Judaism – A Kabbalistic Perspective
(For an introduction to the principles of Kabbalah please click here)
From a Kabbalistic perspective, religious practice is not an end in itself but one of many routes to a higher level of consciousness.
All religions belong to the world of Yetzirah (Formation) and allow access to the world of Beriah (Spirit) where the differences between them disappear.
Using Judaism as an example we can see how its various components fit on the Tree of Life (Figure 1).
Christianity, Islam and any other religion will also fit on the Tree using the qualities which define that particular religion.
Even though all religions merge in Beriah each religion maintains its integrity in Yetzirah by using its own distinct tradition and rituals.
We begin our survey of Judaism with Malkut, at the base of the Tree, which corresponds to the Land of Israel, the place where Judaism originated.
Although Judaism is now practised in many different countries (due to the dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) the stories contained in the Bible all held Israel and neighbouring countries as their focus.A connection to the physical land of its origin therefore forms a
Figure 1. The various aspects of Judaism set on the Tree of Life which corresponds to the world of Yetzirah.
crucial aspect of Judaism.
Many of the prayers which have been used for centuries contain passages speaking of a “return to Zion.” While these prayers may be seen as outer expressions of Judaism the Kabbalist will observe the esoteric principles embodied in them and use them as a means of return to his or her inner Zion - the true Self.
The route through the Tree of Judaism will vary for each person according to their own psychological constitution.
Some people will be more prayer oriented and faithfully recite all the prayers at the appointed times each day. Others may express their identity with Judaism by a strong involvement with a Jewish charity caring for the elderly and sick. A third approach could be through profound study of Jewish texts - perhaps contributing to a journal or writing books on their findings.
Ideally all three ways should be incorporated into daily life although one approach is usually likely to be dominant.
“The world rests on three things: the Torah, Divine Service and acts of kindness.”
These three aspects of maintaining the world correspond to the three triads which surround Yesod on the Tree of Life and which form the basis of our daily existence.
The path of study - or thought - is not necessarily confined to the Torah and could include commentaries, mystical literature or any texts which provide insights into Judaism and Jewish thought and practice. This might also lead to contemplations of the higher truths which are at the essence of Judaism and which also transcend it.
Until 2,000 years ago, participation in Divine Service was observed through the sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem. These practises were no longer possible once the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and were replaced by prayer services which is still the custom in the present day. Prayers, whether said in private or as part of a community, represent the feeling triad.
Figure 2. One of many Welfare institutions established by the Jewish community in London – my grandmother was a resident for several years after her father died in 1883 when she was thirteen. Her mother had died eleven years earlier when my grandmother was two years old.
The path of action is shown by the way each person lives their daily life. However inspirational a service or study session may be, the practical demonstration of holiness starts in the way the food is prepared and served after the event has ended. Ensuring that those who are weak and vulnerable are not pushed out of the way in the rush for the coffee and cake is an example of how our lives may be made holy.
These three ways of functioning in the world show how the bulk of our time is spent.
Judaism, in common with other religions, has many rituals such as the Sabbath and Festivals which are time based and for which a detailed calculation of the calendar is required to ensure they are observed at the correct time on the correct day. Such computations correspond to Hod which is the realm of the intellect.
These complicated calculations were originally made after many
careful observations of the passage of the Sun, Moon and planets through their daily, monthly and annual cycles and by reference to instructions in the Torah. Nowadays, this process is made easier by using computers which also correspond with Hod – in a modern form. As a result of these calculations timetables are produced which are appropriate for every geographical location where there is a Jewish community.
Simply calculating the time of the commencement or termination of the Sabbath or Festivals would be of no use if nothing further happened – it would be akin to setting a table but not placing the food upon it. To bring the different aspects of the Tree together the various occasions need to be marked by the enactment of a mixture of prayer (feeling) and ritual (action). The form of these will vary according to the nature of the occasion which is being observed. The enactment, on the active side of the Tree, corresponds to Netzach.
It is difficult to observe fully the precepts of Judaism (or any religious tradition) “b’mid’bar” (in the wilderness). The path between Netzach and Hod represents the threshold between observing Judaism as an individual (below the path) and as a member of a community (above the path).
This is required for the next stage of evolution of consciousness within the parameters of Jewish identity. The whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts and celebrating an event with other people brings an additional dimension which it is not possible to reach in isolation.
Within each community there will emerge some members who are able to exercise their will more strongly than others and so ensure that services, social events and communal care function properly. Ideally, these community leaders should be people who are using their ability from a sense of service although sometimes it is apparent that a leader is attracted to the position for the power and influence which it carries.
The community represents the animal world formed by the triad of Netzach, Hod and Tiferet and the leaders will appear as the triad narrows towards its apex.
When the community meets in a service then there is (or should
Figure 3. The Jewish calendar is based on the movements of the Moon. A lunar year only has 354 days rather than 365 and to keep the festivals in their appropriate seasons a leap year is formed by inserting an additional month seven years out of nineteen.
be) a focus on achieving a higher level of spiritual consciousness. A synagogue service will embody the three triads bordering Yesod and prayers will be said with (hopefully) an attitude of devotion.
In a service on a sabbath or festival there will be an element of study when part of the Torah will be read in public and usually a sermon will be given.
The principle of action is expressed through rituals such as the raising of the Torah scroll for everyone to see and, in many communities, carrying it in a procession round the synagogue.
Where there is no Torah reading then the principle of action or ritual can still be seen in the set order in which prayers are recited with each congregant standing, sitting or swaying as custom dictates.
At the centre of Judaism is the core belief expressed as the Tiferet of the Tree – that of monotheism – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord Is One.” Although this simple statement may be elaborated upon with many commentaries and opinions, the essence of something is always marked by its simplicity and conciseness of expression.
Figure 4. An orthodox service on a weekday morning (cameras would not be allowed on the Sabbath). The Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays as well as Sabbath – the men wear prayer shawls (tallit) and phylacteries (Tefillin). There are no women present at this service but, if there were any attending they would be separated from the men by the curtain and rail which can be seen on the right.
For the purposes of comparison, Tiferet on the Tree of Christianity might have something to the effect of the belief in the Trinity of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” while the same place on a Tree of Islam would use the Shahada which declares “there is one God and Mohammed is His Messenger.”
The She’ma is the first prayer taught to a Jewish child and the statement which, ideally, should be the last words uttered before death. For the Kabbalist
participating in a service, the recitation of prayers such as the She’ma and Amidah (bearing in mind their correspondences with the Tree of Life) can be an invaluable aid to the raising of one’s consciousness to the essence of Judaism. This can also lead to an elevation of the atmosphere in the general community, assisting other worshippers even if they are not aware of what is happening or what help they are receiving.
The complementary Sefirot of Hesed and Gevurah represent the forces of conservatism and liberality. These are perhaps best expressed in present day Judaism and the Jewish community by the Orthodox and Progressive communities. On the one hand, the Orthodox community tends to emphasise the maintenance of the status quo and adherence to the letter not just of the Torah but also the commentaries of the Rabbis which carry full authority for an orthodox Jew. In its extreme form it can promote discord through an overzealous attitude – this is Gevurah. It also confers hereditary identity only through the mother and conversion to Judaism is a rigorous process which can take several years.
On the other hand, the Progressive (Reform and Liberal) communities are less concerned with the letter of the law and seek to be inclusive with more relaxed attitudes towards dietary laws and what activities may or may not be undertaken on the Sabbath or festivals. The guiding principle is that an individual should make his or her own choice based on all the available information rather than Rabbinical authority although support and direction are provided on request.
Hereditary identity is often accepted through either parent in the Reform communities and the conversion process is shorter and less onerous than the orthodox version. These differences have produced many rancorous disputes about “who is a Jew?” This is a conflict which has many ramifications.
At the time of writing (2023) these disputes are far from being resolved and their continued existence impedes the expression of the soul triad formed by Tiferet, Hesed and Gevurah on the Tree of Judaism. This embodies the principle of “loving one’s neighbour as one’s self.” (Leviticus 19:18).
This is best summed up by Rabbi Hillel’s famous commentary on the verse:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
This is not the same as the more well known Golden Rule which says that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated. It is a subtle but important difference although, obviously, observance of Rabbi Hillel’s commentary should not deter us from treating our fellow human beings well.
The path between Hesed and Gevurah describes the wider community such as all the communities in a country (e.g. “Anglo-Jewry” refers to all the Jewish communities in the UK) rather than a single congregation.
Sometimes these labels can be confusing. Although Orthodoxy (conservatism) is placed at Gevurah the form of the services is frequently quite undisciplined.
Figure 5. A service at the Western Wall (Kotel) of the Temple in Jerusalem. Men and women praying together and women participating in a service including holding the Torah scroll would be anathema to many in the orthodox Jewish community. The Reform congregations are generally inclusive and tolerant as evidenced by the Gay Pride cover on the scroll carried by the man in the centre. Behind him another man follows the orthodox tradition by wearing phylacteries on his forehead and (presumably) arm.
Even though a strict form and order of worship is followed there is often a high level of conversation between worshippers which is occasionally curtailed by a loud thump on the reading desk from one of the officials of the congregation to bring everyone to order.
In contrast, part of the reason for the evolution of Reform and Progressive movements in the 18th century was a rebellion against this lack of decorum and the wish to have more orderly worship akin to the Christian communities of Western Europe in which the movement was born.
Reform and Progressive communities may make substantial adaptations to the traditional liturgy including the use of the local language rather than exclusive use of Hebrew and the seating of men and women together rather than in segregated areas in the synagogue. However, the services themselves are shorter, conducted with more cohesion between individual members of the congregation and, almost always, with more decorum.
The process of conservatism and reform applies in all eras. That which is now seen as orthodox was revolutionary in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple when communal prayers were first used as a substitute for Temple sacrifices.
Hesed and Gevurah also represent the love and discipline of Judaism respectively. Discipline is required to ensure that the precepts are carried out at the appropriate time and that they fulfil the accepted format and content – whichever type of Judaism is followed.
However, if these practices are fulfilled only from a sense of duty or compulsion then the Tree becomes unbalanced and it is the love of Judaism which counters the discipline. Sometimes this love may be manifested as noisy enthusiasm rather than quiet devotion – both are aspects of Hesed.
Figure 6. Survivors of a recently liberated concentration camp a the end of the Second World Ward gaze into the camera, perhaps hardly believing that they are free although their traumatic experience will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Six million Jews (and other minority groups including gay and Romani people) were systematically murdered between 1939 and 1945.
The emotional side triads of Judaism are invoked not only when the incarnate members of the community gather but also as part of the ongoing attitudes and positions which individual members of the community adopt.
Persecution occupies the painful side triad formed by Tiferet, Hod and Gevurah and it is complemented by the principle of emancipation which represents the positive side triad of Tiferet, Netzach and Hod.
One of the hallmarks of Judaism is its collective sense of humour which is often used to mask what would otherwise be terrible pain. Humour, repeated persecution, faith in the Divine and a love of food are combined in the pithy view that the rituals at every festival represent the same series of events - “They tried to kill us, God saved us, now let’s eat!”In the present day, while survivors from the Holocaust of the Second World War are still alive, some persecutions are too
fresh and too terrible to make light of but it – and all other disasters - will eventually become part of the deep Jewish psyche rather than a gaping wound.
Although it is sometimes difficult to understand, one characteristic of Judaism is an acceptance that dealing with pain at an individual and collective level is part of the religion and that we may emerge from it stronger.
The Biblical book of Job is key to grasping this idea.
For the Kabbalist, the concept of reincarnation is one answer to the perennial question of why bad things happen to good people and vice versa although care must be taken in raising such a potent concept to those unfamiliar with it and there are occasions when such an explanation may appear too simplistic.
Expulsions of – and cruelty towards - the Jews from England, Spain, Portugal and other countries as well as continuing pogroms in Russia and the complete removal of Jews from Arab countries are not easily expunged from the collective psyche.
Conversely, the acceptance of Jews in different diaspora countries has led to their successful participation in many secular fields including politics, science and the arts. Although initially, in many cases, not being accepted by established institutions, 22% of the Nobel Prizes awarded over a period of 120 years have been made to Jews despite their accounting for less than 0.2% of the world population.
In a similar vein, Jews account for 38% of the Oscars awarded for best director of a movie and the list of famous Jewish actors, musicians and writers is a very long one including such notable names as Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Yehudi Menuhin, Marc Chagall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Henry Kissinger.
All of this shows the extent to which the world has progressed - at
Figure 7. The world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin. His first name (meaning “The Jew”) was given to him by his parents as a gesture of defiant identification after they had viewed an apartment in New York with a view to renting it and were told by the landlady “you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.”
least in the USA and Europe – since the medieval times when Jews were prohibited from almost all professions, holding public office and owning land.
Judaism is transmitted through both the written law and the oral law. The primary text is the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – which is believed to have been given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai.
Equally important is the Oral Torah which is also believed (by orthodox Jews) to have been received by Moses at the same time as the (written) Torah.
Since both bodies of law were received from God they clearly reflect their divine origin on the Tree of Judaism by being placed at Hokhmah and Binah where they are directly connected to Keter. The Oral Torah was passed from generation to generation until it was eventually written down at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) for fear of being lost.
This is a natural progression down the Tree – from Hokhmah to Binah – and the written commentaries were formulated into the Talmud which sits in the upper side triad of Tiferet, Binah and Gevurah as a written commentary derived from the primary text.
The Talmud, which is a collection of commentaries by Rabbis consolidated into two separate collections, was formulated over a period of several hundred years and forms the basis for the practice of Jewish life.
The study, interpretation and teaching of written texts is the provenance of scholars and rabbis who are placed on the path between Tiferet and Binah. This is the proper domain of Rabbis (teachers) although they may also take on a pastoral role as leaders of a congregation which is where they are often seen.
The Oral Law (and the subsequent commentaries) contains the details which are needed for the interpretation of the broad principles of the Torah and includes the concept of a Midrash. This has various meanings but the important one in the context of placing the Oral Torah at Hokhmah is that it gives rise to a body of interpretations and stories which are
Figure 8. Part of a Torah scroll. The text runs from right to left and consists only of consonants. The reader will “point” the text by vocalising the appropriate vowels (which are learned as part of the acquisition of the Hebrew language) and memorising the sequence of musical notes in order to chant it. This passage from Genesis 41 describes how Joseph entered the service of Pharaoh.
outside the written law and commentaries. This body of work complements the Talmud and is placed in the upper side triad formed by Tiferet, Hesed and Hokhmah.
The Oral Tradition of Judaism is expounded by what we might term prophets who are distinct from the rabbis. Prophets – whether in the Biblical or modern sense – will often stand outside the established religious and spiritual structures and come with a specific message rather than seeking to cover all aspects of religious life.
The sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah represent the qualities of tradition and innovation. The left pillar seeks to conserve the status quo while the right pillar seeks to develop and innovate. These qualities may be found within both conservative and liberal wings of Judaism. Thus, a traditional congregation may decide to make a change to their liturgy even though this will not move them from an orthodox position while a Reform congregation may decide that limits need to be placed on the number of changes being made or else all sense of tradition will become lost.
The combination of written and oral traditions when combined with the central principle of monotheism represent the sefirot of Hokhmah, Binah and Tiferet respectively and forms the great triad of the Spirit through which Judaism may be experienced.
Standing between the oral and written traditions is the mystical tradition – this is the way of the Kabbalist who seeks to know God through direct experience and who is therefore placed at Da’at.
The Kabbalist may seek this experience by borrowing from either or both sides of the Tree depending on the requirements of time and place. There may be occasions when the mystic uses tried and tested prayers which have the flavour of the tradition of the left pillar but seeks to imbue them with conscious intent rather than mindlessly repeating them. On other occasions he (or she) may use trance techniques or meditative states which have more of the flavour of the right hand side of the Tree.
In these ways the Kabbalist may experience a glimpse of the Divine whose presence is shown at Keter. Direct experience is, of course, open to anyone who consciously works with all aspects of the Tree of Judaism whether they choose to label themselves as a Kabbalist or not.
Not everybody within Judaism identifies at the same level or connects with every aspect of the Tree on to which Judaism fits. Self improvement (we have never yet quite reached perfection….) is part of the Work of Unification which will allow the Divine to behold its own perfect Image.
Some Jews may identify at the tribal level of Yesod without concerning themselves about the nature of God and some will deny His existence altogether. Others may find it difficult to identify with the positive emotional history of Judaism in the light of so many pogroms and persecutions. Even so, he or she may still be engaged (unconsciously) with the Tree of Judaism and will have the opportunity to work with it as a means of becoming closer to God - who they may or may not believe exists…
According to Kabbalah, the essence of the Spiritual World is located at the Tiferet of Beriah. This is also known as the place of the three Higher Worlds since it overlays the Malkut of Atzilut and the Keter of Yetzirah. (Figure 9).
Every aspect of the universe can be described by the Jacob's Ladder, all of which is also contained within each human being. Using Judaism as one working method in the world of Yetzirah, contact with the highest point (Keter),
Figure 9. The upper face of Yetzirah is overlaid by the lower face of Beriah. This is where the spiritual search really begins and where personal issues assume a lower priority.
enables the practitioner to experience the central point (Tiferet) of Beriah where, as said at the outset, differences between religions disappear.
As each individual reaches this level so the external world will change to reflect it and peace will prevail on earth.
May it come speedily in our day.
© Jonathon Clark 2023.