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.