tamar's progeny through the line of Ruth and Boaz. There are levels within levels within the Sefirot, and within the secret of Kabbalistic meaning of the Torah – so each generation of kabbalists articulates its own deeper Sod built on the interpretations that came before it.
Sitra Achra, the Other Side and the origins of evil – The klippot or shards of the broken creation are not just inert elements that need to be redeemed or fixed; they trap the sparks and use the energy of divinity in them to create a kind of demonic existence independent of God. The essence of sin for Kabbalah is that it feeds energy to the klippot; this process turns the klippot into a kind of shadow figure of the tree of Life, a tree of death whose energy is entirely of the Left Side and so out of balance. This is called "the Other Side". Hence the admonition of the Zohar, quoting Psalms, Al tashleymah ra "Don't make evil whole", don't help the Sitra Achra become whole by adding your own power to it. (These words mean, "Don't repay evil [with evil]" in the context of the Psalm.) The Sitra Achra, along with the idea of Shevirah, explain how the God "who makes peace" also "creates evil".
Kabbalah's opposition to Philosophy – The Kabbalists insisted that mitzvot had a deep metaphysical meaning, beyond any rationalist interpretation. On a sociological level, medieval rationalism had led to people abandoning the observance of Jewish ritual: if they understood the reason or lesson behind the mitzvah, wasn't the understanding itself sufficient? In every way, Kabbalah developed a cosmology and metaphysics that was the opposite of this. Kabbalists saw the image of God not just in the soul or mind but also in the physical body, in complicated and mutlilayered ways (see Image of God in the Body). They believed that God needed humans to bring blessing into this world and to fix the realm of the Sefirot , for God's sake as well as for ours. For them, what was essential was not the reasons for the mitzvot, but the kavanah, the intention. Only by coupling mystical understanding with embodied fulfillment of each mitzvah could the physical and spiritual planes be conjoined and perfected.
Names and letters – the Torah and more fundamentally the Hebrew letters represent the energies and substance of creation. How we spell words, how they add up in numbers, how we spell the name of each letter – all these things have profound meaning in Kabbalah because God created the world through letters – this is the fundamental teaching of Sefer Yetsirah, the ancient text inherited by the Kabbalists. The Kabbalists extended this from letters to vowels, crowns, cantillation (tanta). God's names in particular are profound teachings representing the relationships between the Sefirot and the ways we can reach their different dimensions through prayer and meditation.
The Masculine bestows; the Feminine receives: Every level is in the position of the feminine with respect to what is above it, and masculine with respect to what is below it. Nevertheless, the feminine quality represented as Shekhinah is understood to to have no light of her own, in a way that is different than all the other Sefirot. Hence, she is the moon, the earth, "the beautiful maiden without eyes" (because eyes would shine with light), etc. This sense of an essential difference is related by the terminology of "a lens that does't shine", Aspaklariyah She'eyno Me'irah vs. "a lens that shines" Aspaklariyah Me'irah. A lens that shines – this is the unity of the upper sefirot that brings light, blessing, flow into the world; it is the source of the highest mystical vision, the source of Moshe's prophecy. A lens that doesn't shine – this is Shekhinah or Malkhut, which receives light and portions it out to all being and all creatures; it is also the source of prophecy for the other prophets.
The Structure of the Soul – Naranch"i: This acronym stands for Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah, Yechidah. The levels of the soul and their varied meanings, roles, essences and destinies after life are fundamental in Kabbalah. But the actual connotation of any of these levels changes throughout the history of Kabbalah, and even the number of levels changes (three—comprised of Nefesh Ruach Neshamah or Nara"n—and five are equally common earlier on).
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006