Definitions, History and Traditions
Mysticism etymologically derives from the Greek word myein, signifying "to close one's eyes" to material, illusory perceptions, so as to awaken internal, psychic vision. It is the root word for terms like mystery (μυστήριο mysterio), the axis of ancient mystery schools maintaining the highest ethical disciplines and the conservation of the deepest esoteric knowledge. Through secretive transmission between master and disciple, such initiatic societies have upheld the maximum order of integrity, purity, and confidentiality, protecting a doctrine that could otherwise harm the uninitiated and inexperienced purveyor due to its volatile nature. Such wisdom was only deliverable, apprehensible, and sustainable by the few who have proven their capacity, maturity, and worth.
The very doctrine which centres about the immediate personal contact with the Divine, that is to say, a highly personal and intimate form of knowledge, is conceived as traditional wisdom. The fact is, however, that the idea of Jewish mysticism from the start combined the conception of a knowledge which by its very nature is difficult to impart and therefore secret, with that of a knowledge which is the secret tradition of chosen spirits or adepts. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Kabbalah, as the mystical dimension of Judaism, is one such teaching that was transmitted across the centuries along with a great deal of conjecture, crypticity, and confusion. Yet it constitutes a fundamental support to comprehending the depths, subtleties, and nuances of genuine religion, from the Latin religare: to reunite with the divine. Jewish mysticism can be interpreted not only as a paradigm of mystical experience, but of different orders, schools, and groups that were active in medieval Europe and even ancient times.
Kabbalah, it must be remembered, is not the name of a certain dogma or system, but rather the general term applied to a whole religious movement. This movement, with some of whose stages and tendencies we shall have to acquaint ourselves, has been going on from Talmudic times to the present day; its development has been uninterrupted, though by no means uniform, and often dramatic. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Genuine mystical experiences carry with them a revolutionary and revolutionizing element. Direct experience or knowledge of divinity arrives within the parameters of applied spiritual discipline and an understanding of the various metaphysical techniques of esoteric tradition. According to Samael Aun Weor, the founder of modern Gnosis, "Behind the letter that kills is the spirit that vivifies." While blind adherence to the mechanical forms, dogmas, and beliefs of religious traditions produces ignorance, superstition, and the incapacitation of one's true potential, the vivifying or liberating experience of mystical consciousness opens doorways to new interpretations of otherwise dead religious forms. Such innovations from prophets, luminaries, and initiates have helped to direct and shape the course of kabbalistic thought in startling and pronounced ways.
It is a remarkable fact that the very term Kabbalah under which it has become best known, is derived from an historical concept. Kabbalah means literally “tradition”, in itself an excellent example of the paradoxical nature of mysticism to which I have referred before. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Paradoxically, according to Gershom Scholem―a German-Israeli philosopher―mysticism both upholds and transgresses the religious forms that contain it. While bringing life to literal historicities, theologies, and conjectures, such direct knowledge of divine truths often transgresses the limitations of popular beliefs, sectarianism, and skepticism. By knowing the truth for ourselves, our psyche is liberated from imposing conditions, unquestioning beliefs, and blind convictions without basis in actual experience. In this manner, traditions no longer become prisons of thought, but expressions of divine sapience as living mystery schools.
Various traditions designated as kabbalistic have existed not only amongst medieval European Jewry of the 13th century C.E., but throughout antiquity. Kabbalah, as the science of awakened, experiential consciousness, is the direct reception of divine wisdom from personal testimony and mystical states. Whether that apprehension of conscious knowledge is denominated with the Hebrew term קבלה Kabbalah―from the Hebrew קְבַל kabbel, "to receive," or the Greek γνῶσις gnosis―the cultural, linguistic, or geographical contexts of such experience is secondary to its fundamental reality: how a person of any race, region, religion, or creed can transcend time and space, so as to witness one's sacred, authentic, and transcendent identity without obscuration, hesitation, fear, or doubt.
While Kabbalah has branched off in a variety of different groups, interpretations, suppositions, and forms, the essential principles remain the same, especially within the ancient scriptures, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, and mystical tracts foundational to both medieval and modern Jewish life. The teachings of the great rabbis of Israel can elucidate many precepts, axioms, and doctrines present within all religions, for while Hebrew is particular to the Jewish traditions, the universal, esoteric symbolism of the Hebrew language, concomitant with Biblical allegory and narrative, can provide illumination and a penetrative interpretation of any mystical tradition. Religious forms differ, but their ethical and experiential didacticism is the same.
Kabbalah serves a dynamic role not only within Jewish life, but with the spiritual life of humanity as a whole. When religious forms become codified, calcified, and corrupted through unwavering obedience to misunderstood or unexamined precepts, the mystical experience of the truth radically transforms our perceptions of religion, relationships, self, and society. While different religions, such as Judaism, have their moral genesis, life, decline, and decay, it is possible to re-evaluate the spiritual verities of one's tradition to discover that which is most necessary, transformative, and indispensable, perceiving the ancient writings through an informed and educated eye. In this manner we learn to amplify our understanding of esoteric knowledge and the acuity of our own innate, awakened intelligence in response to the problems of daily living.
The secret of the success of the Kabbalah lies in the nature of its relation to the spiritual heritage of rabbinical Judaism. This relation differs from that of rationalist philosophy, in that it is more deeply and in a more vital sense connected with the main forces active in Judaism. Undoubtedly both the mystics and the philosophers completely transform the structure of ancient Judaism; both have lost the simple relation to Judaism, that naiveté which speaks to us from the classical documents of Rabbinical literature. Classical Judaism expressed itself: it did not reflect upon itself. By contrast, to the mystics and the philosophers of a later stage of religious development Judaism itself has become problematical. Instead of simply speaking their minds, they tend to produce an ideology of Judaism, an ideology moreover which comes to the rescue of tradition by giving it a new interpretation. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Despite the fact that modern Judaism is a thick shell, a cadaver or remnant of a much greater esoteric teaching, a deeper, intuitive appreciation awaits at the core of religious symbolism, narrative, and allegory, which can revitalize and reinvigorate an otherwise dead and monotonous spirituality. Although multiple traditions have become rigid through unwavering and misguided devotion to religious exteriors, there is the possibility of resurrecting universal principles and embodying their life-giving pulse. Public religion expresses sagacious and ingenious truths that have the potential of transforming suffering and developing personal knowledge of divinity. However, the means and manner of which to reflect such understandings within one's own practice have often remained incipient, unavailable, or adulterated by human perversion. Kabbalah seeks to remedy these ailments.
“Receive [קְבַל kabel, kabbalah] the  letters of the oath.” ―Third Book of Enoch
Revelation and Mystical Experience
Mystical experience or revelation is the heart of any religion or spiritual tradition. Rather than isolate such theophanies to specific moments in history, the mystic, gnostic, or kabbalist learns to imitate the lives of the great adepts through experiencing, within their own consciousness, the realities that the prophetic lives symbolized.
Revelation, for instance, is to the mystic not only a definite historical occurrence which, at a given moment in history, puts an end to any further direct relation between mankind and God. With no thought of denying Revelation as a fact of history, the mystic still conceives the source of religious knowledge and experience which bursts forth from his own heart as being of equal importance for the conception of religious truth. In other words, instead of the one act of Revelation, there is a constant repetition of this act. This new Revelation, to himself or to his spiritual master, the mystic tries to link up with the sacred texts of the old; hence the new interpretation given to the canonical texts and sacred books of the great religions. To the mystic, the original act of Revelation to the community―the, as it were, public revelation of Mount Sinai, to take one instance―appears as something whose true meaning has yet to unfold itself; the secret revelation is to him the real and decisive one. And thus the substance of the canonical texts, like that of all other religious values, is melted down and given another form as it passes through the fiery stream of the mystical consciousness. It is hardly surprising that, hard as the mystic may try to remain within the confines of his religion, he often consciously or unconsciously approaches, or even transgresses, its limits. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
To the practical kabbalist, gnostic, or mystic, meditation is the instrument through which the harmonies of divine life are intuited. Through visions, dreams, and awakened experiences beyond the body, heart, and mind, one discovers, however, that the experience of divinity often contradicts the numerous convictions of believers and lay-folk regarding their own traditions. In this manner, the kabbalist learns how to appreciate the prescient symbolism of scripture while going far beyond the concepts of people who have never been initiated into the true meaning of their religion.
Rather than identify with Biblical characters as the progenitors of a particular race or group of people, kabbalists identify the allegorical and symbolic functions such figures represent within spiritual narrative:
The documents of religion are therefore not conceived as expressing a separate and distinct world of religious truth and reality, but rather as giving a simplified description of the relations which exist between the ideas of philosophy. The story of Abraham and Sarah, of Lot and his wife, of the Twelve Tribes, etc., are simply descriptions of the relation between matter and form, spirit and matter, or the faculties of the mind. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
It is common knowledge how the Book of Exodus depicts the struggles of the Jews in bondage to Egypt. In reality, few realize how the chosen people, the distinct parts of our consciousness, soul, or spiritual potential, remain in bondage to conditions of mind, heart, and body.
The historical aspects of religion have a meaning for the mystic chiefly as symbols of acts which he conceives as being divorced from time, or constantly repeated in the soul of every man. Thus the exodus from Egypt, the fundamental event of our history, cannot, according to the mystic, have come to pass once only and in one place; it must correspond to an event which takes place in ourselves, an exodus from an inner Egypt in which we all are slaves. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Humanity continues to be enslaved to Egypt (מצרים Mitzrahim, "the place between the waters"), a symbol of materialism, egotism, and psychological perversity. To the mystic, scriptures no longer remain exclusive to particular groups of people within history, but serve as metaphoric signposts for the awakening of consciousness. Therefore the Old Testament (תנ״ך Tanakh, an acrostic for תּוֹרָה Torah: the Law, נְבִיאִים Neviʾim: Prophets, and כְּתוּבִים Ketuvim: Writings), provides spiritual guidance for the present moment. Kabbalah instructs the sincere student to recognize and interpret the symbolism of the Tanakh, so that in meditation, one can be effectively guided along the initiatic path through the balance of study and illuminating experience.
Supernatural illumination also plays its part in the history of Kabbalism and innovations are made not only on the basis of new interpretations of ancient lore but as a result of fresh inspiration or revelation, or even of a dream. A sentence from Isaac Hacohen of Soria (about 1270) illustrates the twin sources recognized by the Kabbalists as authoritative. “In our generation there are but a few, here and there, who have received tradition from the ancients … or have been vouchsafed the grace of divine inspiration.” Tradition and intuition are bound together and this would explain why Kabbalism could be deeply conservative and intensely revolutionary. Even “traditionalists” do not shrink from innovations, sometimes far-reaching, which are confidently set forth as interpretations of the ancients or as revelation of a mystery which Providence had seen fit to conceal from previous generations. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Through meditation, the consciousness can escape its material, corporeal form to experience inner realities of the higher worlds, otherwise referred to as astral projections, dream yoga, lucid dreaming, out of body experiences, etc. Abraham Abulafia, a 13th century Spanish mystic of prophetic kabbalah, related an awakened experience outside of his physical body as a result of deep contemplation and prayer to divinity:
Thy whole body will be seized by an extremely strong trembling, so that thou wilt think that surely thou art about to die, because thy soul, overjoyed with its knowledge, will leave thy body. And be thou ready at this moment consciously to choose death, and then thou shalt know that thou hast come far enough to receive the influx. And then wishing to honor the glorious Name by serving it with the life of body and soul, veil thy face and be afraid to look at God. Then return to the matters of the body, rise and eat and drink a little, or refresh thyself with a pleasant odor, and restore thy spirit to its sheath until another time, and rejoice at thy lot and know that God loveth thee! ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
The Body, Soul, and Spirit of Judaism
Judaism, alongside other religions, embodies in its collected scriptures levels of instruction that meet the needs, requirements, and character of differing classes of devotees. There are introductory, intermediate, and advanced teachings, which have been classified and named in different ways throughout the world.
In Buddhism, these levels are Shravakayana (the yana or vehicle of "listeners," shravakas), Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Tantrayana (Diamond or Tantric Vehicle). Among the Freemasons, these levels are made of Apprentices, Journeymen, and Masters. The Sufis denominated these degrees as Shariah (exoteric law), Tariqah (the path), and Haqiqah (the highest truth).
The introductory teachings explain the foundations of ethical conduct and behavior of the aspirants, so that by enacting positive ways of being, the disciple raises his or her quality of life and prepares to enter into the experiential dimension of one's tradition.
In the intermediate path, practitioners are acquainted with and realize a degree of divine principles in their practical existence, working not only for their own spirituality, but that of others.
In the advanced teaching, practitioners are given the highest, most secretive, and expedient methods for radical internal liberation and the transformation of humanity. However, since these exercises are so powerful, they have traditionally only been given to those who have demonstrated their trustworthiness throughout many decades of committed discipline, trials, ordeals, and proofs within the former two degrees of religion.
In Judaism we find this dynamic structure displayed in Hebrew terms, especially in relation to specific collections of writings portraying the understandings and capacities of these particular systems. In synthesis, these are known as the body, soul, and spirit of the esoteric doctrine:
The Jews had three sacred books: the first is the body of doctrine, that is to say, the Bible. The second is the soul of the doctrine, the Talmud, where the national Jewish soul is. The third is the spirit of the doctrine, the Zohar, where the entire rabbinical Kabbalah is.
The Foundations of Kabbalah
Since we are a Gnostic school, we examine all three systems in our studies: the body, soul, and spirit of every religion in the world. Gnosis or דעת Da'ath, genuine Kabbalah or experiential knowledge, is about activating our true spiritual capabilities in our moment to moment awareness. It is impossible to live the highest aspects of the spiritual teachings without fulfilling its most basic, ethical precepts. Yet to understand the most basic precepts of religion and to appreciate its contexts, it is important to know the esoteric doctrine that enlivens the exoteric and intermediate paths.
While this knowledge remained a secret within the most cautious and protective spiritual organizations, we now live in an era of information, co-fraternity, and dissemination of spiritual values. The esoteric knowledge that was once forbidden is now available to anyone who sincerely yearns for deep change and realizations. This is because divinity has seen our afflicted position within incredible global crises, and out of compassion, opened the doors to knowledge that was once conserved and had to be earned. Since the 1960's, such information has spread throughout the modern world as part of a humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of humanity.
Judaism, as one such treasure house of great scriptures and instructions, can now be fully understood and appreciated by knowing the spirit of the doctrine that was once obscured. The Gnostic teachings, which embraces and explains the kabbalistic traditions, is a key to unlocking many concealed aspects of religion. One scriptural tool that we use is the ultimate expression of Jewish mysticism: the Zohar.
The Zohar is the culmination of a rich rabbinical tradition that has roots within medieval Spain. However, to fully appreciate the Zohar and its rabbinical commentaries, it is necessary to know the medieval structures, foundations, and principles upon which they are based.
Aggadah: The Narrative Tradition
To understand the ways in which Kabbalah, and particularly the Zohar, finds it home within the earlier tradition, we need to distinguish five elements that are present in the legacy of medieval Jews received from the Judaism of the Talmudic age. [...] The first of the five elements is הַגָּדָה aggadah, the narrative tradition, contained in the Talmud and the various works of Midrash. Midrash is a hermeneutical term, rendered both as 'inquiry' and 'homiletics,' indicating a way of delving into Scripture that tends towards fanciful and extended rereadings. Much of aggadah is legendary in content, expanding biblical history and recreating the biblical landscape in the setting of the rabbinic world. But aggadah also includes tales of the rabbis themselves and teachings of wisdom in many forms: maxims, parables, folk traditions, and so forth. ―Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar
The Zohar is often described as written in the form of a mystical novel, portraying the conversations, dialogues, and teachings of great rabbis learned in the most hidden sciences. This is a common feature of rabbinical literature, whereby legends, myths, folklore, and stories (aggadah) are used to communicate higher tenets and revelations. These involve a deep analysis and comprehension of the intricacies and subtleties of scripture, often in the form of scrutinizing individual Aramaic or Hebrew letters to arrive at innovative meanings otherwise unacknowledged or undisturbed beneath surface readings. While each verse appears to communicate simple instructions about Jewish life and law, they in term embody multiple, complimentary layers of signification, which constitute a primary function to any given scriptural passage.
Those who are not initiated in Kabbalah lack a critical key for unlocking the connotative aspect of Hebrew, whose numerous grammatical and syntactical rules allow for a dynamic range of interpretation. English and other translations lack the depth, vibrancy, and integrity of the original, since any translation is merely an approximation, rather than an accurate rendering. This is why a basic understanding of Hebrew is essential for understanding the Tanakh. For those who do not know the symbolism of the twenty-two Hebrew letters do not know the basis of the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. "Behind the letter that kills is the spirit that vivifies."
What makes [Kabbalists] differ from the philosophers is the fact that for them the Aggadah is not just a dead letter. They live in a world historically continuous with it, and they are able, therefore, to enhance it, though in the spirit of mysticism. Aggadic productivity has been a constant element of Kabbalistic literature, and only when the former disappears will the latter, too, be doomed to extinction. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Halakhah: Jewish Law
The second element is the tradition of הֲלָכָה halakhah, the legal and normative body of Talmudic teaching, the chief subject of study for Jews throughout the medieval era, and thus the main curriculum on which most Kabbalists themselves were educated. ―Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar
Halakhah is the collective body of Jewish laws proceeding from both Oral and written Torah. While Jewish philosophers divorced themselves from the spiritual pulse of medieval Jewry through neglecting Halakhah, Kabbalists gained popularity and ground for their innovative and revitalizing interpretations of Jewish law. Through the mystical apprehension of internal truths, codified law became living allegories for psycho-spiritual transformation and the exaltation of Jewish life.
To the philosopher, the Halakhah either had no significance at all, or one that was calculated to diminish rather than to enhance its prestige in his eyes. Entirely different was the attitude of the Kabbalists. For them the Halakhah never became a province of thought in which they felt themselves strangers. Right from the beginning and with growing determination, they sought to master the world of the Halakhah as a whole and in every detail. From the outset, an ideology of the Halakhah is one of their aims. But in their interpretation of the religious commandments these are not represented as allegories of more or less profound ideas, or as pedagogical measures, but rather as the performance of a secret rite (or mystery in the sense in which the term was used by the Ancients). ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Jewish law, rather than imposing upon or exclusive to the life of the kabbalist, becomes comprehensive, cosmic, and ubiquitous. The same truths experienced by the Christian are the same amongst Buddhists and Sufis, for Jewish legality serves a mystical dimensional of deeper abstractions than merely an approbation for one particular culture alone. What appears as veiled credenda of the Jewish people in turn constitutes a compass for navigating the labyrinthine language of the Tanakh and all religious writings. Commandments that appear to have a single denotative meaning in turn populate themselves into multitudinous connotations of equal and synthetic import.
Piyyut: Liturgical Poetry
A third element of the rabbinic legacy is the liturgical tradition. While liturgical praxis was codified within halakhah and thus in some ways is a subset of it, the texts recited in worship, including a large corpus of liturgical poetry, or פיוט piyyut, constitutes a literary genre of their own. Medieval writers, including the mystics of both Spain and Askhenaz, were much concerned with establishing the precise, proper wording for each prayer. The texts of the prayerbook, mostly fixed by compendia dating from the tenth century, became in the Middle Ages the object of commentaries, many of which sought to find their authors' own theologies reflected in these venerated and widely known texts by the ancient rabbis. This is especially true of the Kabbalists, who devoted much attention to the כַּוָּנָה kavvanah, or inner meaning, of liturgical prayer. While not formally canonized or seen as the product of divine revelation, as were the books of Scripture, the liturgical texts were regarded as sufficiently holy and mysterious to deserve and require commentary. ―Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar
Liturgy is essential to all world religions, for they embody a conglomeration of attitudes, prayers, and intentions (kavvanah) that are essential to the mystical life of the kabbalist. Liturgical codes that appear superficial or perfunctory in turn reveal depths of intuitive perception that serve as focal points of meditative concentration and reflection. The Zohar often comments upon liturgical worship with the purpose of deciphering concealed meanings, many of which transcend the cultural contexts and conventionalities of time and place. Paradoxically, Jewish liturgy fulfills and negates its own stipulations through the mystical praxis of kabbalistic interpretation, for new and fresh meanings consecutively build upon each other through the Zoharic dialogue of the great enlightened rabbis.
The fourth strand of earlier tradition is that of מרכבה merkavah mysticism. Merkavah designates a form of visionary mystical praxis that reaches back into the Hellenistic era but was still alive as late as tenth-century Babylonia. Its roots lie close to the ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature, except that here the voyager taken up into the heavens is usually offered a private encounter with the divine glory, one that does not involve metahistorical predictions. Those who 'go down into the merkavah' sought visions that took them before the throne of God, allowing them to travel through the divine 'palaces' (היכלות heikhalot), realms replete with angels, and at the height of ecstasy, to participate in or even lead the angelic chorus. The term merkavah ('chariot') links this tradition to the opening vision of Ezekiel, which was seen as the great paradigm for all such visionary experiences and accounts. It is also connected to the קְדֻשָּׁה qedushah formula ('Holy, holy, holy is Y-H-W-H of hosts [יהוה צבאות Iod-Chavah Sabaoth], the whole earth is filled with His glory!') of Isaiah 6, because it is this refrain that most merkavah voyagers recount hearing the angels sing as they stand with them in the heavenly heights. ―Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar
The Merkavah or chariot of divinity is a profound symbol of mystical exaltation, experience, and inner development. Conceptualized as the height of spiritual attainment, it in fact epitomizes an important step within the process of initiatic advancement. Within the Gnostic tradition, the Merkavah is known as the solar bodies: divine vehicles for the expression and manifestation of divinity within the soul. Just as a warrior drives a chariot so as to wage difficult battles against his enemies, so too does divinity require a sufficient psycho-spiritual vehicle through which to accomplish a difficult internal work within the consciousness. The war that divinity wages on behalf of our psyche is against our own conditions, defects, vices, and errors, so that the perfected soul returns within the Merkavah towards the sacred heights of divine realization as described in Ezekiel and the ascension of the Prophet Enoch in Genesis.
The fifth and final element of this ancient legacy is the hardest to define, partly because it hangs on the thread of a slim body of text, but also because it contains elements that seem contradictory to one another. I refer to the speculative-magical tradition that reached medieval Jewry through the little book called ספר יצירה Sefer Yetsirah and various other small texts, mostly magical in content, that are associated with it. Sefer Yetsirah has been shown to be a very ancient work, close in spirit to aspects of Greek esotericism that flourished in the late Hellenistic era. While the practice associated with this school of thought is magical-theurgic, even including the attempt to make a גולם golem [an anthropomorphic being fashioned from inanimate or amorphous material, such as mud or clay, while imbibed with vitality and life] its chief text contains the most abstract worldview to be found within the legacy of ancient Judaism. By contemplating the core meaning of both numbers and letters, it reaches toward a notion of cosmic unity that underlies diversity, of an abstract deity that serves as a cosmic center, in whom (perhaps better: in which) all being is rooted. ―Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar
Sefer Yetsirah has an honored, distinguished, and paramount place not only within traditional Kabbalah, but also the Western Esoteric Tradition constituted by individuals such as Dion Fortune, Manly P. Hall, Gareth Knight, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Eliphas Levi, Cyril Scott, Elizabeth Haich, and many others. It is unfortunate that academies have rejected the contributions of these authors due to materialism, skepticism, sectarianism and fanaticism, since it is precisely magical praxis, especially as described within the Sefer Yetsirah, that is the decisive groundwork through which to access the experiential dimension of the kabbalistic tradition.
However, both scholars and initiates agree that the Sefer Yetsirah is crucial within kabbalistic philosophy, practice, and thought:
According to Eliphas Levi, the three greatest books of Qabbalism are the Sepher Yetzirah, The Book of Formation; the Sepher ha Zohar, The Book of Splendor; and the Apocalypse, The Book of Revelation. The dates of the writing of these books are by no means thoroughly established. Qabbalists declare that the Sepher Yetzirah was written by Abraham. Although it is by far the oldest of the Qabbalistic books, it was probably from the pen of the Rabbi Akiba, A.D. 120. ―Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages
While Kabbalah is an alchemy of narrative tradition, Jewish law, liturgical poetry, Merkavah mysticism, and magical ritual or theurgy, all of its constituents contribute to the evolving dimensionality of kabbalistic practice. To lack any of these elements is to sterilize, debauch, or contaminate the probity of this esoteric heritage.
Kabbalah must be seen as a dynamic mix of these five elements, with one or another sometimes dominating. It was especially the first and last elements―the aggadic-mythical element and the abstract-speculative-magical tradition―that seemed to vie for the leading role in forging the emerging kabbalistic way of thought. ―Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar
The Origins of the Zohar
The Zohar is irrefutably the most important and influential work of traditional Kabbalah available to humanity. Despite its crucial place within the history of kabbalistic and Jewish life, its origins, despite erudite speculations, hypotheses, and theories, remain a mystery to academics and scholars.
The Sepher ha Zohar presumably was written by Simeon ben Jochai, a disciple of Akiba. Rabbi Simeon was sentenced to death about A.D. 161 by Lucius Verus, co-regent of the Emperor Marc Aurelius Antoninus. He escaped with his son and, hiding in a cave, transcribed the manuscript of the Zohar with the assistance of Elias, who appeared to them at intervals. Simeon was twelve years in the cave, during which time he evolved the complicated symbolism of the "Greater Face" and the "Lesser Face." While discoursing with disciples Rabbi Simeon expired, and the "Lamp of Israel" was extinguished. His death and burial were accompanied by many supernatural phenomena. The legend goes on to relate that the secret doctrines of Qabbalism had been in existence since the beginning of the world, but that Rabbi Simeon was the first man permitted to reduce them to writing. Twelve hundred years later the books which he had compiled were discovered and published for the benefit of humanity by Moses de León. The probability is that Moses de León himself compiled the Zohar about A.D. 1305, drawing his material from the unwritten secrets of earlier Jewish mystics. ―Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages
Regardless of its sources and inception, the Zohar consists of a tremendous body of doctrine whose genuine significance has eluded, mystified, and inspired scholars, rabbis, and students of initiation for centuries. Gnostic institutions seek to convey the penetrative, profound, and pragmatic mysticism of this scripture, since its practical basis has not been understood by modern intellectuals and others not initiated within its mysteries despite unparalleled pathos and conviction.
Interpretations of the Zohar
As diverse the body of the Zohar is, its interpretations and applications have varied in many ways throughout its reception to the Jewish and modern world.
...all Jewish mystics, from the Therapeutae, whose doctrine was described by Philo of Alexandria, to the latest Hasid, are at one in giving a mystical interpretation to the Torah [the first five books of Moses or Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy]; the Torah is to them a living organism animated by a secret life which streams and pulsates below the crust of its literal meaning; every one of the innumerable strata of this hidden region corresponds to a new and profound meaning of the Torah. The Torah, in other words, does not consist merely of chapters, phrases and words; rather is it to be regarded as the living incarnation of the divine wisdom which eternally sends out new rays of light. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Contrary to the firm and adamant beliefs of conventional, observant Jews, the Zohar often criticizes those who would mistake the form of the Bible for its inherent, transcendent, and transgressive meaning.
Rabbi Simeon says: "Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to relate stories, simply and plainly, and simpleton tales about Esau and Laban and the like. If it was so, even at the present day we could produce a Torah from simplistic matters, and perhaps even nicer ones than those. If the Torah came to exemplify worldly matters, even the rulers of the world have among them things that are superior. If so, let us follow them and produce from them a Torah in the same manner. It must be that all items in the Torah are of a superior nature and are uppermost secrets.
We are fortunate today to possess a body of knowledge, proliferated through our Gnostic institutions, that explain in a clear, systematic, and determined way, the structures and practical systems of applied Kabbalah. Without relying on dogmas, theories, or beliefs of any type, our Gnostic schools possess meditations and exercises to awaken consciousness and thereby experience the essential nature of religious phenomena. The ancient knowledge that was once veiled from public scrutiny is now available with utmost exactitude and transparency in the writings of Samael Aun Weor, a practical Kabbalist and initiate whose writings we disseminate and teach due to their clarity, profundity, and pragmatism. What distinguishes his copious body of writings is their intrepid, experiential, and uncompromising nature, without reliance on convoluted philosophical systems that lack the practical dimension for achieving deep and lasting internal change.
The basis of his writings is a discerning explication of what is commonly known as the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life
It [the Tree of Life] is a glyph, that is to say a composite symbol, which is intended to represent the cosmos in its entirety and the soul of man as related thereto; and the more we study it, the more we see that it is an amazingly adequate representation; we use it as the engineer or the mathematician uses his sliding-rule, to scan and calculate the intricacies of existence, visible and invisible, in external nature or the hidden depth of the soul. ―Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah
There are ten סְפִירוֹת sefiroth, "jewels" or "emanations" in Hebrew, indicating specific modalities of matter, energy, and consciousness. Each ספירה sefirah (singular) constitutes a distinct level of nature, the cosmos, and the individual human psyche, which emanate or proceed from an unknowable, divine abstraction, denominated as אין Ain, אין סוף Ain Soph, and אין סוף אוֹר Ain Soph Aur: the "Nothing," the "Limitless," and the "Limitless Light." This is the Genesiatic seed plot of universal potentiality, which flows as a pristine fountain into manifested, material existence through divine creativity.
Each sefirah receives the influx, flow, and expression of the sefiroth above. The heights of this diagram depict the most rarified, pure, subtle, and sacred realities of the divine nature, while the sefiroth below represent the condensation, involution or impregnation of spirit within matter of increasing densities, until finally arriving to this physical world and body, described as מלכות Malkuth: the Kingdom.
There is variety and range within kabbalistic interpretations of divine unfoldment, originally depicted as successive emanations outside of God’s unity. Yet according to the kabbalist Isaac Luria and his conception of צמצום Tzimtzum, this occurs within divinity’s own profound nature:
According to Luria, God was compelled to make room for the world by, as it were, abandoning a region within Himself, a kind of mystical primordial space from which He withdrew in order to return to it in the act of creation and revelation. The first act of En-Sof, the Infinite Being, is therefore not a step outside but a step inside, a movement of recoil, of falling back upon oneself, of withdrawing into oneself. Instead of emanation we have the opposite, contraction. The God who revealed himself in firm contours was superseded by one who descended deeper into the recesses of His own Being, who concentrated Himself into Himself, and had done so from the very beginning of creation. [...]
Lurianic Kabbalah gained widespread appeal not only within esoteric circles, but also conventional Judaism. His contributions rivaled and displaced Medieval Jewish philosophy and procured an influential position within mainstream Jewish life, metaphysics, and theology. Whether one approaches Kabbalah from the doctrinal point of צמצום Tzimtzum or previous kabbalists, all spiritual cosmogonies and cosmologies describe the process by which the soul or consciousness was exiled from the divine, and it is now the duty of the practical kabbalist and meditator to return in a progressive, initiatic manner, towards the origins and source of our divine potential.
The consensus of Kabbalistic opinion regards the mystical way to God as a reversal of the procession by which we have emanated from God. To know the stages of the creative process is also to know the stages of one’s own return to the root of all existence. In this sense, the interpretation of Maaseh Bereshith, the esoteric doctrine of creation, has always formed one of the main preoccupations of Kabbalism. It is here that Kabbalism comes nearest to Neoplatonic thought, of which it has been said with truth that 'procession and reversion together constitute a single movement, the diastole-systole, which is the life of the universe.' Precisely this is also the belief of the Kabbalist. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Kabbalah is vast due to its incorporation, elucidation, and exegeses of multiple systems of thought. Many schools and groups have their methods, interpretations, structures, and symbols for interpreting the Tree of Life, and our Gnostic institutions are no different. What differentiates Gnostic Kabbalah from other modes of thought is the eclectic, synthetic, and practical approach we use when studying and engaging with kabbalism.
One traditional method utilized by Abraham Abulafia is known as the Path of the Names. Each sefirah has a sacred name of divinity associated with it, representative of forces, potencies, and angelic hierarchies. Many kabbalists, including those within the Gnostic tradition, meditate upon the different sefiroth so as to experience their elemental nature.
Abulafia calls his method “The Path of the Names,” in contrast to the Kabbalists of his time, whose doctrine concerning the realization of the divine attributes it referred to as “The Path of the Sefiroth.” Only together the two paths form the whole of the Kabbalah, the Path of the Sefiroth the ‘rabbinical’ and that of the Names, the ‘prophetic’ Kabbalah. The student of Kabbalah is to begin with the contemplation of the ten Sefiroth. These, indeed, during meditation are to become objects of quickened imagination rather than objects of an external knowledge acquired by merely learning their names as attributes or even symbols of God. For in the Sefiroth, too, according to Abulafia, there are revealed the ‘profundities of the intellectus agens’, that cosmic power which for the mystic coincides with the splendor of the Shekhinah [the divine feminine that raises and elevates the chosen people of Israel back towards the truth]. Only from there is he to proceed to the twenty-two letters which represent a deeper stage of penetration. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Certain schools not only study the ten sefiroth, but the thirty-two paths that connect the sefiroth with each other upon the Tree of Life. These paths indicate principles or cosmic desiderata for entering the path of initiation: the return of the soul back to its origins through enacting conscious and voluntary works of compassion, integrity, and wisdom. One achieves this through understanding the variegated symbology, powers, and intuitive mathematics of the Hebrew language.
The Spiritual Power of Language, Symbols, and Mathematics
Language in its purest form, that is, Hebrew, according to the Kabbalists, reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world; in other words, it has a mystical value. Speech reaches God because it comes from God. Man’s common language, whose prima facie function, indeed, is only of an intellectual nature, reflects the creative language of God. All creation―and this is an important principle of most Kabbalists―is, from the point of view of God, nothing but an expression of His hidden self that begins and ends by giving itself a name, the holy name of God, the perpetual act of creation. All that lives is an expression of God’s language,―and what is it that Revelation can reveal in the last resort if not the name of God? ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Hebrew is a mathematical language, since each letter represents a number, principality, literal and symbolic meaning, and divine law. Therefore, the study of Kabbalah is precisely the study of occult or intuitive mathematics: how numbers represent cosmic principles, entities, abstractions, philosophies, and natural laws.
In Kabbalah, everything is numbers and mathematics. The number is holy and infinite. In the universe everything is measurement and weight. For the Gnostics, God is a geometrist. Mathematics are sacred. No one was admitted into the school of Pythagoras if they were not knowledgeable about mathematics, music, etc. Numbers are sacred. ―Samael Aun Weor, Tarot and Kabbalah
Dion Fortune best explains the foundations of esoteric systems such as the Kabbalah, for in understanding its universal and mathematical symbolism, one possess Archimedes' lever: the fulcrum by which to lift the heavy weight of misconception and learned ignorance to discover the solid foundations of practical spirituality below.
All esoteric systems use a symbolic method of notation in their teachings. Each of the symbols employed indicates a spiritual potency, and the ideas associated with them indicate its method of function; their interrelation represents the interaction of these forces. If we have the key to one symbol-system we can readily equate it with all the others, for fundamentally they are the same. ―Dion Fortune, The Training and Work of an Initiate
As with every religion, the language within which their teachings were delivered bear figurative, innate, and sacerdotal power. Hebrew is one such expression of the sacred language and reflects in a pure way the divine abstractions of cosmic intelligence. This is why it is important, as practical kabbalists, that one have a firm understanding of the twenty-two Hebrew letters, for within them is the ultimate synthesis of the entire Jewish wisdom. If one does not know the symbology of the Hebrew alphabet, then one does not know Judaism at all.
These cosmic symbols are further represented by the letters of a sacred language, which, in the Western Tradition, is Hebrew. Out of these letters are formed the Sacred Names and Words of Power, which are simply algebraical formulas resuming potencies. Thus is the universe represented to the initiate, and he is able to trace the correlation between its parts and see what invisible realities are throwing their shadows upon the world of Maya, illusion. ―Dion Fortune, The Training and Work of an Initiate
While kabbalah can appear intimidating, over-complicated, and difficult to learn, what is important is the laws, potencies, and realities related with each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters. It is not necessary to be fluent in speaking or writing Hebrew to benefit and master the Kabbalah: the yoga of the West, for in practical works of theurgy and divine invocation, one must utilize the original names of God in order to call upon and receive aid.
It is not required of those who would use the Qabalah as their Yoga that they should acquire any extensive knowledge of the Hebrew language; all they need is to be able to read and write the Hebrew characters. The modern Qabalah has been pretty thoroughly naturalized in the English language, but it retains, and must ever retain, all its Words of Power in Hebrew, which is the sacred language of the West just as Sanskrit is the sacred language of the East. There are those who have objected to the free employment of Sanskrit terms in occult literature, and no doubt they will object even more strongly to the employment of Hebrew characters, but their use is unavoidable, for every letter in Hebrew is also a number, and the numbers to which words add up are not only an important clue to their significance, but can also be used to express the relationships existing between different ideas and potencies. ―Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah
Names bear relational and positional power. The Bible often relates in its languages, Hebrew and Greek, differing names of divinity, which unfortunately have been translated or castrated through the masculine singular "God." This does not accurately reflect the integrity and nuances of original, since such a mistranslation strips the Scriptures of all practical power. What often goes unrecognized is how each divine name reflects different aspects and expressions of the Tree of Life that allow for works of high magic and profound meditation.
Gematria, Notarikon, and Temurah
Part of numerological mysticism and sacred names of God are reflected within the art of Gematria, Notarikon, and Temurah, which have been utilized especially within the Western Esoteric Tradition and the writings of Abraham Abulafia's prophetic kabbalism:
...in the literature of the Hasidism, prominence is given for the first time to certain techniques of mystical speculation which are popularly supposed to represent the heart and core of Kabbalism, such as Gematria, i.e. the calculation of the numerical value of Hebrew words and the search for connections with other words or phrases of equal value; Notarikon, or interpretation of the letters of a word as abbreviations of whole sentences; and Temurah, or interchange of letters according to certain systematic rules. ―Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Learning to combine letters, words, and names is a pivotal element to Zoharic commentary and the Sefer Yetsirah, for entirely new meanings are interpolated within seemingly innocuous text, which in term bear numerological and therefore intuitive significance:
This science [of mystical combination] is an instrument which leads nearer to prophecy than any other discipline of learning. A man who gains his understanding of the essentials of reality from books is called Hakham, a scholar. If he obtains it from the Kabbalah, that is to say from one who has himself obtained it from the contemplation of the divine names or from another Kabbalist, then he is called Mevin, that is, one who has insight, but if his understanding is derived from his own heart, from reflecting upon what he knows of reality, then he is called Daatan, that is, a gnostic. He whose understanding is such as to combine all three, to wit, scholarly erudition, insight obtained from a genuine Kabbalist, and wisdom from reflecting deeply upon things, of him I am not indeed going to say that he deserves to be called a prophet, especially if he has not yet been touched by the pure intellect, or if touched [that is to say, in ecstasy] does not yet know by whom. ―Abraham Abulafia, The Knowledge of the Messiah and the Meaning of the Redeemer
Practical Mysticism and Spirituality
Regardless of how extensive the kabbalistic writings and traditions are, what is most important is that intellectual study is balanced through practical works of meditation and comprehension.
Kabbalistic studies must be combined with work on oneself. One must be conscious of these studies, for it they remain only in the intellect they will be lost when one dies. Yet, if one is conscious of them, the knowledge will manifest itself from childhood. ―Samael Aun Weor
The Gnostic institutions from the tradition of Samael Aun Weor provide instructions on meditation, which necessitate, in its preliminary stages, the cultivation of internal silence, serenity, and concentration, so as to extract understanding and perception of any given phenomena or information.
The esotericist, when endeavoring to formulate his philosophy for communication to others, is confronted by the fact that his knowledge of the higher forms of existence is obtained by a process other than thought; and this process only commences when thought is left behind. ―Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah
Kabbalah is also the basis of the Christian faith. Jesus of Nazareth, the Master Aberamentho or Patriarch of the Gnostic Church, was an enlightened rabbi who spoke and communicated through Kabbalah. Without an understanding of Kabbalah, one remains ignorant of the true purpose, direction, and esoteric systems of Christianity.
The Qabalistic cosmology is the Christian Gnosis. Without it we have an incomplete system in our religion, and it is this incomplete system which has been the weakness of Christianity. ―Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah
Intellectual and Intuitive Kabbalah
Kabbalah is learned in two ways that both contradict and compliment each other: intellectually and intuitively.
Intellectual Kabbalah is knowledge from instruction, lectures, teachings, books, and scriptures.
Intuitive Kabbalah is what a person experiences directly from the hands of divinity as a result of internal meditation.
Both an intellectual and experiential knowledge of Kabbalah are necessary. One without the other leads to confusion, fanaticism, and ignorance
There are two kinds of Kabbalists: intellectual Kabbalists and intuitive Kabbalists. The intellectual Kabbalists are black magicians. The intuitive Kabbalists are white magicians.
Many people know Kabbalah from the intellect, yet their behavior demonstrates that they do not enact or live the ethical conduct of positive initiation or white magic: the service of the mind towards the Innermost Spirit (God within) and humanity. Instead, what many of them do is fulfill the precepts of negative initiation or black magic: the fortification of conditioning, mind, desires, egotism, lust, selfishness, pride, anger, etc., for the overall corruption of humanity.
The intellect is a tool that is useful when placed under the service of the Spirit. But when the intellect seeks to control the Spirit, the intellect becomes destructive. Therefore, the intuitive Kabbalist is the one who learns through the experience of the consciousness. The intuitive Kabbalist learns directly, without opinions or theories. This one seeks a radical intellectual culture: a comprehensive knowledge of esotericism that is qualified by direct investigation.
Kabbalah is a map of consciousness. Can one travel to another country without knowing the language and map of that place? Isn't it true that one can be easily manipulated, hurt, or misled without knowing the language, idiosyncrasies, and customs of a foreign culture?
Kabbalah is the symbolic language of divinity. If we do not even grasp an intellectual understanding of the signposts, then we will not know how to read the inner guidance of our own divinity.
Simply studying the map does not indicate that we have traveled. This is intellectual kabbalah. Most of humanity who engages in Kabbalah does so exclusively from the intellect, because they never consciously experience the principles contained in their studies.
Both knowledge of the map combined with actual travel signifies that one is practically working in initiation.
The objective of studying the Kabbalah is to be skilled for work in the internal worlds... One who does not comprehend remains confused in the internal worlds. Kabbalah is the basis in order to understand the language of these worlds. ―Samael Aun Weor, Tarot and Kabbalah
We invite you to study and experience this life-changing knowledge, which is the mirror and reflection of your complete human and divine potential.
The Gnostic Academy of Chicago
Gnostic articles on practical spirituality: the science, mysticism, art, and philosophy of conscious living.