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Is Kabbalah Mysticism, Science, Both, or Neither?

Part 1 of this series:   The Secret Library: Introduction to the Inner Dimension of the Torah
Part 3 of this series:  Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity

Part 4 of this series: The Chasidic Revolution


Is Kabbalah more like mysticism or more like science? Some claim to teach Kabbalah while confidently asserting that it is a totally rational scientific system, devoid of any mystical elements. At the same time, others market it as a source of sacred Names and mystical amulets with supernatural properties. In reality, however, likening Kabbalah to either science or mysticism fails to capture a more complex truth.

We stand before the raging waters of a very profound topic, emerging like a whirlpool from the heart of Judaism. But if we remain within the debate as it is currently conducted, we will find ourselves only skimming the surface. To delve into the depth of the subject, we must set aside the popular definitions for “science” and “mysticism,” and seek the precise Hebrew terms that better describe the two worlds behind them Incidentally, this in itself is an important lesson in Kabbalistic wisdom: since the world was created through speech, to understand something’s essence, we must first name it as precisely as possible.

The word “science” is ancient, but in its contemporary usage, it is very young, as young as modern science itself. A more ancient and fundamental term that reflects the power underlying science is “wisdom” (חָכְמָה) or chochmah, in Hebrew. Wisdom is the ability to grasp an idea with the power of intellect, to unpack and explain it. One could say that modern science is one form of wisdom, at present its most successful incarnation in terms of explaining natural phenomena. Indeed, the term used by the sages to describe Greek philosophy, from which science later developed, was “Greek wisdom” (חָכְמַת יוֹן). In the same vein, the sages themselves, the fountainhead of Jewish thought, are called in Hebrew “our wise ones, of blessed memory” (חֲכָמֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה). At the base of every thought system, there stands a form of wisdom.

The term “mysticism” is equally problematic for understanding Kabbalah. In the public mind, mysticism is an umbrella term for anything and everything that is supernatural or otherworldly, from mind-reading to astrology to divination. However, if we wish to seek out its root using Torah terminology, we will find it in the word for “prophecy” (נְבוּאָה), or nevu'ah. Prophecy means the supra-rational revelation of Divine truth, sometimes through speech and sometimes in the form of visions, enclothed in symbols and metaphors. The truth elements in the various mystical traditions, therefore, are really branches of prophecy. Even false mysticism is described in Kabbalah as the external husk or shell of prophecy, i.e. a fallen version of it.

From Prophecy to Wisdom

Instead of science and mysticism, we should then speak of wisdom and prophecy.

In the history of Judaism, there was a transitional period from an era of prophecy to an era of wisdom. This transition occurred during the Babylonian exile, about 2,500 years ago. Until that time, the relationship between the people of Israel and God was entirely based on prophecy: God revealed Himself to the patriarchs, spoke to the entire people at the time of the giving of the Torah, conversed with Moses in the Tent of Meeting, and finally bestowed His spirit upon the many prophets who served the people afterward. It was an era of tangible and experiential revelation of Godliness.

During the Babylonian exile, a gradual transition to a new reality took place: the prophets became fewer, and in contrast, a new method of interpreting the word of God began to emerge, embodied by the Great Assembly (Knesset HaGedolah)—the first generation of interpreters of the written Torah and developers of the Oral Torah, who would later be known as the sages. In the transitional period, the last of the prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) sat alongside the first of the wise men (Ezra and Nehemiah), but subsequently, prophecy ceased entirely, and the baton was fully passed to the wise men. The cessation of prophecy was itself prophesied in the Book of Deuteronomy: “I will surely hide My face on that day.”[1]

Henceforth, prophecy was delegated only to fools and children.[2] What remained was a faint impression of it in the form of the mysterious bat kol, a feminine echo that occasionally pierced the space of the study hall and provided Divine assistance to the halachic debate. But the setting of the sun of prophecy signaled the rise of another luminary, which, once the eyes adjusted to it, revealed new hues in the Torah: wisdom. With wisdom, the scholarly study of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) consisted of dissecting the verses into their components, refolding them in different forms, comparing and contrasting them; these methods revealed a wealth of facets and layers that had not been consciously seen before.

Even though the wise man labors over writings originally given through prophecy, he discovers secrets that the prophets themselves were not aware of, at least not consciously. This is best exemplified by a well-known midrash that appears in the Talmud. The Midrash says that when Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, he found the Holy Blessed One drawing crowns on the top part of the Torah’s letters. Moses asked God why bother with these crowns, to which God replied: “A man is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every tag and title of these crowns heaps and heaps of laws.”[3] Moses asked to see this person and God consented, transporting him a thousand years forward to a Torah class given by Rabbi Akiva. To Moses’ great surprise, however, he was unable to understand the topic of discussion. In fact, he was sent to the last row, the place reserved for the most beginner students. Only when the students asked Rabbi Akiva about something and he responded, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai,” was Moses’ mind finally put at ease.

What Moses realized was that although the teachings of the future sages do not appear explicitly in the Torah, which was given through prophecy, they are still enfolded within it, and were always destined to unfold and be revealed many generations later via their in-depth study. This principle is reflected in the Talmudic statement that all the apparent innovations of the sages – the Mishnah, the Talmud and even everything “that a veteran student[4] will expound in front of his teacher—all were told to Moses at Sinai.”[5]

Interestingly, at the same time that the transition from prophecy to wisdom occurred in the Jewish world, similar cultural upheavals seem to have taken place across the world. In the Orient, it was the time of the rise of Buddhism, a meditative and philosophical tradition that transcended the more idol-focused Hinduism, and in the West the era of the early philosophers and the transition from the age of myth to the age of logic (or in their Greek names: from mythos to logos). What all these events have in common is the shifting of focus from thinking in figurative images to thinking in abstract concepts.

However, there is a crucial difference between the transition from prophecy to wisdom and the other two transitions: while in the rest of the world the new perception rebelled against the old one and rejected it (Buddhism sought to supersede Hinduism, philosophy came to replace mythology), in Judaism, the new perception was a continuation and fulfillment of the previous one (wisdom sought to continue prophecy).

The Two Faces of Kabbalah

But what about our question regarding the nature of Kabbalah? Should we see it as an extension of the sages’ scholarship, taking on a different form but remaining within the realm of logical wisdom? Or is it a new kind of mystical revelation, a sneak peek into the hidden, supernal worlds, like prophecy once was?

A study of Kabbalistic writings reveals that it cannot be confined to either of these two categories. If we decide that Kabbalah is wisdom, for example, we will struggle to deal with the fact that it is extremely enigmatic and mystical in nature, full of reference to strange, mystical entities that defy rational thinking. It deals with lights, emanations, and supernal worlds. It speaks of reincarnation, angels, and demons, and is full of wondrous imagery like crystal dew, candle of darkness, luminous husk, or kings of chaos. Moreover, one of the greatest Kabbalists, the holy Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria), said that his revelations came directly from heaven and not through the analysis of verses. In other words, Kabbalah is too similar to prophecy to be called wisdom.

Should we then define Kabbalah as prophecy? Unfortunately, this attempt does not fare well either. Kabbalah is too abstract, intellectual, and structured for that. A student of Kabbalah does not transcend his body and merge with the prophetic vision. On the contrary, he focuses his mind on orderly, systematic structures, integrates sources into a coherent whole, lays out tables of corresponding terms, and draws conclusions from them. Great Chasidic masters emphasized that studying a topic in the inner dimension of the Torah requires cautiously and patiently putting one’s mind to it, just like when studying a Talmudic topic. Kabbalah, in short, is too similar to wisdom to be called prophecy.

We are forced to acknowledge that the best way to define Kabbalah is as a fusion of the traditions of prophecy and wisdom. On one hand, like prophecy, it relies on concepts that the human intellect cannot autonomously arrive at. These, like the sefirotic system, were granted to the Kabbalists in a form approximating that of prophetic revelation. On the other hand, the way the Kabbalists prepared themselves for these revelations, and the way they extrapolated further knowledge from them, both definitely belong to the realm of wisdom. While the prophet is overwhelmed by his prophetic visions, the Kabbalist processes what is revealed to him, and seeks to understand it on a cognitive level, not just to receive and further transmit it.

The notion that Kabbalah is the fusion of prophecy and wisdom is beautifully demonstrated by the fact that the numerical value of “Kabbalah” (קַבָּלָה), 137 is the sum of the values of “prophecy” (נְבוּאָה), 64 and “wisdom” (חָכְמָה), 73!

The Renewal of Prophecy

In our times, talk about the possible renewal of prophecy is increasing. Indeed, the entire great wave of New Age mysticism and the renewed interest in spirituality can be seen as groping towards this goal.

The idea that Kabbalah is the union of prophecy and wisdom provides us with an important lesson on this matter. It teaches us that if we are to revive anything resembling prophecy, if we are to once again merit having prophetic-like revelations, we should not attempt to recreate it as it once was, before the age of intellectual wisdom. Do not expect a disheveled, wide-eyed prophet proclaiming enigmatic Biblical verses in the middle of Times Square. Be even more skeptical of the fantasy of restoring some ancient Shamanic ritual in our day and age. The renewal of prophecy needs to be done in a way that does not erase the treasures of wisdom accumulated in the millennia following the end of prophecy. Rather, it should include all this wisdom within it, elevate it, and breathe new life into it. Moreover, the new prophecy must incorporate intellectual tools and be accepted within the intellectual framework.

It will be a new and improved version of prophecy, a Prophecy 2.0—a revelation of God’s omnipresence in a way that can be handled by our intellect and our thoughts. Such prophecy will finally and fully realize the ancient prophetic hope that all will be able to attain prophecy, thereby facilitating a true face-to-face encounter with God, one in which we will all know Him with all of our hearts, our souls, and our minds.

Part 1 of this series:   The Secret Library: Introduction to the Inner Dimension of the Torah
Part 3 of this series:  Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity

Part 4 of this series: The Chasidic Revolution

Image of Zohar by Simon Burchell – Own work

[1]. Deuteronomy 31:18.

[2]. Bava Batra 12b.

[3]. Menachot 29b.

[4]. In Kabbalah, it is explained that Moses received a thousand lights on Mount Sinai. Beautifully, the numerical value of the Hebrew term “a veteran student” (תַּלְמִיד וָתִיק) is 1000, suggesting those lights were already contained in Moses himself. 1000 is also the gematria of “Israel Ba’al Shem Tov” (יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּעַל שֵׁם טוֹב), implying that the holy Ba’al Shem Tov is indeed the veteran student who reveals anew the thousand lights given to Moses at Sinai.

[5]. Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah 2:4; Chagigah 1:8; Megillah 4:1. See also Vayikra Rabbah 22:1.

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