I grew up hearing that to learn Kabbalah you have to be married, over forty, and an accomplished scholar. Otherwise you will go mad. Yet these days it seems everyone and anyone studies Kabbalah. So is what I heard not true or have the rules changed? Or have we all gone mad?
The origin of the belief that Kabbalah study is dangerous seems to be a Talmudic tale.
There were four rabbis who shared an out-of-body mystical experience, where their souls wandered off into the higher realms. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya and Rabbi Akiva.
Each of these scholars was impacted differently by the experience. For three of them, it was not a happy ending.
Ben Azzai died. Ben Zoma went mad. Elisha ben Avuya lost his faith. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to internalize and process this mystical experience, and come back down to earth unharmed.
They all shared the same vision, yet they were impacted so differently. When we analyze some biographical details of these four scholars we can understand why.
Ben Azzai was a permanent bachelor. He refused to get married, feeling that having a family would interfere with his spiritual life. His celibacy left him unattached to the here and now, so when he tasted the bliss of heaven he didn't want to come back. He had nothing to come back for. So he didn't. He died.
Ben Zoma was a promising young scholar. But he was undeveloped. He didn't have the maturity and stability to handle such high levels of revelation. His gifted but unripe mind was overloaded, and he went crazy.
Elisha ben Avuya was a brilliant man. But he had a weakness. He mingled his Kabbalistic ideas with concepts from Greek philosophy. He diluted the purity of the Torah by trying to fit it into worldly wisdom. And so in the end his confused spirituality led him astray, he misunderstood the visions he saw and became a non-believer.
Why was Rabbi Akiva different? We know about Rabbi Akiva that unlike Ben Azzai, he was married. We also know that unlike Ben Zoma, he was mature. This is derived from the fact that until he was forty, he could not even read Hebrew. It was his wife Rochel who inspired him to start at the beginning and learn Torah from scratch. And unlike Elisha ben Avuya, he studied Torah in purity.
So from Rabbi Akiva we learn that safe entry into the mysteries of Kabbalah requires the maturity and groundedness of a married scholar who is over forty. Anyone else who dares to wander into the esoteric orchard risks losing their mind, or their faith, or even their life.
So can young, unripe and uninitiated novices study Kabbalah? Absolutely. Because there is a difference between Kabbalistic study and Kabbalistic experience. These three scholars were harmed because they were experimenting with out-of-body journeys, using divine energies to enter higher worlds. You've got to be a Rabbi Akiva to dabble in that.
But studying the wisdom of Kabbalah is a different story. It doesn't matter so much who is learning Kabbalah, the question is more who is doing the teaching. If you have a good teacher with authentic training, you can study Kabbalah anytime. If you plug in to the right sources, Kabbalah won't drive you mad. On the contrary, it will give you some spiritual sanity in the mad world we live in.
I never used to work on myself. I didn't think I had to. I am a nice guy and always was. Only recently have I got involved in Judaism and become more introspective and spiritual. But a weird thing has happened. I don't think I am as nice as I used to be. I have discovered a temper I never knew I had. And I feel more tempted to do immoral things than ever before. This really started since I'm coming to shul more and learning more about my religion. Does this make sense? Shouldn't becoming more observant make me better not worse?
There's good news and bad news. The bad news is, you were never a completely nice guy. No one is. The good news is, now you can do something about it. You can learn how by observing a pot on the fire.
Fill a pot with water from the tap and examine it. Does the water look clean? Of course it does, it is straight from the tap. Then put the pot on a fire, and watch it boil. Observe that as the water gets hotter, impurities start to float to the top. Sediment and dirt and all kinds of contaminants suddenly seem to appear from nowhere.
Of course they were there before, but they were so mixed in with the water that you didn't notice them. The water only looked clean. When put on a fire, the heat separates out the impurities and brings them to the surface. What seemed to be just an innocent pot of water turns out to be a mix of good stuff and not so good stuff.
Your personality is that pot of water. We can all look at ourselves and say, "I am a pretty good guy. I don't hurt anyone, I am not mean or cruel." For most of us, if we are not mass-murderers we think we are fine.
In truth, we all have darker sides to ourselves. We have weaknesses of character, bad attitudes and inappropriate urges that lurk beneath the surface. As long as we don't shake ourselves up, these impurities remain anonymous, blending in with our general identity. We are not so bad, and not so good.
It is only when we start to self-examine, when we probe into our inner workings and try to improve ourselves, only then do all the hidden gremlins start to emerge. When the fire of your soul starts to burn with spiritual passion, the ugliness that hid in the recesses of your heart appears in full force.
This is great. Because only when the impurities float to the surface can they be identified, isolated and removed. While the pot remained a mixture of pure water and sediment, there is no way to get rid of the dregs without losing the water. But once the heat separates out the two, it is easy to skim off the surface residue and the water is clear.
So the choice is yours. Live a life of mediocrity, a lukewarm pot of water that seems all nice but is really just mixed up. Or let the fire of your soul expose your inner weaknesses, so you can face them and boil them away.
I have been looking into the Seven Noahide Laws. I understand these are the biblical commands to all humanity - the children of Noah - and they provide the basis for ethical living. But looking at the list, there seems to be an odd one out:
1.Do not worship idols - agreed, we have to believe in G-d
2.Do not curse G-d - have respect for Him, I can dig that
3.Do not murder - obvious
4.Do not steal - ok
5.Do not commit adultery - fine
6.Set up courts of justice - needed to ensure the other laws are kept, but:
7.Do not eat the limb of a living animal - what?????????????
Why of all things, include that one? While I have no intention of tearing off any animal limbs, I can't see how that would be in the top seven most important things for all humanity to observe...
Thank you for any help in enlightening this Noahide!
What is the true test of a moral person? How do you know that someone is really good in practice, and not just preaching?
One test is to observe the way they treat subordinates. Someone who can show concern for those who are lower and more helpless than themselves is a person who is truly good.
And so in formulating laws for all mankind, the Torah gives seven commands that should be seen as seven categories of ethical behaviour. The prohibition to steal includes all dishonest and unethical business practices. The outlawing of adultery encompasses all inappropriate relationships. And the ban on eating the limb of a live animal is a general law which commands us to be kind to animals.
These are not arbitrary categories of law. They cover the full gamut of moral obligations toward our fellow beings -respect for G-d who is above us, respect for human beings who are equal to us, and respect for the animal kingdom beneath us.
There is a clear hierarchy here. We are not on par with G-d, and animals are not equal to humans. The myth of equality is only necessary to protect the weak in a world devoid of morality. But moral beings with a clear code of ethics can recognise the innate inequality of nature without exploiting it. Being higher means being more responsible. Nature is here to serve us, but we are here to serve G-d, and that means treating all His creatures, equal or not, with respect.
I have heard that there is a custom to bake challah with a key hidden inside for the Shabbat after Pesach. Seems like some odd superstition. What's it about?
During Pesach the gates of heaven open for us, just as the gates of freedom opened for our forefathers in Egypt. We are given a free ride into spiritual liberation. G-d reaches out to us with an outstretched arm and schleps us out of our own personal Egypt.
But after Pesach ends, the gates are closed. And we are given a key. If we want to open the gates, we will have to do it on our own. No more free rides. It is up to us now to liberate our own souls, by taking a good look at ourselves and how we became slaves in the first place. G-d can help us take the first step into spiritual freedom, but the hard work is left to us. He can't change us, that we have to do ourselves.
So many times in our lives we are given amazing opportunities. Do we grab them? Do we utilise the gifts we are given on a daily basis? Do we open the doors with the keys that we have been given?
Pesach is the kickstart G-d gives our soul to start its journey. At the Seder we were given the gift of freedom. But freedom alone means nothing. The big question is, what will you do with your newfound freedom? The key is in our hands.