Kabbalah is the main and most widespread form of Jewish mysticism and esoterism. Kabbalah, meaning "tradition" or "reception" in Hebrew, has murky origins, as Judaism has had movements of esotericism and mysticism ebb and flow throughout its history, though Kabbalists will say it has been in practice since the time of Eden. However, most modern kabbalistic teachings are almost always derived from the Medieval esoteric movement in Judaism, especially the Zohar. Kabbalah has had a strong influence on Hasidism.
Despite being a deep and complex aspect of Judaism, thanks to the controversial Kabbalah Center, it has attracted the interest of several celebrities, reducing an otherwise valid concept (for a religion) to wearing a red string around your wrist.
While initially ostensibly part of an oral tradition, the majority of modern Kabbalistic beliefs are based on the Zohar, which is considered the foundational text of Kabbalah, and influenced by the thought of Isaac of Luria. The Zohar is largely to be believed to be authored by Moses de Leon. Other texts include the Bahir, the Sefer Yetzerah, and the Sefer Raziel haMalakh. These texts are also influenced by Hekhalot literature.
The Big Guy
In Kabbalah, God is an infinite, mysterious and nigh-unknowable being known as Ein Sof ("The Endless") that created the universe. Kabbalists usually believe that God is neither a man nor a woman, and therefore refer to him using the gender-neutral "It" rather than the masculine "He." They, much like Muslims, take the whole "not-ascribing-human-traits-to-God" thing more seriously than most, and hold, much like Islam, that the nature of God is completely unknowable and indescribable. They hold that the "God" that most Jews worship isn't really God itself, but instead the ten sefirot, or the ten characteristics of God. The Real God™ is what they call the Ein Sof, and the sefirot are the qualities, or emanations, which God manifests itself in reality through. According to Kabbalists, this is most definitely NOT any kind of belief in the plurality of God. (That would be blasphemous!)
The sefirot are categorized as such:
- Keter - "Crown"
- Chokhmah - "Wisdom"
- Binah - "Understanding"
- Chesed - "Kindness"
- Gevurah - "Discipline"
- Tiferet - "Glory"
- Netzach - "Victory"
- Hod - "Splendour"
- Yesod - "Foundation"
- Malkuth - "Kingdom"
- Da'at - "Knowledge", a unification of all the sefirah, which is often categorized
In parallel to the sefirot, there are also the qlippot, essentially the dark version of the sefirot that mirror them one-to-one.
One of the main differences from mainstream Judaism is that the Kabbalah includes a kind of reincarnation, which posits that the souls of every Jew that has ever lived are the souls of the Israelites that were present when they accepted the Covenant with God. Non-Jews have, well, non-Jewish souls. Though the existence of converts to Judaism seems to present a problem with this belief, Kabbalists offer the explanation that they are merely Jewish souls "trapped" within a non-Jewish body. The Jewish souls are said to go through this cycle of reincarnation for an unspecified amount of time until they live a life in which they fulfill all 613 mitzvot (commandments), when they then ascend to HaOlam HaBa (Literally, "The World To Come").
Kabbalah has its own system of ritualistic sex, similar to Indian tantra. It is known as Karezza, and is apparently encoded in much of western art and literature.
Not actual Kabbalah
Seeing a mystical belief system that hadn't been bastardised by any woo-peddlers yet, the folks at the Kabbalah Center took it upon themselves to create just that: a bastardized, inaccurate rip off of Kabbalah. Notable "practitioners" of this celebrity-friendly religion include Madonna and her ex-husband Guy Ritchie who overused Kabbalic ideas in his film Revolver.
Claims from Marcus Weston that the British Royal Family practised Kabbalah have made their way onto the neo-Nazi sphere of the internet, as proof of the international Jewish conspiracy, of course!
Kabbalistic references are also frequently used in Japanese media for the sole purpose of looking or sounding cool (see work such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Shin Megami Tensei).
Christian kabbalah and Hermetic qabalah are traditions that are not Jewish, instead applying some aspects of the Kabbalah to their respective religious beliefs. These came to prominence in the late Middle Ages and European Renaissance. With these traditions entering the European sphere, it provided the origin of the word "cabal".
Some Christians adopted elements of Kabbalah from Judaism, from the 13th centuries onwards. In many cases, this was motivated by a belief that Kabbalah could be used as a tool to convert Jews to Christianity. The Latinised spelling Cabala is sometimes used to refer to this Christian variant. Over time Christian Cabala blended with other strands of Western esotericism/hermeticism; to refer to its hermetic forms (especially that taught by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), the spelling Qabalah is used (which in itself is an alternative romanisation of the Hebrew).
- Kaufmann Kohler, Louis Ginzberg; Kabbalah, JewishEncyclopedia.com (1906)
- Joseph Telushkin, Kabbalah: Table of Contents, Jewish Virtual Library
- Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, What Is Kabbalah? - The Soul of Judaism, Chabad.org
- Kabbalah Online, Chabad.org
- A rabbi discusses why celebrities like Kabbalah
- Anyone who sufficiently cares can work their way through this article.
- Which is also used to collect donation from tourists visiting Israel...
- The secret history of the world: As Laid Down By The Secret Societies, Mark Booth, 2008, Page 12
- Kabbalah: The Mystic Quest in Judaism, David S. Arie,, Page 137
- Wikipedia on Revolver's Kabbalic references.
- Oliver, Charlotte. "Royal family members follow Kabbalah" Jerusalem Chronicle. Published May 19, 2015. Screenshot available here.
- "Members of British royal family are kabbalists", via a blog so delightfully called Diversity Macht Frei.
- Etymonline page for the word "cabal"