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The Secret Library: Introduction to the Inner Dimension of the Torah

How would you react if you learned that there was a secret library hiding in your childhood home, which you never heard of before? This is what it feels like to discover the Torah’s mystical tradition, Kabbalah and Hasidism.

The Jewish people have been called, "the people of the book." The reason is that since having become a nation, we have wandered the world with a book in our possession—the Torah, which over the years has grown into a complete library. Every Jew, by virtue of being born or converting, inherits this library and carries it with them in their backpack (even if at times they are unaware of its presence). But to what extent can we say that we truly know the contents of this library?

Espionage stories tell of a special method for transmitting confidential information: a book with double pages glued together. When holding the book and leafing through it in the usual way, it appears as a simple and harmless book; but if one carefully separates its pages, one discovers that there is secret information printed on the hidden interior of every page. It is a book within a book, its concealed pages containing completely different content from the visible book, content that is meant to be read only by those who are aware of the secret pages.

How would you react if we told you that the books in your Jewish backpack are such books? The familiar Jewish library is a whole universe of knowledge, and one could spend a lifetime delving into it; yet it is but the surface of a deeper and more wondrous world, full of ideas, advice, and stories hidden from our eyes. This mysterious concealed world is the Jewish mystical tradition, also called the “hidden Torah” (נִסְתָּר) or the “inner dimension of the Torah” (פְּנִימִיּוֹת הַתּוֹרָה) Like the inner pages of the spy books, the inner dimension of the Torah is hidden within the pages of the revealed Torah literature, waiting to be uncovered. Our sages said of the Torah: "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it."[1] The simple reading is that we must turn and leaf through the Torah’s revealed pages, but we can now reinterpret this statement to mean that one must turn the pages of the Torah twice: once to read its revealed pages, and a second time to split them and reveal the interior, hidden pages—the Torah’s mystical tradition.

Another metaphor for the mystical tradition, drawn this time from the literature of the sages, is found in the statement that the Torah was written as “black fire on white fire.”[2] This metaphor suggests that the Torah is composed of its visible content communicated to us through the form of its letters (“black fire”), and its hidden content in the form of the spaces between its letters (“white fire”). The mystical tradition is written in the white fire—the space between the inked black letters of the Torah. Anyone who knows Hebrew can immediately read the letters (even if it takes them a lifetime to fully understand them); but to read the spaces between the letters, one needs to acquire a new language—the language of the Torah’s hidden dimension.

The Heart of the Orchard

The Torah’s inner dimension has a name. It is called Kabbalah.

The above descriptions of Kabbalah as a book within a book, or as white fire/parchment around the black letters, are of course only metaphors. In reality, Kabbalah exists in the form of books, a vast selection of books dedicated to interpreting the Torah in a mystical manner. Kabbalistic literature is as rich and extensive as it is ancient. It is rooted in the earliest days of Judaism, and it continues to grow and evolve to this day. It deals with explaining the deep structures of the world, of humankind, and even of God Himself, aiming to help people draw closer to their Creator and live by His light.

On the face of it, Kabbalah is but one of the branches of the Torah, no more and no less important than its other branches. But the reason it is described as “the Torah’s inner dimension” is because it is more than that: It embodies a hidden system of understanding that interprets the Torah as a whole. Applying this system allows us to reveal the Torah’s interior, the myriad teachings hidden behind each of the Torah’s parts and details, endowing them with an overall unity that is otherwise difficult to discern.

It is customary to divide the layers of the Torah into four, according to the acronym PaRDeS (meaning “orchard” but which in English has become known as “paradise"):

  • Peshat (literal or plain interpretation)
  • Remez (interpretation based on hints and allusions)
  • Derash (homiletic interpretation)
  • Sod (interpretation based on the secret, mystical dimension)

The four levels create a ladder leading from the outside in. That means that peshat is the most revealed layer and sod is the most hidden layer. Sod is also the layer of Kabbalah, making it not only an integral part of the Torah, but its deepest level.

Kabbalah’s integral role in the Torah orchard is felt when one removes the S from PRDS, turning it into PRD (פרד). This three-letter combination is the root of the word meaning “detachment” (פֵּרוּד) and can also be read as the word for “mule” (פֶּרֶד) the symbol of infertility. Without Kabbalah, the Torah may appear as a galaxy of disparate commandments, interpretations, stories, homiletic readings, and legal rulings, which do not necessarily coalesce into a unified whole. The Hebrew letter samech, the equivalent of the letter S in PRDS, which stands for the Torah’s secret dimension, transforms the pered, the barren "mule," into a fruitful and flourishing pardes, “orchard.” The samech’s round shape (it is shaped as a circle) also suggests that it gathers all the disparate pieces of the Torah and seats them at the “round table” that unites them.[3]

Another metaphor for Kabbalah's relationship to the rest of the Torah is its designation as “the soul of the Torah”[4] (נִשְׁמְתָא דְּאוֹרָיְתָא, pronounced: nishmeta de'oraita). The Torah is likened to a living entity, with a body and a soul. Most of the corpus of Torah—the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Medieval commentaries, the responsa literature, etc.—focus on Torah’s revealed dimension, i.e., the “body” of Torah (the main laws are even called in the Mishnah “bodies of the Torah”[5]), but Kabbalah reveals the Torah’s concealed dimension, the Torah’s “soul.”

The revealed and the hidden dimensions of the Torah also address the corresponding layers within we human beings. The revealed Torah is mostly dedicated to rectifying the revealed aspects of our life—our actions, and the more conscious and accessible aspects of our soul. In contrast, Kabbalah is dedicated to rectifying our hidden aspects—the deeper and more concealed layers of the soul, related to our spirit and its purpose in the world. By exposing and explaining the deep structures and dynamics of the world and the soul, Kabbalah allows us to connect with these layers and cultivate them.

The Revelation of Kabbalah

When we meet a new person, we first only see their exterior, while their inner world is revealed to us only gradually, over time. So too Kabbalah was not revealed all at once. Throughout most of history, the study of Kabbalah was prohibited from most people and was reserved for exceptional scholars and mystics. A well-known principle, for example, prohibited studying Kabbalah before the age of 40, and although many great Kabbalists did not adhere to this prohibition (three of the most prominent among them—the Holy Rabbi Isaac Luria, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov—all died before reaching the age of 40), others certainly did. And everybody was very careful about not revealing Kabbalah to the masses.

Two main concerns stood behind this caution. The first was that someone might misuse practical Kabbalah for evil purposes, and the second, that the metaphors and imagery used by Kabbalah—which attribute "forces", "organs", and more to the Divine—would not be properly understood and would lead to anthropomorphic and heretical conceptions of God. These concerns were not unjustified, and there were enough cases that showed that, in the wrong hands, Kabbalah could indeed be used as a tool to distort the Torah. The most notorious case is that of Shabtai Zvi, the 17th century false messiah who led many astray.

The first person to change this perception was Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, the Holy Ari, the greatest mystic of the modern era, who taught in Safed in the late 16th century (and whose grave there can be visited to this day). Beyond his significant innovations that made Kabbalah into a detailed and systematic topic of study, the Holy Ari made two important changes regarding the revelation of Kabbalah: one, he almost completely prohibited the use of practical Kabbalah; and two, he explained that in our time, "it is permitted and good to reveal this wisdom,"[6] i.e., Kabbalah.

The Ari did not mean that Kabbalah should be taught to everyone, but only to those who are worthy of it (who are very refined in their character traits, who have studied much of the revealed Torah, and who have met other criteria). Yet this was a significant expansion of the circle of those exposed to Kabbalah. The Ari also believed that the study of Kabbalah would bring the world closer to the state of redemption, in which everyone would be whole in body and soul.

The Chasidic movement

But the greatest revolution in the dissemination of Kabbalah to the public occurred in the 18th century, two hundred years after the Ari. It happened with the founding of Chasidut, the Chasidic movement, by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (the Besht, for short). The Besht’s great innovation was translating the mystical wisdom of Kabbalah to the language of psychology. The Besht took the foundational content of Kabbalah—the intricate structures of the higher worlds, the Names of God, the complex spiritual intentions, and more—and showed how they can be applied for the growth and purification of the soul. For the chasidim, the Besht’s followers, the wisdom of Kabbalah became a tool to understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives, permeating us with the awareness of God's Presence in everything.[7]

Chasidut was the most significant and meaningful spiritual renewal movement in Judaism in the modern era. It spread rapidly across the Jewish towns of Eastern Europe, bringing a fresh and rejuvenating breeze to the routine of study, prayer, and service of God. The experience of those who encountered it for the first time was one of awakening from a years-long slumber, a feeling that they had never truly tasted the flavor of faith and closeness to God before.

The Chasidic approach completely dissipated the concerns about studying the inner dimensions of the Torah, and even turned them on their head. Whereas previously there was concern that the inner dimensions of the Torah might fall into the hands of someone unstable, it now became clear that it was the other way around: Deep emotional stability is precisely attained through studying the inner dimensions of the Torah in the Chasidic way.

Moreover, since Chasidic study interprets the concepts of Kabbalah about God using concepts taken from the soul rather than the body, it bypasses the risk of anthropomorphism. And since there is no longer any danger, there is no longer an age limit: even children are deemed capable of learning and absorbing Chasidut from a young age.

In fact, the teachings of Chasidut paved the way for opening the inner dimensions of the Torah to two additional audiences. The first is women. According to Jewish law, women, just like men, are obligated in commandments whose primary fulfillment is in the inner, spiritual layer (belief in God, love of God, fear of God, etc.), the study of Chasidic teachings is as relevant to them as it is to men.[8] Indeed, an important topic discussed extensively in Kabbalah and Chasidut is the spiritual development of women as a crucial step in bringing redemption.[9]

The second audience is the nations of the world: part of the complete prophetic vision of Judaism is the unification of humanity to serve God "with one shoulder."[10] For this purpose, later generations of Chasidic leaders have permitted teaching non-Jews the extensive parts of the inner dimensions of the Torah that relate to them.[11]

The unity of the revealed and the hidden

Since Kabbalah and Chasidut are the soul of the Torah, without them, the Torah is, in a sense, like a body without a soul. Someone who studies only the revealed part of the Torah might, over time, feel empty and unsatisfied, sensing a void within that their study does not fill. Indeed, there is basis to the claim that this experience is one of the main reasons for the great distancing from Judaism in the modern era: After failing to find the fountain of living waters they longed for in the Torah, countless Jews of the Enlightenment—the forefathers of secularism—sought alternatives from other sources.

The way out of this crisis lies in disseminating Kabbalah and Chasidut and in making them a living and breathing part of the fabric of Judaism. Revealing the inner dimension of the Torah sheds new, more profound light on all its other, more familiar parts, and does so in a manner that touches our hearts and souls.

It is explained in Chasidut that the hidden dimension of the Torah is so innovative, that discovering it is a bit like receiving “a new Torah.” This concept is taken from the sages' interpretation of the verse, “Torah shall go forth from Me,”[12] explained as “A new Torah shall go forth from Me.”[13] According to Chasidut, this refers to the revelation of the inner dimension of the Torah, which, by emerging from the revealed Torah, is experienced like the giving of a new Torah.

Another reason for the term "new Torah" is that the complete revelation of the inner dimensions of the Torah adds to the Torah of Israel all the points of truth and beauty in the wisdom of the other nations of the world, thereby renewing and expanding the Torah.

The language and imagery of the inner dimension of the Torah are so unique, that Kabbalah could sometimes seem a separate and independent wisdom from the Torah, a “religion” of its own called "Kabbalah." Unfortunately, this is exactly how it is marketed today to many people around the world. However, one must understand that just as a soulless body (the revealed Torah without its inner aspect) is lifeless, so too is a bodiless soul (the hidden Torah without its external aspect). It floats in mid-air, uprooted, like a picture that was torn from an album and blown away by the wind.

The revealed layer of the Torah provides the framework that gives context and application to Kabbalah and Chasidut. In Kabbalah’s own terminology, the external aspect of the Torah provides the "vessels" through which the "lights" of its inner dimensions can be contained

[1]. Avot 5:22.

[2]. E.g. Midrash Rabbah Shir HaShirim 5:15.

[3]. Indeed, in the Talmud, the word “Pardes” appears as a general term for the secret Torah, meaning: the secret Torah conceals within it the entirety of Pardes.

[4]. Zohar 3:152a.

[5]. Mishnah Chagigah 1:8.

[6]. Introduction to Eitz Chaim.

[7]. The Lubavitcher Rebbe defined Hasidism as the fifth dimension of Pardes, acting as the thread that weaves and unites all four of its floors to truly become one (from the pamphlet "The Essence of Chasidic Teaching," section 8). Based on the Ari's description of the creation of the worlds, the three dimensions of P-R-D can be likened to the empty space in which the worlds are created (separated as it were from God), and the dimension of S to the infinite light that surrounds the empty space (in the shape of the letter S). Thus, Chasidic Torah would be the line of light descending from the infinite light into the void. And behold, if this line is introduced into Pardes, it turns it into a paradox – the wonder of carrying opposites that Chasidism reveals.

[8]. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, "On the Obligation of Jewish Women in Education and Torah Study," Sefer HaSichot 5750, volume 2, pp. 455-459.

[9]. See for example Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Siddur Im Dach, s.v., Mehairah HaShem Elokeinu.

[10]. Zephaniah 3:9.

[11]. See, for example: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Igrot Kodesh, volume 23, letter 292.

[12]. Isaiah 51:4.

[13]. Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 13:3.

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