In the 1700s, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), brought some of the mystical teachings of Kabbalah out into the open and said it was time to make them more accessible. He understood that the psychology (and spirituality) of the dawning industrial age required a profound strengthening of understanding.
In modern times, Torah scholars* have begun to bring gems of authentic Kabbalistic wisdom more into the public view, as part of a general effort of Tikkun Olam, or rectification of the world. (Tikkun Olam, like Kabbalah, is a Jewish term that is often thrown around incorrectly — in popular parlance, it has little connection with its authentic meaning).
So, can Kabbalah help you make sense of yourself and your place in this world today? Yes, it can be useful to have a grasp of some basic, authentic Kabbalistic ideas. Not only are its teachings helpful in general, but they can also offer some insights to people suffering from depression, bi-polar disorder, addiction, and other problems. However, having a mental illness or even just going through a tough time, might make you vulnerable to the wiles of purveyors of “Kabbalah-ism”. How do you know if what you are being exposed to is authentic Kabbalah?
Some words of advice: Don’t trust most of the dot coms and don’t rely on the bookshelves of your local megastore (though they may have some good books). Most of what’s out there, we are sorry to say, is bunk or at the least, gimmicky — but not all of it, which only adds to the confusion. There are genuine materials available, but it is nearly impossible for those who aren’t familiar with the topic to sort the wheat from the chaff.
As for “centers of Kabbalah” and their ilk, well, if someone tries to sell you stuff or asks you for large donations, that is a pretty good tip-off that they are not authentic — and neither is their Kabbalah. Though some not-for-profit organizations do teach Kabbalah, and do survive on donations, they won’t hit you up for beaucoup bucks for trinkets and charms, soft drinks and tee shirts, and so on. And if a Kabbalah teacher sounds like he’s fortune telling, it’s definitely time to pack in your relationship.
Also, remember to go to the source. It’s important to remember that Kabbalah is a part of Judaism. If adherents to other religions or philosophies, or those without authentic Jewish practice and scholarship, or those whose primary focus is secular scholarship, say they teach genuine Kabbalah, be very leery.
Remember: the numerous works that make up Kabbalah (including the classic Aramaic text, the Zohar, which is currently much in vogue), were not written in a vacuum. They are all firmly rooted in traditional Jewish belief and practice. Removing them from that ocean of teachings and living practice, cuts off their life-force. All that remains are empty, if enticingly pretty, shells.
As our Native American friend from Nevada friend puts it, “Why go to new-age salesmen if you want to learn about dancing for the Great Spirit?” (Well, we wouldn’t put it quite so harshly, but we get his point.)
Also remember: Judaism does not proselytize — our tradition says that each human being, regardless of background, is connected to the Creator and that each of us reaps rewards for moral, righteous actions, in this world and the next. According to our tradition, you do not have to know Kabbalah (or be Jewish), to live a valuable life; each and every human life is precious — and an authentic Kabbalah teacher will never tell you otherwise.
Finally, buyer beware: Most Jewish teachings, including Kabbalah, promote living a truly joyous life. If someone tries to “fear and guilt” you into Kabbalah studies, tries to separate you from your spouse or family, or tries to sell you a bunch of “stuff”, these are signs that what’s on offer is not genuine Kabbalah, but rather, “small-k kabbalah for weekend pow-wowers” or worse, a cult.
*These scholars are primarily, but not always, from Chassidic groups, most noticeably Chabad and Breslov—also known as Breslev.
Coming soon: Which teachings of Kabbalah are applicable to psychotherapy?
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Last reviewed: 1 Sep 2010