Are Kabbalah Classes Kosher?

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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.

IV. Conclusion

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?

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

5 comments

  1. In recent years some outreach groups advertise “Kabbala classes”.
    They believe such a topic will attract newcomers to Yiddishkeit more than less esoteric material such as Talmud or Shulchan Aruch.

    I wonder, are the instructors qualified to teacher such deep material, or is it a case of ” in the land of the blind the one eyed is king”.

    The teaching of Chassidus is now widespread. It is not Kabbala so it does not draw the same discussion of appropriatenes.

  2. Raphael Davidovich

    Gil,

    Great article to start a discussion about a bigger phenomenon of the past 300 years.
    There is kabbala, and then there is “kabbala”.

    By Kabbala without quotation marks, people usually mean a study of the primary source texts such as the Zohar, Sefer Yetzira, Bahir and even the Kisvei Arizal, or the later scholars like the Rashash etc. It would seem that those early works, starting from the Mishna in Chagiga, and contemporary teshuvos, that condemn teaching Maaseh Bereishis and Maaseh Merkava, refer primarily to discussions of those works that discuss the abstractions of creation and the Divine Mind.

    Then there is what I call “kabbala”. What I mean is that primarily since the advent of Chassidic movement, but going all the way back to the Maharal, Reishis Chochma and the Shela”h, and extended into this past generation with the works of many Chassidishe Talmidei Chachomim from a number of branches (The Gerrer Rebbes, The Chabad Rebbes, etc.) and also Rav Dessler, Rav Hutner, Rav Gedalia Schorr, and others, concepts from the Kabbala oeuvre have become part of normative hashkafa.

    So a class on the Jewish view of..well anything nowadays, might legitimately be called a class on Kabbala since it very well might be presenting a concept and philosophy about that mitzvah or relationship or doctrine that originated in one or more of those primary kabbala works. I recall once reading in a Chabad sefer that claimed that the Baal Shem Tov himself discouraged the teaching of Kabbala because it was full of metaphors that would be taken too literally by its readers who would be unable to divest them from their literal meaning. This is the practical difference between teaching Kabbala and teaching Chassidic themes or hashkafic material that is based on the Zohar or Arizal.

  3. I think the answer is straight forward. There is a difference between chasidus and Kabalah (even though chasidus utilizes some Kabalistic concepts.)

    As for the Munkatcher he doesn’t quote any chasidic sources there but quotes Kabalistic sources. He is referring to kabbala and quotes that the bar is lowered nowadays since the revelation of the writings of the Ari, since Moshiach is closer. Even people in prior generations who would not touch kabbalah should now learn it as we get closer to the times of Moshiach. This doesn’t mean that the masses should learn it and I don’t think he would disagree with Rav Ovadia.

  4. With all due respect to all of the Piskay Halacha, the situation today is far different than any other time in our history regarding this question. To put it simply, one doe not have to go too far to find contemporary works, both scholarly and popular, in the Encyclopedia Judaica and in every bookstore. When I taught in the one-year programs here in Israel a number of years ago, I taught a basic outline of Kabbalistic concepts. I always prefaced the course by saying, “Better you should hear it from me than from paperback you can pick up in an airport book shop.” Thus, I think there is no Issur, but there is a Chiyuv to teach, at least, basic Kabbalah (theory) because people today have to learn the ideas from reputable Rabbinic teachers.
    In addition, the Mishnah in Chagigah is hardly talking about the basic concepts of Kabbalah. Both Ma’aseh Berayshit and Ma’aseh Merkavah are concepts that go way beyond simple theoretic study. See ר’ צדוק הכהן מלובלין – קונטרס ספר הזכרונות מצוה שלישית – a long, but very important essay about Ma’aseh Mekavah and see Rav Kook on the last chapter of אורות הקודש א סדרה ד.
    And there is the Zohar comment in זוהר כרך ג (במדבר) פרשת בהעלותך דף קנב עמוד א about the great importance of understanding the true inner essence of Torah, i.e. רזי התורה.
    Enough said. It’s time for a new Psak Halachah in this matter.

  5. To be fair, the Chavos Yair writes in the end of that teshuvah that while he is opposed to the hamon am learning kabbalah, he encourages all Jews to read the Zohar HaKadosh. Most people today would consider that to be Kabbalah, but it seem that he is referring to perhaps the Kisvei HaAri or other sifrei kabbalah, not the Zohar, which he seems to say is shaveh lechol nefesh. Most sifrei chassidus would probably fall into that same category – within kabbalistic literature there are some books that are for the hamon am and some that are only for talmidei chachamim. Even among the Kisvei HaAri, Shaar HaKedushah is accepted as a mussar sefer for average people who know how to learn.

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