The Kabbalah of Belief

When I was a chaplain at New York Hospital, I saw patients of different religious backgrounds. The Catholics were cordial but made it clear that they didn’t want blessing from me; they’d wait for a nun or priest to take communion. The Protestants readily gave me their hand and graciously received my prayer for their healing.
The Jews were another story. My invitation for blessing was often met with a puzzled pause. One man explained why he didn’t want a blessing, “We’re from the East Side,” he said. An elderly woman declined the offer but handed me twenty dollars to say a MiSheberah for her in the synagogue.
While some Christians struggle with a bad-tempered, vengeful God, Jews have another problem. They have no idea of God. Modern Jewish belief is often existential, not transcendent. We believe what we can see and touch, nothing more. Heaven and hell, paradise and judgment are here on earth. What heals us is the expertise of modern medicine. Prayer may have psychological value but nothing holds us when darkness falls.
A dear friend of mine who is a scientist as well as an observant and learned Jew, was diagnosed with a rare and possibly life-threatening disease. With all that he knew, he had no net, no faith, no belief outside himself. He resisted any suggestion that God might help him; he was too much a Jew for that. That there is something more than ourselves, something beyond our control, is unimaginable or unwelcome to many of us.
For my parents’ generation, moral Judaism made sense. Perhaps the questions raised by the Holocaust about the presence or absence of God was too painful. If God couldn’t stop the murder of six million Jews, God was irrelevant. For some of us sitting here today, that is our legacy. Furthermore, we have the idea that this is normative Judaism, yet for some of us, it’s not quite enough.
Ours may the first time in Jewish history that the idea of God is so challenged but it is not the first time that intimate connection with God has been eclipsed by ritual, study, and good deeds. In the 13th Century, written Kabbalah emerged in reaction to Maimonides’ pure rationalist philosophy.
The expulsion from Israel 2000 years ago, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and pogroms also encouraged the mysticism; we needed explanation for evil and suffering. It also led many Jews to seek refuge in believing in magic and false messiahs. The institutional response was to turn away from such dangerous forms of salvation and to rely solely upon the law as guidance. In the late 18th Century, the Talmudists so dominated the practice of Judaism that most Jews, who were largely illiterate, lost the ability to tremble before God in ecstasy.
The Baal Shem Tov was the father of the Hasidim. He taught that anyone who wanted direct contact with God could have it, and you didn’t need to know Talmud to draw near to the One. Cheshek, passion, returned to Judaism, and so did love. Our European ancestors learned to bear poverty and persecution with grace because they trusted that God loved them and they loved God. The Chabad community is one heir of Hasidism today.
What I’m going to tell you today about the rich and imaginative literature of Kabbalah does not supplant intellectual and ethical tradition. It’s simply that social action and study are not the only arrows in the quiver, and it’s good to know that to be a Jew is a glorious mix of meaning that includes reaching beyond the physical realm to speak to our deepest questions. Furthermore, if we are entering into challenging times, we need all the imagery and wisdom of our people to help us live.
On Friday nights we have a Kabbalat Shabbat service created by the Kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century that helps us move from the ordinary into the holy. We sing Shalom Aleichem, Peace unto you, we say, and we’re not just talking to each other. We are saying it to the “ministering angels.” It is in metaphor that we understand the deepest truth of our lives. When we sing Lecha Dodi L’krat Kallah, Come my dear one to greet the bride, we understand how much weÕre supposed to love God, with all the passions of two who will come together in the most profound physical and emotional intimacy.
The Kabbalah of the Middle Ages abounded in fantastic, linguistic imagery. Because the second commandment prohibited Jews from physical representation, they relied entirely upon words to create pictures of the unseen. Verbal images came alive through the miracle and mystery that allows us to see with our minds. One of the most vivid images we inherit from the Kabbalah is in understanding the human body as a vessel for 10 divine energies. These sefirot, as they are called, give us a glimpse of God’s personality in ourselves.
There are many books on sefirot, and I can only touch on them this morning. But, within your own vessel, imagine them: the top of your head contains keter, a crown that draws in God’s creative desire to make a world. By your right ear is hochmah, wisdom. This is the aha!, the inchoate idea. By the left ear is the womb-like binah, understanding, which gives birth through language to the idea. By the right shoulder is hesed, lovingkindness, and this is balanced on the left with gevurah, which is the power of discipline and limitation. In the trunk of the body, the heart space is tiferet, the child of binah and hochmah. This is beauty and compassion. The right leg is netzach, or eternity and the left is hod, or splendor.Yesod is the procreative life force of the cosmos. And finally, we come to malchut, also known as shechinah, the divine feminine. Here is the secret of the possible, the place where all the energies flow. Yesod pours into malchut and brings about the union of the masculine and feminine. Thus you are a container for all that is above. Take a moment to sense that you are more than flesh and blood. To create the world, God needed to contract and shrink. The lovely word for this creative process is tzimtzum. Like a womb that takes space within a mother, God made room for the world, which was all God but smaller. This very different vision of how the world began from the cryptic words of Genesis gives us the first act of God not as emanation and revelation but concealment and limitation..
The problem, however, is that the shrinking created imperfection, and the world could not contain the light of God. This flaw is why evil and suffering exist. The containers for divine light were the sefirot, and they shattered, causing holy sparks of primordial light to fall everywhere.
So everything in creation now carries a fragment, a piece of brokenness that is also holy. Every mitzvah, every prayer, and every intention directed towards good, serves as a magnet for the sparks. This is the tikkun olam, repair of the world. By retrieving the sparks, we begin to see the world as God’s body. The Shechinah, the mother presence of God, brings this vision, and is the part of the divine that dwells on earth. Modern Kabbalists believe that the time has come for the intimate Shechinah to balance the transcendent masculine divine.
In this imperfect world that both conceals and reveals the holy, the rabbis expanded our lives beyond breath. While their teachings are part of the Talmud, it was the mystics who explored their meta-physical vision. After the destruction of the Temple, heaven and hell became part of Judaism. Heaven was a place where the righteous aren’t bothered by needing to eat or drink, do business, procreate (it doesn’t rule out sex!), or have anger, jealousy, hatred, or competition. Picture the bet midrash, the study hall, with eternity to ponder ideas, and you have heaven. Hell, or gehenna, takes its name from a place near Jerusalem, where children were sacrificed to the god Moloch; this was the place of those who lived cruel unjust lives. Both “places” were understood not to be physical, but a place for souls no longer within bodies.
In the world to come, all who have ever lived will physically return and God will judge all of us. The good will go to heaven and stay there forever. The wicked will pass from the memory of the world, as if they had never existed. Now, how do we get to be good? A very few of us are born that way, live our lives, die, and go to heaven. Most of us spend eleven months after physical death learning a few more things. If our children or someone says Kaddish for us during that time, it will help us, because it shows that we passed on the tradition. Then our souls will go for another round on earth to learn more.
We get another chance, and another chance, and on and on, until we get it right. We get to return to earth as many times as we need, and when all but the most wicked have perfected themselves, the day of Judgment will come to give us our permanent status in heaven.
Because of this vision, the Kabbalists weren’t afraid of death. It was hardly the final curtain, but rather a continuation of the process of drawing closer to God. The moment of death is so gentle that the Talmud says it is “like taking a hair out of milk.”
According to the Zohar, the dying person is given a transcendental vision: When our time comes to die, we are given an additional spirit that we never had before. When this dwells with us and cleaves to us, we see what we have never been worthy to see throughout our lives. And then we depart from this world.
The Shechinah shows herself to the dying one, and then the soul goes out in joy and love to meet her. On the other side we are greeted by beloved departed ones who help us make the transition.
What I’ve offered here is a very brief, certainly contracted and therefore imperfect vision of Kabbalistic belief of what came before the world and what happens after our time on earth. What I hope is that it has whetted your appetite to learn much more about this hidden Judaism from a master. Michael Margolis will be teaching a class this year that will make all this less hidden but no less mysterious. My hope is that I’ve caused you to doubt your disbelief. Come to trust the yesh I spoke of last night, the part within you that knows that you contain more than earth. Heaven lies within you, too.