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This tension is visible across religions. In Christianity, a physical son of God is balanced against ideas like the Holy Spirit. The Jewish biblical tradition goes through a linear evolution between these themes. But by the time Moses appears and witnesses the Burning Bush, God has changed in character.
The Kabbalistic Journey
The duality of the concrete and the abstract God naturally set up a difficult boundary. The faithful needed some kind of definition—a dotted line around a set of characteristics, no matter how broad. But the development of an uncertain God made even this a challenge. The minute you begin to think about it, and imagine the relation between the divine Other and humanity, you compromise it. Some other relation bridges the relation between us and the unknown God.
Set in stone atop Mount Canaan, the clear air, shimmering blue skies, and hills that ripple like waves into the horizon remind you of the Rockies. Jewish mystics associate Safed with the primordial element of air Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Hebron are earth, water, and fire. When the weather turns, mist envelops the mountain and surrounding forest like a shawl, a phenomenon that must surely have encouraged the mystics who have made Safed famous—though they preferred the nighttime, when they would study and gaze at the profusion of stars and ponder eternity.
The old part of Safed is a warren of stone passages connecting houses of worship and religious institutes, homes, shops, galleries, and studios. The city has been destroyed by earthquakes, rebuilt, and grown well beyond its medieval boundaries. Street lamps, ensconced on smooth stone walls, cast a pale light at sundown, like medieval torches.
Bringing the flourishing Jewish society in Moorish Spain to an abrupt end, the disaster convinced some Jews it was the End of Days.
As ravaged communities dispersed from Spain, many went to Palestine. At the time, Safed was a thriving textile center about 13 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem was a backwater. Prosperous and free, Safed also held the graves of the great rabbinic figures of the second century. Medieval Jews saw this as a reflection of their own situation—they had flourished under Roman rule until it ended catastrophically in exile and dispersion.
Drawn to Safed by these practical circumstances, and the connection to their past, the gathering of Jews in Safed in the s gave it the greatest concentration of rabbis and scholars since Roman times.
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It was in this climate that the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah took root. Stretching back to 12th century Spain and France, and to other forms of mysticism further back still, Kabbalah concerns itself with the relationship between an infinite God or Ein Sof , which means no end and a finite universe. As with any mystical tradition, defining exactly what Kabbalists believe is a tricky business.
The basic idea is that God is beyond any knowledge that can be conceived in any analogy to visible things or the sensual world. But they would never say therefore we cannot have any knowledge of God at all. Instead, you need a different type of knowledge, a non-linguistic knowledge. After his cancer diagnosis, Friedman left Safed for eight months of intensive chemotherapy in Denver.
Dr. Joseph P. Schultz (Author of The Kabbalistic Journey)
A friend gave him books on meditation and visualization. One book was by a Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Arye Kaplan. Although he was learned in Judaism, Kaplan wrote in English, not Hebrew—a strike against it, for the typical Haredi. As Friedman began to practice the visualization techniques, he began to feel much less certain.
A new space opened up. As his physical recovery progressed and he worked on meditation techniques, he read, and he found that he could deepen his concentration and contemplation. He found that ideas associated with Eastern mysticism had a long tradition in Judaism. But that also meant that other traditions were equally valid. The change in his appearance belied the internal change that he was undergoing and, at first, people allowed him the space—until his hair grew back in.
He felt their impatience and disapproval. One day he went to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, and stood on the edge of the water unable to get in. Instead of the spiritual cleansing exercise it was meant to be, Friedman saw dirty water, the potential for infection when his body was still vulnerable. He got dressed and left. He looked around and saw how his identity was tied up with people who dressed as he did, but with whom he no longer really identified. I went from a long black suit to a short one and a different hat.
A lot of people began to avoid me. Friedman stopped studying Talmud and began practicing Yoga. It was very healing, and it gave me new insight into something like Shabbat: deep rest is healing and really important. From this new line of thinking, Kabbalah was a short distance away. He opened an art studio, painting and drawing Kabbalist shapes and patterns—his expression of faith was, in the words of Riedl, overcoming language.
This is a system of Jewish numerology that assigns each letter numerical values that in turn have spiritual associations. To Friedman, the different spellings of the same names represent the different levels of how we understand the manifestation of God. The numerology is tied to stories and metaphors that are meant to help explain these attributes, another way of approaching the ineffable ideal. By the end of his life, through oral lessons given to his students, he had changed the tradition permanently.
The Hidden God
Most modern Kabbalah reflects these lessons—the Lurianic Kabbalah. Luria was a charismatic figure who had spent years living as an ascetic, barely communicating with his own family. He also was a well-known mystical poet. He challenged his followers to dedicate themselves to revelation and self-purification through fasting, prayer, and study; they often gathered in forests and open fields for stargazing.
The call of Kabbalah: Bay Area spiritual seekers dive into mystical texts
Luria claimed to be reincarnated from Shimon Bar Yochai, the second century rabbi whom Jews believed had unearthed sacred knowledge while hiding from the Romans in a cave for 13 years. Jewish tradition credits Bar Yochai with the authorship of the foundational Kabbalist text, the Zohar, although scholarship points to Moses Ben Leon, a thirteenth century sage. His most radical idea was that God had withdrawn to make space for the world. Creation was the result of God contracting his divine and infinite light to create space for finite, independent spheres.
Creation was not a revelation; it was an act of concealment. Deeply ingrained in the Kabbalist tradition, then, is the idea of a God that is inscrutable—that he has, in fact, hidden himself. And from this starting point emerges a whole system of ethics. The task fell to humanity to retrieve the sparks through devotion to God and love of fellow man, or in the language of the Kabbalists, deeds of loving kindness.
When I bring others with me to these worlds, it is to help energize one or more of their 10 energy centers that need to be awakened. All of my journeys to these other worlds follow guidelines written about in ancient biblical literature, most notably found in the words of the prophet Ezekiel. The teaching is that the mystical worlds are not our home, and human spiritual progress can only take place here on earth in the vehicle of our physical bodies.
This is necessary in order to develop a clear understanding of what is truly in our own best interest. This understanding is an inner compass that serves as a safety net as we enter other realms, since not all that can be found there is benign. Shamans, on the other hand, have been known to enter prolonged trance states, often using the sound of drumming as well as plant-based chemicals, in order to penetrate the mysteries of other worlds.
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Traditionally associated with indigenous cultures, it is often said that the Shaman uses sound and vibration to create internal and external harmony with all creation, and a state of oneness with the spirit realm. The treasures Shamans bring back from the other worlds vary, but include prophetic insights, an understanding of the causes of specific illnesses, and the ability to subdue malevolent forces. I have often wondered whether I would have been a Shaman myself had I been born into an indigenous culture.
But instead I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn New York and given a rigorous education in Hebrew and English studies, with a strong grounding in biblical teachings. While there was real wisdom in these religious teachings, much of which I only came to appreciate later in life, my teenage years brought a growing determination to explore the world outside the strict confines of Orthodox Judaism.
To that end, I left home at a rather early age and eventually moved to Paris.