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When discussing the mystical dynamics of creation, it is virtually impossible not to employ male-female imagery.

The Taboo of Studying Kabbalah

The Taboo of Studying Kabbalah

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The Taboo of Studying Kabbalah
When discussing the mystical dynamics of creation, it is virtually impossible not to employ male-female imagery.

[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 marriage.

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]

Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky is a scholar, writer, editor and anthologist living in Jerusalem. He is a co-founder of Ascent Institute of Safed and one of the first contributing writers for KabbalaOnline.org. He has recently produced two monumental works: "Apples from the Orchard: Arizal on the Weekly Torah" (available for purchase from KabbalaOnline here) and a Chumash translation with commentary based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Kehot).
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Sally March 28, 2016

How can Islamic hatred of the feminine principal be a backlash to western sexuality when western sexuality has only deteriorated in recent times and Mohammed's orders and his hadith were finalised in the 9th century? Whenever I see appeasement to Islam on this site I am going to point it out because if I want to read the sacred Kabbalistic teachings now I need my consciousness to be fully honest in this time of revelation. The Christians in Arabia at that time had no contact later Roman church attitudes to sexuality, which were in truth taken on after the Islamic invasions. Reply

Jim Jordan WA September 22, 2013

Fortunately, sexuality is not a major theme of Lurianic Kabbalah in spite of Moshe Wisnefsky's academic preoccupations. The prophecy that this is the time that the concealed Kabbalah must be revealed as remedy to the internal and external chaos and disasters caused by the accelerated growth of mankind's ego was already old in the days of the Itzhak Luria and the Safed Kabbalists. How do we change the self-love intrinsic in the Will to Recive for myself alone into the Will to Bestow? How can we bring contentment to the Creator? How do we come to Dvekut, 'equivalence of form' with the Creator? How do we move the Torah's fundamental mitzvot 'Love thy friend as thyself' from words into the path to G-d? I had so hoped the wise Rebbes of Chabad would help me understand within my heart this ancient wisdom. I think I started looking in the wrong place on this website, please direct me to the Chabad Kabbalists. Reply

Roxanne Perri Sunny Isles,, Florida/USA via kabbalaonline.org November 5, 2012

Excellent description of the book Apples from the Orchard. Reply

Devorah Malka Wittig Dayton, Ohio, USA October 31, 2012

Thank you, Moshe, for a beautifully written perspective on Kabbalah and its place in the modern world. We need more people of strength to finally stand up and say what Kabbalah is and what it is not, and what is its place in the spiritual culture of today. The more we can disarm the misconceptions, the better position we will be in to guide those who truly thirst for an experience of the Divine. Thank you for adding some Kabbalistic sanity where it is sorely needed. Reply

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