Can Kabbalah be translated into a modern idiom?

I found an interesting article written for  the BBC from a transpersonal psychologist in England The essence of Jewish meditation By Professor Les Lancaster The very nice and sensitive essay shows the problems in trying to translate Kabbalah on meditation in modern terms.

It lets me ask about the process of presenting Jewish kavvanot to a modern audience.

The basic worldview for the kabbalist is the sefirotic chart, arranged as concentric circles, a Jacob’s ladder or chain of being, expressed with medieval philosophic language.  A kabbalist’s view of God and the world was arranged in nestled chains, God emanates into the world. This cosmology of chains is not just a points on a cord, but vast realms, lights, and colors, a realm to transverse, a way of marking off distance. This cosmology was accepted as based on the Jewish tradition, the experiential truth of the method, and as part of accepting the theology of the Kabbalah.  This worldview, for them, was as corrigible as a map. Meaning that unlike a dream where no incorrect dream, Kabbalah is a vision correctable based on the writings and visions of others. For the kabbalists the kabbalistic worldview is objective, subject to correct and incorrect turns, and offers a reproducible mental world. One chooses one path, one worldview, and follows it. The traditional meditator does not credit the human mind or imagination with these depths, rather he starts with a map obtained through the study of Kabbalah.

But I am trying to pin down how we get from my description of the past to the following:

What is Jewish meditation?

It involves shifting the centre of gravity of the mind away from the sense of ‘I’ which normally dominates our goals. Like all meditative practices, Jewish mystical techniques are directed towards enhancing this second form of thinking. At the same time, these practices cultivate an awareness of the divine presence in all things.
The objective of meditation is to engage with these deeper currents.

One of the major texts of Kabbalah, the 12th-century Bahir, writes that the biblical prophet Habakkuk ‘understood God’s thought.’ It tells us:
“Just as human thought has no end, for even a mere mortal can think and descend to the end of the world, so too the ear also has no end and is not satiated.”
Jewish mystical practices enable us to use thought to ‘descend to the end of the world’, that is, to plumb the depths where mind and physical reality are no longer separate.

The goals of Jewish meditation
-heighten one’s understanding of the Torah
-develop an understanding of ritual and other religious observances
-give direction to prayer
-increase one’s awareness of others’ needs

One of the oldest texts that describes Jewish meditation practices is the Sefer Yetsirah. Consider the following extract:
“Ten dimensions of nothingness. Their measure is ten to which there is no end.
A depth of beginning, a depth of end; a depth of good, a depth of evil; a depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of east, a depth of west; a depth of north, a depth of south.
The unified Master – God faithful King – rules over all of them, from His holy dwelling place, until eternity of eternities.”
The meditation based on this passage entails consciously building up a deep sense of your place in relation to the dimensions.

The meditation continues with the first of the six directions of space. What is immediately above you? Air… the ceiling… other rooms… the roof… birds… sky… vastness of space… the infinite that cannot be formed in the mind…
It is as if you generate a beam of light from within that is gradually extended further and further whilst, at the same time, maintaining your awareness of the centre, the heart as the source of light… And then continue into the remaining directions. You may glimpse your inner core suspended at the heart of a web of infinite interconnections.

We have the idea of limitless expanse, which was originally sefirot, treated as the depths of the mind. I understand the need for the psychology. Yet what happens to the Neoplatonic depth? Identifying mind and physical reality has a bit of a countercultural sound to it. Gone is the need to go through an ascent to reach God either by chambers, cosmos, worlds, souls. The author, similar to the popular pamphlets issued by the school of the Magid of Mezerich pushed away the meditation of the Kabblah. Early Hasidism thought that though emotional enthusiasm one could ascend through all the worlds, sefirot, and chambers. Here entering the depth of one’s mind has the same effect.

I get confused by the goals. Does it help by giving one esoteric knowledge? Does it mean viewing one’s mitzvot and prayer as taking place in the kabbalistic cosmology?  And why claim it will make one more sensitive to the needs of others. At least, Buddhists will distinguish between jhana (knowledge) and metta (love-kindness). Here it seems everything is blurred.

In his use of Sefer Yetzirah, we have the conversion of a scientific-cosmological text into a meditation on space. Deep of divinity becomes depth of the soul.In this modern version, one looks into the inner core of the self, the heart, and the limits of the ordinary mind. One is not told about the traditional phrases “fixed order of lights” “the infinity of God” or the need to identify with the Divine will.”

I find much of our presentations of Kabbalah on the popular level to be modern psychology. I do think we need to use modern psychology and not medieval psychology, but what are the boundaries for a successful translation? Many of the popular Orthodox presentations are straight pop-psych and new age. What is the limit in modernizing the medieval?

Hat tip: Solitude– it cites the full version. For the original BBC- here

8 responses to “Can Kabbalah be translated into a modern idiom?

  1. An alternative reading could focus on the interconnection between modern psychology and its precursors in divine psychology. While some scholars have begun to probe the latent Oedipal dynamics of thinkers like AriZal, few have gone in the opposite direction, exploring how the grimoire of modern psychology may draw from the deep recesses of theosophic literature. Rather than exclaiming on the loss we feel as our texts are hermeneutically mutilated, we could celebrate their continuing relevance, and their coexistence on a self referential historical continuum with typologically heterogeneous but phenomenologically similar systems.

  2. That would work in the 19th century when Bohme becomes von Hartmann, or even in the 20th century when Kabbalah becomes Erich Neumann.
    But this new age language does not do justice to the kabbalistic levels of NRN HY. My question is when is the historical continuity broken? I assume 12-step new age kabbalah has broken the continuum, but what about trans-personal psych. That is why I chose this article. It walks a line and does seem to be in continuity at some points. But which aspects have broken the continuity?

  3. On what basis do you assume that either of us with have the ability to differentiate continuity from discontinuity? Personally I would not feel competent or situated properly to make such a statement. I doubt the possibility of such a clear cut taxonomy. Do you feel you can develop a criteria?

  4. I think you’re running too much together. The Kabbalistic system itself is a text book sort of thing. You know better than I the relevant books, the history of the system, and so on. It involves more the experience of reading than anything else. Then there’s this practical Kabbalah, which ranges from amulets to incantations, to kavanot, to meditation. If your question is how does pratical Kabbalah translate into the modern world, I think the meditative route is very long and shows few results for quite a long time. After all we’re not going to go to a monastery and meditate for years on end. As it is used today it is primarily a stress reduction technique.

    For me the key to pratical Kabbalah and modern culture is in some combination of breathing and movement. The movement can be Tai Chi, yoga, Feldenkrais, etc., and the breathing is some attempt to focus energies through various breathing techniques. One very popular approach is Qigong. Qi, the natural energu that’s supposed to flow through us and around us, could be conflated with the energy terms in Kabbalah(e.g. shefah and nitzotzot). These vast expanses that you speak of are also spaces within the body.

    In short I believe that in this world today mystical experiences have to involve body experiences. Kemayes won’t do the trick.

    • One very popular approach is Qigong. Qi, the natural energu that’s supposed to flow through us and around us, could be conflated with the energy terms in Kabbalah(e.g. shefah and nitzotzot).

      So when is it no longer Kabbalah? Is there a point when it is illegitimate to still call it kabbalah?
      Is there a point when we should just call it Qi and leave out any connection to Judiasm?
      Can everything be called kabbalah?

  5. At the level of cosmology, or as a model of some abstract space which might then be located as inside or outside the person there isn’t much of problem. It’s Kabbalah if it retains more or less the same structures that we find in the Zohar and the Ari, the Ramak etc.. No two have the same details, but they do form a family of ideas and we think in terms of more or less similar. At the practical level there never were paradigms. Renaissance magic is connected to Kabbalah and rabbis flying around in a plane preventing swine flu by saying special words and sounds is also Kabbalah. Practises changed time and again.

    The practises I mentioned all use a concept of energy that can be moved, a hamshachas haorot , which is a lot more than can be said for meditation.
    It’s Kabbalah if knowledge of the Kabbalistic literature is useful in the practise and if the practise presents a plausible instantiation of kabalah. Reading Shakespeare out loud is not Kabbalah. Concentrating energy for different goals might just be close enough that we would be willing to call it Kabbalah.

    Your question in the end comes down to what we would be willing to say. The ‘we’ is open ended enough that there is no one answer. As you know some used Kabbalah to explain the inner secrets of Christianity.

  6. Didn’t R’ Aryeh Kaplan do some pioneering work in this area, including also equating reaching for the inner recesses of the soul with reaching for G”d? He justifies it by stating somewhere in his Jewish Meditation that through our inner recesses of the soul we do reach for G”d.

    evanstonjew, R’ Kaplan prefers a triple classification of Kabbalah, with the meditative being another track besides philosophical (the text thing) and magical/amulets, etc. kind of Kabbalah. An attractive typology.

    Anyway, he does try to straddle the threatening gap between the esoteric-in-the-service-of-psychology and psychology-in-service-of-the-esoteric. He starts of with the former and ends up with the latter.

    Disclaimer: since it is a popular book, one would easily miss most references unless one is reasonably acquainted with Lurianic Kabbalah and a number of other Kabbalistic traditions. He mentioned Sefer Yetzira and R’ Avraham Abulafia by name, but others get oblique references, too.

    It would be interesting to pin down where he puts the outer limits of what can legitimately be called Kabbalah.

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