After coming across the news that Rabbi Philip Berg, the guy who taught Kabbalah to Madonna and other celebrities, died yesterday, I thought I’d take a look at what Kabbalah actually is. I had been under the impression that it was basically Jewish numerology. It’s true that part of Kabbalah is the idea that numbers and letters have significance beyond the obvious, and even personality. As such, the very letters of the Torah are of utmost importance, and can be used to find hidden knowledge. More than that, however, Kabbalah appears to be a mystical study of how an infinite God interacts with a finite world. The unknowable God makes himself known through ten emanations, or sefirot.
And yes, that’s how the villain from Final Fantasy VII got his name, although I’m not sure how he relates to the manifestations of God. Maybe the game creators just thought it sounded mystical.
As with many such lists that rely on the importance of a specific number, there’s some argument as to what the ten sefirot actually are, with some including Da’at (knowledge) instead of Keter (literally “crown,” but more accurately understood as divine will). There’s a lot more to Kabbalah than that, mostly quite complicated, as befits a system of mysticism. Exactly how Kabbalah got started isn’t clear, with believers claiming it developed pretty much concurrently with the Torah and was taught orally by the prophets and patriarchs, but this would be pretty difficult to prove. The name wasn’t known to have been used until the eleventh century AD at the earliest, and means “receiving” or “tradition.” Some aspects of the practice were adopted by Gentiles interested in the study of magic, and generally taken out of their Jewish context. For instance, the ten sefirot were sometimes used for divination, in combination with Tarot cards and such. The Kabbalah has also been associated with black magic, but while some followers do think it can be used to magical effect, these are only with the direct involvement of God.
Today, Kabbalah is mostly part of Orthodox Judaism, but New Age gurus like Berg have adopted a form of it that largely removes Jewish tradition from the equation. Instead, it mixes in mind-cure philosophy and belief in astrology, non-corporeal extraterrestrial beings, demonic possession causing mental illness, and masturbation creating demons. Berg also sells magic water and red ribbons to ward off the evil eye. I’m not entirely sure why this kind of thing bothers me. After all, as an atheist, I don’t believe in the ten sefirot any more than I do predicting the future based on a poker hand or the positions of the planets. Part of it is the obvious profiteering at work, but I also think there’s a certain amount of disrespect in divorcing such a practice from its origins. It’s like how yoga, which in Hinduism is a path toward connection with the divine, has in the United States become essentially aerobics on a mat. Even though I’m not religious, I still feel it kind of cheapens the original idea.