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Rabbi Nathan Traditional Wisdom, Contemporary Vessels
 
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A present day Kabbalist and Hassidic Mentor

 

I'm currently working to retrieve and edit many of the things I have written over the years.  I thought to use this site to post texts. However, due to the technical difficulties I am having with this site, I have opened a blog http://rabbinathanglick.blogspot.com  where I will post written material.  I am also adding new audio files to my lecture site, which you can access here: http://teach.learnoutloud.com/Resources/Authors-and-Narrators/Rabbi-Nathan-Glick/10177 As always, you are welcome to write with questions, comments or requests to info@orhahechal.com.

 

 

What is Kabbalah? (Three Paths)

by

Rabbi Nathan Glick

 

Introduction

 

Although Kabbalah is often misunderstood, its essential meaning can be summarized quite succinctly. Kabbalah is the doctrine that explains and analyzes the encounter between humanity and G*d. while scripture speaks in deceptively simple terms about this encounter, as if G*d and humanity were two entities who meet, have a conversation, make agreements, disagree (with humanity lapsing into the state of estrangement usually referred to as sin) and become reconciled, in actuality, this encounter could not be as straightforward as that. Behind every word of scripture lies the experience of prophecy, that medium of contact and transcendent state of consciousness without which there could be no contact between the finite human person and the infinite other-ness of G*d. Humanity and Divinity are in diametrical opposition. Human consciousness grasps and contains what it seeks to know. But infinity cannot be grasped. So it would appear that any all we can know of G*d a blank emptiness that is the destruction of all knowing. And so the fundamental question remains as always “What kind of relationship and sharing can there be with G*d when Divinity is so completely beyond our conception?”

 

This ambivalence was given expression in a curious pair of midrashim. One midrash states (Bereshit Rabbah 24:1) that the wicked err when thinking about G*d , and “liken the form to the One who formed it, and the plant to the One who planted it.” In other words, the wicked , when relating to G*d reduce G*d to human terms, and this opens the door to idolatry. Yet elsewhere the midrash claims (Bereshit Rabbah 27:1) “Great is the power of the prophets, who liken the form to the One who formed it!” What can be seen is that there can be no relationship between G*d and humanity without the existence of some common denominator, and yet, once we attribute some human quality to G*d, we have apparently reduced G*d in our minds and have fallen unwittingly into the trap of idolatry. Here we encounter the awesome significance of prophecy, and why it continues to be a relevant force in our spiritual lives to this very day (since even though we no longer have prophets among us, we continually live in the light of a prophetic document –the Torah!) Prophecy is the way and the method by which a likeness, between G*d and humanity, can be conceived of without our falling into idolatry. Of course , this leaves up with a greater question. How does Prophecy accomplish this impossible task? This question brings us back to the meaning of the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is the study, investigation, and practical application of Prophetic consciousness.

 

The Divine Attributes (Sefirot)

 

The issue we have raised here is this: in what way can G*d and humanity be understood as sharing a relationship. All kabbalists, throughout history, have stated one thing unambiguously. G*d establishes a relationship with humanity and the universe, through the revelation and emanation of the divine attributes. These attributes are 10 in number, and are named as follows:  

1) Keter, the crown, the sublime will for revelation that beyond all understanding.

2) Hochma, wisdom.

3) Bina, understanding.

4) Hesed, loving kindness.

5) Gevura, strength.

6) Tiferet, beauty, or truth

7) Nezah, Eternity or Victory.

8) Hod, Glory or Thanks-giving,

9)Yesod, Foundation, or Covenant.

10)Malchut, The kingdom of G*d. 

 These attributes express to us who G*d is, and yet, unlike, humanly constructed concepts they do not limit the infinity of G*d. Ordinary thought forms, as they attempt to grasp G*d, fall into the trap of idolatry. They “liken the form to the one who formed it, and the plant to the one who planted it,” projecting our own realities upon G*d’s infinite incomprehensibility. However when we use the attributes as taught to us by the Kabbalah we partake of the prophetic experience which “likens the form to the one who formed it” in a positive and uplifting way. But now we must ask, have we really dealt with the central question satisfactorily? Unfortunately, while our religious vocabulary has been enriched by the addition of ten new words, we are apparently no closer to resolving the central issue: When is our use of language in reference to G*d idolatrous, and when is it prophetic. How are we to know If we are truly worshipping G*d or if we are interacting with the projections of our own minds. In response I would say that there exist three basic schools of thought as to the nature and meaning of the Kabbalah, and each one has a certain understanding of the Attributes, and a particular path of devotion based upon its understanding. These schools of thought can be called 1) The Path of Semantic Un-knowing, 2)The Path of Comprehending Providence, and 3) The Path of Ego Transcendence. The first path is most often advocated by the Sefardic Masters. The second is embraced by the Lithuanian Yeshivot. The third path is that of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Hassidic Movement. Obviously this classification is an oversimplification. Many teachers are eclectic in approach, while others would seem to defy classification. Nevertheless, I believe that the deliniation of these paths is a valuable tool for understanding the broader trends of thought in Kabbalah.

The Path of Semantic Un-knowing;

 

According to this Path through the Kabbalah, the basic principle is that these “attributes” are Names. The names of G*d as they are communicated to us in scripture through prophecy are the manifestation of the divine attributes. Explaining the Attributes as being names explains how they can “contain” the infinite otherness of G*d. A Name is still a name, even if no one can understand what it means. A name may be finite and knowable, while its meaning can be infinite. So too the names of G*d are all incomprehensible to us, but at least they “contain” the incompresensibility which is G*d. You might be tempted to ask “since these names tell us nothing, what can the Kabbalah actually teach us?” Well, Kabbalah can’t tell us anything about the attributes themselves...but it does teach us about how these names connect to each other and form a logical pattern. The form exhibited by how these names connect to each other, as embodied in the sacred texts of the torah, is the same pattern that underlies human consciousness. It is the “Image of G*d” that is so basic to human life, and with which we strive to be in harmony. In so doing , the individual, the community, and the world is sanctified and uplifted. The names of the Attributes that we listed previously (Keter etc...) are a secondary set of names that have been added to the Ten Names of G*d that exist in scripture. These secondary names show us how to harmonize the various aspects of our personalities in light of G*d's names. For instance, he attributes of “wisdom” and “understanding” stand for two of G*d’s names. The Kabbalist, who meditates upon these names, and learns how these names are linked in the Image of G*d, finds his/her own “wisdom” and “understanding” unified. In a similar way, all aspects of our personalities can be brought into harmony with the basic pattern of G*d’s image.

 

Central to this Kabbalistical path, is the requirement that one put aside ones desire to understand or comprehend. G*d is incomprehensible, as are the Divine Names. That being the case, it makes no sense to ask questions like “Why should this name connect to that one in just this particular way?” Such questions are unanswerable. Similarly, the linkage of a certain Divine Name to a certain humanly knowable quality, like “Kindness” or “Wisdom” does not imply that we know anything at all about G*d. we know only how the names are related to each other and thereby construct the Image. This path stresses an acceptance, in sincere faith, of the Divine Names, and the structure they form within the textual dimension which the Torah provides. That is why this branch of Torah study and observance is called Kabbalah (translated literally as “receiving”) These truths must be received. They cannot be arrived at by any human reasoning. How could we possibly conclude through reasoning that two incomprehensible names are connected to each other in a certain way, as opposed to any other? Rather it is taught that these truths can only be received by revelation, although once they are received, they enable us to rectify, sanctify and uplift ourselves and the entire world as well.

 

The Path of Comprehending Providence:

 

This path for understanding the kabbalah draws strongly from the works of Rabbenu Moshe Haim Luzzato (the RaMHaL) and the Gaon of Vilna. Unlike the Sephardic path we outlined, this school of thought refuses to view the Divine Attributes as a group of meaningless symbols. Rather , it affirms that if these attributes are given to as G*d’s way of communicating with us, that they must be in some way comprehensible. In what way, then, can the Attributes or Sefirot be understood? They are are understood by us because they show us and communicate to us how G*d acts through history. Each phase of history and each event or constellation of events is the result of a combination of various “Modes of Divine Activity”. Thus if one understands how the divine attributes connect to each other in a complete whole, then one can also understand the structure and course history, and how all the events in history, that to the unaided would appear meaningless, can be grasped as a harmonious unity contributing to the final establishment of the Kingdom of G*d and the ultimate universal redemption. The redemptive process in history is carried forward by our own ability to conquer evil, and evil is nothing more than the apparent lack of harmony that confronts us in the world. When we use Kabbalah to understand the historical process of which we are a part, we grasp the deep level harmonies that are invisible to scholars or philosophers, and by this we vanquish the force of evil, and promote the arrival of the redemption. A Kabbalist, then, is the sort of person who could explain to us tragic and dark face of history, and show us that it is not blind or meaningless.

 

The Path of Ego Transcendence

 

This is the path of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples. Like the Lithuanian path, it affirms that the Sefirot must be comprehensible in some way, and yet it is unwilling to define them as merely “modes of Divine Activity”. According to the Lithuanian Path, all of history must be, in the final analysis, governed by logical necessity. Everything must be explainable, at least in a general sort of way. The Hassidic masters objected to this stress on the supremacy of logic. There must be room in the Sefirot for the unspeakable mystery of G*d that is beyond language or logic. However, the Hassidic masters did not believe that the Sefirot are a system of incomprehensible symbols. And so the question remains, what meaning can they have for us? The answer lies in the concept of “bittul” or self nullification. In ordinary logic and language it is the function of the concept to contain or grasp the meaning it conveys. Consequently, no language can covey anything true about G*d since the Divine Being is utterly transcendent and infinite. It is therefore necessary to radically redefine logic, language, and the ordinary states of consciousness that govern our day to day activities. The word must be transformed from that which contains and grasps meaning into something that surrenders to meaning. Insofar as a concept, word, or Divine Name is utterly surrendered to G*d, it becomes capable of communicating to us who G*d is. Every Kabbalistical concept is both meaningful and infinite. It is meaningful because it is drawn from our experience of the world, and yet infinite because it is wholly surrendered and nullified to G*d. When we use such language with G*d, and when G*d uses this language with us, we come to know something of the content of G*d’s infinite self. For example, the attribute of Hesed (loving-kindness) shows us that within the infinite unknowable singularity, there is loving-kindness, since the infinite meaning has taken this concept as a vehicle for its expression.

 

In order for us to grasp the nullified Names we have to nullify our egos. Therefore the Hassidic path stresses above all the need for us to abandon any form of arrogance or self interest. The goal of the Torah is to help us turn human awareness “in side out” through experiencing Awe and Love of G*d. Similarly, in the fulfillment of each Mitzva our awareness and experience opened outward, and we become enveloped in the Divine Attributes. Eventually, the true kabbalist is an individual who is able to nullify the very limbs of his/her body, and become a vehicle for G*d’s self revelation in this world.

 

Is There “One True Path?”

 

While I have been trained primarily in the Hasidic path, and it has my personal loyalty, there can be know doubt that all of these paths (and others that I have not touched upon) are valid and have something important to convey. One of the wonders of the Kabbalah is that the more you examine and investigate, the more levels of meaning shine through. Kabbalists the world over and through the ages have pondered this unique language of transcendent symbols, and all have been illuminated by G*d in a way that has shown each individual what he/she is called upon to do as part of the universal process of rectification. It can be said that Kabbalah is about knowing ourselves as G*d knows us, and about fulfilling that “Zelem” (image) that is both our deepest individuality and the spark of Divinity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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