Four rabbis entered an orchard. The Talmud tells us only one returned. One “looked and went mad,” another died, and the third became a heretic. The last, Rabbi Akiva, alone “entered in peace and left in peace.”
Seventeenth-century rabbis found this to be a cautionary tale about the study of Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticismthe Jewish mystical tradition. To them, only those of a balanced mind could study the mysteries of Kabbalah, meaning married men over forty. Others see this midrash as a metaphor for how one should study Kabbalah, rather than why one should not. The orchard symbolizes “the higher spiritual realm.” According to Chabad.org, Rabbi Akiva, “a man of great spiritual stature, a true and well-balanced master… realized that the objective is not to identify with the light and not return… but rather to go there and return here, with the proper wisdom to serve in the here-and-now.”
More recently, the Kabbalistic practice of self-exploration is no longer so exclusive. Modern “Jewitches,” like Zo (her blog is www.jewitches.com), are breaking down the boundaries of this reflective art. Moreover, she and others have created an opening for all Jews to begin exploring this centuries-old part of their Jewish heritage. While Kabbalah is often simply understood as Jewish mysticism, or derided as Judaism’s “voodoo,” this definition limits the emphasis placed on the individual practitioner’s relationship with the divine. Rabbi DovBer Pinson writes, “Kabbalah is more about losing ourselves than about finding…To open the self to a higher reality, to view the spirit within the matter, to raise our consciousness to the point where our perception of reality is completely changed, and the divine within all creation is revealed.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic cast a Petrificus totalus spell on our reality, some took time to bake sourdough bread, learn a TikTok dance, or even delve into mysticism. One writer for The Cut wrote that the pandemic turned her into a witch. She reasoned that the process of doing spell work gave her a “sense of control amid chaos.” Truthfully, I sought the same when I fell down a rabbit hole to learn more about the mystical sides of my Jewish heritage. While doing so, I was surprised by what I uncovered. I had expected to read about angels and demons, and instead, I found a new way of reflecting and interpreting my world. Similarly, I had come across the new movement of Jews that are bringing this buried spiritualism and applying it to daily life.
What makes Modern Kabbalah Different?
To begin, we need to differentiate Kabbalah from other forms of mysticism and sorcery/witchcraft. The earliest interpretation of Exodus 22:17 is, “You shall not suffer a witch to live.” More recently, however, the line has been reinterpreted to mean various other commands. For example, Rabbi Gershon Winkler instead suggests that “suffer” should be translated as “sustain.”As such, he suggests, the line means, “don’t get into the habit of supporting the livelihood of the village magician… Let him get a job like everybody else and perform his magic out of the goodness of his heart and in recognition of the sacred gift he possesses.” This assertion ties into the story of the rabbi who entered the orchard and went mad. Similarly, modern-day masters and practitioners need to return to the physical world with the knowledge they may have gained.
Moreover, this verse does little to define who or what a “witch” is. Various suggestions have arisen, though none directly address Kabbalah. Thus, while Kabbalah is a venture into the divine and spiritual aspects of existence, it isn’t entirely mysticism or witchcraft. It is seemingly something else entirely.
Kabbalah has been summarized into three aspects of belief: the theoretical, the spiritual, and the meditative. Centuries of written works on Kabbalistic texts remain unpublished, meaning the sources we have access to mostly focus on the theoretical. Rabbi DovBer Pinson wrote that the theoretical “concerns itself primarily with the inner dimensions of reality.” Chassidism, a mystical movement founded by the 18th-century Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, brought mystical concepts into daily life. While parts of modern Kabbalah explore divine names, incantations, amulets, magical seals, and various other mystical exercises; through meditation and reflection, Kabbalah can aid in self-discovery.
Kabbalah as a Portal to Self-Exploration
Kabbalah is not limited to mystics and Madonna. The end goal of Kabbalah is not to become a psychic, but to become more aware. Ultimately, the goal is meditative and to come full circle, to return to daily life with more awareness. It is to bring holiness into one’s everyday life. To live Kabbalistically is to explore negativity in an individual’s life from another perspective. Unlike using overwhelming positivity to overtake feelings of depression or anger, mystical thought prompts the practitioner to understand that there is nothing other than the infinite — that our current experiences are almost a mere illusion. By placing emotions into perspective during moments of deep thought, we often find the ability to overcome. Likewise, to become a mekubbalim — those who actively practice and study kabbalah) — one must do more than study, one must experience and apply kabbalistic thought in their life.
Rabbi Pinson writes, “The ultimate purpose in the study of Kabbalah is the perfection of the Self. Making the Self into a better, more expanded individual, more transcendent, more attuned to the essence and roots of one’s soul, this is what Kabbalah comes to offer those who truly wish to receive it.”