KosherTorah School for Biblical, Judaic & Spiritual Studies
The History of Kabbalah, Let the Truth be Told!
by Ariel B Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok.
All rights reserved.
Warning! Many religious readers might not like what I am about to reveal!
I have been a student of the Kabbalah for over 40 years. I have been blessed to study with some of the greatest teachers of the past half-century. I have studied as many subjects, orientations, and perspectives of Torah mysticism that I could find. Over the years I have written a great deal about what I have learned from Torah, and from many other sources. My KosherTorah School is the record of what I have learned, and what I teach.
Over the years, many of my opinions have changed. Actually, it is more appropriate to say that my ideas have matured, and evolved. In other words, as I learned new things, I found myself forced by academic integrity to reconsider many of my previous opinions. For a long time, I believed some views to be sacred, only to discover with the fullness of research that they were not so sacred. Other things, which at one time I overlooked or ignored, I learned were actually important. To this day, my education is still an on-going process.
Part of a serious, well-rounded education is to consider all sources of information, and not to discount ideas, or beliefs simply because they may contradict what some consider to be “the faith.” Faith is indeed what people believe, but faith is not necessarily the historical truth. Indeed, another serious part of learning is distinguishing between historical fact, and faith-based beliefs. The two often contradict one another. The well-learned person does not seek to deny this contradiction. Instead, the educated person embraces the truth, regardless of what it is, and does not allow uncomfortable truths to contradict, or even challenge one's faith.
Education refines faith, it does not destroy it. Truth only reinforces faith, although it may at the same time transform it. All of this is well and good, and part and parcel of the learning experience.
What I believed with little knowledge of a subject, I came to reconsider when I had learned even more about the subject. It requires courage to seek out the real truth behind religious teachings, and then it takes even greater courage to embrace the real truths, especially if and when such truths require of one to change his/her previously held views.
There are many teachings within the Kabbalah that, upon my first exposure, I raised them high upon a pedestal of awe, holding them in sacred esteem. Then, over the years, I slowly became aware that many of the sacred cows of Kabbalah were not as sacred as the rank-and-file are led to believe.
With an encompassing education that includes exposure to the religious, philosophical, and mystical beliefs of the world, one quickly comes to recognize that which is believed to be unique to Kabbalah is nothing of the sort, at all! Most teachings sacred to the Kabbalah can be found in the teachings of many of the world's belief systems. More than this, there is strong evidence to suggest, (and maybe even to prove), that many of the sacred cows of the Kabbalah originally came from the philosophies, and mysticism of many different world systems.
Like Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” This includes many of the teachings of the Kabbalah. Much of Kabbalah did not come down from Heaven in mystical revelation, as if often believed. Rather, many teachings were adopted from other, non-Jewish sources, and then cloaked in Hebrew symbols, and words to make these teachings appear exclusively Jewish. For over a century scholars of religion, and experts in Kabbalah, have been writing about this relationship between Kabbalistic teachings and other philosophies, and proving these relationships in their books.
One point needs to be made very clear. Torah mysticism, and Kabbalah are not the same, at all! Torah mysticism is the forms of spiritual practices used since Biblical times to experience the realm of the Divine. Kabbalah, as we have it today, refers to the metaphysical philosophical teachings that came mostly out of Spain in the 13th century. While Torah mysticism emphasizes practice, and experience, Spanish Kabbalah, (and the schools that developed out of it), emphasize only theory, doctrine, legend, and lore. The Spanish Kabbalah never developed a system of spiritual practices leading to actual spiritual experience.
The only exception to this was Avraham Abulafia, but he developed his system outside of the growing Spanish Kabbalah. Abulafia's system was considered a competition to the Spanish Kabbalah. Therefore, Abulafia's works were shunned for centuries. Abulafia's works were known to only a relative few over the centuries, and were only published for the first time at the very end of the 20th century. If Abulafia's works received prominence in their day, they might very well have provided an alternative spiritual path to the growing influence of the Spanish theoretical Kabbalah.
By the 13th century, there was already in existence for a very long time a state of cross-cultural exchange of philosophy, and mysticism. Spiritual ideas, and beliefs from over the known world had long been accessible to inquiring individuals, far and wide. Indian and Chinese beliefs met and merged with Babylonian and Persian beliefs. These in turn mixed with Israelite and Egyptian beliefs. These beliefs in turn would mix, and match with Greek and Roman beliefs. This spiritual cocktail existed since the days of the Roman Empire. It is clear and evident in the genre of spirituality today called Gnostic. Although things changed over the many centuries, the one constant that remained was the flow of information, ideas, and beliefs. This is recorded in numerous historical sources from ancient times, to the present.
When, therefore, we see a certain set of teachings crop up in a certain area, we can rest assured that people from that place had learned some things from a new source, and then went about reformatting those new teachings, making them accessible, and applicable to their relative communities. This has happened for centuries, and 13th century Spain was no exception.
In 12th and 13th century Spain, certain new midrashim began to appear. These new works claimed to be rediscovered, lost ancient manuscripts of Talmudic masters. Some claimed to be secret, hidden teachings now being made public for the very first time. Yet, no one ever bothered to ask where the lost manuscripts were found, and by whom. No one even bothered to ask why were these secret, hidden manuscripts being revealed at that time, for the very first time. What made “that time” so special, and select, that after all these centuries the secrets were to be revealed. No one asked the right questions. This, in and of itself, is extremely curious.
Judaism is a religion of inquiring minds. Why then did those inquiring Rabbinic minds not inquire after the origins of all this new literature? To suggest that all the Sages of that generation immediately recognized the sanctity of these materials, and embraced them wholeheartedly is historically inaccurate. Not everybody accepted the teachings of the Kabbalah, not then, and not to this day. Yet, almost no one looked to explore from where did these new mystical teachings originate. As will be shown, the reason for this lack of inquiry makes sense, however unfortunate it is.
Torah Sages of the 13th century, for the most part, rarely exposed themselves to the teachings, and beliefs of other spiritual systems. Prior to this era, in Temple times and Talmudic days, the Sages were experts in all the known world's religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. The wisdom of the ages, unfortunately, was not passed down. The majority of Sages in the 13th century would not have recognized Greco-Roman Neoplatonism, or the Indian Patanjali Sutras, even if they proverbially hit them in the head.
Moving forward many centuries, modern scholars seek answers to the old question of where did the Spanish Kabbalah suddenly come from. They have made great strides in discovering the ties between what is presented as Jewish (since 13th century Spain to today), and its similarities, if not origins, in different mystical, metaphysical, and philosophical systems circulating at that time. Modern scholarship has shown considerable overlapping of teachings, and ideas between cultures, spanning many centuries.
Yet, one may ask here an interesting question, Torah Sages, are known to zealously guard the purity of Torah teachings, why then would they even consider adopting from foreign cultures any idea or concept? The answer to this is rather evident in every page of the Babylonian Talmud, the source of Rabbinic Judaism.
Talmudic argument, and use of logical proofs, which is the foundation of the establishment of Halakha (Jewish Law), is Greek in origin. During the days of the Second Temple, not everything in the surrounding Greco-Roman culture was deemed bad. It seems that there was a long standing precedence established by the Talmudic Sages to give credence to all things good. The Sages found much to be admired in the thinking patterns of the ancient Greeks, and they adopted entire segments of their teachings into the Torah tradition. If this was the precedent set before the 3rd century, then certainly it could be followed again in the 13th century. And indeed it was.
Select Spanish Sages in the 13th century brought into Judaism many teachings that they considered to be as valuable, and important as the Greek methods that were imported into Judaism over a thousand years earlier. In order to make them palatable, the original forms were altered to take on a Jewish body; names were changed, and ideas given new identities, and new associations to sources in Torah.
The pseudepigrapha model, of centuries gone by, was followed to add a sense of antiquity, and thus authority to the teachings. All this was done in the attempt to help, and assist the religion of Judaism, by breathing into it new life, and a new soul. Judging from the success of their endeavors, the Spanish Sages were indeed wise and insightful, and maybe even a bit prophetic. They knew what Judaism needed, and they provided it. It is clear, and unequivocal, the Spanish Kabbalah has radically altered the face of Rabbinic Judaism.
Whether or not these Sages were Divinely inspired, or humanly inspired is a viewpoint that depends mostly on one's faith. Either way, the Spanish Kabbalah, did not exist before the 12th and 13th centuries. But, once it came into existence, in a relatively short period of time it was adopted by most Jewish communities. Whether or not this is a good thing, or bad, is another one of those judgments best left for individuals of faith to decide for themselves.
So then, why is it important for this true history of Kabbalistic ideas to be known? It is not simply for the sake of curiosity. But rather, the revelation of truth helps us to better appreciate the ways of the medieval Sages, and to learn from their example. Just as they became aware of valuable teachings in the cultures of the world, and adopted them, and embraced them, so too should we follow in their footsteps. We too should seek out truth and wisdom, and embrace it regardless of whatever its origins. This universalism is even enshrined in the famous dictum from the “Saying of the Fathers,” “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.”
The Talmud made a proud
proclamation with regards to God. It says that “God's seal is truth.” The
meaning of this statement should be clear to all. Where truth is, God is found.
Essentially, we can say that God manifests truth, and the reverse is also true,
truth manifests God. We learn from this that the pursuit of truth, is indeed the
search for God. Regardless of whatever form it takes, the search for the truths
of the universe is a spiritual quest, one that is blessed by God, and is indeed
guided by God. For God guides the manifestation of truth.
Knowing this value of truth, the Talmudic Sages, and the Spanish Kabbalists after them, knew it was right to embrace truth, regardless of its source in human consciousness. After all, the wise do learn from everyone. Yet, knowing and recognizing truth is only half a battle won. The other half of the battle is getting everyone else to recognize truth, to embrace it, and live by it. In order to accomplish this task, truth has to often be packaged in a cloak, or garment that makes its appearance more palatable to those with little universal exposure. Thus, the Zohar and its correlate literature were formatted to be cloaked in all manners of superstition, myth, and legend. These forms spoke to the Jewish psyche of medieval Spain, and Europe. These forms have proven themselves valuable in that the Zoharic literature was quickly, and warmly embraced.
Yet, as the pursuit of truth goes, there comes a time, even like the Zohar itself says, when cloaks and veils need to be removed. Even the cloaks and veils within the Zohar, and the greater Spanish Kabbalah, need to be removed in order for its final, and ultimate revelation to come to fruition. The movement of scholars over the last century to expose the Spanish Kabbalah's true origins is a pursuit of truth. As such it is also a search for God. God blesses these endeavors, for God wants nothing more than the revelation of truth.
As we move forward with scholarly review of sacred literature, we should not turn a prejudiced eye towards truths which may be uncomfortable in the short run, but emancipating, and enlightening in the long run. The pursuit of truth is the search for God. The discovery of truth is the revelation of God. The ancient Sages knew these things, and embraced them. It we today truly wish to call ourselves their disciples, then it is high time that we follow their example, and walk in their path.
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