It is a sign of our times that men and women are trying to fulfil a deeply felt need for spiritual things. There is a serious quest by many people for deeper meaning in life and it is significant that many are found among the rich and famous. Someone once said that the only difference between the poor man and the rich man is that the rich man does not have the illusion that money solves all problems. You would expect therefore that among those who have discovered the emptiness of fame and fortune there will be many who search for something else. Many alternative spiritual experiences promise freedom and excitement but then when tried the promise is proved false. Some are turning to older and established things which are more rooted in history and one of these is called Kabbalah. Celebrity Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie; Demi Moore; Britney Spears and David and Victoria Beckham have all been linked with Kabbalah in recent days and have been seen to be wearing the ‘red string’ on their wrists, which is a Kabbalah icon.
We find, on careful consideration of the literature available currently in print and online, that the popularised version being marketed by Rav Philip Berg, his wife Karen and his sons Michael and Yehuda from The Kabbalah Centre in the United States and Israel (and now from the Madonna sponsored Centre here in England) is different in its presentation from the historic version. The ethos of the historic movement through the ages has been esoteric, obscure and almost impossible to understand as the reader will see from this review, but this popularised version is more accessible and is the one to which the show business personalities of today have been drawn.
It is probably most helpful to outline first what we know of the historic version and then show some of the differences to be seen in the more recent version. For the purpose of this review we will call the ancient version historic Kabbalah and the more recent movement, Berg Kabbalah because it seems to be almost exclusively connected to the Berg family.
Historic Kabbalah is far too complex a movement to be explained in a few short sentences, but this article seeks to give answers to some specific basic questions.
What is “Kabbalah”
Because it is a Jewish word there are a number of ways to spell it and alternative spellings are Cabala, Qaballah, Qabala, Kaballah. It should be noted that where a group uses a specific spelling it can mean a different perspective, for instance the Cabala spelling has come to represent the so called Christian perspective. Most modern Hebrew phrase books and dictionaries use the K variant to represent the letter Kuf, so the Kabbalah spelling has been maintained here. This also appears to represent the mainstream and Jewish perspective.
The word is derived from the Hebrew root “to receive, to accept”, but it is a word which has many applications.
Historic Kabbalah has developed from the centre of Judaism. Judaism has two main authorities for faith and doctrine, the Torah and Kabbalah. Torah is specifically the first five books of the Old Testament but has the more general meaning of the Jewish written tradition including the Talmud and Mishna rabbinic interpretations. Kabbalah is the oral tradition which is believed to have been given to Moses at the same time as the ten commandments, and has been passed down verbally through the centuries through the rabbi’s and holy men of the Jewish faith. However it’s meaning has broadened over the years to represent an esoteric and mystical theosophy and it has been embraced by people outside of Judaism also.
What is the History of Kabbalah?
Professor Gershom Scholem (1897 – 1982) who was an important figure in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was something of a bridge between the ancient expression of historic Kabbalah and its modern expression. Professor Scholem says in his book “Origins of the Kabbalah” that research into the history of Kabbalah is almost impossible (Scholem 1990), but here is as concise a thumbnail as can be gleaned from available literature.
During the Roman occupation of Israel, a rabbi called Shimon bar Yochai a disciple of a rebel leader was discovered by the authorities teaching the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) in direct contravention of a Roman edict banning the practice of Judaism. The rabbi was sentenced to death, but he managed to escape with his son El’azar, and they lived for thirteen years in a cave. (See website)
Shimon is cited by Moses de Leon (1238-1305), a Spanish Jew, as the author of a book called The Zohar, The Book of Splendour, which after the Torah, is probably the most famous of the writings in Kabbalah. There are modern day kabbalists who contest this and attribute the Zohar to Moses de Leon himself and this is a cause of some controversy. (See website) The Zohar is also very highly regarded in traditional Jewish circles. The other book which is significant is The Bahir the book of Brightness.
A man called Isaac the Blind (c. 1160-1236) a rabbi whose father was a respected figure in Jewish mysticism is probably the originator of contemporary historic Kabbalah. Although little is known about him he lived in Provence in France, where he formed a circle of thinkers which is the beginning of modern day historic Kabbalah. A wide variety of terms has been used over the years for those who studied the Kabbalah tradition: “masters of mystery”, “men of belief”, “masters of knowledge”, “those who know”, “those who know grace”, “children of faith”, “children of the king’s palace”, “those who know wisdom”, “those who reap the field”, “those who have entered and left”.
In 1542 at the age of twenty an Israeli Rabbi Moshe Cordovero 1522 – 1570 in Safed in Galilee claimed he heard a heavenly voice telling him to study Kabbalah and he turned his attention to the Zohar. He mastered the text quickly and because he found it rather a rambling book, wrote a commentary on it called “The Precious Light”. Cordovero became known as the Ramak and he went on to systematise and advance the teachings of the Zohar and the Kabbalist interpretations of the Torah. Cordovero wrote other books such as The Palm Tree of Deborah which have become in themselves part of the sacred literature of Kabbalah. Safed became a major centre of Kabbalah and in 1550 an academy was formed there which Cordovero led until his death at which time one of his students Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the ARI) took over. (See website)
During the 17th and 18th centuries Judaism was very much influenced by Kabbalah and this influence was set in decline by two things. The first was a mass defection of mystical Jews to a Turkish self-styled kabbalist messiah Shabbatai Tzevi (1626-1676). The Tzevi phenomenon was said by Prof. Scholem to be
“the largest and most momentous messianic movement in Jewish history subsequent to the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt.”
Naturally Tzevi’s connection to Kabbalah brought a distancing between Jewish thinkers and Kabbalah. (See website)
The second was the rise of Hassidism in Eastern Europe which was a movement within Judaism which emphasised the miraculous and mystical elements of the Jewish religion but which degenerated into superstition and magic. It was about this time that Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola began the so called Christian Kabbalah movement which became a mish mash of strange beliefs such as Gnosticism sorcery and magic this is thought to have been the root of the Knights Templar, the Rosy Cross and Rosicrucian’s.
In recent years Kabbalah has been growing in popularity and there are a number of strands coming out of Israel and Poland. There are some charismatic figures such as Rav Philip Berg who together with his second wife Karen started the Kabbalah Centres in the USA.,Israel, UK and other countries.
With reference to the Kabbalah Centres of the Berg family. The coverage in the recent television programme [Sweeney Investigates BBC2 Thu. 13 Jan, 9:50 pm – 10:30 PM] revealed some very dubious practices. Philip Berg is an interesting man. After training as a Rabbi he became an insurance salesman in Brooklyn, New York USA. He was originally called Grueberger but around 1970 he got into Kabbalah full time and changed his name to Dr Philip Berg. At the same time he left his first wife and seven children and married his second wife Karen.
Berg quite quickly found a following and selling Kabbalah literature proved profitable. His new employment certainly brought him wealth and he founded the Kabbalah Centres which are the basis of Berg Kabbalah. The Kabbala water which the movement sell as cleansing for the soul as well as having healing properties for the body actually comes from a commercial plant CJC Bottling in Grafton Ontario Canada, and it’s purity has been questioned by the Canadian Government. Cost £45.00 per 12 bottle case.
The red string which they sell for £18.00 a bracelet is in fact given away by the keepers of the Tomb of Rachel. The Bergs have developed a multimillion dollar empire on similar practices which has made the family very rich. A copy of the Zohar in Hebrew is sold at the centre as a powerful healing talisman and costs £289.00. The organisation has been investigated in both Israel where they have been refused a certificate of proper management for three years running because of inadequacies in their accounting procedures and in Britain, the Charity Commission has criticised the centres accounts for significant shortcomings in transparency.
The Bergs also claim to descend from a line of Kabbalistic Jewish rabbi’s connected to Rav Yehuda Ashlag a respected figure in mystical Judaism, but we are unable to confirm that.
Their literature majors on achieving joy and fulfilment and a good illustration of this would be one of Michael Berg’s recent books “The Secret, Unlocking the Source of Joy and Fulfilment” Berg takes a hundred pages to say that being a giving person brings joy. The book is well written and nicely bound and costs £10.00, but what he says is certainly no secret and it isn’t Kabbalah either. Any Christian believer would know it early on in his or her Christian life.
What does Kabbalah teach about man’s purpose?
God created man to develop from a receiver to a bestower. God has no selfish (the wish to receive) motives at all and man begins without any desire to bestow at all. The process of Kabbalah is to make man into a bestower without any will to receive. This is salvation and oneness with the Creator. (See website)
What does Kabbalah teach about God?
God is the Ein Sof (That Which Is Without Limit). The Ein Sof is inaccessible and unknowable to man. What we can discover about Him is contained in the sephirot. (See website) The idea of the sephirot is central to Kabbalah so we will look carefully at it at this point.
Because He is unknowable God presented ten of His attributes as vessels into which He poured light and because of their construction there was a breaking.
1. Kether / Crown – the overall source
2. Chochma / Wisdom – pure thought (active)
3. Binah / Understanding – thought in context (receptive)
4. Chesed / Mercy – abundant giving
5. Gevurah / Judgement – complete withholding
6. Tiphareth / Beauty – perfect balance
7. Netzach / Victory – dominance
8. Hod / Glory – submission
9. Yesod / Foundation – the transition to physicality
10. Malkuth / Kingdom – the physical world.
The pieces of the vessels fell to earth and some of the light which the vessels held still clings to the pieces. The goal and salvation of each follower of Kabbalah is to find the pieces and develop the light which still clings and which is the light of the creator and so recreate the vessel, in the process leaving behind the natural state of man which is a “taker” and becoming like God a “bestower”. This is done by reading the Torah and Kabbalistic books such as the Bahir and the Zophar and being discipled by a more experienced kabbalist and long years of meditation occult involvement and spiritual discipline
Most of the sefirot are regarded as legitimate objects for human meditation; they represent a way in which human beings can have some contact with God. Through contemplation and virtuous deeds, human beings can also bring down the divine light to this world. By patiently studying Kabbalah and practising its teachings each person can ultimately merge with the Ein Soph. (See website)
What does Kabbalah teach about The Scriptures?
All exponents of Kabbalah agree that the basis of all scriptural authority is the Torah the first five books of the Old Testament and most ascribe personality to it. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah was created prior to the world and advised God on such weighty matters as the creation of human kind. When Moses received the written law from God, tradition has it that he also received “Kabbalah” – the oral tradition, which was not written down, but passed from generation to generation. The Torah was (and is) believed to be divine, and in the same way as the Torah was accompanied by an oral tradition, so there grew up a secret oral tradition which claimed to possess an initiated understanding of the Torah, its hidden meanings, and the divine power concealed within it. This is a principle root of the Kabbalistic tradition, a belief in the divinity of the Torah, and a belief that by studying this text one can unlock the secrets of the creation. The remainder of the Old Testament has also much value for the kabbalist but only when interpreted according to the PARDES system of hermeneutics. To understand the Torah, Kabbalah uses a Jewish range of hermeneutic interpretation known by the acronym PARDES which is not dissimilar from the Christian range. The four levels of interpretation are:
Peshat = Contextual literal meaning
Remez = Allegorical meaning
Derash = Moral or homiletic meaning
Sod = Mystical or anagogic meaning
In practice the first three follow the Jewish traditional interpretations and the last has found a special place in kabbalistic interpretation. Marc Gerstein says:
“One of the important underlying assumptions of kabbalah is that the Hebrew alphabet is a mystical one and that each letter has its own set of properties that can aid in mystical work. And there are several techniques used by Jewish mystics to work with these letters and connect words and phrases that may, to the casual observer, seem to be completely unrelated.” (See website)
The text can be codified numerically or in some other way to mean something quite different from the common sense meaning. An illustration of that is the Bible code which is the focus of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”. The Torah is therefore manipulated in many different ways by Kabbalah to arrive at doctrinal meaning. Gerstein lists 6 totally different ways of interpreting the Hebrew alphabet. (See website)
There are other books in the Kabbalah library which are highly esteemed but they are not given any status other than that of teaching and they are difficult to read and obscure in their expression. The two main ones are the Bahir (Brightness) and the Zohar (Splendour)
What does Kabbalah teach about Angels
Angels are created beings, created before the earth and man according to the Zohar were instrumental in the creation of man. There are various ranks and they are all messengers. The ranks are not clearly defined although mentioned are angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim. The names of as many as eight or nine archangels are mentioned but the most frequently referred to are Michael, Auriel (who is identified with Lucifer) Raphael and Gabriel. Negative angels are the fallen angels who were banished from heaven with Satan (Rev. 12:9) The kabbalist doesn’t see fallen angels as unacceptable or totally evil in the Christian sense they are simply negative messengers (Zohar Vol.1:Sect.8).
The Zohar talks of a vast system of angels which are a communication network through which positive and negative influences travel. This network acts as an interface between the physical world and the upper worlds. Absolutely everything in the physical world is governed by angels. Some angels appear in human form while others remain as unseen spiritual entities but their function is to aid man in his quest. Due to our severely limited spiritual powers we are not able to see angel activity but the influence of positive and negative angels constantly experienced. Everything positive which happens is a result of positive angels and everything negative, blocks, confusion, difficulties and distress are the result of the activity of negative angels. (Zohar Vol.1:Sec.18)
Our own behaviour determines which angelic influences are aroused in the world. We are given access to the metaphysical network of angels and we gain the ability to remove negative angels and to bring positive angels into or lives by prescribed spiritual exercises. (Zohar Vol.1 :Sect.42)
What does Kabbalah teach about Reincarnation.
Metempsychosis or reincarnation (kabbalists also use another term: correction of generations) is an integral part of Kabbalah and it is believed to be secretly interwoven through all the stories of the Torah. It has been taught by a few mystical Jewish rabbis since antiquity although it is not the teaching of mainstream Judaism. The teaching appears to begin in Kabbalah with the Bahir.
Rabbi Michael Laitman in Online Lessons teaches
“none of us are new souls; we all have accumulated experiences from previous lives in other incarnations”
He teaches that there is a pyramid of souls, the lower layers are made up of those with the desires of the vast majority which are for food, sex, sleep, comfort etc. In the next layers there are fewer souls and their desires are for wealth. The next layer are those who will do anything to control others and then there is a layer which is much more sparse where the desire is for knowledge. These are the scientists and academics and the apex of the pyramid is made up of those who desire to attain to the spiritual world. Reincarnation is about progressing through these layers, and each incarnation has a corrective action, to the spiritual apex which is the last stage before oneness with Ein Soph. There is a negative possibility also in this pyramid and like snakes in snakes and ladders it is possible to regress back down so the help of an experienced kabbalist is essential.
The Zohar (Zohar Vol.1:Sect.28) teaches that Moses is the reincarnation of Abel and Jethro is the reincarnation of Cain, and (Zohar Vol.47:Sect.3) that Moses is reincarnated into every generation without revealing himself. Kabbalah also teaches that many of the crises which confront us in life are a result of misdeeds in previous incarnations. Corrections not achieved in one life are carried over into the next. This process is called ‘tikune’ which means correction, and it is possible to connect to our previous incarnations and make corrections by meditating with that intention. The use of an occult practice called “The lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram is used for this kind of meditation” (Online Kabbalah FAQ)
What does Kabbalah teach about magic and the occult?
It is not easy to find anything but an occasional reference to these things in the literature and the more reputable online sources of information, but as occult is hidden by definition, you would expect that. However it is clear that initiates are taught such things, this is a quotation from the Jewish Encyclopaedia.
“The Testament of Solomon recently brought to light the whole system (in theurgic Cabala) of conjuration of angels and demons, by which the evil spirits were exorcised; even the magic sign or seal of King Solomon, known to the medieval Jew as the Magen Dawid, has been resurrected” (see Conybeare, in Jewish Quarterly Review XI. 1-45) The Jewish Encyclopaedia (1901 – 1906) Vol. III.
This quotation from Online Kabbalah FAQ:
“(Kabbalah) consists also of meditative, devotional, mystical and magical practices which were taught only to a select few and for this reason Kabbalah is regarded as an esoteric offshoot of Judaism”.
This one also from the same source.
“Jewish writers on the subject tend to downplay aspects of Kabbalah which conflict with orthodox rabbinical Judaism, so that we do not see the heretic Nathan of Gaza classed as an important kabbalist, despite the fact that he was very influential for almost two hundred years. We hear little about the non-rabbinic “Baal Shem” or “Masters of the name” who used Kabbalah for healing and other practical purposes. There is ample evidence that many magical practices currently associated with Hermetic Kabbalah were widely used and well understood by some of the most famous rabbinic kabbalists”.
What is the Christian response to Kabbalah?
Although Kabbalah has uniquely Jewish roots as has been discussed above, it is not compatible with the traditional evangelical Christian faith (or the mainstream Jewish one either)
The most important Christian objection to Kabbalah is that it is a version of Gnosticism (see Reachout article) which reduces salvation to having an inner knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of the magical occult formulas which go with it. The Bible teaches that no special or occult knowledge is required for salvation, only repentance from sin (Acts 3:19) and to receive Jesus as Lord (Jn.1:12)
Kabbalah is essentially pantheistic (see Reachout article) because it teaches that Ein Soph created everything out of himself and man retains divinity all through the incarnations until he returns again to oneness with the creator. The teaching is that as man improves through many incarnations his divinity increases until he fuses with the Ein Soph. This is no doubt a very attractive prospect for the very ambitious high flying celebrities who embrace Kabbalah. The Bible teaches that God created us out of nothing, not out of Himself. Genesis 1:1 uses the word BARA for create which literally means create out of nothing. Only God is divine and man can only be adopted as a son (Gal.4:5).
The supreme being of Kabbalah, Ein Soph, is not the Christian God. Ein Soph has made himself unknowable to man, but the Christian God reveals himself to men through His Son Jesus (2 Cor.5:19) “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”.
The Bible says that Jesus is God’s revelation of Himself. (Col.1:15) “Jesus is the image of the invisible God”
(Heb.1:2) “God has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.”
(Jn. 1:18) “No-one has seen God …the only begotten Son….He has declared Him”.
The Christian God actively seeks men (Ezek.34:11) “For thus says the Lord God ‘Indeed I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out'”
And through Jesus He reaches out to reconcile us to himself. (Jn.3:16) “God so loved the world that He gave His Son”
See also Matt.9:13, Heb.9:26.
Because Kabbalah is committed to a part of our Bible, in practice to most of the Old Testament, we could conclude that we can appeal to the truth which is found there. Unfortunately this is not so. Because of the system of interpretation which is called “Sod” (see above) a kabbalist can make almost anything out of the text, and will not be impressed by our literal use of it.. It Is also true of course that any piece of literature can be used, applying “sod”, to produce any mumbo jumbo. An illustration of this is the Bible Code of Dan Brown mentioned above.
Kabbalah is cultish in that it sees itself as the only way to Salvation as these quotations show
There is no other way for the general population to achieve spiritual elevation and redemption except by means of the learning of Kabbalah” (Y. Ashlag – “The preface to the ten sephirot”, Sect 36)
The redemption and the coming of the Mashiach depends only on the learning of Kabbalah”. (The Vilna Gaon.- “Even Schlema” 11,13).
But Paul says clearly that, “The gospel of Christ…is the power of God to Salvation” (Rom.1:16)
The uniqueness of each life is everywhere in scripture taken for granted and reincarnation is therefore impossible to defend. The writer to the Hebrew says in Chapter 9 verses 27&28, as man only dies once Christ was only offered once.
Because of these various strands it is necessary for anyone who approaches a follower of Kabbalah to be particularly humble and not to pretend he knows more than he in fact does. We would not recommend witnessing to a follower of Kabbalah or to anyone with occult connections, without having spent time in prayerful preparation. Listening carefully is probably the best way of proceeding because as Kabbalah is many stranded it is necessary to know first where a contact is coming from. We must first establish at what stage the enquirer is. There are people who call themselves followers of Kabbalah who have little or no knowledge of what it means and there are people who are adepts and are therefore to be treated with care. Having established how well versed the enquirer is in Kabbalah the next stage is to make sure we do not get into an intellectual argument but that we use scripture to deal with specific issues. It will almost certainly be necessary with an advanced student of Kabbalah to ask for time to prepare an answer, but this is probably the best way of proceeding at each step, allowing more time for prayer which is more important in winning men that even scriptural argument.
The simplicity of the Biblical message is wonderful. Our God is one who seeks men and women and longs for them to have fellowship with Him [Ezek.34:11ff]. Where no special knowledge is required, and where even the most unformed of minds can understand; where the certainty of eternal salvation can be found by simply taking at face value the truth of the Bible that God’s love was expressed in the death of Jesus on the cross [Jn 3:16]; and we can be at one with Him by a simple act of trust, obedience and acceptance [Eph.2:14ff; Col.1:19ff].
Berg, M. 2002 The Secret, Unlocking the Source of Joy and Fulfilment Hammersmith. Element/ Harper Collins.
Moses Cordovero, 1960 The Palm Tree of Deborah, trans. Louis Jacobs, New York Sepher-Hermon Press,
Scholem, G. G. 1990, Origins of the Kabbalah trans Allan Arkush, Princeton University Press
Mark H. Gerstein Qabala for beginners – an online course
Various online articles –
Laitman, M. The Wisdom of Kabbalah – online
The Zohar can be accessed online free but registration is required