At the opening class of “Day of Kabbalah,” Rabbi David Sacks of the Happy Minyan talked about the mysteries of the letter aleph, which he called “the Gateway to Infinity.” Sacks’ talk was filled with what those unfamiliar with the subject imagine kabbalah to be: mystical ruminations based on numerology, seeing the entire cosmos in its microcosmic elements, repeated references to “the unity of all things.”
The rest of the day played out as a back-and-forth between abstract, spiritual ideas and intensely practical ones, such as dating and the barriers to happiness.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of JConnectLA put together this full day of kabbalah activities and classes Nov. 14 at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. It was JConnectLA’s first full kabbalah day, and it was advertised as “An Urban Learning Retreat for Body, Soul and Mind.”
The teachers were a diverse group, from scholarly to neighborly, from soft-spoken intensity to infomercial-pitchman boldness, from bubbly innocence to professorial.
Attendees spanned a wide age range, and it probably comes as no surprise that the younger ones gravitated to a class called “Kabbalah & Dating,” led by Bookstein, while the older ones went to a session called “Prophetic Kabbalah,” led by Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok, who has written extensively on Jewish topics.
The “Prophetic” group was not about how kabbalah predicts the future, but about the relation between kabbalah and the biblical prophets, who warned people about the consequences of their behavior. These prophets, Bar Tzadok said, were human beings, not saints. The point of Judaism and kabbalah, he added, is to learn how to be human.
Bar Tzadok addressed the question of whether one should study kabbalah. He said that when we pursue a course of study, we should ask ourselves: Does it provide spiritual transformation? Does it help us bond with God? He went on to say that if you study kabbalah, the answer to both is: Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you study it.
It was practical advice, if a bit ambiguous. By contrast, there was nothing ambiguous about Bookstein’s class on dating. He said that if you have not had success in finding a life partner, you might look at what kabbalah identifies as klipot — barriers — such as carrying emotional baggage, lack of self-worth and too much ego. These can be obstructions to making a commitment to another person.
Obstructions were also a key element in what Rabbi Naftali Citron of the Carlebach Shul of New York said about kabbalah meditation, which he identified with prayer. The purpose of prayer, or meditation, he said, is to remove emotional and psychological barriers, those elements “blocking you from an objective view of things.”
Later, Citron taught a class on Isaac Luria’s philosophy, pointing out that in 16th century Safed there was “an explosion of knowledge.” During Citron’s descriptions of Luria’s mathematical-sounding explanations of how God created the world (circles, lines, light), someone asked if Luria’s writings were a precursor to modern scientific ideas.
Kabbalah, Citron responded, has “nothing to do with science.”
“Some have said that kabbalist thought is consistent with the Big Bang Theory,” he said, adding, “I’m not a big fan of linking this with science. Religion and science function independently of each other.”
Professor Daniel Matt, in his lecture on the Zohar, a basic text of kabbalah that he has translated, agreed with Citron’s comment. “You cannot reduce kabbalah to science,” Matt said. “One of the underlying ideas of the Zohar is that “every person, everything that exists, is an incarnation of God. ... The ultimate reality of God is white space. Words and charts are inadequate in the face of Ein Sof [infinity]. ... What the Zohar shows is divine qualities but also human experiences. The ideal is to find the balance between the two.”
Summing up, organizer Bookstein said he believes the event offered an introduction to both the practical and theoretical aspects of kabbalah. “I’m very pleased with the result,” he said. “There was a dream team of teachers, and a large group of people of all ages and all backgrounds showed up. I was thrilled to be a part of it.”