Breaking Down Elitism In Kabbalah Study
Guidance from the Talmud
This piece comes together after me considering the Talmud while studying the parashiot of Devarim (Deuteronomy), specifically concerning how the people have and should cleave to G-d. This is a major topic in Parshat Va’etchanan, Parshat Eikev, and Parshat Nitzavim. Considering the text, I felt the need to explain how based on this teaching I am burying the hatchet with pop-kabbalism in pursuit of equal access to truth for all.
Recently I got a bit critical of non-Jewish groups for misusing mysticism and spirituality in order to attract Jewish converts. Some have asked where I stand with certain Jewish groups and those that are closely associated with Jewish roots. In fairness I have to to respond to this. This is not about any one group, so I hope no one gets any hurt feelings and receives the message in the spirit in which it is given.
What are People’s Concerns With “Fad” Kabbalah Groups?
Everyone talks about Kabbalah these days. As a teenager when I started studying it, no one really knew what the heck I was talking about. I live in Los Angeles, where Kabbalah has become a big trend with many groups teaching Jewish mysticism.
But course everyone is going to throw out the name of the Kabbalah Centre. The Centre has been criticized for many things over the years, so people like to scandalize over them. Like many major religious organizations they are chastised for shadiness in fund raising, cult-like dedication, etc. But they aren’t the only show in town, they aren’t alone in this criticism. I am not a defender of these groups, if anything people know that my personal relationship has been more one of criticism of the organizations than anything else. I will not answer for them as I’m not their business manager, nor a forensic accountant. I won’t answer for their ethics. But truth be told, I agree with some of the concerns that are pointed out by leaders of the Jewish community at large.
With that said, my main objection has been to certain group’s teaching style, which can be summarized as a “dumbing down” of mysticism to the point that people don’t walk away able to practice on their own. One cannot learn without being led by the hand. This creates a dependency on leadership and leaves one without the ability to explore on their own; unable to check the traditional sources in a transparent and egalitarian way. People will often laugh at groups like this that are so unsophisticated that people aren’t even taught Hebrew well enough for basic reading of the letters, so people “scan” the lines of Hebrew text with their eyes to take in it’s essence.
We all know that kabbalah is traditionally at the apex of learning for the advanced Talmudic scholar. When so many talmidei chachamim (wise scholars) can barely make sense of most of the mystical concepts, some wonder if Kabbalah can truly be appreciated by those who are in most cases completely illiterate.
What it all comes down to is people are going to ask how relevant teaching from a group is when they do no promote basic literacy of Judaism. How then can someone gain the skills they need to feed their own Jewish soul. I say it this way because I do not answer for the needs of non-Jewish people, they have the right to seek out their needs as they see fit; but I do believe that there are many non-Jews who connect to Kabbalah that have needs that can be met in the same manner as us Jews.
Kabbalists are receiving truths that are laid out in their fullness in the Torah; the written Torah, we call that the Scriptures; and the oral Torah, which is Talmud and all the learning of the rabbis though out the ages. This we all agree on. But let’s kick this old-school and use the big boy, the Talmud.
The Talmudic Response to Elitism
In the Talmud we find an interesting discussion taking place that I believe really gets to the heart of the issues. We need to turn back to the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The Holy Temple (may it be rebuild speedily in our days!) is no more, the land is completely conquered and subjugated by the Romans. But truth be told, the Hebrew language has been forgotten by the masses for centuries and replaced with Aramaic long before Latin and Greek came on the scene. This subjugation of the people was just another historical problem that made it difficult for the rabbis to communicate message of Torah. It become apparent to Rabbi Eliezer, like many rabbis, that the Torah which has sustained the Jewish people all this time is at risk of being even more obscured to them. They see their lives, even people’s “eternal life” in jeopardy. So Rabbi Eliezer begins to lament before the sages, among those present is Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. If you have a Gemara handy you can follow along at Talmud Bavli Ketubot 111b, I will attempt to give the most intelligible rendering of the Hebrew-Aramaic text:
“Said Rabbi Eliezer:
The illiterate (amei ha-artzot)
will not live [fut. meaning: be resurrected].
As it is said: The dead live not, etc (Is. 26:14)
So it was also taught: The dead will not live.
As this might [be assumed to refer] to all,
it was specifically stated, ‘The lax’
written about [actually refers to] a person who is
lazy in the words of Torah.”
אמר ר׳ אלעזר |
עמי הארצות |
אינן חייב |
שנאמר מתים בל יחיו וגו׳ |
תניא נמי חכי מתים בל יחיו |
יכול לכל |
ת״ל רפאים |
בל יקומו במרפח עצמו |
מדברי תורה הכתוב |
Rabbi Eliezer in his own right is a great mystic. His teaching was received from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the last of the holy rabbis to witness the glory of the Temple. Because of this they are close to the light of the Divine Presence, the Shechina, that dwelt there. But it can already be seen that from generation to generation the torch they passed on seemed to dim a bit. Rabbi Eliezer was quiet an exception though, he was considered very conservative and known to defer strictly to the ruling of those who came before him. But even Rabbi Eliezer, being born a decade after the destruction of the Temple, knew that the average person could barely connect to Torah that they needed to keep their spirit alive in their current state of foreign living.
Now I need to give a crash course into the terminology, for those who are new to talmudic study. In the Talmud there are generally two types of person discussed. First is the talmid chacham, the wise student; the scholar. This is the class of person that Rabbi Eliezer is. The other is the am ha-aretz; literally it means a person of the land. Though this term can sometimes be seen used almost derogatorily in the Talmud as these scholars discuss among themselves, it is not a humiliating term. In an agrarian society most of the people worked as farmers, these were the common people. They by and large were busy working and didn’t have the luxury to spend time with extensive study. These working class were generally illiterate.
What Rabbi Eliezar is saying is that the people are too illiterate to understand Torah, what is going to sustain their spiritual living? What is going to resuscitate the fallen society of Israel? He used the prophetic book of Isaiah and points out a verse that discusses the aftermath of punishment and destruction, where the memory of the judged is obliterated in that example. He seems to be saying to the crowd we don’t need to get to spooky about some future age, it can apply to the situation at hand. The people are dead and do not live in Torah, they are just a shadows of their selves from being lazy regarding the Torah. If we don’t do something all is going to be lost and forgotten.
Now remember Rabbi Eliezar is a hard working student, and scrupulous in the smallest detail. He puts a lot of work into his dedication. But what he said caught the attention of his own teacher:
“Rabbi Yochanan spoke to him saying:
It is not pleasing, or proper to their Master
to be that way towards them.
It specifically refers
to one who makes himself relaxed
regarding idolatry [lit. star working/worship],
this is the one of who it is written of.”
מדבר א״ל ר׳ יוחנן |
״לא ניחא למרייחו דאמרת |
להו הכי תתוא |
במרפת עצמו |
לעבודת כוכבים |
תוא דכתיב |
א״ל מקרא אהד |
Now who is the Master that is being spoken of? It means G-d. Rabbi Eliezer is rebuked by his teacher who says that his attitude and presentation is displeasing and wrong in the eyes of G-d! It’s not okay for him to have this attitude towards the illiterate.
Now, let me step back for a second again to point out something about the people he is discussing, the amei ha-artzot. Remember I said this literally means people of the land. In a way this is like our term heathen, which also means a person on the land. The designation am ha-aretz is the closest thing once can get to calling someone a heathen, without calling them a gentile. This is a unlearned person, which means they are often prone to superstition. Especially in this society, in the agrarian society everything comes down to getting the season right. They do this by watching the heavens, and because its concentrically complex some people come up with all kinds of superstitions surrounding it. Don’t call them dumb, the rest of the ancients went so far as to deify and worship these pieces of clockwork in the sky.
That’s right, the people who created science, mathematics, philosophy, democracy, the pyramids of Egypt and the Pantheon of Athens all worshiped the heavily bodies. They were smart people, but they noticed things moved around a lot and came up with only one explanation. The bodies were gods, at times one would go this way and another one would rise that way, as they were battling it out in the heavens. For instance, from our perspective planets would even go backwards and do loops, and the people would go wild that was a bad omen because that god was retreating. So the people would chant, and pray and sacrifice to help out these gods; worship them to give them strength. This is magic, and sorcery. In the Talmud, before near-monotheisms like Christianity and Islam, the only other style of religion on the block was was this type of celestial body related worship. So the term for designating something as idolatrous in the Talmudic literature is to say it is of the AKUM; avdei kohavim u’mazalot, worshipers of the stars and zodiac. Who are the AKUM? Namely gentiles. But being that the people of Israel were not in a bubble, they tended to be influenced by this simple world-view that pervaded the entire earth. Though by this time in history Jews weren’t prone to overt worships of idols, instead the real problem was adoption of superstitious practices based on foreign religion.
Now the mystical understanding of the world by these holy Rabbis, these Kabbalists if you will, was different from the general world view. They too saw that the heavenly bodies had influence on the world around us. The sun shinning according to the seasons, the moon has its pull on the tides, and they even seemed to understand how the other planets helped keep us in a steady and predictable orbit. Though they understood these were just creations of G-d, if they had any influence it was just as agents of G-d’s order. Instead being gods that are blessing people, the heavenly bodies and zodiac signs (mazalot; meaning drips from above) were understood as a natural occurrence. The heavenly bodies were as natural in the clouds in the sky that give dew to the earth, the effects of the planets and stars are like dew that also trickles down upon us in its proper time.
To sum it up, it appears to me that Rabbi Yochanan is disappointed that Rabbi Eliezer generalized a whole class of people. Notice Rabbi Eliezer used the not as often occurrence of am ha-aretz in the plural, amei ha-artzot; but Rabbi Yochanan brings it back to being a discussion of a single hypothetical person, we are talking about the actions of an individual. What he is saying is that this doesn’t apply to a class of people, but to the person that becomes tolerant of superstition. This superstition is actually idolatry, rooted in revering the lights of the heavens. His position is these type of people are the “lax” spoken of that are shadows of themselves; they are the spiritually dead.
But the discussion continues, in the general rule of going back and forth. One person speaking, the other responding.
“I [Rabbi Eliezar] interpret likewise,
it is written:
For Thy dew is as the dew of light,
and the land shall drip life to the lax. (Is. 26:19)
All who make use of the light of Torah,
the light of Torah will revive.
And all who do not utilize the light of Torah,
the light of Torah will not revive.”
אני דורש |
כ יטל אורות טליך |
וארץ רפאים תפיל |
כל המשתמש באור תורה |
אור תורה מהייהו |
וכל שאין משתמש באור תורה |
אין אור תורה מהייהו כיון דהזייה |
Rabbi Eliezer, concedes and agrees with his teacher. However, he points out that his understanding of the Scriptures based on a verse in the very same chapter of Isaiah is that that not only is one to avoid misappropriating the lights in the heaven, it is important that people connect to the true light. Now here in this context we are not talking about the Ohr Ain Sof – the Infinite Light, the loftiest description of the all encompassing and transcendent G-d. This light spoken of is the closest thing we can get to G-d; meaning the light of Torah. We can call it what ever we want, the DNA of the universe and all kinds of things, but the Torah is the closest we can get to G-d. G-d is the Father of all, the Torah is the DNA that connects us and all things to Him, in it we find the clues to who He and we are.
The Torah cannot ever be separated from the Light, the Torah so symbolizes the essence of the Divine that the Kabbalists teach that even higher than the Name of 72 or any other mystical name is one name; its a big name that is symbolic of the Ain Sof, it contains 304,805 letters; it is every letter of the Torah (the Chumash, Pentateuch) strung together as a single word.
The light is Torah, Rabbi Eliezer contends. Those who utilize it will be revived by it, but those who don’t utilize it will not benefit from it and remain dead – presumably both in this life and in the world to come.
Interestingly enough Rabbi Yochanan seems to concede to this point, as he doesn’t have a response. It doesn’t explicitly say, but we can assume by one of the speakers calling the other rabbi (my master), that it is literal and thus the student Rabbi Eliezer is speaking to his teacher Rabbi Yochanan in this next section as well. Rabbi Yochanan now too begins to despair seeing the truth of this point. Of course Rabbi Eliezer is right, it’s not enough to not be ignorant. It is important to make use of the truth, which is the light of Torah. So Rabbi Eliezer sits there and considers everything until he can find a solution to the problem: how can the illiterate connect to the Torah? Our text continues:
“Because he was in despair he said to him:
Master [lit. rabbi] I have found
for them a remedy [a tikkun']
from the Torah [the Chumash, Pentateuch]:
For you who did cleave to
Hashem your G-d,
everyone of you is alive today. (Deut. 4:4)
Now is it possible to cleave
to the Shechinah [the Divine Presence]?
As it is written: For Hashem your G-d
is a devouring fire. (Deut. 4:24)
Any man who marries his daughter
to a scholar (talmid hacham),
or carries on a trade on behalf of
or benefits scholars from his estate
is regarded by Scripture
as if he had cleaved to the Shechinah.”
דקמצטער א״ל |
רבי מצאהי |
להן תקנה |
מן התורה |
ואתם הדבקים |
בה׳ אלהיכם |
היים כולכם היום |
וכי אפשר לדבוקי |
והכתיב כ י ה׳ אלהיך |
אש אוכלה |
אלא כל המשיא בתו |
לתלמיד הכם |
והעושת פרקמטיא |
לתלמידי הכמים |
״והמהנה תלמידי הכמים מנכסיו |
מעלה עליו הכתוב |
כאילו מדבק בשכינה |
Now this is where its going to get intense, I hope that everyone will try to follow through what can seem very complicated, but it isn’t really. We are just a bit culturally removed from the situation to see it sometimes.
Rabbi Eliezer says he actually found a good remedy to their problem found in the actual Torah (the Chumash, Books of Moses; which is holds more weight than the books of the Writings or the Prophets). After the Children of Israel suffered the annihilation of the entire first generation from the exodus Moses spoke to the survivors right before they went in to establish the homeland of Israel. Moses seems to praise the people, that all of them that are alive are the faithful that “cleaved” to G-d. Now at this time in history, deveikut is not yet understood as the Chassidic concept of connecting to G-d through communing in nature and meditation. Deveikut means literally to be glued; meaning to be attached, to be connected to something. We understand this as holding fast to G-d.
The subtext understood here is that we cannot touch G-d. If G-d were even a tangible thing and we tried “gluing” ourselves to Him, being all powerful and “a consuming fire” we would be destroyed. We cleave to G-d through connecting to Torah.
But what does this have to do with providing a scholar a wife, and a share in the business, etc? Earlier in the Talmud, in fact quite often throughout Talmud Sanhedrin, we discuss the topic of people connecting through the talmid chacham by partnering with him. One might not be able to study the Torah themselves, but they can enable ones who are able to study Torah to do so. Now when you married off your daughter to someone in those days you gave them a dowry to help them along, and they became beneficiaries of the family. Though dowry is not widely known today, there are certain traditions that still remain for many pious to this day. It is common for the brides family to give seforim (sacred Hebrew books) and income in order to study Torah in a kollel (a yeshiva for the married; akin to a seminary). It was established as a precedent that people can partner with the scholars by making them part of their family, by opening up their home, sharing their business by making a student a silent partner, or by leaving them a share of inheritance in order to aid the pursuit of Torah learning. This is how the mitzvah of Deut 10:20, to “cleave to G-d” is going to be understood when enumerated as part of the 613 mitzvot; that one needs to connect to Torah people (in addition to connecting to G-d by swearing by his Name, which is another mitzvah all together).
Now how does he come up with this? I don’t believe he is just remembering case law. I believe a sense of humility came over him that he took at good look at his life. Like I said Rabbi Eliezer was a great sage, and being wise and promising he was married to the daughter of the great Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (father of Gamliel II), the Nasi (prince, president) of the Sanhedrin at end of the second Temple period. His wife, known as Imma Shalom, had a few sheckles to rub together herself; she was so well off her and her brother once sued a judge just to cause him grief. They were very well off people. He had all the advantages to begin with being an exceptional intellectual and then was fortunate to marry into the very elite. It appears to me he begins to realize that had it not been for that he would not have been able to dedicate his life to exclusive Torah study.
And so he sees that just as people were able to cleave to one another; attaching themselves contractually to each other through marriage, business and patronage; so they could cleave to each other in pursuit of Torah. The scholar is partner in the business the benefactor works himself, but the scholar receives profits from it. And the benefactor is also a partner in scholarship, that the benefactor receives spiritual reward from studies he enabled the scholar to engage in. Ordinary a scholar is not able to making a living, and a person making a living cannot be a scholar; but here they can partner with each other toward the same goal of advancing the light of Torah.
So Rabbi Eliezer ends his discourse with this ruling that goes unchallenged:
“Likewise based on this case,
one may say of:
To love Hashem your G-d…
…and to cleave to Him etc.
(Deut. 30:20, truncated);
is it possible for a human being
to cleave to the Shechinah?
But [what this can means is that:]
Any man who marries his daughter
to a scholar,
or carries on a trade
or benefits scholars from his estate
is regarded by Scripture
as if he had cleaved to the Shechinah.”
כיוצא בדבר |
אתה אומר |
לאהבה את ה׳ אלהיך |
ולדבקה בו וכי |
אפשר לאדם |
לידבק בשכינה |
כל המשיא בתו |
להלמיד הכם |
והעושה פרקמטיא |
להלמידי הבמים |
והמהנה תלמידי |
הכמים מנכסיו מעלה
עליו תכתוב |
כאילו מדבק בשכינה |
He basically gives us all the point that he had before, except this time he is referring to another observation based on the words of Deut. 30:20. He speaks of the verse in short, the Rabbis knew the scriptures by heart so they all saw what he was alluding to. For those of who are not as well versed let me paraphrase; that which will keep the people alive and extend their days would be the people loving G-d, listening to His voice and cleaving to Him. If they did this it would sustain the people until they would settle the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Rabbi Eliezer, based on the former precedent relating to cleaving, says its appropriate to apply the same to this verse here. He comes to the conclusion that a person could show their love for G-d, obedience to uphold Torah, and cleave to G-d all by connecting to the people of Torah, the scholars. If they loved G-d, they would love those that labor in the advancement of Torah. Rabbi Eliezer has become humbled to the point that he sees his place of privileged in Torah knowledge and now comprehends the people’s patronage of this as an act of love. The common man, and the scholar in relationship with each united on account of how much they both love G-d and His Torah.
It’s a beautiful concept. We cannot cleave to an all-powerful, incorporeal G-d; so we cleave to His Torah; if one cannot cleave to the words of Torah themselves, they cleave to the people who can give them the worlds of Torah. It’s a beautiful idea, an ideal marriage. I say that because this cleaving is like a marriage, a wife cleaves to her husband and as we read “the two become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) thus she is also the recipient of all his earnings as they share everything; they share and share a like. Thats the relationship here.
Bringing It Back to the Modern Age: What does this mean for us?
As we look back we can see that Rabbi Eliezer was correct. This way of partnering through philanthropy and scholarship did in fact keep the light of Torah alive in the lives of people. The settlement of The Land has begun again, the holy language has been renewed and true national culture has been regained.
Not everyone is a scholar, this is a fact. Not everyone has the ability or capacity to be a scholar, some people are worker bees. This is a fact of life and nature, there is nothing special or degrading about any one position though. We all have our place. But the scholars work is just as hard as the laborer, the talmid chacham merely labors in another strenuous fashion that takes all his strength. Sephardic Jews still use the term chacham for designating a wise authority in Judaism, the Rav; in the west we more often use the term rabbi; Chassidim, we connect through our own personal teacher, our rebbe. We love to learn from all the people of Torah and all shluchim (agents, ambassadors, representatives of Judaism), one of the ways we can show our love back and appreciation of this teaching is to support them so this mechanism of Torah learning continues.
Bottom line for me, is we need to stop scoffing at people who give money to organizations and teachers to instruct them in Torah and mysticism. It’s wrong for people to look down and say “So they think they are doing something so special by giving all that money? They can’t even say a proper kiddush…”
On the other hand, we have jumped forward into the future. The world surroundings have also changed in 1900 years. Literacy is now common in the world, we hold literacy so high that now it is considered a basic human right. And as I have already said, The Land and the holy language has been revived. There are not as many obstacles as people faced during the 1st and 2nd century to literacy and knowledge. I personally, want the best for people; to have a fair and egalitarian society where people of all backgrounds are uninhibited in understanding because of lack of knowledge. As cheesy as it sounds, for those who are seekers of truth I want “No Child Left Behind” (sans George W. Bush, of course).
As I consider all this I cannot avoid having at the forefront of my mind the words of G-d through the prophet Hosea, the prophet that speaks to us of destruction and redemption. We all know this scripture:
“My people perish for lack of knowledge.”
| Nid’mu ami, mib’li ha-da’at
Interesting, this scripture. Because it does not exactly means that a person dies. Yes it does mean that in the figurative sense. But literally it means to be silenced, to be quieted. In the flowery sense we understand it means to destroy, snuff out, or to smother a person. Its a fitting symbolism because a person that can not speak up, a person that has lost their voice, a person that can no longer question is as good as dead. It’s my hope that we all find our voice, not just for ourselves but so we can also communicate this message of hope to others.
Yes, it is well and good to connect to Torah and show devotion towards G-d through aiding the scholars. But let us remember that the scriptures still call us to serve G-d with all our heart, soul and strength. (Deut. 6:5) With everything we can do well, all our strengths, we should utilize in our pursuit of the light of truth. Those of us who have intellect, we should utilize it. And those of us who are limited in understanding, and I consider myself one of those people, let us then enable others to actualize those things for us as a posterity of truth that will bring a tikkun, a correction to this world.
There are two questions we need to ask ourselves today:
Am I utilizing the light to my full potential?
Those who I connect to for the light of Torah, are they giving me something authentic that I can utilize or is it just a lot of talk?
Only you can can take that inventory and answer that for yourselves, my friend.