Tag Archives: Sefer Yetsirah

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