Why learn history?
This site is intended for the spiritual seeker and general student, rather than the scholar and academic. For that reason, as you can see by perusing the sidebar, we mostly proceed according to types of Kabbalah, ideas, and phenomena — rather than according to history and chronology. Thus, by reading the site and working with some of the texts provided, you can get a sense of what Kabbalists say about certain fundamental questions.
For most of the last century, however, Kabbalah was taught very differently in the academy: most professors proceed historically, not phenomenologically. Consequently, the chief questions many scholars asked, and continue to ask, are very different from the questions a spiritual seeker might ask: where does this idea come from, historically? What other texts or figures influenced its development? What influence did it have in the history of Kabbalistic thought? Whereas a spiritual seeker might ask questions such as, what does this text mean, on its own terms and for me? How can I understand the relationship between this teaching and another teaching? Historical concerns are of paramount interest to the scholar trying to understand how Kabbalah developed, but they are of only peripheral interest to the seeker trying to develop herself. For the seeker, it's useful to know that one text was written in 1290 and another in 1570, but it's certainly not the most important thing — it's more important to let these teachings penetrate your soul, and discover them from the inside out.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore history completely. There are several reasons for this.
First, in many places where Kabbalah is taught today, very traditional answers are given to historical questions. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second century sage, wrote the Zohar. The patriarch Abraham wrote (or received) the Sefer Yetzirah. Biblical figures knew Kabbalah. These and other statements may be very important spiritually, but they are almost certainly inaccurate historically. And when the overwhelming evidence against them is presented, a beginning student is right to feel betrayed, confused, even alienated from the whole Kabbalistic enterprise. This isn't supposed to be about taking things on faith, and yet even the most popular commercializers of Kabbalah today repeat statements which have been disproven. (See the "Shimon bar Yochai" page for a detailed discussion of one of these.) This is disappointing.
Second, and relatedly, history should be a natural complement to our study of the Kabbalah itself, not because it is "the" answer — for spiritual seekers, it isn't — and not but because it honors our curiosity and helps us pursue truth. Surely, whatever God is, It is closely related to truth. And our intellectual yearning for truth is part of the picture. Remember, Kabbalah is all about balance, and levels of reality. If we ignore our hearts, bodies, and souls on our religious quests, we will end up with a dry, over-intellectualized reduction of doctrine, dogma, and facts. On the other hand, if we ignore our minds, we are not developing fully either. We are apt to believe things based on authority, and jump from legend to legend without grounding ourselves in old-fashioned good sense and skepticism. Authentic spiritual teachers are not afraid of questions.
Third, the history is remarkable. The ways the Kabbalists thought, and wrote, and worked with their traditions — these can really enrich our appreciation of the Kabbalah. It's a bit like literature. If all you're interested in is the etymology of Shakespearean English, you are clearly missing the point of Hamlet. Then again, if you just read Hamlet and don't notice what a remarkable, amazing departure it is from everything that has come before, your appreciation of Shakespeare's genius is dimmed. The study of how these ideas came to be deepens our enjoyment of them.
And understanding. Only through a critical, historical approach to text can we really know the subtle differences between how the Zohar, Rabbi Isaac Luria, or Rav Kook use the word "Tikkun," to choose one example. They use the same word, but if we know each of their systems of Kabbalah, we can understand the subtle connotations that might be lost on a less careful student. Again, it's not that these connotations are central, and it is very easy to get lost in the little shadings of meaning. But they are important, and, if we don't get lost, we will be able to understand these texts on a much deeper level. There's the Kabbalah again: balance, and levels of reality.
Knowing the rich historical development of the Kabbalah may well shake the faith of some. It may seem too intellectual, too dry, and too far removed from how we can make these teachings real in our lives today. Well, if that is how you feel — skip this section. It's not the most important, and there aren't any final exams anyway. However, you're doing yourself a disservice. Don't rest your practice of Kabbalah on shaky foundations, or on foundations that aren't as credible as the rest of how you lead your life. Religion, spirituality, and contemplation should not be dependent upon suspension of disbelief, curiosity, or even skepticism. To repeat, whatever God is, It must be closely related to truth — and whatever tools we can use to discern that truth, we ought to use.
So, with this brief justification, let's take a moment and look at the historical development of the Kabbalah as understood by scholars today.