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Why is Kabbalah traditionally kept secret?

Kabbalah means “receiving,” and one of the connotations of that word is a teaching received directly from a teacher. Today, we are used to obtaining knowledge by reading books or websites, and it’s rare that we have the time or opportunity to learn from skilled teachers. And even when we do have that chance, it’s rarer still to be able to sit one-on-one, or in small groups, with teachers who are truly masters of their disciplines. Yet this is exactly what the Kabbalistic literature demands of us, from its very inception. Centuries before the medieval Kabbalah came into being, the Talmud stated that the greatest mysteries of creation may only be revealed to one student at a time, and then, only if the teacher believes the student to be wise and understanding. In a sense, everything that has been ever written on the Kabbalah either transgresses this teaching!

Why is secrecy maintained? There are several reasons.

First, Kabbalah is a form of advanced study that depends on certain prerequisites. It’s wonderful to learn, and this website opens the door to all who are interested. Yet one who does not know the basics of Torah study, or Jewish law, or the Hebrew language, will be limited by those gaps in knowledge. It’s not impossible, but it does render the Kabbalah study incomplete.

Take the question of language. Kabbalah depends on the Hebrew language. It is filled with word-play, it is rife with allusions and, as you know if you’ve read through this site, the Hebrew language is seen as nothing less than the building blocks of creation itself. Likewise, Kabbalah is not — despite what some people say today — its own religion, or a system of thought independent of religion. It is a Jewish phenomenon, steeped in the Jewish religious system, and until the last hundred years, its texts were written by and for religious Jews.

So what if you don’t know Hebrew, and what if you’re not Jewish? Well, I think we should recognize that, without certain choices, our learning will, indeed, be incomplete. If you don’t learn Hebrew, if you don’t understand the commandments experientially, if you don’t master a number of sources — then, yes, you will not have as deep an understanding of the Zohar as you would have otherwise. But this is true for anything. Without reading Marlowe, you can’t appreciate Shakespeare as much. Without knowing Cezanne, you can’t fully know Picasso.

But, we make choices and learn anyway. It’s important to remember that the choices have been made, and not to make judgments based on partial or incomplete knowledge — but it’s also important not to be stuck because we think we don’t have the necessary prerequisites. Learn what you can, if this material interests you. Partial knowledge is better than ignorance, and if you find curiosity in your mind, or heart, or spirit, don’t let these barriers get in your way. Certainly, I don’t think, in the twenty-first century, that we need to adhere to the specific strictures which would prohibit women, non-Jews, and people under forty from learning, even as I think we should be mindful of their inner purpose. I don’t think there is any single prerequisite that every person must have before learning and living Kabbalah. We just need to be aware of our limitations, and aware of what we are receiving — and then be open.

A second reason Kabbalah is traditionally kept secret is its perceived dangerousness.

In many communities, the secrets of the Kabbalah were judged to be too destabilizing or too privileged to share ith the masses. In this view, Kabbalah is like knowing the secret code words. It’s not that the information is impossible to communicate; it’s just reserved for the select few, who consequently enjoy a certain privilege (or even power) by possessing it. If only you could find the right teacher, and convince him to let you in on the secret…

There is some historical truth to this “common sense” view. After the Shabbetai Tzvi debacle, Kabbalah was indeed deemed too dangerous for everyone to learn. To a great extent, the doors were locked due to a particular historical circumstance, and due to the anxieties it produced among those in authority. This is where some of the well-known restrictions on Kabbalah study came from — that you have to be forty years old, married with a family, well-versed in Bible and Talmud, and so on. These rules were put into place due to a historical event, and were couched in the worldview of that historical moment. That is why I do not adhere to them as written — I am not forty, not married, and I do not have the level of Talmudic knowledge specified in some texts.

I do, however, adhere to these rules in a “translated” way. I think what they are really trying to say is: Be grounded. As I often tell my students, think of yourself as a tree. If you never branch out, never extend yourself, you’re barely living. But if you are all branches with no roots, you’ll blow over in the wind. Study of Kabbalah, like other contemplative practices, can be de-centering, even frightening. In those moments when the phenomenal world really does blink out of existence, you’re left with yourself (at an intermediate stage, anyway; eventually that, too, blinks out) and your fears. This can be a very unsettling, and psychologically dangerous, place. So I think the restrictions on Kabbalah study are actually quite wise. They are there to make sure that only well-grounded people study it — because only well-grounded people can really enter the Orchard and come back in one piece, like Rabbi Akiva.

So much of the Kabbalah is kept secret because it is meant to be revealed only to those who are capable of receiving it. Share the light with everyone, and some people will shatter, like the vessels in the Lurianic myth. Yet this answer, in my experience, is incomplete; there is also a third, and deeper, reason.

The two meanings of Kabbalah — received tradition and being able to receive — converge. The doctrines of Kabbalah, and mysticism in general, can be transmitted in many ways, and a skillful teacher will know which of those ways is most appropriate for different students. Since every person is different, this process must happen on a one-on-one basis. Having taught Kabbalah for some time, and having learned it and other mystical traditions for longer, I think there is a lot of truth to this opinion. It also explains some of the huge diversity within both traditional and contemporary Kabbalah. People see these teachings differently, and have different ideas about how to transmit them.

I think the most important aspect of the secret, direct-lineage nature of Kabbalah, though, is that secret wisdom is experiential wisdom. That is why it is not committed to books — not because it is a proprietary formula, but because it cannot be written at all. For example, take the teaching that everything is God. What does that mean to us? How can we make that truth, if it is true, matter to our lives? It’s easy to say, a little harder to soak in, but without direct transmission, impossible to learn fully, deeply, experientially. In Abulafia’s books, for instance, the eventual “answers” are less important to us than the process through which the answers are received. They are the evidence of prophecy, but to become a prophet is the true Gift. Again, really, what answers are there? All is God. What we really want to know is how to know that — how to transcend our situation and open to its reality.

When I was younger, I would imagine that somewhere, there was the book with The Answer. I even found a book that had the answers to famous Zen koans. It explained the sound of one hand clapping. It did not make me enlightened.

We do not need esoteric knowledge, mysterious astrological symbolism, or occult magick to achieve this enlightenment, and therefore it is not the “secret wisdom” of which the Kabbalah speaks. In fact, such secrets may even confuse us into thinking that “if only I understood this or that secret, I would be happy.” A true secret is not information. It is the translation of information into experience. Secrets are not concealed for the sake of mystery. They are unwritten because simply there is no alternative.

So, go and read some of the books on the book list provided on this site. Know that they will take you further along the path of learning. But know, too, that they will not take you to experience, and experience is where the truth of this knowledge lies. Map is not territory, and reading a recipe is not the same as eating a meal.