Monday, October 5, 2015

Kabbalah: You're Doing It Wrong

At Crucible, a bunch of people told me I should be teaching, and now I'm thinking about writing a course or a book about kabbalah.  I thought I'd start writing it here, so I could get some feedback about what people like and don't like.  This is very much a rough draft; most of the citations are missing, and I'm sure it's riddled with typos.  I haven't typset much Hebrew, because it takes forever to keep switching alphabets.  Also, there's no real structure; I'm just talking.  This is what I sound like without editing. :)  I'll flesh it out later, but I wanted to get a rough outline down.  I feel like I'm writing in a perhaps too academic style here.  I'd appreciate feedback on whether people would prefer a "chattier" style.  Because so many occultists have so many (nonsensical) ideas about the tree of life, I thought it would be easier to start with something less familiar.  If my years of classroom teaching have taught me anything it's that the hardest thing we do as educators isn't teaching new material, it's unteaching biases, confusion, and misconception.

Ezekiel's Wheel in St. John the Baptist Church in KratovoMacedonia.

Lesson Zero: What Is Kabbalah?

In today’s lesson, I’m going to start off with a somewhat controversial claim: In modern occult parlance, the best translation of the word kabbalah is “personal gnosis”. This might seem odd, since, as its usually used by occultists, the kabbalah is mostly understood as a rather rigidly intellectual system of fixed correspondences. However, the word “kabbalah” ( קבלה) itself means “something received” which we understand to mean “received wisdom” or gnosis. As Clifford Hartleigh Low rightly points out, "kabbalah" can also mean apprenticeship: "The implication is that it's taught from father to son, reaching back to the knowledge of Adam after the expulsion from Eden. It is the literal translation of apprenticeship, so that one can receive the kabbalah of dying wool from one's dad."

This is knowledge we gain ONLY by direct experience of it; neither faith nor reason is sufficient (although both are required).  In most cases, the word "kabbalah" is intended is contrasted with “torah” (תורה) which means “something taught”. In its earliest usage, the word “kabbalah” refers more or less to the entire body of what we would now call “oral torah”, ALL of the teachings of Judaism apart from the “books of Moses” (**CITATION**).   However, in modern parlance, kabbalah refers, broadly, to the entirety of Jewish esoteric tradition, and more specifically to three related strains of esoteric teachings: theoretical (iyunit), practical (ma’asit), and ecstatic (merkaba).

The Hermetic kabbalah derives entirely for theoretical (also sometimes called “speculative” or “theosophical”) kabbalah. Personally, I think "philoosphical" is probably the best way to explain it.  Theoretical kabbalah is the domain of the scholar; it’s primarily purpose is to lay out a consistent ontology to use in understanding and interpreting Jewish Holy Law. Outside of this context, it’s just not, in my opinion, especially useful. It teaches many beautiful truths about the nature of the humanity, the Divine, the universe, and the complicated relationship between them. But I’d be hard pressed to say (and I suspect you might be too) just what it’s FOR. I like to the think of the theoretical kabbalah as a “dream interpretation dictionary”; useful ONLY in the hands of someone with (1) the skill to induce visionary dreams, (2) a solid understanding of when to throw out the dictionary and interpret dreams experientially, and (3) a reason to care about messages from the dream world. Similarly, theoretical kabbalah provides a dictionary to help understand, talk about, and contextualize the experiences provoked by practical and ecstatic kabbalah.

The practical kabbalah, on the other hand, is a system of magic. The practical kabbalah predates the theoretical by many centuries; it is primarily a system of spirit sorcery very similar to that found in the PGM or other Mediterranean systems of similar age. The best English source on Jewish magic is, without doubt, Gideon Bohak’s Ancient Jewish Magic: A History, which I highly recommend. However, Dr. Bohak’s work is academic in nature, and requires a solid grasp on the socio-religious climate of the Near East in the Iron Age.  It's not really aimed at practicing magicians; you have to tease the useful bits out of a lot of commentary on the archaeological methodology.  I’ll be discussing a great deal of practical kabbalah during this class, but my main focus is going to be on merkaba kabbalah.

The ecstatic kabbalah is often called Ma’aseh Merkaba, or the Work of the Chariot. (There is also a specific text by this name, which I'll discuss in detail in a later lesson.)  It is named after Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot in chapter one of his prophecy. If you're not familiar with the passage, go read it.  Another name for the practice is "Hekhlaot", which means "palaces", a reference to the places one travels in the chariot.  This is perhaps the oldest form of kabbalah; the techniques of kabbalistic ascent are well documented in Talmud, the Dead Sea scrolls, and much of the apocrypha.  At it's root, this is the shamanic journey that forms the basis of almost all mystic work, in any culture.  That being said, merkaba kabbalah gives us a unique perspective on the matter; there are a limited number of literate cultures with a thriving unbroken tradition of visionary trance work; Merkava provides a unique opportunity to engage with a well-documented living tradition that arises out of a culture very similar to urban, middle-class, American existence.  I think you'd be hard-pressed to name another kind of shamanism with a documented history of practice stretching from the iron age to the present, with a world head-quarters in Brooklyn and an outreach movement.

At its most basic, kabbalah is a system for inducing, understanding, and using visionary trance.  This is used both as a system of divinatory communication with the Divine and also as a sort of shamanic healing practice (for individuals, communities, and "situations").  There is very little non-dogmatic work available in English on merkaba kabbalah aimed at "outsiders".  The best resource I have found is Jonathan Garb's Shamanic Trance and Modern Kabbalah, but it is aimed primarily at scholars of religion with a solid grounding in Jewish theology and history.  However, Chabad and other Jewish organizations have VAST quantities of high-quality free materials just waiting for you to read them.  Now, while those materials require very little background, they do require one to read with your skeptic's mind engaged; while you read, don't forget that those materials are translated and written by religious fundamentalists for the express purpose of promulgating their very narrow view of Judaism.  Orthodox Judaism can sometimes be a hotbed of misogyny, racism, and narrow-mindedness.  But, that doesn't come from the actual doctrine; it's just an unavoidable fact that isolating a community breeds corruption and narrow-mindedness.  Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  It's why I like to think of what we're doing here as Traif Kabbalah.  It's not kosher kababalah, but it's still enmeshed enough in Jewish culture and context to know what kosher is, and why it's important, and to make conscious, informed decisions about when to hew to tradition, when to run along side it, and when to fuck tradition and do what's right.

Similar to the problems of dogmatism from dissociating your kabbalah too far from the wider world, there is also a problem when you try to remove kabbalah entirely from it's Jewish context.  At that point, you're no longer doing kabbalah, and you'll get no benefit from it you can't get from something like Core Shamanism.  Now, I LOVE modern syncretic practices, but there is benefit from going deep, as well as going wide.  It think that kabbalah is among the best ways for modern westerners, especially Jews and secular folks, to establish, develop, and deepen communication with both the Higher Self and the Divine, and to acquire the wisdom, understanding, and knowledge from which arise both power and compassion in the world.

However, just like the theoretical kabbalah's map isn't very useful until you have a chariot to travel in, traveling without a reliable map can be, at best, unwise and unproductive, and, at worst, psychologically dangerous.  If you don't know it, you might want to read the talmudic story "Four Go Down Into Paradise".

In this lesson, we're going to start with a very basic map, and a very basic ecstatic technique to move around that map.  In later lessons, we'll travel up and down the Tree of Life, and Open the Gates of the Seven Heavens.  However, today, we're going to learn one of the most basic of kabbalistic maps: The Four Worlds.

As I have been writing, the sun has just set and ushered in Simchat Torah, the festival of the revelation of Torah at Sinai.  Simchat Torah marks the end of Sukkot (the Festival of Shacks), which marks the end of the yearly cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue.  Tomorrow, we'll read both the last passage (Deut. 34) and the first (Gen 1).  This uniquely Jewish holiday is, at its core, a festival of knowledge and revelation; for me, the most salient image of the holiday is the parade of the scrolls around the synagogue, accompanied by singing, clapping, and dancing.  It is with attitude we wade into our first exercise in ecstatic kabbalah; try to encounter this lesson not as discrete bits of information to be memorized and analyzed, but as a living tradition of joy, one that you learn as much by dancing as by reading. (Although, honestly, in a lot of Orthodox communities, it borders on being a celebration of the unpleasant idolatry of fundamentalism.)

Fittingly, perhaps, one of the synagogue readings that we began Sukkot with last week is The Vision of the Chariot (Ez 1:1-28).  The context of this vision is as important (perhaps more important) than the content.   In this passage, Ezekiel is living as a captive (a well-treated hostage) in Babylon, along with most of the intellectual elite of Israel.   He lived along the banks of the river, and made his living there as a diviner.  When he received this vision, he was 30 years old, and had just received word of the sack of the Temple in Jerusalem (587 BCE).   Ezekiel is the only biblical prophet to receive visions outside the land of Israel; from this, we learn that prophecy (revelatory visionary trance) is possible for everyone, everywhere, at any time.  Ezekiel's vision of the chariot points us to the next great era of Judaism, one in which direct experience replaces Temple service as the primary way in which Jews interact with the Divine, a model from which arises the teachings of Jesus, before they were corrupted into idolatry.  

In a future lesson, we'll return to Ezekiel's chariot, and analyze it further.  For now, however, we're going to learn to build it.  No matter what it is being created, creation moves through four essential phases; we'll slowly walk through them, from abstract to concrete, and then arise again, from concrete to abstract, in the chariot we've imagined.

Before we begin, however, I want to make sure I communicate to you the MOST IMPORTANT KABBALAH LESSON YOU WILL EVER LEARN.  Everything I'm about to say is nonsensical bullshit.  Please don't believe anything I say.  Discover it all for yourself.  Traditionally, this would be said thus:  "All a teacher can do, the best of all teachers, is to read to you the chapter headings.  All the rest, you must read for yourself."  All I can do is offer context and pointers; the real work of learning is something you have to do for yourself.  Read the lesson many times.  Follow the links and read those.  You might try taping yourself reading the lesson to yourself, and listening to it as you drift to sleep.  Eventually, when you're ready, you'll find yourself knowing the lesson, instead of reading it.  When that happens, you will have a dream of ascending through the worlds.  After that happens, you're ready to move on to the next lesson.  If you've spent at least 6 hours over the course of two weeks on this lesson and not yet had an ascension dream, email me an audio recording of yourself reading it aloud and an essay of at least 800 words on your understanding of the lesson, and I'll teach you something stronger to help open the gate.

Before we can create, we need, for a moment, to talk about what it means to be a Creator.  In kabbalah, all of creation comes from a common source.  In this place, all things are one.   Here, in the place of Divine Unity, the world before the first world, we experience our connection to the entirety of creation. This is the state we access, in flashes and sparks, in our deepest trance, and our fullest ecstasy. The traditional name for this place is Ein Soph, which means, literally, infinity. On June 4, 1925, the Westphalian Mathematical Society held a conference in honor of Karl Weierstrass. At that conference, David Hilbert gave a famous speech which has since become known as "On the Infinite". In that speech, Hilbert said "...the definitive clarification of the nature of the infinite, instead of pertaining just to the sphere of specialized scientific interests, is needed for the dignity of the human intellect itself. From time immemorial, the infinite has stirred men's emotions more than any other question. Hardly any other idea has stimulated the mind so fruitfully, and yet no other concept needs clarification more than it does."  If you're interested in the relationship between mysticism and mathematics, you've come to the right place, my boy!  I am something of an expert on the Southern Oracle.  It's my scientific speciality.  You can read some of my thought on the mysticism of the transfinite arithmetic here and here.  Want to know more?  Buy me a drink, and I'll talk about it indefinitely.

Ein Soph is zero dimensional; there are no decisions to be made about where to go.  There is no elsewhere.  Ein Soph is the singularity point from which everything is created and to which everything returns, and it is also the infinite dimensionless void (called in Hebrew tohu wa bohu "formless and void").  Anything you visualize here will be all wrong, the best thing you can do here is just breathe, and feel, and be.  As you wait, breathing and being, you might find that you need a password to open the gates of being, a mantra to help you hold the space.  For now, we will use the name המקום, HaMakom, the Holy Place.  This is an easily overlooked Holy Name, but one of great depth and power.  Try to recall that, as Augustin says "Intus Deu altus est", "The Highest God is Within".

Breathe.  Find your rhythm.  Pull the entirety of the universe into yourself, a point, the singularity at the beginning of time.  Release, expanding to the very edges of forever. Breathe deeper.  Go faster, if you can.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  Everything and Nothing in a never ending dance; nowhere and everywhere, all at once, timeless and eternal.  The Womb of Being, contracting, contracting, tighter and tighter, a singular point containing everything that was, is, or ever will be.

And the zero dimensional singularity explodes.  The Big Bang.  The moment of conception.

The point grows into a line, we find ourself in one dimensional space.  Here, we can make decisions; there is a way forward and a way back. The point stretches into the line, the first scratch in wet clay that will become the alphabet of our creation.  This world is inspiration, the flash of an idea that provides the impetus to create.  The hebrew name for this is atzilut, which literally means "stuff that's next to" but is usually translated as "emanation".  It is in aztilut that things first begin to differentiate.   In atzilut, things are distinct, and we can imagine qualities that some objects possess and others do not.  It is hear that we begin the construction of our chariot, by imagine the possibility that there are worlds different from our own, and imagining how we might go about traveling to them.  Here in Atzilut, things become.  We move.  We look out at the infinite line, stretching endlessly behind us with a history of things that have brought us to this place, a shining road rolling forever out before us, and we decide to build ourselves a chariot.  Once we have decided to create something, we proceed to the next world.  Again, it would be better not to try to visualize anything yet, but here is what Ezekiel makes of it:

And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the color of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. (Ez 1:4)  (pro tip: "electrum" is the greek name for the "gem" amber, and also a word for a kind of ancient alloy of gold with silver.  I'm 80% positive this means amber, but not 100%.)


  1. I think this is elegant. You've laid out an interesting, perhaps even compelling case, that even within Jewish tradition, the Kabbalah is a deep personal understanding and wisdom achieved through ecstatic states. Gnosis. And that the way to achieve that state is through breathwork, through deliberate and systematized magic, through personal encounters of the divine, through powerful life experiences. And then you've explained the movement through the four worlds.

    This is unlike any other kabbalistic text I've read. And yet wholly in tune with what I've read before. Delicious.

    1. The focus on breath work isn't really traditional; that's mostly just me.

  2. Based on this, I'd sign up for your course!

  3. I would buy a book on Kaballah from you... You are actually someone who is FREAKING JEWISH.. you might freaking know.

  4. And I complete agree with you on "This is knowledge we gain ONLY by direct experience of it; neither faith nor reason is sufficient (although both are required). "