One of the many questions that get asked when people first hear about Lurianic Kabbala is if it is really part of Judaism. There are ten emanations, the long face, the small face, father, mother, the crown, constriction, the Infinite One, the vacated space, the shattering of the vessels, and countless other terms that sound like they come from some Masonic initiation rites. Where did all this come from? What happened to good old Moses and the Red Sea, or Adam and Eve and the apple? Lurianic Kabbala seemed to have snuck in through the side door – through mystical circles in 13th century Spain, and lingered until the right time, and then sprung itself on the vulnerable Jews following the convulsions of the Spanish Expulsion. Before we knew what happened, the most successful messianic movement since Christianity (Shabbtai Zvi of the 17th century) was running rampant.
How did it all happen? Well, it probably did develop in Spain and Southern France in the 13th century, but it likely had its roots much further back in Jewish history. It did gestate in the minds of a few dozen Kabbalists until it emerged in full bloom in 16th century Tzefat. First under Rav Moshe Cordovero and then under the brief but highly influential teaching of Rav Yitzchak Luria, its theoretical and practical underpinnings became firmly established. Following the untimely death of Rav Luria (known as the Ari – an acronym meaning ‘the godly rabbi Isaac’) in 1572, just a year and a half after he started teaching, it was left in the hands of his numerous students in Tzefat. Opinions vary as to which of his students inherited the true teachings of their master, but one managed to write it all up in a manner that has since come to be the bible of Lurianic Kabbala.
This student was Rav Chaim Vital, who taught and wrote down the teachings within a small and restricted circle in Tzefat. Somehow, those writings found their way to Italy where they were published as a several volume work known as the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. For better or worse, this is the primary source for the arcane theories of the Ari.
What Luria/Vital really did was to synthesize the teachings of the Zohar as systemized by Cordovero, into a far-reaching and fairly complete theory of reality. It explains how creation flowed from the unknowable Infinite One (the En Sof) to a dimension that was ‘vacated’ by the infinite. A slightly ‘non-infinite’ godly light entered this ‘space’ in a slightly defective form (the broken vessels), which passed through a prism-like filter and emerged as the ten emanations. The goal of creation is to restore that light to its original whole state. The source of evil is that slight defect in the light. Creation is explained; evil is explained; the ultimate messianic goal is explained.
This simplistic explanation is deceiving. This is really only a drop in the ocean of what is a highly complex and incredibly profound take on reality. Even getting through the most basic steps is daunting. It took the likes of later Kabbalists, such as Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) and others, to water it all down into terms and analogies that were understandable by those outside kabbalistic circles. Ramchal’s book ‘The Way of God’ is a perfect example of Kabbala in straightforward terms, which, although rather deep, is quite readable. It gets into the major issues without getting bogged down in the terminology. In fact, one could read this book and not realize that it is a work of Kabbala at all.
The opening lines of the first chapter of the Etz Chaim lay out the purpose of creation: ‘When God desired to create the world, in order to bestow goodness on the creations and (so that) they would recognize His greatness, and (so that) they will become an ascending chariot to cling to Him…’ This incomplete sentence leads into a long description of the kabbalistic version of creation. As far as the purpose of creation, there it is in all its glory. What does it all mean?
We are going to focus on the beginning and the end of this passage. God desired to create the world in order to bestow goodness on His creations. The end of all this was that they would cling to Him. To bestow good, to cling to God – it doesn’t sound all that mysterious or kabbalistic. One thing this tells us is that on the most fundamental level, mysticism and Kabbala are really just basic Judaism. But even the most basic things need to be examined. So here we go.
In the second chapter of The Way of God, Ramchal explains God’s goal of bestowing good. Not surprisingly, he also calls it the purpose of creation. He writes that God, who is true perfection, would have to bestow the ultimate good, which is God. In other words, God would have to give God to another. Sounds like a pretty tough thing to do. The solution was to allow others to attach themselves to God so that they would also experience, to whatever degree possible, the godly. This experience is clinging to God.
But there was a catch in this great plan. If God just handed all this goodness on a silver platter to the lucky recipient, that recipient really would not be experiencing God. God after all, bestows goodness while this recipient merely takes it. It’s an uneven relationship. This fatal flaw would ruin the entire plan. The kabbalistic solution was to work things out so that the recipients would have to earn their godliness and not simply receive it. In this way, they also, would be ‘giving’ – giving of themselves in order to receive.
This is where free will and the possibility of evil enter the picture. The recipients would have to go through the pain and the struggle of earning their godly perfection by battling the spiritual choices of life through the use of their free will. It is all in their hands. God can only offer the choices and hope for the best, the rest is up to the choosers. If they choose good, and go through the struggle to attain that good, they will have earned their perfection to whatever degree they have struggled. Their godliness will not be a free gift but a justly earned reward. They will have experienced the godly gift of giving. In that regard they will be like God. If they choose the wrong road, they will have rejected the good that God offers them in favor of an easier path of instant gratification and fulfillment of selfish desires. The godliness in that path is highly obscured and almost undetectable. This is the choice – to struggle to be like God or to relax and be a taker.
That is Lurianic Kabbala in a nutshell. It is a path that may seem like servitude in that it requires a lifetime of struggle. But in the end it is a path of joy and liberation. It opens up a whole new world of choices. It gives a reason behind the very need to make choices. We are not just animals struggling to survive, or machines programmed to eat, drink, and die. Nor are we chained to emotional hang-ups or bound by chemical neurotransmitters. We are the intended recipient of all that goodness. We have the choice to experience God. With every single choice we make, with each and every time we choose to move up or down the spiritual ladder, we are playing out our crucial part in God’s great plan.
That choice to eat or not to eat, to blab or not to blab, to envy or to appreciate, to let loose with anger or to accept with humility – these are the choices of destiny. What we do with those choices doesn’t just determine our own spiritual future, although that alone is extremely significant. They also determine the spiritual course for the world. Each one of us alters the course of humanity a little bit when we make those decisions. Looked at through this perspective, our choices are not meaningless guesses but opportunities for godliness.
The idea that God could not simply hand us goodness and pleasure without our having earned it lies at the core of the kabbalistic outlook on life. They use the term ‘bread of shame’ to express this profound idea. It explains, in one simple phrase, a fundamental aspect of human nature. We have to give in order to feel good. All the momentary pleasures of instant gratification, all the freebies, the quick and easy comforts that we are all so addicted to – they are not true goodness. In the end they backfire. Psychologists might call this backfiring repressed guilt or some other fancy term. Kabbalists call it bread of shame.
True pleasure always involves a bit of pain. It may be the pain of exposing a bit of your inner self with another in order to develop a relationship. It may be the physical pain of biking up a long hill. It may be the emotional pain of letting go of a habit, or letting go of a child who needs to spread his or her wings. It may be the spiritual pain of working through a tough challenge even though the end is not in sight. These experiences of pain are all sources of true pleasure. They are the paths through which God enables us to experience God. There is no shame in having to struggle. There is shame in getting something without struggling. When we struggle, when we choose to receive what God has to offer, we experience the freedom of God.
There is an aspect of practical Kabbala that is alive and well. This involves making practical use of deep Kabbalistic concepts to enrich one’s spiritual life. The ‘bread of shame’ idea is a perfect example. This idea makes use of the natural human instinct of shame. Instead of looking at shame as a deflating guilt trip, it sees shame as an opportunity to become a totally different person. The ‘you’ who wouldn’t think twice about taking advantage of another person, and consequently has trouble looking in the mirror, can put on a completely different face with this simple tool. Allow yourself only those things that you have truly earned. You will find that the person you see in the mirror is a good deal more admirable. This is because you will feel good about your own accomplishments. You will feel that they truly belong to you. You gave something for them, and now they are yours.
Try taking this one step further and give a great gift to somebody else. Don’t give them a birthday present or some other handout. Give them a real gift. Give them the ability to actually accomplish something that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Help them gain some willpower by showing them that they had it all along but had let it lie dormant. This is not easy to do. You have to be clever. You have to think of some way that you would gain willpower if encouraged a little bit in the right direction and then apply the same idea to your recipient. This, by the way, is a real gift. It’s not a one-time present that gets thrown in the back closet or dished off to some other non-needy recipient. If done correctly, it will be something they can use for a lifetime. Maybe they can even reach the point where they give the same gift to someone else. You’ll be giving the gift of God.
Food for Thought
The Bread of Shame idea is remarkably simple – we cannot fully appreciate what we have not earned. Modern life seems to be rushing along on a headlong course towards making things easier and less of a struggle. How is one to strive or to struggle in a world that craves comfort?
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