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Kabbalah: a brief introduction

By Province of the Mind

Have you ever had the feeling that there was this really big thing going on and everyone else is in on it but you?

We’d like to laugh this off as paranoia and conspiracy theories. But what if there really was something really big going on. Something which has been going on for at least over 4000 years, and you had the sneaking suspicion that you were seriously out of the loop, as you struggle just to get through the end of the semester with your sanity somewhat intact? Many of the most prominent minds in Western culture all have consciously participated in this mysterious conspiracy, from the founders of the Judeo-Christian traditions to our own nation’s Founding Fathers, to Yates, to many quantum physicists of this century. Even philosophers such as Leibniz, William Blake and Derrida were in on it! What is this esoteric underground conspiracy which has fascinated and influenced so many individuals in history?

Hidden away within Jewish tradition is a system of epistemological and ontological teachings which came, in the Middle Ages, to be know as Kabbalah. There are many different spellings of Kabbalah (e.g. Kabalah, Qabala), as all are transliterations of Hebrew/Aramaic. The term itself means “to receive” or “that which is received.”

The Kabbalah is a meansby which the universe, human experience and divinity can be related to one another through the use of a kind of “symbolic shorthand” for states of being and consciousness. This symbolic shorthand is used along with a “Glyph,” or the diagram of the Tree of Life, the Otz Chiim. The Tree of Life glyph maps out the relative states of possible being and the relationships between those states.

Although Kabbalah was originally a Jewish system of mysticism, its appeal has spread into both Christian and scientific thinking. It has been applied to everything from ethics to poetry and literature to quantum mechanics by innovators in those and many other fields. Many of the most profound thinkers of the West found value in studying the Tree of Life and embracing the view of creation proposed by it, and we have reaped the benefits of their inspirations even millennia later. Just perhaps, this system of symbolic thinking might have some inspirational powers left for the third millennium. After all, Judaism was always a prophetic religion. Maybe they really were clued in on a big cosmic secret…

Even if the theological basis of the Kabbalah is not valid, the system of symbolic relations has yielded some of the most influential concepts in Western culture. For that very reason alone, it is worthy of our interest. But its greatest value lays in its continuing potential for the future development of humanity, apart from any theistic paradigm.


There are two rival accounts of the origins of the Kabbalah: The Traditional, and the Post-Shabbati Heresy-view of the Enlightenment Era. In the traditional view, Kabbalah was traced back to the biblical Melchizedeck, having been brought to humanity by the archangel Metatron. It is this ancient wisdom that the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, was claimed to have known. The Kabbalah was reportedly transmitted to Moses on Mount Sinai as an Oral Torah which unlocked many mysteries of the written Torah. This oral tradition was passed down for thousands of years, always grounded firmly by the Tree of Life. Although times may change, the meaning of the symbols and their relative positions remain constant over time.

Kabbalah was supposed to be the means by which the prophets of the Old Testament sought the knowledge of God. Many over the years have maintained that it is these very techniques of prophecy utilized by the scriptural prophets. But prophecy aside, the multi-layered association of symbol achieved through Kabbalah is a rewarding exercise on many creative levels, without having to resort to conversion to Judaism to achieve it. The Christian alchemists of the Middle Ages utilized the glyph in their multi-leveled experiments to change the “lead” of lower ego consciousness into the “gold” of enlightenment.

The only conceptual restraints in this system are an implicit monotheism and the individual’s own efforts and imagination. The tenets of this system were finally committed to paper in the middle ages, when the power of Catholic Rome waned, as did the European pogroms. Both Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry find their roots in Kabbalah. And since all of America’s Founding Fathers were Freemasons (and hence, Kabbalists), America also has deep roots in Kabbalistic symbolism. If you doubt it, look at any printed U.S. currency.

The second explanation of the emergence of the Kabbalah claims that it is a medieval forgery, a doctrine discredited and abandoned by the triumph of Rationalism over the Shabbatai false messiah scandal in Central Europe in the 1700s. It is this event which caused the split from Orthodox Judaism in the Conservative Movement. You could say that it is a dispute over Kabbalistic interpretations which “caused” the Jewish Reformation of the 17th & 18th centuries. Kabbalism as a whole became suspect and a target of derision. This view holds that Kabbalah is a syncretic bastard-child of Jewish Gnosticism with neo-platonic origins that involves weird rituals and mind-numbing lists of associations so long and so vague as to be completely contradictory. The system of associations makes use of Astrology and the occult, and therefore, detractors claim, it is not founded in a rational system of thought.

Although there is some merit to this position, it would seem that the fact that a vast amount of historical human thought is already founded on this system of symbolic association would outweigh the claim of irrationality. Even if the theological grounding of the underlying belief system is not shared, the greater level of understanding accessed by being able to read the “secret code” woven into so much of our cultural milieu is of inestimable benefit, both to individuals and to society.

Kabbalah Culture

Kabbalah, so tradition tells us, is the blueprint to creation. But not just creation, but also the key to understanding the natures of both man and God. A pretty tall order for just one glyph...

There are many references in the Pentateuch which have direct correspondence to Kabbalistic symbolism. Tradition holds that this is in direct accord with God’s will that humanity discover the Divine Plan when individuals attain a certain level of preparedness. There is also a tradition that Jesus of Nazareth was deeply steeped in Kabbalism, and the application of the Kabbalistic system to the Gospels is especially fruitful. An example of this would be the Lord’s Prayer. The whole last clause is pure Kabbalah:

“Malkuth, the Kingdom, Hod, the Power, Netzach, the Glory, form the basal triangle of the Tree of Life, with Yesod, the Foundation, or Receptacle of Influences, as the central point. Whoever formulated that prayer knew his Kabbalah.” (Fortune, The Mystical Kabbalah, p. 4).

Etz Chayim – The Tree of Life

The Kabbalah has been called an algebraic use of the primary symbols of Western culture. The system is focussed on the use of a diagram which is said to reflect the makeup of both humanity and divinity, as well as all of creation. In the ontology of the Kabbalah, creation took place beginning with a great contraction, and then an explosive expansion which shattered the original unity of God into countless shards of Divine Consciousness. These shards or “Divine Sparks” became encased in a progression of shells until physical matter manifested. Creation, then, took place in a series of “emanations,” from Kether, the “Crown” to increasingly denser levels, condensing into Malkuth, the lowest sphere of creation: the physical world.

According to the Kabbalah, Creation consists of four worlds which interpenetrate simultaneously, but we occupy the lowest world: Assiah – the World of Action and Matter. The three higher worlds, called Atziluth, Beri'ah, and Yetzirah, are all the level of angelic creation. Prior to the Creation, God is purported to reside behind the “Three Veils of Negative Existence.” Presumably, three veils of negative existence is what it takes to be sufficiently far removed for us humans to be fairly well cut off from what’s really happening.

The Tree of Life consists of ten spheres (called Sephiroth, Sephirah, sing.) each representing a different plane of existence, or if you will, level of evolution. These spheres are arranged in a certain order on three pillars. Connecting the spheres are twenty-two “paths,” each of which represents a state of relationship and/or consciousness.

Some Practical Applications

“As above, so below.” This saying is central to an understanding of the Kabbalah. In this system, humanity is the microcosm to God’s macrocosm. That is one of the supposed treasures of the Kabbalah: that it grants insight not only into the nature of humanity, but also that of divinity and all of creation. Some think that Einstein used Kabbalistic ideas and principles in formulating his Theory of Relativity. He is often quoted as saying that he desired to know the thoughts of God. Seeking to understand God, the Kabbalist comes to understand himself, and through seeking to understand himself, he comes to understand God.

The Tree of Life is also valuable as the ultimate system of syncretization of most of the grand theories of human history: Astronomy/Astrology, the written word, multiple pagan systems, developmental stages and states of consciousnes The possible combinations of correspondences are endless. The pondering of these associations of ideas has inspired the most profound and innovative thinking in Western history.

As such, Kabbalah has often been referred to as “the Yoga of the West,” but rather than being entirely devotional, as in many forms of Eastern Yoga, Kabbalah is a yoga of discovery and mastery of both the spirit and matter. Deep reflection on the correspondences of the symbols lead the mind along certain well-worn paths of conceptual connections made by prior “initiates”. As such, the Tree of Life is a bountiful source of inspiration in the revelation of the new associations of old ideas. It can not only spark new discoveries and understandings, but it can also reveal deeper content in historical documents and movements.

Through exposure to these well-worn pathways of correspondences, it is claimed that the practitioner grows in wisdom, understanding and personal influence, as they have a) been delving into God’s Mind and b) consciously working towards the redemption of humanity through working on raising their own consciousness. One of the methods utilized in this endeavor was Gematria. Gematria makes use of the double role which the Hebrew alphabet plays in Scripture. According to Genesis, the first thing created was the Word – which implies language. Kabbalah holds that God created through the use of the Hebrew alphabet, which also doubles as numbers. Each letter of the alphabet is ascribed to a certain path on the Tree of Life, connecting two specific sephiroth. Therefore, God spoke the universe into being and we can access the process God used through referring to the Tree of Life. Through retracing the steps God took and using the numeric values of the letters of scriptural passages, deeper meanings can be gleaned from the divinely-planted clues by anyone persistent and clever enough to learn how.

As such, the Kabbalah has been thought of as a means by which God has given humanity a plan to achieve an ultimate purpose of re-uniting all the scattered divine sparks. The use of symbols is mathematical in its precision. In fact, Kabbalah has been called “the algebra of consciousness.” Kabbalists claim that systematic exposure to these ideas will result in an expansion of consciousness, if done persistently and with intention.

Some Famous Kabbalists

Just for fun, here is a short (and by no means exhaustive) list some people who are either known to or are reported to have been influenced by Kabbalistic thought.

Biblical: Moses, Solomon, Jesus.
Medieval: Abraham Abulafia, Moses Maimonides, Moses Cordovero, Isaac Luria, Giovanni Pico of Mirandola.
Renaissance: Roger Fludd, Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus) of Hohenheim, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully, Francis Bacon, John Dee, Edward Kelly
Enlightenment: Gottfried Leibniz, William Blake, Emanuel Swedenborg, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson & all the rest of the Founding Fathers.
Modern: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luise Borges, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Madonna.


Tikkun is a Kabbalistic concept which is credited to Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as “Ari Zaal” – the divine Rabbi Isaac. What it means is the restoration of the world to its pre-Fallen state of unity – to redeem all the Divine Sparks trapped in physical manifest through the intentional exaltation of consciousness. Therefore, an ethic is also embodied in the tradition, as it becomes incumbant upon the Kabbalist to actively take part in the healing of the world once awareness of this realization is achieved.

The idea of redeeming the world as the ultimate purpose of humanity does echo much of Manichaeism, as well as other forms of pagan mysticism, lending some credibility to the claim by opponents that Kabblism is a Medieval compilation and mastication of neo-pagan mystery religions. But even if it is a fabrication and not a divine reception, as Kabbalists claim, it still holds the key to much of the inner psyche of Western culture. And because of its deep entrenchment in the human soul by human machination, if not divine, it is a worthwhile study to look into the inner teachings of the west.


This stuff is deeply ingrained upon all of us, religious or not, just due to the fact that our culture is saturated with these symbols based on this system. By not availing ourselves of this epistemological tool, we are depriving ourselves of a whole dimension of our cultural heritage, not to mention our philosophical heritage. If you want to understand yourself, the Western mind & culture, you might want to check it out for yourself. After all, if you’re not in on the Big Secret, you can never really be sure of anything, can you? It could be that the Truth is even spookier than any Trilateralist Conspiracy ever dreamed of being…

This article originally appeared on Province of the Mind, and is licensed under the Creative Commons License.

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