The Kabbalah offers three types of answers to the fundamental questions of existence. Because the answers are very different, as are the spiritual techniques involved, scholars, following Moshe Idel, have taken to referring to three streams of Kabbalah. Kabbalists themselves also recognize these three trends within Kabbalah, though it’s important to remember that they don’t see themselves as in one or another stream; there is interpenetration among all three. Like most categories, these streams are helpful orienting generalizations, not hard and fast categories.
First is the theosophical Kabbalah, or the Kabbalah of the sefirot. Classic theosophical texts of the Kabbalah, such as the Zohar, teach us about the shape of the Godhead; how our actions influence and mirror the Divine. They map out the entire world onto the Divine form, in particular that of the ten sefirot — an untranslatable word, but one which might mean “emanations”; we work with the sefirot in more detail elsewhere on this site. One helpful metaphor is to think of the sefirot as ten different panes of stained glass through which the Infinite Light shines. The world exists and appears as it does because God manifested godself through these sefirot, which both contain God’s Light and, to speak in metaphor, dimmed or colored it in increasing degrees such that by the time It reaches the final sefirah, Malchut, Shechinah, the immanent presence of God, it might appear that the light is completely concealed. Experientially, learning theosophical Kabbalah transforms our understanding of the world; everything, every word, every moment is like a symbol for a ripple in the Godhead. As the deep structure of reality is uncovered, through ever greater sensitivity to and immersion in the Kabbalah’s symbolic structure, our consciousness expands. In every blade of grass is the entire universe.
Second is the prophetic Kabbalah (kabbalah nevuit). The prophetic Kabbalah, most importantly in the writings of Abraham Abulafia, contains methods for attaining union with the Divine, which lead to prophecy. Prophetic Kabbalah also uses the conceptual structure of the sefirot, but focuses less on understanding complex mythical and symbolic structures and more on techniques for altering the mind in order to open it to the true Reality of this moment right now: God. As in other forms of meditation, many experiences may result from these ecstatic techniques, and this stream is sometimes called “ecstatic Kabbalah” by scholars. However, that term is a bit misleading, because the experiences are less important than the insights which are received. In Abulafia’s Maimonidean terminology, these are insights from the Active Intellect, the wisdom of the Divine which shapes and maintains the universe, and they — not the experience itself — are why the practices are important. In the practices of prophetic Kabbalah, the individual soul is annihilated; and once its illusory self is seen to be nothing but illusion, the world is experienced as nothing but the Divine Light, and one has access to the radiance of this Light, which is the source of prophecy. More than theosophical Kabbalah, prophetic Kabbalah closely resembles the mystical practices of other religious traditions, with meditation practices and other means of cleansing the doors of perception so that they can accept the Infinite.
Third and lastly is the practical Kabbalah (kabbalah ma’asit), sometimes called magical Kabbalah or theurgical Kabbalah. If theosophical Kabbalah sought to understand the infinite and the finite, and the prophetic Kabbalah sought to move from finitude to Infinity, then practical Kabbalah seeks to move from the infinite to the finite — to apply the knowledge of theosophy to change the world. Practical Kabbalah includes various esoteric practices such as divination; doctrines such as the transmigration of souls; a lively world of angels and demons; and legends such as the Golem. Theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalists tend to denigrate magic to them, it is moving in precisely the wrong direction. However, some of the oldest Kabbalistic texts we have are magical formulas and incantations, and the most popular forms of Kabbalah today make heavy use of magic — in Israel, Kabbalistic healers offer remedies for everything from infertility to depression, and in America, the Kabbalah Center makes magical use of the Zohar and various talismans.
Notice how the Kabbalah is chiefly interested in answering how the Infinite relates to the finite. This is really the question of how we are to live, because as we understand the true nature of reality, we gain a deep understanding of how we are to conduct our lives in light of it. This “life advice” may take the form of quasi magical techniques that may heal us, or ecstatic practices that may give us equanimity and liberate us from the endless cycle of desire and suffering, or theosophical intentions that, when added to the mitzvot, transform our daily consciousness. In all cases, to truly study Kabbalah is to live it, to bring its wisdom into our every act, and to understand ourselves in light of its truths.
Finally, although not formally a stream of Kabbalah, this site will treat Hasidism as a fourth stream so that it can be woven into our understanding. Hasidism was a mystically-drenched popular movement that arose in 18th Century Eastern Europe. It took the truths of all three of these Kabbalistic streams, such as the ecstatic power of meditation and prayer, the doctrine of panentheism (that all is in God), and the magical powers of the righteous one, and synthesized them into a new expression of Jewish spirituality that is still quite popular today. Although Hasidism in the 19th and 20th centuries became extremely conservative, the movement was originally radical. It taught that, since every grain of sand is filled with God, the chief aim of human life ought to be to unify in love with God — what the Hasidim called devekut, or cleaving to the Divine. This is done with prayer, meditation, and mindful everyday living. Hasidism also emphasized the role of the tzaddik, the righteous community leader, as a conduit between the community and God. The evolution from Kabbalah from Hasidism is well explained by this short Hasidic homily:
In the former days [of the Kabbalah], we had all of the keys to all of the doors of heaven. Now, we have lost the keys, so with our love and devotion, we must break the locks.