Learning More

Books for Beginners

In our culture, one of the primary ways in which people learn new subjects is by buying a book or two, and reading up. This method is not the traditional Kabbalistic one; in contrast to the vast Jewish textual tradition, Kabbalah was defined in its early stages precisely by being dependent upon a teacher-student relationship.  Perhaps more importantly, it can be hard to know where to turn, and there are a lot of bad books out there. Many of the books you find on mainstream bookshelves are actually from the Kabbalah Centre, and thus convey their idiosyncratic take on the Kabbalah. Many others are from well-meaning spiritual seekers who are not familiar with the primary sources or with the contexts of the ideas they discuss. And many others are excellent academic tomes, but ill-suited to the lay reader.
This list is meant to help.

Daniel Matt’s anthology is usually the first book I recommend
to people beginning to learn Kabbalah. The short introduction is concise
and useful, and the selection of primary sources is excellent. Most importantly,
Matt lets the texts speak, and readers think, for themselves. Though weighted
heavily in favor of certain themes at the expense of others (lots of pantheism,
for example, and hardly any magic), it is still the best place to start.
For those looking for a more intuitive, expressionistic introduction
to the Kabbalah, try Rabbi Kushner’s book. Kushner knows the sources very
well, but presents them in a way which is emotional and spiritual, rather
than purely intellectual.
Arthur Green’s Guide to the Zohar, published together with Daniel
Matt’s new translation of it, is at once an excellent introduction to the
Zohar and a thorough introduction to the Kabbalah itself. Like all of us,
Green has his biases and interpretive lenses, but he is generally up-front
about them, and his discussion of the early Kabbalah is the most accessible
I know.
Over sixty years after its publication, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends
is still an indispensable resource and arguably the best academic survey
of the Kabbalah. However, it is very dense, and is often engaged with academic
debates of no interest to the lay reader. For serious students, it is essential
reading, but it’s certainly not the easiest.
Originally articles for the Encyclopedia Judaica, the “chapters” of Kabbalah
may seem disjointed, as indeed they are. Nevertheless, they are excellent
short essays on some of the key figures and concepts in the Kabbalah. Not
the best linear introduction, but excellent treatment of practical Kabbalah
in particular, by the inventor of contemporary academic study of Kabbalah.
Professor Joseph Dan’s anthology of primary texts and testimonies is
essential reading. There is no substitute for reading how Kabbalists actually
describe their experiences, and this is an excellent selection.
Jacobs’ book, which preceded Dan’s, is an excellent complement to it,
overlapping only in a couple of areas.
At last, a reliable, excellent translation of the Zohar. Indispensable.

And many more:

Afterman, Allen. Kabbalah and Consciousness. Riverdale, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1992.

Buxbaum, Yitzhak. Jewish Spiritual Practices. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990.

Cooper, David. God is a Verb: Kabbalah & The Practice of Mystical Judaism

Elior, Rachel. Dybbuks and Jewish Women.

Fine, Lawrence. Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos, 2003.

Goldwag, Arthur. The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah. New York: Three Leaves, 2005.

Green, Arthur. Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow.

Green, Arthur, ed. Your Word is Fire: Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives

Idel, Moshe. Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic.

Kaplan, Aryeh. Meditation and Kabbalah. York Beach, ME: S. Weiser, 1985.

Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac. Lights of Holiness, trans. Ben Zion Bokser. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Michaelson, Jay. God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice. Jewish Lights, 2004.

Michaelson, Jay. Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism. Boston: Trumpeter, 2007.

Ostow, Mortimer. Ultimate Intimacy: The Psychodynamics of Jewish Mysticism. London: Karnac Books, 1995.

Rose, Or N. God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2004.

Schachter-Shalomi, R. Zalman. Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

Schaefer, Peter. The Hidden and Manifest God.