by R. Gil Student
The fundamental principle of public Kabbalah and Chassidus classes is inherently self-contradictory. Esoteric teachings are intended for the intellectual elite, not the masses; otherwise they would not be esoteric. Comprehension of complex material requires a solid foundation of requisite knowledge. There is so much Torah to learn before Kabbalah, so many intriguing and important ideas, that few achieve sufficient mastery to reach the next level.
Yet there is a powerful argument to the contrary. On reviewing an important responsum on this subject, I noticed a gaping hole that is all the more remarkable because of the author. In turn, this raises an important question that deserves attention.
I. Secrets of the Torah
I am not sure precisely when but, at some point, an Israeli organization began advertising classes in Kabbalah. Rav Ovadiah Yosef was asked on his weekly radio show about its propriety. His response appears in Yechaveh Da’as (4:47), a volume originally published in 1981. A similar responsum appears in Rav Yosef’s Yabi’a Omer (10:YD 23) dated 1964.
The sources are clear about this. The Gemara (Chagigah 13a, 14a) states that one may only share the “secrets” of the Torah with a great Torah scholar. Kabbalists, like Rav Chaim Vital (introduction to Eitz Chaim 1d) and the Shelah (vol. 1 29b), explicitly say that only great scholars should learn Kabbalah. Halakhists, like Rav Moshe Isserles (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 246:4 and Toras Ha-Olah 3:4) and the Vilna Ga’on (Yoreh De’ah, ad loc. and Prov. 21:17) agree. Rav Yosef, with his famous encyclopedic knowledge, quotes other sources that reach the same conclusion.
Before reaching his prohibitive conclusion, Rav Yosef adds another consideration. Any Torah teacher must be pious but a Kabbalah teacher even more so. The chain of transmission must be personal, through a teacher-student relationship, rather than through books. Therefore, an organization whose Kabbalah teachers have questionable piety must be avoided.
II. The Missing Piece
Yet Rav Yosef omits important information in these responsa. Chassidic leaders teach that in the years preceding Mashiach’s arrival, these esoteric teachings must be shared with the masses. For example, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira, a previous Munkaczer Rebbe, writes that explicitly in a responsum (Minchas Elazar 1:50). It is inconceivable that Rav Yosef was unaware of this responsum. Not only was he famous for the breadth of his knowledge but he quotes from Minchas Elazar on other subjects. Indeed, that set of responsa contains important halakhic precedents and sits on most rabbinic bookshelves (including my own). After seeing one of Rav Yosef’s responsa on this subject, it took me less than five minutes to find a contradictory source. This is so uncharacteristic of Rav Yosef that it cannot have occurred accidentally. The omission calls out “darsheini, explain me.”
What follows is my suggestion. However, I have to add the caveat that I have not read the recent biographies of Rav Ovadiah Yosef. I am aware of his battle to return Sephardic halakhah to the Shulchan Arukh, after its kabbalistic detour exemplified in the rulings of Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (author of Ben Ish Chai). Rav Yosef was not opposed to customs based on Kabbalah. A good deal of contemporary practice includes kabbalistic customs. However, Rav Yosef insists that halakhic sources take precedence over kabbalistic sources, which caused great controversy within the circles of Sephardic halakhists. I suspect that has something to do with our subject. However, I think there is a simpler answer.
III. Mashiach and Kabbalah
The very notion that Kabbalah must generally be restricted but may be revealed prior to Mashiach’s arrival seems impossible to apply. Jews believe that Mashiach will arrive imminently. Imagine what Jews thought one thousand years ago. They believed that Mashiach would arrive soon. While history proved that belief premature, why would they refrain from teaching Kabbalah to the public?
Put differently, what makes our era different from any previous era? While I personally believe that evidence abounds for Mashiach’s imminent arrival, so did people in previous generations. If so, why didn’t the greatest kabbalists of the eleventh century, for example, open a Kabbalah Center in France?
In truth, something like that did happen, although perhaps not in France. We see from the responsa literature that some people taught Kabbalah to the masses in the Middle Ages. For example, Rivash (Responsa, no. 157) complains about improper kabbalistic beliefs, albeit confessing to lacking expertise in the subject. Rashbash (Rav Shlomo Ben Shimon Duran; Responsa, no. 189) explicitly complains about ignorant masses claiming expertise in Kabbalah. He writes: “If they are secrets of the Torah, they should not be revealed.” Rashbash certainly believes in the imminent arrival of Mashiach. Why didn’t he permit the public study of Kabbalah on that basis? These two important halakhic authorities lived in Spain and Algeria in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries but are far from unique.
Rav Yair Chaim Bachrach, of seventeenth century Germany, objects to widespread study of Kabbalah (Chavos Yair, no. 210). These esoteric ideas must be taught directly by experts to uniquely qualified Torah scholars. Anyone else lacks the prerequisite knowledge to properly understand the secrets of the Torah. This author certainly believed in Mashiach’s imminent arrival but still forbade teaching Kabbalah to anyone other than elite scholars.
If so, the cumulative weight of all these opposing views defeat the Chassidic (and otherwise) argument that today we can teach Kabbalah to the masses. From the perspective of the teacher, there should be no difference between today and fourteenth century Spain or seventeenth century Germany. If it was forbidden then, it should be forbidden now.
I am suggesting a big leap, putting words into Rav Yosef’s mouth. However, my question began with his omission so it must be answered by what he did not say. Maybe I am wrong. But that still leaves the question, why was Rav Ovadiah Yosef so quick to forbid teaching esoteric Torah to the masses?