The Kabbalah

The Kabbalah: Complete Series


No one is watching you, and yet you feel you're being watched. Maybe you've had this feeling from time to time; maybe you have it now. You don't believe in God - you gave up this guy named "God", this old man in the clouds with a white beard, long ago. So you subtract things - prophets and saints, churches, synagogues and mosques, you subtract the body from the soul and the soul from the body, and you subtract everything but the random interaction of subatomic particles. And this is the only truth you're left with, but because it has no meaning, none at all, you subtract even that.

And yet you are still left with something.

Where do you go from here?

Do you turn back to the guy named God? That was where the process started, after all; so perhaps you can begin there. But He always disappointed you - because you expected Him to be human, like a man, and idealized, powerful, all-good and all-compassionate man, but somehow human nonetheless. And God failed you; he failed your expectation. He failed to be human.

But God is not a man. You always knew this, intellectually, but it only hits you now. The guy named God is an illusion, but there's something else that is more than real. It is not human, and you hesitate to call it "He". You hesitate to give it any name at all, but you have to come up with something, so you write the word with letters missing - G-d - because the whole enterprise is futile anyway. Or you could use another word, something neutral, Spirit, or Light, or Mystery, or The Way.

Thousands of years ago, an Arab named Ayoub discovered the mysterious Spirit in the tempest of personal tragedy. His story comes down to us in one of the longest books of the Bible, written in an uncommonly opaque Hebrew and bearing the Hebrew form of his name - Iyov, or Job. Job's friends try to explain away his suffering, offering either blame or false hope. Job will accept neither. What galls him so is not the fact of his suffering, but the unfairness of it. Rejecting the sugarcoated theodicies of others, he finds no peace until he is confronted by the voice from the whirlwind, and declares: "I will ask, and you will inform me."

So evocative is the language of the Divinity's final address to Job, that the kabbalistic commentator Ra'avad discerns "fifty gates of wisdom" in chapters 38 and 39 of the book. But really, if you just read the passage aloud - even in a good English translation - you will get a sense of the mystery that Job must have experienced. And I think that is the main point.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who lived in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi invasion, saw more death and cruelty than anyone should ever have to see. And yet - somehow - he kept teaching Torah, and he left a record of his teachings from the years 1940 to 1942. Unearthed by a construction worker after the war, this last work of Kalonymus, titled "The Holy Fire", is the spiritual diary of a man watching his world being destroyed.

In an entry dated Parashat Mishpatim, 5702 (February 1942), Kalonymus writes: "We learn from the commentaries that the voice of G-d at the giving of the Torah [on Mount Sinai] traveled from one end of the Earth to the other, and that Israel heard the voice of G-d in all the winds of the world. This comes to teach us that we must not think of the physical world as being far from the Torah, nor in opposition to it: it is not so. The voice of the Torah is heard from the whole world, because the world too was created by the word of G-d and the word of G-d is the essence of the world; it is only that human beings use the world in an evil way, and destroy the world that was 'created with ten commands' (Avot 5:1). And whoever uses the world for good, the world itself helps them in their study and deeds. ... For the world was created by the word of G-d, and the Torah is the word of G-d, and in fact the Creator is one with the Divine Word; and the whole Torah is contained in the Ten Commandments, and all the Ten Commandments were spoken as one word. And the Word of G-d in the creation of the world, and the Word of G-d in the Torah, are one."

Near the end of "The Holy Fire", shortly after the passage quoted above, Kalonymus (himself a kabbalist) returns to the Jewish mystical doctrine one more time. He is discussing the configuration of the ten Sephiroth, the potentialities or dimensions which kabbalists (and now physicists) tell us underlie the fabric of creation. In a conundrum going back at least to the sixteenth century, scholars have offered various ideas as to how the Sephiroth might best be schematically represented. Interestingly enough, Kalonymus eschews the familiar "Tree of Life" diagram (which can be found in any popular book on the Kabbalah) and returns to the older model of concentric rings. He presents two alternative views: "In the configuration of 'circles', each higher level encircles its [lower] neighbor, so that the Divinity surrounds all of them, and the World of Action [i.e., the lowest, material level] is at the center. In the 'direct' configuration [so called even though it is also circular], every lesser level enwraps its [higher] neighbor, so that the ray of the Infinite is found at the center, and the World of Action is outside." The first configuration, in which the greater surrounds the lesser, represents the body, for we stand surrounded by ever greater mysteries. The second, in which the greater is concealed within the lesser, is the way of the soul, for "there the soul, not the body, is of the essence."

Let's picture this. Warsaw is in ruins and Nazis are prowling the streets. Kalonymus' whole family have been murdered, and his people are being shipped off to the gas chambers day by day. He himself will make that trip in a few weeks. And here he is, writing about the unity of the world, and the soul, and G-d.

The paradox of the Jewish tradition is the tension between the individual and the universal. The festival of Purim plays on this tension by turning Jewish identity on its head ("queering" it, as we'd say nowadays) and deliberately blurring boundaries of identity. (Jews can dress like goyim, and even drink like goyim!) Because of a Jewish woman who went undercover in the Persian regime, the Jews of Persia were spared a fate like that which befell Europe's Jews in a later age. And this is the messianic symbolism of Purim: it calls on us to imagine a day when, without losing our Jewish identity, we will no longer be separate and segregated from "the nations"; rather, Israel and the nations will have evolved toward a higher commonality.

It would be easy to laugh at Madonna's interest in Kabbalah and to dismiss her as another shallow, fad-following entertainer; but I won't do that. I do hope that she can look beyond the Bergs' Kabbalah Centre for inspiration. I think she is looking for the same thing we are all looking for: to find meaning and our place in the world.