by Reb Gutman Locks at Mystical Paths
The Rambam wrote that we should not teach the most mystical subjects to more than one student at a time.[i] He gave the reason that the students may very well pay attention to each other and because of this they would misunderstand the teaching. Even more serious, they then might think that they did understand the teaching, which corrupt their spiritual path, and they might even go on to teach their mistake to others. Indeed, this is a great danger.
Other requirements for learning mysticism are that the students must be at least 40-years old, married, and very knowledgeable in the entire Torah. These requirements had to be fulfilled before a student could even begin these mystical studies.
Today, heads of most non-Chasidic yeshivas frown heavily on teaching almost any form of mysticism to their students. They have seen that those who study such subjects tend to go off on their own ways. Obviously, this is not what these rabbis want. Because of this fear, today, there is an almost complete ban on teaching young students the deep mysteries of kabbalah. This is true for all but the briefest mention, and then only when absolutely necessary. Obviously, the rabbis feel that these restrictions have been established for a very good reason.
So… are we allowed to teach the most mystical subjects freely? Perhaps we are not allowed to teach even simple mystical subjects in a secular language, as this surely opens these teaching to the unlearned.
Over the past 300 years, the most famous rabbis did teach mysticism.[ii] The Vilna Gaon, the Ari, and the Baal Shem Tov all taught mysticism. They taught that, not only are we allowed to teach this subject openly, but we are obligated to do so.
The Baal Shem Tov went even further. He taught that we should not restrict these teachings to those Jews who have already mastered the Talmud. We should seek out even unlearned Jews and let him know that G-d is not only in heavens, He is also right here on earth. We must explain to even the simplest Jew that G-d is everywhere at every moment, and that He is totally involved with even the slightest detail of our lives. He taught that we must teach even the simplest person that G-d is entirely accessible at all times.
He explained that in order for someone to repent of his sins and turn toward a Torah life, he must bring down much more spiritual “light” than a righteous person requires. A righteous person is entirely pure, so he is easily satisfied with his level of spiritually. But, the Jew who turns from evil is not so easily satisfied. He has tasted the strong pull of evil and now he needs something at least as strong to pull him toward the good.
Although all Jews need to understand these mysteries of Hashem, the Jew who turns from evil thirsts for this knowledge. The revealed Torah is likened to the main course of a meal, while the hidden Torah is likened to the wine and oil. Wine is associated with joy, and oil is associated with light. When the mysteries of the Torah are understood, there is joy and light.
When someone is born and raised in a Torah home, he can be satisfied with the nourishing main course of the meal. After all, that is where he received his sustenance. But, the one who has strayed needs to experience the joy and elevation of the wine and oil right from the beginning in order to bring him to the main course.
Even though these famous teachers taught kabbalah, still, the majority of rabbis today heavily restrict these teachings. Is it just the temptation to go your own way that they fear? Is this the only reason that these restrictions were placed upon teaching kabbalah in the first place?
When one studies these mystical subjects in-depth, it is very easy to want to “float off” and spend more and more time in “heaven.” One could very well say, “Oh, it would be so lovely to take a mystical text off to the woods, live in a simple hut, and give my entire life over to this subject.” Mysticism is so rich and so rewarding, that unless one has acquired a family and a certain level of the revealed, written Torah, he might very well forsake the everyday world and go off to live the life of a spiritual hermit. Even today, we see religious Jews who try to cut themselves off from the community. They walk with their eyes almost closed, facing the ground, never looking up nor to the side. They avoid talking to anyone, except when they are learning. Surely, if they did not have wives and a broad knowledge of Torah, they would be off in the woods somewhere, meditating on some delicious piece of kabbalah.
There is also a new, and proven danger in nullifying the requirements of who can learn mysticism. Today, as never before, some Jews have decided that the kabbalah can be entirely divorced from the revealed Torah. As we discussed above,[iii] everything in creation has a soul and a body. Even a stone has life within it. The Torah also has a body and a soul. The revealed, written Torah, with its commandments that we apply everyday, is the Torah’s body, and the hidden, mystical aspects of the Torah are its soul.
Today, there are Jews who believe that the soul of the Torah can be taught without its body! Not only this, but they believe that this soul can be taught to totally non-observant Jews (Jews who do not follow the Torah’s commandments) and even to non-Jews! They say that the mystical aspects of Torah are just a form of metaphysics that can be taught as an entirely secular subject.
Learning and enjoying the knowledge of the soul of the Torah without its body, removes one completely from the Torah’s plan for physical life. For instance, if you see that you can study the kabbalah with a non-Jew, then there is no reason why you cannot marry one. If you can learn the most mystical secrets of creation without the moral restrictions that the Torah commands, you can learn the kabbalah by day and visit the dregs of society by night. Since, according to this philosophy, the kabbalah is entirety spiritual and not at all physical, there would be no contradiction here. You would not feel the moral restrictions that a Torah-observant life imparts.
What results from this strange philosophy? As an example: If someone were to give charity physically, but lacking the good heart and surely the mystical understanding of giving charity, the poor person would still receive the coin, and the donor would receive the reward for what he gave. But, what if someone were to “give” the coin only mystically, fully understanding all of the wondrous mystical greatness that charity brings, but neglecting to physically give the coin? Neither he nor the poor person will have benefited. In fact, the “mystical giver” will have damaged his soul by enjoying the “giving” without having physically given a coin. He will be satisfied with the mystical depths he learned, and this will lead him to do the same thing next time. This principle is true for all of the kabbalah that is learned without its body. A soul without a body can accomplish nothing.
[i] Mishneh Torah, Mada 4:11
[ii] For instance the Gra in Even Shlaimah Chapter 12, The Ari, as per Chaim Vital in the foreword to Etz Chaim, and The Baal Shem Tov
[iii] See section, “The Physical Affects the Spiritual.”
BS"D - בסיעתא דשמיא