Topic Alert: As usual, postings in the God in Therapy series discuss God and religion.
Do you ever “do” Kabbalah when you do psychotherapy?
Are you and Madonna the same religion?
Is Kabbalah Christian or Jewish?
These recent questions (from a patient and two colleagues, in that order) inspired this post. Let’s start by discussing what Kabbalah isn’t.
Kabbalah, no offense to pop stars and gurus, is not really about red strings and magical powers. And, though Jewish in origin, Kabbalah is absolutely not a religion—that is a flinch-making but prevalent misnomer. Authentic Kabbalists are in rare supply and don’t advertise—and certainly don’t sell “Kabbalah tee shirts” or magical soft drinks in cans or bottles. There is also no central dispenser of authentic Kabbalah wisdom, and those that insist that there is have an extremely limited understanding of the subject.
Simply put: Kabbalah is an esoteric part of the body of work that makes up Jewish wisdom and is not a religious or spiritual or psychological quick fix, though some aspects of it may enrich one’s understanding of psychology, human nature, and self.
In order to understand what comprises Kabbalah, a brief explanation of the taxonomy of Jewish teachings is in order. Jewish teachings comprise two main divisions (and many minor ones): The written word, which includes the Torah aka the Hebrew Bible (or what some call rather inappropriately, the “Old” Testament); and the oral tradition, which as it happens, is also written.
The oral tradition includes the Biblical commentaries that elucidate the sometimes terse, sometimes dense text of the Bible. If the written Torah can be compared to a legal brief (albeit one with a great storyline), the oral Torah is an extremely detailed explanation of that legal brief. For example, the Bible says: Honor thy father and mother, and the oral teachings go into massive detail about exactly how one is to go about doing so, in a variety of circumstances (including what to do if one’s parents are abusive or neglectful; notice the term is “honor” not love).
The oral teachings also offer psychological explanations about why doing so is important not only for society, but for one’s own emotional growth. Another example would be, “Keep the Sabbath”, certainly a nearly meaningless phrase without the enormous body of work that explains what keeping the Sabbath entails. One can easily be forgiven for thinking some of the Biblical injunctions trite or arbitrary if he is unfamiliar with at least some of the numerous ancient exegeses.
These exegeses are made up of not only detailed explanations of laws and statutes and their applications, debate, practical and mystical explanations, and deep analysis, but also include a special, complex variety of texts containing esoteric and mystical insights into the meanings of the written Bible, as well as the meaning of life, and beyond. This esoteric and mystical body of work is known collectively as Kabbalah. The word Kabbalah is literally translated as “received” or “reception”.
Probably the most famous Kabbalistic text is the Zohar (translated as “Splendor” or “Radiance”) which is a commentary that offers a glimpse into the inner soul of the Bible. Some Kabbalastic texts are dated from the Middle Ages; some are dated from well before Mt. Sinai; and some, much, much earlier. In fact, some of the texts are attributed to Abraham, Adam, and even the Angels.
The problem that currently exists is similar to the problem an old American Native friend from Nevada has with, “weekend pow-wowers” who he believes misinterpret Native teachings. “The pow-wows don’t teach them much,” he says. “They aren’t prepared to get a lot out of them.” Not that he is against others attending pow-wows; he welcomes their interest. He’s just against them “poaching American Indian customs,” as he puts it.
He says poaching can make a mockery—or worse—of spirituality and religion. A case in point was when the Lakota tribe sued the Angel Valley Retreat Center leaders for impersonating American Indians [sic] and desecrating the sacred sweat lodge ceremony, thereby causing the death of three people.
To be continued…