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Kabbalah: A General Introduction

Garden of Eden
by David Friedman
What is the world? Who are we? What is the significance of our lives and actions? What is God? How can we come to know ultimate reality in our own experience? How do the body, heart, mind, and spirit fit together? And what are the roles of myth, ritual, morality, eroticism, meditation, ecstasy, sacred text, and prayer on the spiritual path?

These are some of the questions asked by the Kabbalah. You probably know that, in recent years, the Kabbalah has become very popular — even, a fad. I would invite you to set aside whatever preconceptions you may have about Kabbalah, though, since chances are, what is really there is not what you expect. To be honest, I have been studying Kabbalah for twelve years, and each day, it isn’t what I expect either.

We have said that Kabbalah literally means receiving, and that this means both that Kabbalah itself is a received tradition, and that it enables us to receive the light of the Infinite. This form of dual reading — one simple, one subtle — is itself an essential feature of the Kabbalah. If you learn Kabbalah, you will learn that everything can be read on multiple levels, with the deeper meaning usually hidden behind veils. This is the nature of reality, of text, of the self — it is the nature of God. There are layers and layers to our experience, and multiple “truths” that exist on these different layers. Setting aside our conventional ideas that there is one true meaning of a thing — that’s a good first step.

Scholars often define Kabbalah as “Jewish mysticism.” Mysticism means a direct experience of Ultimate Reality — which in Western religions means, a direct experience of God. Rather than reading about God in the Bible, or praying to a God we don=t experience, a mystic meets God “face to face.”

(Actually, the phrase the [Torah] uses is “face in face.” Probably the most important concept on this website is that everything — including you, including the parts of yourself you don’t like, including your friends and enemies and pets — is actually God. There is nowhere to go, and no God separate from you that you experience “face to face.” Rather, union with God is simply realizing what is already Here. It is face-in-face.)

That scholarly definition, Jewish mysticism, is about half right. Kabbalah does contain accounts of mystical experiences, and techniques for having them yourself. These techniques work, in my experience, and you can try them too. Some of them are even explained on this website. But Kabbalah is more than just accounts of, and guides to have, mystical experiences. It also contains what might be called “esotericism,” or, deeper readings of texts and life. It contains folklore, magic, legend, myth, philosophy, guides to meditation, music.

The oldest written texts of the Kabbalah date to the second century of the common era. Many date from the medieval period, especially the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Many were written in the last few years. On this site, we won’t spend a lot of time progressing in historical, chronological order. However, I have created a [historical timeline] for those who are interested.

Instead, I would like to introduce you to the Kabbalah by beginning with Kabbalah’s fundamental questions, and moving from there into the details. Kabbalah is a body of knowledge that inquires into the true nature of the universe, the soul, and God, and a body of practices that enable us to experience it.

Next page: The meaning of "God".