Judaism: Kabbalah and Other Torah Q & A
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
Q. Are you in favour of Kabbalah?
A. Kabbalah (literally “tradition”) is the metaphysical aspect of Judaism. Those who prefer a rationalist approach find it difficult. The kabbalists themselves make a distinction between sit’rei kabbalah, “the secrets of kabbalah“, and ta’amei kabbalah, “the principles of kabbalah“.
The secrets are for those who are immersed in kabbalistic literature and are spiritually and emotionally mature enough to transcend time and space and to enter the mystical realms.
The principles are accessible to all who are capable of spiritual development. These principles provide an underpinning for the rules and regulations which some people mistakenly believe are all that there is in Judaism. For such people it is a revelation to find and focus on light, love, energy, goodness and spirituality and to become able to rise above the banal and mundane – even to rise above oneself.
The principles of kabbalah create awareness of the inner meaning of the commandments and the balance between heart, mind and soul.
Today, when so many are searching for spirituality, there is a new interest in kabbalah and a thriving market for user-friendly introductions to kabbalistic classics. We all have to decide whether this is for us.
For myself, the principles of kabbalah are helpful in finding the meaning of life and the purpose of Judaism. I am not adept at the secrets of kabbalah, but I know that others are.
A. Actually I do have an answer, and it definitely is a question for a rabbi because the answer comes from the Torah.
Deuteronomy 32:33 says, Chammat tanninim yeynam – “serpents’ venom is their wine”. Putting poison in someone’s drink in order to kill them must have happened often. A host could prove that the wine was not poisoned by pouring some of the guest’s wine into his own glass and drinking it first to show there were no ill effects.
If you trusted your host you would drink from your own cup straightaway and both would clink their glasses against each other.
Why all these laws?
All is part of Judaism. Yet the Talmud says something rather strange about these legal matters. It says, “Whoever wants to be a chasid – a pious person – should fulfil the words of N’zikin (the laws of damages)” (Bava Kamma 30a). This statement can’t be a mere bad joke since the Talmud doesn't give the impression of jocularity, but if there is a serious side to this dictum of Rav Yehudah we want to know what it is.
What the Talmud is getting at is that spirituality is not just prayer and reflection, a relationship between man and God, but a pragmatic matter of how people deal with each other. The thinking is that if human beings live together in peace, love and harmony, they are not likely to hurt one another. If there is mutual respect between citizens, society is likely to be a sound, just and happy place where God is a benign, smiling Presence in its midst.
An unjust society, on the other hand, cannot be a spiritual society, because God does not feel welcome in its midst.
No wonder the Torah says in Parashat T’rumah, which we will read next week: “Let them make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).
CODES & CONVENTIONS
Parashat Mishpatim is central to the Torah code of civil law. Every culture needs its Mishpatim. Without a legal system, no culture can survive. That’s one of the ideas that Judaism has contributed to civilisation. Every group – even criminals - needs values, standards and conventions.
Sporting clubs, musical societies, political parties, professional bodies, Masonic lodges, whatever example you choose – all have their accepted ways of doing things and their own ways of dealing with infractions. In this sense each group is almost like a religion.
Max Otto (1876-1968) says this about science in his “Science and the Moral Life” (page 21): “Science has its sacred buildings, its mysteries, its esoteric language, its priests and acolytes. To get on the inside takes years of preparation, a ceremony of initiation, disciplined training...”
The difference between these examples and Judaism is that whilst they arrive at their codes and conventions after trial and error, Judaism believes that the way to act comes from God. The Almighty is not only concerned with how we think and feel and how we relate to others (and to ourselves); He is concerned with how we manage our society – how we turn a community into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).