Thursday, October 29, 2015

Teshuvah, Tefilla, and Tzedekah

This week, I've been writing about "prerequisites" for beginning a merkava practice. The first three I talk about are tzedekah, tefilla, and teshuvah. I thought I'd share some excerpts.

There are three classic virtues(1) required of anyone who wishes to undertakes merkava. These are tzedekah, tefilla, and teshuvah. While they are often translated as “charity, prayer, and repentence”, but I think that these are deeply flawed translations. As Wittgenstein says, "the limits of language are the limits of thought", and so I will try to explain each word at length.

Tzedekah (צדקה‎)

"Tzedekah" is usually (in this context) translated as "charity".   Almost no one actually thinks "charity" is a good translation. Literally, the word means more like "justice" or "righteousness". (A "tzeddik" for example, is a righteous person (who is often understood to have goodness-based super-powers; basically, a "saint".) The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, said "’Charity’ commonly means alms, gratuitous benefactions for the poor. The giver of charity is a benevolent person, giving when he need not. He does not owe the poor anything, but gives because of his generosity. ‘Tzedakah’ has a completely opposite meaning. Instead of connoting benevolence, it is the idea of justice - that it is only right and just that one gives tzedakah.” (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, pp. 409-411) I more or less agree with him. However, even more so than “justice”, I like to think of tzedekah (in this context) more broadly as “right action”, or “action in accord with Creation”. I have been taught that there are five basic components of tzedekah:

Respect for Creation. The world we live in is a beautiful, magical, wonderful place. Whether humans are intended to be the stewards of the world or not is a matter of endless theological debate, but the fact of the matter is that we exercise unprecedented control over our environment, both personally and collectively, and that de facto makes us its stewards. As my father would say, don’t shit where you eat.

Generosity and non-covetousness. Give freely. Everyone has things they do not need (time, money, space, whatever), and everyone has needs they cannot meet themselves. My parents taught me that among the highest forms of charity is to give to people that others will not. While teaching adorable, clean, well-fed eight-year-olds to read at the local elementary school is a great thing to do, there’s no shortage of people willing to help. Teaching imprisoned drug addicts to read makes an immediate, powerful, and life-changing difference in someone’s life, and the ripples out to make a powerful difference in many other people’s lives as well. Similarly, try not to take more than you need. We all have an inner pack-rat, a desperate, gluttonous hoarder who whispers that there is never enough, that we could lose everything at any moment. Don’t be that guy.

Careful Speech and Listening. In Judaism, the term for gossip (or slander) is “lashon hora”, the “evil tongue”. Like the evil eye, the evil tongue, speech born out of malice or jealousy, has a real, lasting, negative impact on the speaker, the listener, and the subject. For the magician, more so than anyone else, having a "good tongue" is important. A sorceress is only as good as her word.  If you expect the things you speak into being to be true, you need to watch your fucking mouth.

Compassion. It's easy to imagine that compassion is about being nice to everyone all the time, but that isn’t so. Compassion and mercifulness are about the knowledge that you do not deserve to be loved, and neither does anyone else. Love is a thing so powerful, so amazing, that no person could possibly ever deserve it. No one can earn it. You have no right to exist; the world would probably be better off if you (and I, and people in general) weren’t here at all. And yet, we do exist. Because love. Because compassion.  The sun shines on all of us, warm and generative, making no judgements or discernments between us. Divine Compassion (grace) is just that; the warmth of the sun on the murderer's face. And that’s what compassion is too; shining on others, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. I strongly recommend a practice called metta meditation. It will make you happier.

Community-mindedness. It's easy, especially the way we live now, to sequester yourself, so that you only think of "me and mine". So many of us live, essentially, alone; either by ourselves or with only our immediate family. Tzedekah calls on us to understand our behaviors in terms of others; to prioritize the community (both our immediate community and our global community) and not just ourselves, not just our family, not just our friends and neighbors. At root, it's about understanding that our personal experience is very different from other people's, that other people's needs are different from our own, and yet all those people, no matter how different, ARE kith and kin. To overly prioritize your immediate community (your family, your neighborhood, your religion, your tribe, your race) is just as hateful, spiteful and selfish as to value only yourself. We're all in this together.

Tefilla (תפלה)

Tefilla, as I understand it, means literally "to attach oneself"; it's almost always translated as prayer, which, really, is as good a translation as any other I can suggest. Here is what I have been taught about prayer:  There are four kinds of prayers, "Wow!" "Thanks!" "Please!" and "Why!".

When you are awestruck, pray the prayer of awe (Wow!). Find wonder in the amazingness and horribleness and grandeur and horror of the world, and give that wonder a voice.

When you cannot be awestruck, try to pray the prayer of gratitude. (Thanks!)  If you're reading this, your life is almost certainly better than that of the vast majority of people who have ever lived.

When you cannot be grateful, pray the prayer of petition. (Please!_There's nothing wrong with asking for a hand when you need it.

And when you cannot do any of those things, pray the prayer of accusation. (Why?!?) Scream and yell and cry and denounce G-d for having abandoned you. Because fuck that guy, that's why(3). :)

Teshuvah ("return" or "repentance") is the most complicated of them. I'll write some more about that on another day.


1) “Virtue” is such a troublesome word. It’s taken on such an onerous connotation; it brings to mind oppressive chastity and sanctimony, but that’s not what I mean at all. I mean something more like the Greek word “arete”; excellence of character. You can still hear this use of the word “virtue” in a sentence like “By virtue of our humanity, we all yearn to learn and grow.”

2) A traditional Yom Kippur prayer (unatenna tokef) tells us that these three things can “avert the evil decree”. 3) Someone once told me that some people are for the god(s), and some people are against the god(s), and those are both excellent options, but that no one is without the god(s). (Team Against, represent!)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Guest Post: The Four Sages Tarot Spread

Long time readers will recall a student of mine named Puck.  He's all grown up now, and has this tarot spread to share with you:

The Four Sages Spread

Some Background
Here's a tarot spread based on the lulav, a Jewish ritual performed on the holiday of Sukkot. In this ritual, Jews mutter an incantation while waving around bushels of herbs in order to ensure that God grants us rain. Oh, but you aren't allowed to call it magic (or else the boring members of the Jewish community will get angry at you).
The herbs (or, rather, species) used in this ritual are willow, myrtle, palm and citron. One of the reasons given for these plants being the ones used in the ritual is that they represent 4 types of Jews. The willow has neither smell nor taste and represents a Jew who neither performs good deeds nor studies Torah. The myrtle has smell but no taste and represents the Jew who does good deeds but learns no Torah. The palm has taste but no smell and represents the Jew who studies Torah but does no good deeds. Finally, the citron, which has both taste and smell, represents the Jew who both performs good deeds and studies Torah.

Now for the spread
Three cards are arranged in the center in a fan shape. One card is placed either to the right or left of the fan, depending on whether the reader is right- or left-handed.
To expand or clarify your spread, you can have up to three cards in the "myrtle" position, two in the "willow" position and 4 arranged one over the other in the "palm" position. You can also place up to 4 cards around the "citron," one on each side.

Here's the full explanation of each card position:
There is a story that is told regarding the four sages.
Four men entered pardes (the Orchard) — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher (Elisha ben Abuyah) and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.
Ben Zakai
The aravah (willow) has neither smell nor taste. Ben Zakai walks into the Orchard and lacks the capacity to exist there. He dies. He could neither experience the Divine directly, nor through learning of the Divine. This card represents your downfall, something that you are unable to handle or something that is hidden from you.

Ben Zoma
The hadass (myrtle) has smell but no taste. Ben Zoma got the experience of the Divine, but no way to make sense of it. This led him to insanity. This card is something that you know from experience, but must study formally to master.

Ben Avuya
The lulav (date palm) has taste but no smell. Ben Avuya did not receive the experience of the Divine, only the theory. This led him to destroy the greenery. The plants became engulfed in flames as soon as he looked at them, either because of his hatred for the orchard or his inability to make sense of the orchard. This card is something you have done your research on, but have yet to fully understand.

The etrog (citron) has both smell and taste. Akiva was able to experience both the theory and practice of communication with the Divine and enters and exits the Orchard safely, having been nourished by its fruit. This card represents that which you are in control of, that which is beneficial to you and that which is, was or will be revealed.

As you place cards down, I suggest saying the following:
"Four sages enter the orchard. The first dies"
Place the first card (the right of the fan).
"The second goes mad"
Place the second card (the left of the fan).
"The third burns down the greenery"
Place the third card (the center of the fan).
"The fourth enters and leaves in peace."
Place the fourth card (to the far left or right of the fan).

So that's about it. The spread tells you one thing to look for, one thing to avoid and two things to work on. Simple enough.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Kabbalah: You're Doing It Wrong, Part 3

This is the third part of an introduction to a course on Traif Kabbalah.  (It's not kosher kabbalah, but it's still Jewish enough to have made an informed decision about that) Be sure you've read part 1 and part 2 before reading this.  You might also want to read this brief aside: Ascent or Descent.

So far, we've made our way from Ein Soph, through Azilut, through Beriah.  We come now to Yetzirah, usually called the "World of Formation", but I prefer to call it the "World of Manufacturing".  Here, the plane spins into three dimensional space, lines can fail to intersect without being parallel.  The blueprint begins to resolve into an actual chariot; here your vision begins to take shape, and you become emotionally invested in the process.  It should be very easy to be here, if you have any experience with meditation, magic, or trance-work; this is where journeys take place.  You've been here before, if nothing else, this is where you go when you dream or take a "trip".

Here, the blueprint of the chariot we created in beriah is put into production; things become manifest.  Most magic is worked in yetzirah; it's the "above" in the phrase "As above, so below."  This is the "Small Face" of the divine, and the home of most spirits we work with as magicians, including most angels, elementals, genius loci, and other sorts of "personality" spirits, "mortal" spirits which arise from other sources, not those "eternal" spirits who were, are, and always will be.
The vast majority of magic takes place in yetzirah; this is the world of sympathy, and a place where the doctrine of signatures actually kind of makes sense.  Here is where symbol and referent are conjoined.

I'm going to pause for a moment, and describe a bit of the technical details of how to provoke ascent into yetzirah by means of merkaba.  That being said, if you already have a technique that works for you (like the drumming and tree descent a lot of us know), there's no particular difference between that and this.  The method of inducing trance states I'm about to teach you centers around water.  Before beginning, it's important to look at the complicated cluster of ideas surrounding both of those in Jewish context.

Water is the fluid of life, and it's status in Jewish metaphysics is complicated and rich.  It is hard to overstate the importance of water as the materia of spirit in Jewish thought; like all desert peoples, water is a precious, powerful, and magical thing.  "And God made the expanse, and divided the waters (mayim) which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. And God called the expanse the heavens (shmayim)." (Gen 1:8)  The very word for "heavens" (or "skies") in Hebrew, shamayim (שמים), means literally "fire waters" (ש מים)  and is often understood as a "cosmic ocean".   Psalm 104:3 explicitly connects the substance of the heavens with water.  It is by sacred rivers that all biblical visions take place; Jacob's wrestling with angels and Ezikiel's vision of the chariot, in particular, are explicitly connected with riverbanks.  The ritual bath (mikveh) is one of the most important of sacraments for Jewish mystics; various hakhalot texts prescribe frequent ritual immersion as both preparation for spiritual work and purification after pollution.  Standing, lying, or floating in running water is also as a meausre of protection when teaching or experimenting with the practices.  "On the day of the transmission, they should fast, and then they should stand int eh water, the water reaching [at least] up to their ankles, and [only] then the master should open his mouth and recite." (**add citation**)   Any magician worth her salt knows that running water is a powerful medium for the spirit journey..."It's a universal conduit. Lubricates the transition from one plane to another. ...Normally only a portion of the body has to be suspended, but you wanted the crash course." (John Constantine)  Finally, water is reflective; it's surface makes the best of scrying mirrors.  "Thus Ezekiel stood beside the river Cheba gazing into the water and the seven heavesn were opened to heim so he saw the Glory of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the hayyot (creatures), the ministering angels, the angelic hosts, the seraphim--those of sparkling wings--all atteched tot eh Merkaba.  They passid by in heaven while Ezikiel saw them in teh water."  (Rei'yot Yehezkiel)

So, how do we use water to journey?  First, some classic sources:

"Then, on the seventh day, at the evening of the eighth (ie, Saturday night at sunset), go out to the water and call the divine name upon the water.  Then, at that very time, you will see in the air resting upon the water the image of a form...and if you see the image clear and ruddy, you know that you are purified." (Sefer Sodei Razaya)  

"Go out on the first day upon the shore of a sea or the bank of a river at the third hour of the night...turn your face upon the water, and recite three times the name of the archon with the name of the angels of the encampment three times.  You will see a pillar of fire between heaven and earth and say this: "I adjure you by the One who measured the waters in the palm of his hand and reunked the waters so they fled from him....who rebuked the sea and it dired up, and made the rivers a desert...thus do on the second and thrid night.  You will see revealed to you a pillar of fire and cloud, and upon it will be somethign like the image of a man." (Sefer ha Razim)

Ok, I was hoping to finish up in three parts, but it looks like that's not happening.  More tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kabbalah: You're Doing It Wrong, part 2 (Beriah)

Start with part 1, here.

So, when last we met, we were talking about the four worlds. We began at Ein Soph, entered into the first world of atzilut.

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.  This is where things find their first causes, the throne of the Shekhina.  Here in atzilut, things become.  Movement becomes possible, becomes desirable, becomes inevitable.

It is here that we begin the construction of our chariot, by imagining the possibility that there are worlds different from our own, and imagining how we might go about traveling to them. We look out at the infinite line, stretching endlessly behind us, a series of events, almost impossible, and yet inevitable, that brought us to this very moment.  Wait here until you feel the power of that.  If you want a name to open the gate, a mantra to help you find this place, the secret code word is Melek ha'olam.  This is another subtle godname, and one that people don't often think of as a "power name", but it really is.  Usually translated as "Master of the Universe", it's just as legit to render it as "King of the Forever", and I think that's a better way to understand it.  The Place has become the Forever.  When the power of that hits you, when you understand that this is the place where time began, you may find yourself at a loss for words, but say something, anything, that focuses your attention on the Now, and on the eternal path that led here.

Look out over a shining road rolling forever out before us, a limitless future of possibility.  Looking out over it,  decide to build a chariot; commit your will to the endeavor. You may find that a vision (or a voice) of the thing appears, a flickering blueprint of pure of light.  It may appear as a steed; it may appear as a spaceship.  It may appear in an entirely ineffable way, all vibrating crystals and singing angels and quantum entanglement, it might be pulled by creatures made of fire with the faces of men and beasts, roaring a deafening harmonic drone.  The exact form of it isn't so important for right now; you won't be able to hold it all in your head anyway.  If you do get a clear, stable, unwavering, understandable image, you are imagining it.  Clear your head and begin again by contemplating the nature of the infinite one dimensional road of time.

Atzilut is a fully mystic state, and a non-magical one.  Here we experience one-ness while still knowing ourselves; we float in an ocean of endless light.  In atzilut, children (both literal and metaphoric) are conceived.  From below, it appears that this is the union of opposites, the alchemy whereby two things are synthesized to bring forth a third.  And yet, as we proceed from above, we see that, from this point of view, conception occurs when that union is broken; when the eternal One is divided, when soul becomes cloaked in form, when the eternal decides to incarnate.

Once conceived, 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(1), out of the midst of the fire. (Ez 1:4) 

Having now the vision of the chariot, its creation is immanent.  The line spins into a plane; writing, drawing, sound waves, all become possible here.  Here consciousness comes into being.  While the idea that things could be distinct from each other was possible in atzilut, the actual distinctions were nearly overwhelmed by the intensity of the divine presence.  Here, it beriah, the world of creation, G-d becomes separate from his creation; the archangels and Great Gods who live here are aware of their own existence.   "the principal abode of his [the enlightened person's] soul is in the world of Beriah (and only occasionally, at propitious times, does his soul ascend to Atzilut, by virtue of the "feminine waters," as is known to those familiar with the Esoteric Discipline)"  Beriah is the home of the "permanent" spirits, the archangels, the planets, the Great Gods, and the souls of enlightened human beings; what Plato called the "world of forms".  Having now a firm vision of the purpose of our chariot, we can begin to imagine its form and details. While we do not yet have a chariot, we do have a blueprint for it. The Limitless Light that was given structure in Atzilut here is contained, restricted, pressed into form.  Darkness emerges, and things take shape in shadow.

How is it that clarity only begins to arise as a function of Darkness?  Imagine yourself emerging into bright sunshine from a darkened room.  You are blinded!  How do you see?  With sunglasses that filter and disrupt the light, diminishing it so that the contrast between Thing and NoThing becomes apparent.   In azilut, concepts are clear in the mind, but they are not yet explainable; they are still pre-verbal.  In beriah, things are created, spoken into being, written in letters of fire.  Here we can really grasp concepts; beriah is the seat of all teachings.  Here, things become understood as they are explained, prophecy becomes true as it is spoken.  And yet, even as the teacher's mind becomes ordered, the student has not yet appeared.  One explains only to oneself, and in doing so, creates ex nihlo.  Thoughts, given name, acquire an existence independent of the thinker.

The being conceived in atzilut takes shape in beriah; here we grow in the Womb of Being.  Beriah is often called the "Higher Garden of Eden"; it is a place suffused with joy.  "For the intellect of a created being can have no enjoyment or pleasure except in what it conceives, understands, knows and apprehends, with its intellect and apprehension, what is possible for it to understand and grasp of the light of the blessed En Sof, by virtue of His blessed wisdom and understanding which shine forth in the world of Beriah." (Tanya Likutei Amamim, Ch 39)

The magician makes her home in Beriah; this is the place where creation is formed enough to be comprehensible, but malleable enough to be reshaped at its core.  The magics that change the world, those that rewrite reality, warp time, the sideways "slide" between alternate realities; this is the magic we weave in Beriah.  It's DANGEROUS and almost always ill-advised.  These magics are comprehensible only in the moment you weave them; the changes, once made, ripple out and across the shimmering surface of the world in unexpected, unpredictable, ways.  You will never really remember the magic you work here; you will be left only with the sensation that things used to be different; ought to be different.  I am unwise to speak these things, and you far too unwise to hear them.  It's really best if you just forget you even read this whole paragraph, ok?

In the next lesson, I'll write to you of Yetzirah, which will be far more clear.

(1) pro tip: "electrum" is the greek name for 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%.

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%.)