[The following has been extracted and adapted by Kabbala Online from the preface to "Apples
from the Orchard." Click here to read more.]
It is commonly assumed that the study of Kabbalah is
traditionally considered taboo, and there is some support for this view.
Kabbalah was and still is considered an advanced topic in Torah study, suited
only for those who will be sure to study it in the spirit of holiness in which
it was written.
While all traditional rabbinic authorities subscribe to this
ideal theoretically, there is a full gamut of opinion as to how it should be
implemented. At one extreme are the authorities who would limit the study of
Kabbalah to accomplished Torah scholars of exemplary righteousness; at the other
extreme are authorities who stress the critical importance of spreading the
study of Kabbalah to the widest possible audience, both as a panacea for our
generation’s spiritual ills and as a preparation for the imminent messianic
redemption. Most opinions lay somewhere in the middle, encouraging the study of
Kabbalah if certain minimum character requirements are met.
I have found three main reasons for this reservation
toward the study of Kabbalah:Kabbalah is the most sublime and holiest aspect of the Torah...
The first is the notion that Kabbalah is the
most sublime and holiest aspect of the Torah and should therefore, simply by
virtue of its preciousness, be kept secret and available only to those who prove
themselves worthy of learning it.
This sentiment is certainly praiseworthy, but the
authorities that encourage the study of Kabbalah point out that if the spiritual
condition of the people requires the inspiration Kabbalah can provide, this
consideration overrides any considerations of honor or propriety. We live in
times where there are both many challenges and many easy alternatives to living
life according to the Torah. We need all the inspiration we can get, and in many
instances Kabbalah is the only source of inspiration that can counter the
threats and attractions of competing lifestyles.
The second reason is the fear that the student
will take the terminology and imagery of the texts literally, thinking, for
example, that the "Infinite Light" is actually some form of physical light as we
know it. This could lead the student to entertain heretical ideas about the
non-corporeality of G‑d, and so forth.
This is certainly a valid concern. It is therefore
vital that any prospective student first familiarize himself or herself
thoroughly with the caveats against this tendency. Secondly, one of the
achievements of Chassidut is that it succeeded in aligning the
terminology of Kabbalah with the inner psychological processes of the human mind
and personality. Thus, for example, when someone steeped in the teachings of
Chassidut sees the word chochma, he hardly even thinks of the right
lobe of the physical brain; he mainly thinks of the mental processes associated
with this term and how they interact with other mental and psychological
processes. He is therefore already one step removed from the anthropomorphic
sense of the purely Kabbalistic term. It is in this spirit that I have tried to
explain the Ari texts in "Apples from the Orchard". Modern physics has enriched our vocabulary...
In addition, I personally think this fear of taking
things too physically is much easier to deal with nowadays than it was in
previous generations. We are today very at home with technologies we do not
understand and that seem counterintuitive to a grossly physical understanding of
the world. We hardly give a second thought to how the sound of our words travels
through telephone lines, not to mention how images and sounds travel through
airwaves. Modern physics has enriched our vocabulary with the concepts of
multiple dimensions, parallel universes, time warps, space bending, and so
forth. For our generation, it is very simple to abstract terminology from
its strictly physical sense. I therefore didn’t feel it was necessary to belabor
this point throughout the book, although I do mention it from time to time.
The third reason, which is in a sense a
corollary of the second, is that the sometimes explicit sexual imagery used in
Kabbalah (and in Lurianic Kabbalah in particular) could focus the student’s mind
unnecessarily on sexuality. Instead of divesting this imagery from its physical
sense and understanding it abstractly, the student may become preoccupied with
thoughts about sex itself, which could be debasing or even lead to illicit
lusts, or worse.
Here too, Chassidut has succeeded in largely
desexualizing much of Kabbalistic imagery, and Chassidic literature may be
studied freely without concern for this fear. Yet, a work such as "Apples
from the Orchard", being a translation of Kabbalistic classics, cannot avoid
the ubiquitous sexual imagery so characteristic of Lurianic Kabbalah. It is
therefore worthwhile addressing this issue in some depth.
First of all, when discussing the mystical dynamics of
creation, it is virtually impossible not to employ sexual imagery, since these
dynamics are avowedly sexual in nature. In fact, it is related that the founder
of Chassidut, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), in one of his
"soul-ascents" to the spiritual realms, asked the soul of Rabbi Chaim Vital why
he used such pervasive sexual metaphors in recording the Arizal’s description of
spiritual reality. Rabbi Chaim Vital pithily replied by giving him his pen and
offering him the chance to "write better." The Baal Shem Tov explained that
Rabbi Chaim Vital meant that there simply is no more appropriate metaphor.
Secondly, I believe that nowadays, the positive
effects that studying this material can have on the student’s attitudes toward
sexuality far outweigh whatever negative effects have been traditionally feared.
To be sure, there is a significant population within Orthodox Jewry that
endeavors to shield itself from the crass debasement of sexuality so
unfortunately prevalent in modern Western society (which, the more the world is
transformed into a "global village," is quickly is becoming modern society,
worldwide) — and largely succeeds. This population raises its children in a sheltered
environment, postponing the details of their sexual education until just before
marriage. These kids grow up innocently, with a generally wholesome attitude
toward marital life. Those fortunate enough to have benefited from this type of
upbringing should indeed not jeopardize it by reading this book, at least until
The rest of us, however, have not been spared the
bombardment of sexual stimulation that skews our attitudes toward sexuality, and
therefore stand to gain some welcome perspective by exposure to the Arizal’s
teachings. Our society’s perspective on sexuality has been influenced by its
Christian heritage, by Eastern spirituality, and by secular materialism.
Classical Christianity views sex as sinful, begrudged to the weak of spirit in
order to keep them from overdoing it and to ensure the continuation of the
species. In this view, marriage is a concession to human weakness and holiness
is synonymous with abstention. Classical Eastern spirituality may not view sex
in such a sinful light, but sees it, together with all spiritual practices, as a
means of escaping the transience of this world. Secular materialism, on the
other hand, has divested sex of any significance beyond itself, and encourages
us to indulge freely as long as we don’t harm anyone in the process. These are
gross oversimplifications, of course, but it is precisely these types of
simplifications that shape the masses’ attitudes. Mention should also be made of
the Islamic backlash to the Western excess of sexual stimulation, wherein sexual
stimulation is avoided by forcing women out of the male public sphere
altogether.Judaism views sexuality as a Divine gift...
Here, as in so many other aspects of life, Judaism
takes the middle ground and thereby avoids the destructive effects of all
extremes. Judaism views sexuality as a Divine gift meant to be fully enjoyed,
but also as a holy act meant to be approached with proper respect and care. The
Torah is fully aware of the harmful effects of sexual excess and therefore
institutes severe punishments for stepping out of bounds. But at the same time,
it sensitizes us to the beauty of loving, marital sex, and how proper sexual
living enables us to imitate G‑d, so to speak, as He orchestrates the harmonious
interplay of the spiritual forces of creation.
All of this shines intensely from the teachings of the
Arizal. There is no embarrassment about sexuality here; the subject is treated
frankly and openly, as the integral part of life and our mentality it truly is.
We see in these teachings the awesome power of the misuse of sexual energy as
well as the sublime heights to which holy sexuality can lift us. Yes, it is
easier to follow either the extreme of total denial or the extreme of total
indulgence; it is far more challenging to take the middle path and fuse
intense physicality and intense spirituality. But the rewards of taking the
latter path are far greater, and it is really the only way to navigate the
pitfalls endemic to the extremes. G‑d has programmed us with both a strong
sexual drive and a strong spiritual drive, and ignoring one at the expense of
the other is simply a recipe for disaster.
It is in this light that I believe the Arizal’s
message is of paramount importance for our generation. Never before have so many
of us been so free to choose any style or variety of sexuality available. We
need guidelines better than those commonly available to us; guidelines that
speak to us as mature human beings capable of making mature choices. The
attitude toward sexuality espoused here in "Apples from the Orchard"
answers nobly to this need.
[Extracted and adapted by Kabbala Online from the preface to "Apples
from the Orchard.", subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard." available at Kabbala Online Shop]