Learning Kabbalah requires interpretation and experience, and there are radically different approaches out there as to what that should mean. Should you learn traditionally, with all the requirements of Jewish observance and the articles of faith? Or esoterically, knowing that much of what you learn is of more recent derivation than it claims? Or in progressive spiritual environments? Academic ones? Let the seeker beware — and let the seeker also be mindful about which approach she is choosing (academic, traditional, magical, commercial) and which approaches she might explore as well.
Choosing Kabbalah teachers involves more questions of trust than, say, finding someone to teach you Spanish. Because of the personal nature of the wisdom, because of its many faces, and because of its sheer size and breadth, what you receive depends in large part on choices your teacher makes — choices to which you don’t really have full access. Being a student means you don’t know what your teacher knows, and therefore you have to trust that they are making skillful decisions for you.
I think there are a few basic principles which ought to guide how you look for a teacher. Some of these are common-sensical; others a little more specialized in nature.
1. Try to get to know your teacher as a full human being. There’s a famous Hasidic story about a hasid going to learn with his rebbe not to learn any particular text, but rather to see how he ties his shoelaces. The point is that true wisdom affects everything about us, not just how we sit and read a book; the true teaching, as in Zen, is life itself. So, in researching possible teachers, it might be useful to ask questions like, How much money is this person making from the teaching of Kabbalah? Does this person’s family/personal life seem healthy? What motives does this person seem to have, in teaching Kabbalah? Is s/he patient, or quick to anger? Generous, or stingy? Of course, there are many mystical teachers who use anger or other aggressive behavior for the well-being of the student. But you should be able to see whether that’s the case for yourself.
2. Trust the “vibe.” It’s not fair to judge people based on intuition, because intuition is informed by cultural biases and prejudices. However, if you enter a process of discernment based upon intuition, you should be able to see for yourself whether these kinds of factors are improperly influencing you. And then intuition becomes extremely valuable. I’ve met teachers of mysticism who have a lot of technical knowledge, but who seem emotionally unstable, or involved with a lot of anger or fear. I’ve met some who seem overly concerned with money. And I’ve met teachers who, in a profound way, just don’t seem to “get it,” at least not from a spiritual point of view. What’s more, many non-religious academic teachers of mine clearly do “get it” spiritually, in a way that many very religiously observant teachers clearly do not; you can’t judge on appearances, or the length of someone’s beard. Learn that balance between openness and vigilance, intuition and self-questioning — and trust the vibe.
3. Get a sense of their priorities. As you can tell from reading this site, I tend to emphasize the contemplative and theological sides of Kabbalah over, say, the astrological and magical sides. I am not particularly interested in magick, the occult, divination, and so on — not because I don’t think there’s wisdom there, but because it has not been my path. You should be able to tell pretty quickly where your prospective teacher is coming from. Do they regard Kabbalah as an academic subject matter, quirky and weird but ultimately just a curiosity? Do they leap to Aleister Crowley and other magick-centered authorities to “unveil” the occultic meanings? I prize a balance between intellectual rigor and spiritual openness. You may prefer skepticism, or enthusiasm, or something else. Be aware of these priorities.
4. Know the signals. Here’s one simple, trivial one — not very significant, but surprisingly accurate: spelling. Every intellectually rigorous teacher of Kabbalah whom I know of spells the word, in English transliteration, “Kabbalah.” Spellings like Qabala, Cabala, Kabala, and Qabbalah (and, to a lesser extent, “sephirot”) — these telegraph, to me, less in-depth knowledge of the Kabbalah and more familiarity with, again, Crowley-esque readings of it. That’s fine, if that’s what you want — but know the signals. (Ironically, Qabala is actually more grammatically accurate, since the Hebrew letter qoof is “equivalent” to Q, whereas kaf is equivalent to K.) Also look for signposts like “who wrote the Zohar,” which clue you in to how the teacher relates to academic scholarship. For some students, academic rigor is a “must-have” if they are to gain confidence in their teachers. For others, it’s a dry waste of time. For some students, teachers who emphasize the ritual mitzvot are trying to proselytize; for others, they’re adding the necessary embodiment to the Kabbalah. Look for the signals, try out different approaches, and choose mindfully.
5. What about the Kabbalah Centre? It’s impossible to talk about finding a Kabbalah teacher without mentioning the Kabbalah Centre, which is the largest Kabbalah organization in the world. I have written about the Kabbalah Centre elsewhere, and encourage you to read those articles. There has also been a fair amount of journalistic coverage of the Centre, though — without defending the Centre too much here — most of it seems irrevocably tainted by an overly skeptical view of mystical practice in general. Most reporters who cover the Centre seem so dubious of mysticism generally, that of course they’re going to find fault, call it a cult, and make fun of those who go to it. That said, there are many aspects of the Kabbalah Centre’s methodology which concern me. Some of their products seem needlessly expensive — charging $30 for a package of red strings, or $700 for a Zohar, is really dubious. Just the amount of commercialism in the Centre in the first place (I have been to the Centre, as well as read many of its publications) is disturbing, and, I think, distorts what Kabbalah is. But even apart from financial matters — and the high-pressure ways in which students are called on the phone, encouraged to attend more classes, etc. — I think there are aspects of how the Centre teaches Kabbalah that should give one pause. The emphasis on enhancing one’s own personal power, redolent of the human potential movement, does have roots in practical Kabbalah. But it is anathema to much of theosophical and prophetic Kabbalah. The insistence that the Zohar and other texts have magical properties likewise has roots in practical Kabbalah, but not in other forms. So too the use of Divine and angelic names, and the belief that everything that happens to you is, actually, somehow within your control. It’s not that the Kabbalah Centre is completely inauthentic — but it does weight the magical aspects of Kabbalah over some of the other ones. (This actually reflects the educational lineage of the Centre’s founder, Rabbi Philip Berg.) At the end of the day, I do not advise my students to learn at the Kabbalah Centre. There’s too much money, too much pizzazz, and too much emphasis on magic for my taste. But I am not one of those who demean it either. They do have an interesting, skillful way of presenting the Kabbalah, and they have certainly succeeded at publicizing it. You should make your own decisions — but watch your boundaries, and be mindful of the container you are entering.
6. And what about Chabad? Besides the Kabbalah Center, the most prominent organization teaching Kabbalah is the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidism. For many people, the messianism within Chabad is an instant turnoff — a large portion of the sect believed their recently-deceased rebbe to be the messiah. Some still believe it. But there is more to Chabad than messianism, and within Chabad you will find many very learned teachers of Kabbalah — as well as many people who seem to be learned, but actually know hardly anything. Basically, the same rule applies here as to the Kabbalah Centre: make your own decisions, but remain mindful of the container, and your boundaries. Chabad, ideologically, has the mission of bringing Jews back to Judaism; they do want you to be “more religious,” and they’ll only teach you if you’re Jewish. So, know that going in, and know that the degree to which this matters varies from teacher to teacher. Some will really try to persuade you to take on religious observance right away. Others never will. You’ll have to see for yourself. One aspect of Chabad that does not vary, though, is its ahistorical, essentially conservative view of Kabbalah. Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar. The Torah is absolutely the word of God. There is no difference between Talmudic and Kabbalistic Judaism. These are all very contentious positions (to say the least), but they are gospel truth within traditional circles, and Chabad, for all its outreach, mysticism, and relative worldliness, is very much a traditional circle. There is a great deal of joy and knowledge within Chabad, and also much to question and observe. Know what you’re getting into, but keep your mind open as well; in a way, the process of learning Kabbalah is itself Kabbalah.
These are some basic principles if you choose to go looking for a Kabbalah teacher. Particularly online, it’s very hard to sift through the multitude of sites and teachers out there, and it can be bewildering. I’ve provided some links to teachers and sites that I respect, and, of course, I’m a teacher of Kabbalah myself. But whether you’re flying off to Tsfat to learn with the Kabbalists at the Ari’s gravesite, or just taking a class at your local JCC, there is a wonderful literature, and a remarkable set of practices, awaiting you. I invite you to have a look.