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Modes of Learning

If secret knowledge is experiential knowledge, and therefore the only way to obtain it is in some form of direct transmission from a teacher or experiential practice, what are we to make of the academic study of Kabbalah? Is it, as some contemporary figures say, misguided?

As I have an academic background myself, clearly I don’t think academic study is misguided. By applying the tools of critical theory and close reading to the Kabbalah, scholars have vastly enriched our understanding of its substance, its roots and historical development, and its textual makeup. There is no substitute for intellectual rigor, and there are brilliant academics of several generations upon whose shoulders we all sit.

The chief questions many scholars 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.

Obviously what an academic approach leaves out are how the teachings of Kabbalah may apply to us today. In a sense, this question is a misleading one for academics, because if we project back our own concerns onto the Kabbalists, we obscure what they are trying to say themselves. To relate hesed and gevurah to a contemporary political situation is precisely, I think, what the Kabbalah wants us to do — but it is very bad scholarship to do so. The more we blend the Kabbalistic worldviews with our own, the less clearly we can see what the Kabbalah was about for those who created it.

To me, academic and non-academic study of Kabbalah are natural complements of one another (rather like the Kabbalah itself is always seeking balance between two extremes). But I find there are comparatively few teachers who combine actual spiritual practice — be it meditation, or traditional study, or Jewish ritual observance — with intellectual rigor and critical openness. Not none — but few. What I have found, and what you will find, is that to learn Kabbalah is to take on, temporarily, different modes of learning, and do a lot of the integration work yourself. Obviously, in my own classes and in those of some other teachers, attempts are made to bring together academic rigor with spiritual seriousness. But most of the time, it’s either one or the other.

There are several ways in which a bit of academic rigor can help the spiritual seeker in her study of Kabbalah.

First, learning Kabbalah with contemporary Kabbalists usually means entering a worldview in which Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar — which scholarship has almost conclusively proven false — and in which the Torah is a Divine text in a way that no other document is. I do not find it difficult, any longer, to transport myself into that world, work within its assumptions, and then translate what I learn into my own weltanschauung. I can even learn text at the Kabbalah Centre, see through its commercialism and selective emphases of Kabbalistic themes, and understand what it is they’re saying. But the beginning student of the Kabbalah should be mindful of these different approaches, and the different assumptions they conceal. Of course, discerning the concealed is one of the main purposes of Kabbalistic study anyway — so you’re well on your way.

Second, and relatedly, in many places where Kabbalah is taught today, very traditional answers are given to historical questions — such as, again, that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar, or that the patriarch Abraham wrote (or received) the Sefer Yetzirah, or that 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.

Third, academic methodology, with its critical distance, love of distinctions, and historical sophistication, 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.

Fourth, 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 finally: our understanding is immeasurably deepened as well. 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. On the other hand, for other people, approaching the Kabbalah as a set of ideas or teachings without the historical context may raise suspicions, or even seem dishonest. After all, these ideas didn’t develop out of nowhere, or fall from the sky, even though some contemporary teachers say they did. There are limits to both approaches. The academic approach asks whether something is true historically, but never asks whether it is true theologically. And the traditional approach is the exact opposite.

Thus, finding the right mode of learning is, as suggested above, part of the practice of Kabbalah itself, which is so fundamentally about balance both vertical and horizontal. Vertical balance means moving among levels of reality, denying neither the revealed surface nor the hidden substance underneath. And horizontal balance means, on each of those levels, balancing heart and head, adventurousness and restraint, and so on. For each individual, the right proportion of inspirational-but-perhaps-a-bit-ahistorical teaching to historical-but-perhaps-less-inspiring information will vary. But in general, I think it’s unwise to rest your knowledge 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.