Joseph Dan sets himself an imposing task in Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction. In a little more than 100 pages, he races through more than a thousand years of Jewish religious texts, explaining a vast, amorphous body of beliefs and practices that have influenced Freemasons, Hasidim, Carl Jung, New Age gurus and, more recently, Hollywood celebrities. It's quite a performance, carried off with only a few stumbles.
"There is hardly a Jewish idea that cannot be described as `kabbal-istic' with some justification," writes Dan, a professor of kabbalah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The subject is elusive, and kabbal-istic thought has taken so many twists and turns over the centuries that it makes more sense, Dan argues, to speak of kabbalahs, in the plural. In a sardonic aside, he offers a popular definition of the kabbalah as "something that I have a vague notion of, but somebody,
somewhere, knows exactly what it means."
To clarify, Dan begins at the beginning, on Mount Sinai, where Moses received the word of God in the Torah. The word kabbalah comes from the Hebrew for receive (in Israel it identifies the reception desk in every hotel and the receipt in every restaurant). For a thousand years, Dan writes, when Jews referred to the kabbalah, they meant the divine truth revealed to Moses.
In the Middle Ages, however, Jewish scholars in Spain and Provence, and somewhat later in Italy, claimed to possess secret scriptural knowledge that origin-ated with Moses and was passed down orally through the centuries. These scholars and exegetes, later known as kabbalists, dealt especially with two sections of the Torah whose public discussion is forbidden by the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition followed by Orthodox Jews. The first, from Genesis, describes the creation of the world; the second, from the Book of Ezekiel, describes Ezekiel's vision of the celestial chariot.
Over the centuries, the kabbalists, incorporating ideas first expressed in nonkabbalistic treatises dating from late antiquity, worked out a complex interpretation of the divine order and its creation. They described the kingdom of heaven and, in a few treatises, explained how humans can ascend to "face God in his glory."
Medieval kabbalists envisioned a universe arranged hierarchically in 10 divine emanations, called sefirot, and developed numerical, alphabetical and metaphorical correspondences among them. These esoteric systems and the magical aspects of the kabbalah captured the imagination of Christian Renaissance thinkers like Pico della Mirandola. The idea of kabbalists as a dangerous secret cult lies behind the English word cabal.
Dan helpfully sorts out the most influential kabbalistic concepts, especially the notion that individual human actions can influence the divine order and bring about the tikkun, or redemption. This radical proposition was put forward by Isaac Luria, a 16th-century kabbalist, who believed that the universe was born in crisis,
resulting in a system of divine emanations riven by fault lines. Only by strict observance of religious law could the Jews bring about their own redemption and correct the flaws in the universe, ridding it of evil. This idea gained tremendous force, and, Dan writes, "penetrated all aspects of Jewish culture." It remains central to ultra-orthodox Judaism today.