"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"Some rabbis that I met told me it is prohibited to study the "secret" teachings until you are 40 years of age and expert in Talmud and Jewish law. If so, how can you teach "Kabbala" in your seminars in Safed and in your publications?"


We've been asked this question a number of times. First of all, it is clear that our short seminars are not within the purview of the prohibition that your Rabbis referred to. Let us examine the best known exposition of it is the ruling of Rambam [Maimonides]:

I say that it is not proper to dally in Pardes ["orchard" -- i. e., mysticism] till one's belly is filled with bread and meat, knowledge of what is permitted and what forbidden, and similar distinctions in other classes of precepts.

This quote must be understood in its context. It is found at the end of the fourth chapter of "Laws of the Torah's Foundations," the first section of his 14 volume exposition of Jewish law, Mishnah Torah. These four chapters themselves consist of an outline of "Maaseh Merkavah" and "Maaseh Bereishit," the mystical study of the Creator and His Creation that Rambam then proceeds to restrict to accomplished Torah scholars. Yet he clearly states in his introduction to the entire work that it is for all Jews, not just for those with the above qualifications!

We can presume that Rambam's intention in discussing these topics was not to aid and abet the violation of his own ruling, but rather to demonstrate that studying these first four chapters does not constitute "strolling in Paradise," only glimpsing it. And not only does he consider this mere glimpse permissible, he places it first; the sip of "wine" should precede the meal of "bread and meat!" His reasons are clear. This study is integral to the maximum fulfillment of the five basic Jewish mitzvot which he chose to head his ordering and explanations of the commandments. These are to 1) know, 2) love, and 3) fear G-d, and to realize 4) His oneness and 5) His uniqueness.

Indeed, although no principles of Judaism are more fundamental than these five, and unlike all the other positive commandments the obligation to fulfill these five is constant, very few teachers are addressing them in depth. Yet it is precisely these mitzvot that shape Judaism's unique belief system. Without proper knowledge of them, it is no wonder so many people perceive Judaism as being solely a philosophy or a system of ethics (or--heaven help us--a mere cultural /ethnic heritage). Yet the Rambam is emphatic that these commandments are not merely articles of passive faith; they necessitate study and an intense effort to comprehend the Creator.

ASCENT's position is clear: the "mystical" teachings of the Zefat kabbalists and the Chassidic masters, when presented properly, constitute an important vehicle for making these basic tenets more accessible and attractive. I don't believe that any Jew could possibly object to their utilization for such a purpose.

Nevertheless, the risk exists that these teachings can easily be misunderstood and/or distorted. But in our generation we have to equally consider the risk in not utilizing this facet of the Torah. Countless numbers of contemporary Jews have been turned off to Judaism because of what they perceive as a lack of meaningful personal relevance. Most never make it past the tedious years of pre bar/bat mitzvah "Hebrew Schools." Those who do are confronted at every turn by intimidating lists of do's and don't's, without anyone being able to depict for them the inner beauty of the mitzvot and the divine significance of their fulfillment. How unfortunate that the inner teachings of Torah are neglected while myriads of Jews hunger for what they have to offer, without even realizing that these teachings exist.

Even for the more Jewishly sophisticated, the encounter with the "Zefat teachings" is often of great practical significance. Many, if not most Jews feel an urge to know that there is deep underlying meaning to the mitzvot, that they are not merely hollow "rituals." They (and we!) may not fully comprehend the mystical explanations, but everyone gains from them at least the awareness that something special is going on, and this alone is frequently enough to reshape the perspective of someone alienated from Judaism, as well as to breathe new life into the practices of many lackadaisical mitzvah observers. Indeed, even fully committed religious Jews--yeshiva students, etc.--are delighted and stimulated by the discovery of an unseen dimension to observances they have always taken for granted.

Optimally, mitzvot should be experienced and appreciated at every possible level. Whereas the halachically correct physical performance of a mitzvah is its "body," the intention one has in fulfilling the mitzvah together with the awareness of its significance and consequences constitute its "soul." Rabbi Chaim Vital [the chief disciple of the ARI and the only one entrusted by him to record his teachings] wrote, in Etz Chaim, "kavanah [proper motivation and focus] is in the category of "light," while the commandments are in the category of "vessels," comparable to the way in which the body is a vessel for the light of the soul [see also, Tanya I, ch.38]. Therefore, it follows that "[mitzvot], prayer and blessings without kavanah are like a body without a soul" [see Shnei Luchot HaBrit I, 249b].

In Introduction to Etz Chaim, in the context of discussing what he terms the absolute mitzvah to study "the true wisdom," Rabbi Chaim Vital also states "to study the mysteries of the Torah before Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud is at best like a soul without a body, lacking efficacy and accountability" [see also Mystical Concepts in Chassidism by J. I. Schochet]. Nevertheless, an exposure to the "light" of the hidden teachings can be the most effective inspiration to forge for oneself the "vessel" of knowledge of the revealed law.

Even if the person has no conscious understanding of the subject matter at all, it is still worth the time and energy invested. A former student at the famous Telshe yeshiva in Europe relates that the great Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch often referred to kabbalistic concepts during his musar shmoozen [talks on Jewish ethics] to the students. When people would complain to him that these ideas were too strange and difficult, he would always reply, "The neshamah [soul] understands!"

Chassidic thought adds that this understanding of the soul, although subconscious, is highly inspirational.

When the divine soul hears [such teachings], it is able to strongly influence the animating soul of the body. This stimulates an increased motivation for "doing good," the 248 commandments, and for "turning away from evil," the 365 prohibitions. [HaYom Yom, p. 31]

Our primary goal at ASCENT is to be an effective Jewish resource for people in the north of Israel. We do this mainly through warm hospitality and a wide ranging schedule of seminars and classes that involve the entire spectrum of Jewish study. However, many of the people who walk into ASCENT are interested only in the mystical aspect of Judaism, and this is intensified by their presence in Zefat, "The City of Kabbalah." They want to know what the ARI [Rabbi Yitzchak Luria] and his associates taught and how they lived, not just where they are buried. We consider it our obligation to strengthen this connection, not to downplay it. Every Jewish soul has a right to be fed, yet not every one can be nurtured in the same way. For many, a dose of Jewish mysticism constitutes exactly the right prescription.

Yrachmiel Tilles

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