Into the Heart of Kabbalah: My Year with the Rabbi

Into the Heart of Kabbalah: My Year with the Rabbi

By Louise Danielle Palmer

reprinted with permission from Spirituality and Health Magazine, 2005

Kabbalah is about wrestling with the complex and paradoxical nature of life, which is why this Jewish mystical tradition, with its thousands of sacred texts, leaves most people confused. But in its essence, Kabbalah is really about making the mundane holy.

Rabbi DovBer Pinson grew up in the tightly knit Chassidic community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, speaking Yiddish as his first language. Although he often skipped school when he was a kid, it soon became clear that he would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and great-grandfather, both highly respected spiritual teachers and scholars in Russia. He was self-taught and ordained as a rabbi in Israel at 18 and spent the next few years locked up in his room, meditating and studying a wide range of spiritual traditions, contemplating the possibility of life as a monk (until the day he came out and met the woman he married). At 34, he is a world-renowned Jewish scholar, lecturer, and spiritual teacher, with seven books on Kabbalah under his belt.

In this article, I’ve tried to distill the Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Pinson to their essence. What is presented here is a mix of Rabbi Pinson’s words and mine, based on his writings and teachings, and the conversations we’ve shared in his home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, over the past year. While Madonna put Kabbalah on the map, popularizing this highly esoteric philosophy, few people understand it. It’s not easy stuff to grasp. Contrary to popular belief, the mystical Jewish tradition is not so much about magic formulas or secret numbers related to the Hebrew alphabet. As Pinson teaches it, Kabbalah is more about questions than answers, more about wrestling with the complexity of life than with simplifying it. It’s designed to help us elevate our consciousness so we become better people: more expanded and better able to perceive the spiritual, better attuned to the root of our soul, more open to the divine in all of creation.

“The deeper Kabbalistic teachings are designed to shift a person into an entirely new way of thinking and feeling and being,” Pinson says. “The way I teach is, I give you ideas that you move towards. Some ideas will remain vague and beyond you. That’s fine. You are meant to sit and meditate on these ideas and eventually come to them. They’re not meant to be simple.”

In other words, if you feel confused while reading this article, you’re in good company. Pinson points out that there are many spiritual traditions, such as Taoism, which are based on one book — or no books — and focus on being present, aware, conscious. They are simple teachings, and that is the beauty of them, he says. Kabbalah is complex because we are, and that’s the beauty of it. Kabbalah tries to address the paradoxical, elaborate nature of the human experience. Pinson’s office also attests to this — he sits surrounded on three sides by bookshelves filled with row upon row of sacred texts, gold Hebrew letters stamped onto red leather-bound spines. I can’t walk you through the whole library, but I can give you a glimpse into the heart of this tradition, as it has been expressed to me, so you know what the talk is all about.

The main teachings of Kabbalah date back thousands of years, to the roots of Judaism. Kabbalah is the mystical understanding, or deeper meaning, of the Torah and Talmud. For example, Talmud says one should bless a glass of water before drinking it. Why? Talmud would say you make a blessing because you are thinking of God. Kabbalah would say the blessing is about drawing Godliness into the cup, and realizing the enlivening force in the water is continuous, and as such, an aspect of Godliness. Many Kabbalistic principles, however, are not related to ritual or Torah or Talmud per se. Rather, they are aimed at universal truths of life, and so can be studied by anyone of any faith.

Kabbalistic teachings were preserved through oral tradition until the first text, The Book of Illumination, was published late in the twelfth century. The seminal text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, was published a century later. Many teachings, however, were never written down and have been lost, particularly those concerning meditative and magical Kabbalah, which uses tools such as incantations and amulets to alter or influence the course of nature. Pinson focuses on theoretical Kabbalah, which concerns the inner and outer dimension of reality. Kabbalah isn’t theoretical, though. It is often called the Tree of Life because it is a philosophy that is meant to be lived out.

Many spiritual traditions focus on getting us out of the mind or quieting the mind so we can get to a place of peace and silence and oneness and stay there. Kabbalah is also about getting to that place, but it allows us to use and engage our minds to do so. It’s about being in that noisy place in the head because we are meant to think, to be in turmoil, to wrestle down the truth. Kabbalah teaches you how to use and trust your senses, but also how to use them to sense the deeper within. Kabbalah gives you a philosophical structure that allows you to be connected to the divine source, whether you are in your mind or your heart or your body. So whatever space you are in is the right space to be in. Wherever you go, there you are. Buckaroo Banzai was a Kabbalist!

So what does this structure, which contains the whole universe, look like? The best way to visualize it is as an enormous house with hundreds of rooms, antechambers, closets, attics, and basements that you can move in and out of. The frame of the house helps you understand all of what you experience, no matter how ugly or awful or painful or paradoxical, in a spiritual light: who you are, how the world was created, and who you are in relation to creation.

The first and most important aspect of this structure is that it contains within it parallel worlds, or different realities that exist simultaneously. You can move in and out of these worlds like floating in and out of rooms in the house. These parallel worlds contain parallel truths and parallel feelings which may exist simultaneously, even though you may experience them consecutively.

The outside wall of the structure is the reality of ESSENCE. Essence is what the universe was created from. It contains everything: the infinite and finite, light and dark, space and no space, time and no time, good and bad, and no good or bad. It is a place of form and no form, of absolute potential that contains everything that exists or could exist. Essence is the source of eternal light, the source from which everything is sourced. Some call this divinity, some call it God, some call it Oneness or unity. In Hebrew it’s called or ein sof.

(Note: Light here is just a metaphor for the initial manifestation of the divine. Light is used by Kabbalists because it is something you can perceive without touching. In fact, the whole structure of the house is a metaphor for the creation of the universe.)

From essence comes a glimmer or revelation of light. Separation begins as the unified light unfolds and breaks itself in two. The first world that is created is made up of the INFINITE, or transcendent reality. This is the top floor of the house. Then there is a contraction of the infinite light, a quantum leap that conceals the ein sof, and from the infinite, the FINITE reality is created. A line comes down from the finite world with 10 points called sfeiros running along it, into the world of creation, the world of matter. This is the bottom floor of the house. These points on the line coming down from the finite allow us to perceive everything that is material, or finite: time and space, tables and chairs, you and me. The sfeiros are 10 distinct aspects of the divine, or infinite light, such as wisdom, severity, beauty, intuition, and reason. Think about the sfeiros as if they are colored filters or screens that allow us to see, feel, and experience life — as well as the divine source — in all its forms.

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