[Update 2021- Yes, I have learned that Michael and his deceased wife Amanda were born non-Jewish and never converted. They were dual belonging, living a committed Haredi life for more than a decade and still accepted Jesus in his heart. It seems he was sincere in his pious Haredi life and did not engage in explicit public missionary work. People have been looking to find evidence of actual missionary work for years and have not found it. He seems to have grown in dedication to Judaism in the years of kollel study, tikkun hatzot, learning safrut and milah, and was committed to Haredi life. Yet, they still taught their Haredi kids that Jesus loves them. He also wrote missionary tracts without his name on them and attempted to create a yeshiva for messianic Jews. Friends are in shock of disbelief and a disorienting dissolving of categories.. If you want to do anything useful at this point, then please help the children do a proper giyyur and integrate into the haredi life into which they were raised. People have been sending me emails for many months. There is no need to keep sending me the newspaper articles of 25 April, which broke the story. For those who want the full story, and it is a wild one, see this great investigative report on their background by the Jewish Chronicle. ]
There is a blog called Aspiring Mekubal by someone studying in a traditional Sefardi Kabbalistic Yeshiva is the tradtion of the Rashash (Rabbi Sar Shalom Sharabi, 1720–1777). He studied under Rav Kaduri, Yeshivat Beit El under Rav Hedayya, and in Nahar Shalom (Rav Sharabi’s yeshiva).
The author, Michael El-Kohen describes himself as follows: “I am a good Jewish boy from New Jersey, a cousin to the Baba Sali and a descendant of the Ari Z”L amongst others, that after obtaining semicha made the daring leap of seeking to learn Kabbalah.” His actual story is much more of a journey. He was raised secular/traditional in New Jersey. He went to Temple University where he majored in Psychology. There he fell in love with Judaism through Chabad and acquired semicha in a Litvish yeshiva. He then had a very rocky period shaking his life, his observance, and his sense of self and future. He then found his way to Israel, sofrut, and a new life. For interested, he has about a dozen confessional blog posts in a series called “Journeys of Life.” (for those who need a taste- here and here.)
To understand his basic orientation here is his list of how to get started in Kabbalah: Yosef Ergas, Shomer Emunim (hakadmon)-here, Eliyahu Manni, Kisse Eliyahu (a basic intro to the Rashshash world-here), Ramhal, Da’at U’Tevunot and then one doe the Ari–Otzrot Haim, Eitz Haim, and Sha’ar HaKavvanot.
If you want to discuss Kabbalah with him, make sure that you are not confusing chasidut, Habad, wonder-working frauds, or academia with his pristine Rashash position. Question will be answered within the thought of Eliyahu Manni’s Kisse Eyiyahu. Therefore: The rational rishonim agree with kabbalah, the medieval kabbalits agree with the Ari and Rashash, there is no development or periodization of the Kabblah in the academic sense. And the meaning of Emanation, Sefirot, inter-Divine structures, and Divien attributes is according to Ergas, Manni, and Ramhal- not your definitions from elsewhere.
[There will be a part two on science, amulets, Chabad, and the nature of the sefirot. so hold off on those topics]
1) How did you decide to become a mekubal or study in yeshiva of mekuballim?
Kabbalah simply intrigued me. It still does, so many years later. If I were to analyze myself psychologically I would say it probably stems from my early association with Chabad, as well as my early reading of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. The idea that there was an experiential level of the divine that was natural to Judaism, is what really drew me in.
2) Why do you call it a “daring leap?” Shouldn’t it be a normal choice?
For ,many people it is a normal choice. If you grow up in a religious home, and spend the majority of your life in cheder and yeshiva, then yes it is a normal choice. For me it was a daring leap. Why? Mostly because I was a B”T. Whenever I spoke to anyone about it, the most common answer was, “You are out of your mind, they’ll never take you.” Getting into a Kabbalistic Yeshiva is not like getting into Aish, it is not something you can do via email and telephone. So getting on a plane with the idea of trying to get into a Yeshiva that so many had told me would reject me outright… yeah that was I think a daring leap. In a sense it is not so different from the stories we all hear of young kids getting on a bus to NY, LA or Nashville in order to become actors, singers and musicians. It is a daring leap that is just as likely to end in heartbreak and failure. From what I had been told at first, I didn’t stand any more chance than of those kids with stars in their eyes.
3) You learned under Rav Kaduri, Beit El under Rav Hedayya, and in Nahar Shalom(Rav Sharabi’s yeshiva). What sedarim in kabbalah did you have at each Yeshiva?
Rav Kaduri’s Yeshiva and Nahar Shalom are much alike in this, in that they both learned Eitz Haim and Shaar HaKavvanot in depth, and the time was pretty much split equally between those two sefarim. As in a two hours given each day to both in the Kabbalah Seder. Beit El runs things a little differently. They still have the Kabbalah seder which focuses on those primary texts, though they have added an additional hour to the morning(what would be Pshat seder in any other Kabbalistic Yeshiva) seder. They still study Pshat(Shas and Poskim) for the standard four hours, however in that last hour they then learn bekiut the remainder of the Kitvei HaAri. For instance Sunday would be Shaar HaGilgulim, Monday would be Shaar HaMitzvot, Tuesday would be Shaar Ruah HaKodesh, Wednesday would be Shaar Mamrei Rashbi, Thursday would be Shaar HaPesukim.
4) What do you tell the modern Orthodox person who thinks that kabbalah is a side show at best. They are say they are ideal Orthodox Jews and they don’t need it. What do you tell them?
Eilu V’Eilu devarim elokim chaim. Belief in Kabbalah is not one of the 13 principles of faith, so you don’t have to believe in it. Truth be told, to be an ideal Orthodox Jew you need not study a single page of Kabbalah. Kabbalah is only a path to help one grow into that ideal form of Orthodox Judaism, that doesn’t mean that it is the only path. Rather it is the only path for me.
Now I want to address the “side show” comment. First let me say that I understand how one could, unfortunately, come to feel that Kabbalah is a side show(or worse). After all there are lots of strange things and happenings that are packaged as Kabbalah today that really have nothing to do with Kabbalah. Whether it is Eastern mysticism dressed up in a Yarmulke, supposed Kabbalists who guarantee miracles for the right price, or back alley wizards, there are many things that today call themselves Kabbalah. To the person who has no experience in Kabbalah, they have no way of knowing what is or is not legitimate. For that I would recommend Rabbi Yaakov Hillel’s book Fatih and Folly.
Being a Kabbalist(or not) is ultimately a personal choice. Being a Dayyan is not obligatory, so why be one? Being a Rabbi is not obligatory so why be one? Because Kabbalah is so shrouded in mystery(whether for good or for bad) no one seems to know what the primary mission statement of a Kabbalist is. Rabbi Haim Vital lays it out in his introduction to Shaar HaHakdamot, the Rashash and later mekubalim really pick it up, the primary purpose of learning Kabbalah is to aid Am Yisrael and Klal Yisrael. They see themselves as sort of spiritual watchmen on the walls. There that through their prayers, tikkunim and other things may guard Klal Yisrael and bring them spiritual good.
Hence the swine flu flight when mekuballim charter a flight for prayers as a tikkun that was unfortunately was leaked to the press. While Mekubalim don’t make it a habit of going up in planes to perform tikkunim, they definitely make it a habit of performing Tikunim for their cities and nations.
More than a few avreichim join Kabbalistic Yeshivot, only to find out years down the line that they just aren’t built for it, and that their vocation truly does lie elsewhere. It is sad.
4. What do you think of the renewed interest in Abulafia? Even Rav Morgenstern cites Abulafian mediations. Do Abulafia and RaShaSh compliment or contradict each other?
Wow. First I recommend Rav Hillel’s book and now I am going to argue with it in part, however I am following in the footsteps of my own Rabbanim. I don’t see the renewed interest in Abulafia as a problem, in fact considering the amount of Abulafia that is copied over in the Kitvei HaAri. (Unnamed he brings several of his methods in the Eitz Haim. By name he brings several of his methods in the fourth section of Vital’s Shaarei Kedusha.)
I see it as a logical progression. I am going to say however, that would should have a pretty firm foundation in the Kitvei HaAri before progressing to the works of the earlier Mekubalim. Much like we wouldn’t dump sophisticated Iyun upon a kid in a Beit Sefer who hasn’t even figured out Mishna yet, there needs to be a progression and laying of basic foundations. The Ari is a beginners step into Abulafia and other earlier mekubalim. In practice I have found that it is much easier to understand the writings of the earlier Kabbalists once one has a firm foundation in the Kitvei HaAri.
5. Why are so many people in Jerusalem turning to the Ari and Rashash?
Are there really many turning to the Rashash? I think part of it is that there is this new idea that everyone needs to learn all the time, and for some people a daf of Gemarra just doesn’t light their fire.
I think the biggest reason is that you can now find Kabbalistic Siddurim in your local Hebrew Bookstore. That was unheard of just 60 or 70 years ago, when they essentially were hand copied. Another reason is that people are looking for spirituality. Some run off to India to seek it in another religion, some stay within Judaism, and decide to try their luck in a Kabbalistic Yeshivot. Like I said there are numerous reasons that various people come to Kabbalsitic Yeshivot. I’ve even seen some that want to learn because you can’t find a more chumradik style of Tefila(like I said, not all of their reasons are good).
6) Y ou mentioned that you substituted for your teacher at Yeshiva. What seforim did you use to give a kabbalaistic shiur? In broad terms, what was the topic?
It was in the Eitz Haim. We were in a rather difficult piece of the Eitz Haim in Shaar Arikh, dealing with various sofekot(uncertainties). Well the Eitz Haim obviously than it’s major commentaries. I started with Beit Lehem Yehuda and the Kerem Shlomo. From there I went on through the Shemen Sasson, Divrei Shalom, Eifah Shleima and Shem M’Shimon. I finished off with the Remez, Torah Hakham and the Leshem. Essentially progressing from what I consider to be the most pshat(simple) to the most Iyun(difficult and deep).
8. Where can someone go to study with real kabbalists? What would it take to get in?
In Israel, especially in Jerusalem, it isn’t that hard, in some places there is a Kabbalistic Yeshiva on every street corner, literally every street corner. Go to one of those. As far as what it would take to get in, that would very much depend on the Yeshiva. Some such as Yeshivat HaShalom, Beit El, and Nahar Shalom will take you so long as you are Orthodox, married, and can read Hebrew(speaking it will also be helpful). Others are much more stringent on who many enter. I would say the biggest key is that if you are turned away from one, don’t let that keep you from trying at another.
9) Why do the kabbalists that you have studied under uniformly reject Gershom Scholem? Can you be specific?
There is a sect of living Kabbalists that one can go and interact with, see, hear, and learn from. Rav Shalom Hedayya offered to instruct him, he declined. (site editor- It was R. GershonVilner) He writes about sects/schools of Kabbalah that have either ceased to exist or have been subsumed within other schools. It is hard at best to paint an accurate picture of what was going on there. Essentially bad scholarship.  .
10). How long does weekday shaharit take with kavvanot? Shabbat shararit?
Average for a weekday Shacharit would be about 1.5-2hrs(that includes Korbanot and everything). For Shabbat tack on another 45min to an hr. Admittedly we also read the Torah at what most would consider a snail’s pace, so that slows things down considerably. To give people a better idea, I would say that for the average person the Amidah takes about 20-30mins to get through. . I prayed with a Minyan once that gave everyone a full 45-50min to do the silent Amidah and then the repetition was equally long. That was almost painful.
The real marathon for us is Yom HaKippurim. From Alot HaShachar until Tzeit HaKhokavim I think we have a total of an hour when we are not praying. That really is an endurance event. There have been times when I was so tired by the time we were done that I didn’t eat afterwards, rather I just went straight to bed.
To be continued in Part II- here