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15.2: Judaism and Kabbalah

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    We will begin our examination of spiritual/religious guidelines for living one’s life with the oldest, but smallest, of the Abrahamic religions. Judaism holds a special place in the history of psychology, since nearly all of the early and most significant psychodynamic theorists were Jewish (even if they did not practice their faith). In addition, since many of those Jewish psychoanalysts came to America during the 1930s, they then had a significant effect on the continued development of psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis here in the United States.

    The Foundation of the Jewish Faith

    Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world, and today some 14 million people practice this faith. It is a monotheistic religion, thus believing that there is only one god: Yahweh. They believe that Yahweh called Abraham out of his homeland to establish a new home, in the general area of modern-day Israel. This occurred in approximately the year 1900 B.C. However, the formal foundation of Judaism involved the establishment of Yahweh’s laws, known as the Torah. The Torah is not merely a set of laws or cultural guidelines, but rather, they are a pattern for living that transforms the Jewish people into Yahweh’s people (Wilkins, 1967). The Torah is quite long, consisting of five books, which include many complex rules for both the people and the priesthood. However, the rules were greatly simplified in Yahweh’s special revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai, around the year 1300 B.C., and these simplified guidelines for how to live one’s life are known as the Ten Commandments:

    I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other gods before me.

    You shall not make for yourself a graven image…you shall not bow down to them

    or serve them…

    You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…

    Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

    Honor your father and your mother…

    You shall not kill.

    You shall not commit adultery.

    You shall not steal.

    You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

    You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…your neighbor’s wife…or anything

    that is your neighbor’s.

    from Exodus, Chapter 20; Holy Bible

    As simple as it might seem to follow these ten guidelines for living one’s life, it is just as easy to ignore them. Unfortunately, ignoring them has often been the case, even among some of the most famous people in Jewish history. Thus, the mystical practice of Kabbalah has arisen, to both help people live a righteous life, and to help them do so without having to guide their behavior by simple, yet strict, commandments. In other words, there was, and is, a need to transform people’s minds. In order to effect real change, we cannot simply expect people to follow the rules, we need to help them make the rules a part of their life. In this sense, Kabbalah, like Yoga, Buddhism, and as we shall see for Christian mysticism and Sufism, can be viewed as a sort of cognitive psychology, a redirection of one’s conscious personality development.

    discussion Question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    If the Ten Commandments are simply rules, as opposed to being an inherent part of our lives, is anything missing? Are there things we would still be allowed to do that would harm other people, or harm ourselves? What can we do to make the Ten Commandments a way of life, how can we be mindful of them?


    Kabbalah is a path designed to teach people about their place in life and in the universe, particularly with regard to the divine. It emphasizes that one’s daily life should not be separated from one’s spiritual life. In more practical terms, Kabbalah deals with the everyday experience that we have unlimited desires, but only limited resources to satisfy them. Thus, there will always be some degree of suffering in our lives if we focus only on the material world. Kabbalah teaches a pathway toward experiencing something beyond simple materialism. And yet, that path remains obscured in a certain degree of secrecy. The principal books are available only in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, and some believe that Kabbalists who are qualified to teach Kabbalah are all in the country of Israel (Besserman, 1997; Laitman, 2005). Accordingly, a distinct degree of difficulty in the study of Kabbalah is to be expected:

    Whoever delves into mysticism cannot help but stumble, as it is written: “This stumbling block is in your hand.” You cannot grasp these things unless you stumble over them. (pg. 163; Matt, 1995)

    Kabbalah is as old as Judaism itself, perhaps older. Kabbalistic legend suggests that it may have begun with Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah (as in Noah’s Ark; Halevi, 1986), but its formal practice recognizes a few key historical events. In the sixth century B.C., a collection of manuals called Maaseh Merkavah emerged, and these manuals included a formal meditation practice. For those who engaged in this practice, the goal was to directly experience the Deity by concentrating on mandala-like images that showed a path to the Throne of God (remember that Carl Jung also meditated on Mandala images). Their emphasis on out-of-body experiences distinguished them from similar Babylonian schools of spirituality that emphasized inner-directed visualizations and, therefore, were not as mystical as the Kabbalists. In the second century A.D., Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote an important Kabbalist text called the Zohar (translated as the Book of Splendor or the Book of Radiance), which was hidden in a cave in Israel and studied in secret until, around the year 1280 A.D., a Spanish Kabbalist named Moses de Leon published the Zohar. In the late 1500s, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria began teaching Kabbalah, and he contributed a number of additional influential books, such as Etz Hachayim (The Tree of Life), Sha’ar HaKavanot (The Gateway on Intentions), and Sha’ar Hagilgulim (The Gateway of Reincarnation). Known as the Ari (the Lion), he established a basic system for studying Kabbalah, which remains in use today (Besserman, 1997; Hoffman, 2007; Laitman, 2005).

    The primary aspects of practicing Kabbalah are quite similar to what we saw with Buddhism. Surrendering oneself to Yahweh, and in the process annihilating one’s ego (or concept of self), in order to release one’s emotions is one of the main goals (Hoffman, 2007; Weiss, 2005). Meditation is a key practice, attempting to immerse oneself in Yahweh manifested as self, thus fulfilling the self. A common technique is to meditate on some Kabbalah teaching or a passage from the Bible. It is also highly recommended that Kabbalah be practiced within a group of other seekers, and under the guidance of a Rabbi (or teacher). Similar to Buddhist mindfulness, Kabbalists also attempt to incorporate their practice into every moment of their daily lives. As a result, the basic teachings of Judaism, such as the Ten Commandments, should become an individual’s way of life, rather than a distant set of rules merely to be obeyed (or not).

    When you desire to eat or drink, or to fulfill other worldly desires, and you focus your awareness on the love of God, then you elevate that physical desire to spiritual desire…wherever you go and whatever you do - even mundane activities - you serve God. (pg. 151; Matt, 1995)

    Kabbalah and Psychology

    The mystical approach to understanding life and individuals has an interesting history in the field of psychology, with William James, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow being among those most interested in the study of spirituality and spiritual phenomena. As the meditation practices within Yoga and Buddhism have gained popularity in psychology, other spiritual/mystical traditions are being re-examined as well. Accordingly, Kabbalah is becoming more popular, both in Judaism and in psychology, and the links between Kabbalah and psychology are being actively explored (e.g., Halevi, 1986; Hoffman, 2007; Weiss, 2005).

    Kabbalah seems to compare most favorably with a cognitive approach to understanding personality and healing broken relationships. Kabbalah describes a complex arrangement of elements that underlie our relationship with God, the universe, and consequently, ourselves and other people. Understanding these relationships is the key to balancing our emotions, thoughts, and styles of relating to others. Unhappiness is viewed as the result of a serious imbalance in our understanding of the true nature of our place in our community, society, and life itself. While many different forms of psychotherapy help people to develop insight into their personality and relationships, Kabbalah proposes to go beyond insight. Once again, for those people who live life with a deep spiritual faith, ignoring one's faith makes it all but impossible to find balance in one’s life. Only a spiritual path, perhaps augmented by a traditional psychotherapeutic emphasis on everyday problems and stressors, can help to balance the entire life of the spiritual person. Thus, Kabbalah need not be viewed as an alternative to psychotherapy, but rather as a bridge between psychology and spirituality (Weiss, 2005).

    There is, however, a problem facing most psychologists when it comes to the study of Kabbalah. Being based on spirituality and the unquestioned belief in Yahweh, Kabbalists are willing to examine questions that are decidedly unscientific, such as Jung’s concept of synchronicity. They also study the higher dimensions of human existence, such as awakening ecstasy (Hoffman, 2007). In this regard their goals are similar to those of Maslow, and his desire to understand self-actualization and its relationship to spiritual experiences, and to the whole field of positive psychology, and its emphasis on doing more for people than simply addressing the adjustment disorders and/or mental illness of those suffering psychological distress. Yet Kabbalah goes even further into the realm of parapsychology, fully believing in reincarnation (Besserman, 1997; Hoffman, 2007; Laitman, 2005; Weiss, 2005). In 1988, psychiatrist Brian Weiss, Chairman Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, published Many Lives, Many Masters. In this book, he described a case in which he was able to help a young woman through the use of past-life therapy. Since the Kabbalistic view of reincarnation suggests an explanation for Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious (see also, Halevi, 1986), the use of past-life therapy may not be as strange as many would insist it must be. In continuing to study this phenomenon, Dr. Weiss does not suggest simply accepting anyone’s word that reincarnation is real or that past-life therapy will help:

    It is vital to carry your logical, rational mind on this journey. To accept everything without reflection, contemplation, and thoughtfulness would be just as foolish as rejecting everything in the same manner. Science is the art of observing carefully with an unbiased, non-prejudicial eye. (pg. 7; Weiss, 2000)

    Similar thoughts occurred to Carl Jung and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, both of whom were nervous about discussing their experiences with patients who reported near-death experiences. However, they were so common that Jung and Kubler-Ross felt compelled to discuss them. Carl Rogers also reported similar experiences as his wife was dying. Thus, the Kabbalists are not simply a group of spiritualists reporting events that are not considered real by any well-known psychologists or psychiatrists. The truth, however, is likely to remain elusive for those who do not accept the evidence on faith.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Whether or not you actually believe in reincarnation, can you believe in it? Can past-life therapy be helpful even if it isn’t real, or is it always a harmful delusion? Could reincarnation be the explanation for Jung’s collective unconscious, and if not, is there a conceivable middle ground?

    This page titled 15.2: Judaism and Kabbalah is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.