There is no need to be afraid of the Kabbalah, said Rabbi Yossi Shemtov of Chabad House-Lubavitch.
The mystical interpretation of the Torah is available to everyone and its study is mandatory for all Jews, he said. But he realizes that there are many “roadblocks” along the way to understanding.
Rabbi Shemtov hopes to clear things up by teaching an eight-week course, starting Monday, called “Kabbalah Unplugged: The Secret Power of Prayer.”
The course is part of the curriculum of the Jewish Learning Institute, a global organization that seeks to promote better understanding of Jewish thought, heritage, and tradition.
Rabbi Shemtov, who has been promoting Judaism locally at the Chabad House for 17 years, speaks of the Kabbalah with enthusiasm.
There are levels of interpretation of the scripture, starting with the simple literal understanding of the words. The second level is allusion, the third level is allegory and analogy, and the fourth and deepest level is the Kabbalah, which literally means “the process of receiving.”
He uses a metaphor to explain the mysticism: It's like a person who emigrates to the United States and meets with relatives.
“The relatives tell him to stay away from asbestos! Stay away from mercury! Stay away from radioactivity - you don't see it, but stay away from it. There are 60 guidelines where not to go.
“The person goes home, he can't read English, he feels isolated. It's hard to learn the language. He can't see radioactivity. Mercury looks fine. What is it about asbestos?
“‘My relatives are crazy!' he concludes.”
But then the immigrant learns English and begins to read articles about how mercury, asbestos, and radioactivity can cause terrible diseases.
“Then he thanks his relatives for the advice! The Torah is like that,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “There are all kinds of guidelines - physical and spiritual. When you study the Kabbalah, you suddenly realize that there's a metaphysical world that can be manifested in the physical world.”
The Kabbalah was revealed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai 3,300 years ago and passed down through the teachings of elite scholars who were able to “decode” the deepest meanings of the Bible.
Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, made the Kabbalah available to all, Rabbi Shemtov said.
“The Hasidim took the Kabbalah out of the realm of unachievable and made it real and tangible,” he said. “Everyone can study it. It's something everyone should be involved with.”
In fact, he added, it's “mandatory to study the Torah in its entirety,” including the Kabbalah. And there is more need today to understand the hidden aspects of scripture than ever before, he said.
“We live in dark times, and it is much more important to bring in something to counter that darkness,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “In simpler times, there was less negativity. Today, people need to see beneath the surface.”
The scripture is like a grape, he said.
“On the surface, it's just a grape. But if you dig deeper, you get grape juice. Dig even deeper, you get wine. The deeper you look at the Torah, you will find more and more depth and a wealth of knowledge.”
The JLI course includes a textbook written by experts in the Kabbalah, Rabbi Shemtov said, and the book is revised after each course to include recommendations from the rabbis who taught the class.
“It is a university level course, but there are no background requirements,” he said. “The text is translated from the original sources but you do not need to know how to read Hebrew.”
Each year, the JLI offers three eight-week classes on subjects designed to broaden understanding of Jewish history, mysticism, practices, and ideas.
“You should feel much more competent to approach any Jewish issue after studying with the Jewish Learning Institute,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “You should feel motivated to get to the source, and you should have the skills to get to the source.”
He said the classes provide “an emotionally safe environment” where students are encouraged to ask questions.
“We want to remove roadblocks to excellence in Jewish education so that a person feels, ‘I can do it.'”
“The Kabbalah Unplugged: The Secret Power of Prayer” starts at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Clarion Hotel, 3536 Secor Rd., and continues for eight weeks. The cost is $79 including textbooks, with 50 percent discounts for university students and for additional family members. Registration is available by calling Chabad House-Lubavitch, 419-843-9393, or online at www.chabadtoledo.com.
- DAVID YONKE