The first thing that one should ask before learning Kabbalah is what is the correct way to do this without endangering oneself due to the highly energetic (psychological) and consciousness altering (spiritual) power of this part of the Torah. Past experience provides many examples of people who lost their mind, or were psychologically hurt from studying Kabbalah in an inappropriate manner. Most of these individuals were not entirely stable to start with, nonetheless, there is no question that the improper study of Kabbalah contributed to some extent to their psychological breakdown.
In our generation, this is less frequent, because those people who are not psychologically stable usually seek professional help of some sort and are in some kind of treatment program. Nonetheless, while many of the psychological dangers are no longer so much of an issue, spiritual dangers still exist. The spiritual dangers that we are speaking of are of the type that place a person’s spiritual and consequently physical well-being in jeopardy.
Kabbalah Is a Part of the Torah as a Whole
The first danger lies in the notion that it is possible to study Kabbalah without performing commandments (mitzvot). The Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai on the basis of their declaration “Na’aseh Venishmah,”1 which means “we will do and we will understand.” Doing creates vessels, while understanding brings light, or soul into these vessels. It is important to know that the ultimate purpose for which G-d created the world was the formation of vessels, by living a good life by emulating G-d—the essence of the Torah and its 613 commandments for Jews and 7 commandments for humanity.
The attempt to have mystical experiences or even prophetic experiences without creating the proper vessels to contain them is hazardous, because it is like creating “a soul without a body.” Most times these experiences themselves are simply illusory, and there is nothing but the person’s imagination at work. But, if they do become real then in essence they are the equivalent of death, because that is essentially what “a soul without a body” is. The importance of creating vessels parallels the importance that the Torah places on life. In this sense, the Torah’s commandments “give life,” that is, they make life possible by forming the vessels into which the soul enters.
The Torah tells us of great souls, like the two eldest sons of Aaron (Moses’ brother, and the High Priest) Nadav and Avihu, who were deeply immersed in the most profound mysteries of the Divine, yet, because they did not perform a commandment of G-d, perished while serving in the Tabernacle. In Kabbalah, their mistake is described as an overly enthusiastic “run” to G-d, without the anchor provided by the proper performance of commandments that allows the person to remain grounded, even while transcending to the highest levels of spirituality. This is the essence of the first danger: without being properly grounded through the performance of mitzvot, a person can easily lose touch with reality.
We mentioned that from the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the study of the inner dimension of the Torah became permissible and even necessary for everyone, men and women alike. This is especially true of Kabbalah as it appears at its highest level of revelation, in Chassidut. Kabbalah as manifest in Chassidut is a must for all. The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that the permissibility and advisability of studying Kabbalah as it appears in the Arizal’s Eitz Chayim depends on the level of yearning that each particular person has for this type of study. In order to safely enter into and depart from the figurative orchard, the pardes, it is necessary to be well protected from overly powerful energy and well-grounded in reality through a serious commitment to the entire Torah.
The teacher must never give the false conception that commitment to the Torah as a whole is not required by someone wishing to learn Kabbalah. Nonetheless, the teacher has to know how to fulfill the Ba’al Shem Tov’s legacy that even those Jews who are still far from the Torah study this wisdom, even though many Jews who have grown up distant from the Torah are not initially willing to take on the commitment of performing commandments. The real teacher of Kabbalah has to know how to properly take the risk of bringing someone who is not yet ready to commit to the Torah as a whole closer to the Torah.
...from Inner.org, the writings of Rabbi Ginsburgh (hassidic kabbalist in Israel).