Skip to Main Content

Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 27: The Many Lives of Kabbalah


Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m your host for this episode, Avishay Artsy. 

Kabbalah is one of the most sacred and perhaps least understood parts of Jewish tradition. Shrouded in secrecy and mystery, it’s often associated with elderly rabbis with long white beards, contemplating the nature of God and the mysteries of the cosmos, or Hollywood stars seeking enlightenment by meditating on words and phrases found in ancient scripture. 

Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings that originated in 12th- to 13th-century Spain and Southern France and were reinterpreted in 16th-century Ottoman Palestine during a renaissance of Jewish mysticism. These teachings, often passed on in secret, attempt to explain the relationship between an infinite God and the finite universe. The word Kabbalah can be translated literally as “'that which is received.” Followers of Kabbalah trace its origins to the earliest chapters of Jewish history. 

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: It is also a part of the Jewish tradition that was secretly transmitted at Sinai, supposedly, according to generations of Kabbalists, which is also a blueprint for the creation of the world. So it really deals with the secrets of the creation, thus had to be transmitted through generations of initiates.

This is Clémence Boulouque.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: I'm an associate professor of Israel and Jewish studies at Columbia in the Department of Religion.

The secretive nature of Kabbalah is essential, says Hartley Lachter.

HARTLEY LACHTER: I'm Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University. I'm the director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies.

Kabbalah sought to explain why Jewish rituals mattered, and how human actions impacted the world. Hartley says that Kabbalists believe that God revealed these teachings specifically to the Jews.

HARTLEY LACHTER: And that suggests that it's not rational knowledge that can be derived the way mathematical knowledge is derived, but instead it has to be revealed by God. And as such, when it's been shared with a particular group of people, that knowledge that they have is exclusive. 

In this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, we’ll look at Kabbalah’s many lives, from its influence on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity to the conflict between the rational and the mystical in Judaism – which contributed to the development of psychoanalysis and the concept of the subconscious – and we’ll see the ways in which Kabbalah has been utilized in the present day through recent new age commercialization. 

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: There's a kaleidoscope in what Kabbalah has to offer, which is both very ancient and extremely modern and even post-modern, and this is this endless source that I think is worth returning to.

Kabbalah, as we’ll learn, takes on many appearances, and serves many functions. To read Kabbalah is to get a window into the pre-modern Jewish imagination.

HARTLEY LACHTER: Kabbalistic texts feel almost unrestrained and creative and endlessly surprising. You really almost just don't know what a Kabbalist is going to say next. And so if you want to see Jewish creativity, with very few boundaries as far as I can tell, Kabbalistic texts do a wonderful job of providing insight in all these ways in terms of how Jews articulated and understood the world and their place within it, how they use the imagination to inhabit a world of meaning, and that when we see these ideas continue to be picked up and developed and adopted and appropriated over time, it suggests that there's something powerful and useful about those ideas for Jewish people as they try to understand their place in the world.

To try and better understand what Kabbalah is and some of its organizing principles, I want you to imagine for a moment, a tree with a sturdy trunk and lots of limbs reaching out. It’s this image, the tree of life, that is most commonly associated with Kabbalah. Instead of a trunk and branches though, it’s a diagram made up of 10 circles, arranged in three columns, connected by lines, or paths. The circles on the right are associated with masculinity, on the left with femininity. The top three are referred to as the head, and the bottom seven as the body. These circles represent the nature of existence, of humanity, and of God.

HARTLEY LACHTER: One of the most common doctrines associated with kabbalah is the notion that God is comprised of 10 luminous entities or sefirot, which isn't connected to the word for spheres, or spheres of the heavens, but has to do with these luminosities, these entities that enumerate or narrate, that recount, the secret inner life of God. And that when Jews perform commandments, these sefirot bind together and bring blessing into the world. When they commit transgressions, the opposite happens and it withholds blessing from the world and causes all kinds of catastrophes. That these sefirot emanate from the highest source of the divine transcendent self, the ein sof, or the endless. 

This is a key concept in Kabbalah - that our actions, good or bad, affect the world and affect God. Kabbalists believe in an infinite God - ein sof in Hebrew means without end - and that we are all part of that infiniteness, and therefore our actions contribute to the creation and the undoing of the universe. The sefirot that make up the tree of life are connected by channels through which God emanates energy to mankind.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: The idea of a co-creation or at least some human agency in Kabbalah, if your actions are actually reshaping or being part of the Godhead, there is a part of humanity that has some leverage somehow.

This idea that the actions of humans somehow had an influence on God was a pretty remarkable development. Medieval rabbinic Judaism was very traditional, but when the Kabbalists came on the scene in the 13th century, they advanced a new understanding of God, as both one, but also embodied in the ten sefirot, and they put forward a totally different reason for following the commandments in the Torah. 

HARTLEY LACHTER: The performance of the commandments isn't simply the fulfillment of divine decree, but also has this power, scholars refer to it as theurgy, the human actions that influence the divine realm, both to sustain divine unity, by uniting the ten sefirot, and also to sustain the cosmos. 

The idea of theurgy - that humans have an impact on the divine - gave medieval Jews a new vision of themselves and their role in the world.

HARTLEY LACHTER: And for many of them, this was how they understood how Jews move through history. That Jews are actually the secret agents of history. Despite Christian discourses that treat Jews as kind of the passive subjects of history or actually even stuck in an antiquated past, following a superseded religion, refusing to acknowledge and move forward through time by accepting Jesus, Jews who embraced Kabbalah saw their practice of Judaism as the thing that moves history forward, as the thing that sustains the fabric of being, and that by performing Jewish law and through, as they understood it, using their knowledge of Kabbalah to have really powerful theurgic impacts on the divine realm, that this is what would move Jews towards their ultimate messianic redemption. This is what brings the different aspects of God together in a perfected unity. And they saw this as a process of rectification of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as well as further damage that's been done by ongoing Jewish transgression, the sin of the golden calf at Mount Sinai, all of these things they saw as part of the process of how Jews move through time and how they, through the practice of Judaism, actually move time forward. 

Kabbalists believe that this idea that humans could join God in a sort of unity, to be partners of God, so to speak, was always present in Jewish history. Some kabbalists believe that this “secret power” may have been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, transmitted to Adam in the Garden of Eden, or even provided to various people from the prophet Elijah. Kabbalistic thought didn’t just impact Jews and Judaism, though. Christian scholars in the Renaissance also sought to connect Christ to the ten sefirot

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: Those ten sefirot were quickly reclaimed by Christians who saw the sefirot and especially the upper ones, which conveniently there are three of, and they were seen as Jews’ refusal to actually acknowledge the Trinity. So there is Christian Kabbalists in early modern history who were actually adamant that Kabbalah was foreshadowing or announcing Jesus’ messiahship, and that Jews had been complicit in effacing the traces of the coming of Jesus.

Those Christian Kabbalists used Kabbalah as a tool of conversion, to convince Jews that the top three sefirot represented the holy Trinity. In response, some Jewish Kabbalists rejected the sefirot as a form of polytheism. Still, despite the tensions between how Judaism and Christianity understood kabbalistic ideas, there was also the potential for Kabbalah to serve as a way to unite these religions as well.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: If you understand Kabbalah as this blueprint of creation, and if there are certain texts of Kabbalah that describe Adam, the primordial Adam, the primordial man, are understood to show that there is a single origin of humanity, and then that Kabbalah shows how actually there is multiple ways to access this primordial truth, then it becomes an instrument for interreligious dialogue.

Despite the headaches that Kabbalah created, Jewish thinkers embraced these new ideas. The best known Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, became canonized within Jewish tradition in a way few other books have. The Zohar, written in Aramaic as a commentary on the Torah, was composed in Spain in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Scholars generally believe that it was the work of multiple authors, and that it took shape over the course of several decades. In its current form, the Zohar comprises multiple compositions that discuss the nature of God and the cosmos, the creation of the world, the nature of evil and sin, and much more. But the Zohar too became ammunition for Christian scholars, who found an affirmation of Christian dogma in its description of the fall and redemption of man.

For the most part, medieval Kabbalists lived typical Jewish lives and observed the same rituals as other Jews. What was different for them was why they were doing it. 

The idea of tikkun - of reparation or repair - came out of this school of thought… though the modern idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is now more closely associated with social activism than with uniting the ten sefirot. Still, Kabbalists have contributed to some of the Jewish rituals practiced today.

HARTLEY LACHTER: A good example, for instance, one that would be familiar to many people, is the practice of reciting the Kabbalat Shabbat service between the afternoon and evening prayers, Mincha and Maariv, on Friday nights. That was innovated by Kabbalists in the 16th century and remarkably was almost universally adopted in the Jewish world. 

The hymn “Lecha Dodi,” sung to welcome the Sabbath, was composed by Solomon Alkabetz, a 16th century poet and mystic. He lived in Safed, a center of Jewish mysticism located in the mountains of Galilee in northern Israel. The words of “Lecha Dodi” refer to the Sabbath kallah, or bride, and mystics in Safed dressed in white like bridegrooms and danced in the fields at sunset to welcome the arrival of the Sabbath. It's hard to imagine someone creating a new Jewish service today that would become so entrenched in Jewish practice. But in the 16th century, Kabbalah was widely embraced.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: For many centuries, Kabbalistic rituals at least could be added to Jewish practices without the outrage that the Enlightenment, for instance, or a certain understanding of Judaism, a Judaism of reason, right, Judaism of the haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, created. So, those binaries between Kabbalah and reason, Kabbalah and what a reasonable practice of Judaism would entail, did not necessarily exist.

You just heard Clémence use the word haskalah. The Haskalah came out of Germany in the late 18th and early 19th century as part of the European Enlightenment movement. It comes from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning “reason” or “intellect.” Its followers, known as maskilim, believed that Jews had become too culturally and socially isolated, too backwards, and that anti-Semitism would only be overcome through assimilation. As Judaism would become part of the modern movement of the enlightenment, Kabbalah, this extremely mystical and spiritual body of thought, would encounter some challenges with this new way of seeing the world through a more reasoned and scientific lens.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: The Enlightenment tried to highlight this notion of Judaism as a religion of reason, a religion that was ethical, that could be arrived to through reasonable use of human faculties. That is something that led to a way to caricature Kabbalah as a set of antiquated superstitions. 

In their push towards modernity, the maskilim wanted to leave the more superstitious aspects of Judaism behind.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: There is also a rich tradition of Kabbalistic amulets and magic that was highlighted by those who were opposed to Kabbalah because they favored a discourse of rationalism, but also one needs to be reminded of the fact that Christians, who sometimes used magic on the side, were also those who emphasized the Jewish magic with all its dark sides.

The maskilim also wanted to set themselves apart from the primarily Yiddish-speaking Jews of the fast-growing Hasidic movement. Hasidism is a spiritual revival movement that began in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. It draws heavily on the teachings of Isaac Luria, a 16th century rabbi and mystic whose creative interpretation of the Zohar influenced all subsequent schools of kabbalistic thought.

The haskalah would have a huge impact on how Judaism would be viewed and understood by the wider public. It gave birth to the Wissenschaft des Judentums. This was a 19th century movement to apply modern research methods to critically study Jewish literature and culture. The name literally means “Science of Judaism” and translated as “Jewish Studies.” The haskalah and its rejection of Kabbalah led to the development of the field of Jewish academic studies. But the haskalah was by no means representative of the majority of Jews at the time.

HARTLEY LACHTER: There were huge, huge numbers of Jews in Eastern Europe and also in North Africa and throughout the Middle East, who understood themselves still at that point very Kabbalisticly. Their approach to Judaism was very inflected with Kabbalistic ideas and discourses… When the Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars are creating an important establishment of Jewish studies in the Western academy in central Europe, we still have Eastern European Jews and Jews elsewhere throughout the Jewish world who haven't rejected Kabbalah at all.

Kabbalah never became a big part of modern North American Jewish life, but, Hartley says, that’s a historical aberration. 

HARTLEY LACHTER: Because so many North American Jews are not only Ashkenazi immigrants from Europe, but also have been raised in Jewish movements that still are somewhat inflected with Enlightenment ideas, this is a place and time where for many Jews, they kind of are still living in this kind of blip where Kabbalah was somewhat removed from the way that Jews thought about and talked about Judaism and Jewish practice. 

In the centuries leading up to the Enlightenment, and for Hasidic, Sephardic and Mizrahi communities today, Kabbalah remains a powerful social force. And ironically, the scholarship that came out of the haskalah has become an important source of knowledge for Kabbalah practitioners.

HARTLEY LACHTER: That's happening even now, currently in Jerusalem, where practitioners go to the National Library and access academic studies in order to find Kabbalistic texts that are unpublished, and in some cases they transcribe them and publish them in very religious editions of those books. 

We’ve outlined the 18th and 19th century Jewish movements that embraced or rejected Kabbalah. But Clémence points to a third group who saw Kabbalah as a way to bridge this duality of mysticism and reason.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE:  You also have a crop of thinkers who see in Kabbalah a way to go past this binary that the Enlightenment had set up, meaning the opposition between rational and irrational. They thought that there was something beyond reason that Kabbalah was uniquely equipped to capture, something that could really give some insight into how humanity thinks, so a more myth-based understanding of what religious practices are about. And that was not just limited to Judaism. That Kabbalah had been able to capture human imagination and a coexistence that Kabbalah could help capture if understood properly.

Despite the positive ways that Kabbalah aims to engage with the world and Judaism, there is a darker side to Kabbalah. Some Jews claimed that because God gave them the secret knowledge of Kabbalah, that makes them better than all other groups.

HARTLEY LACHTER: It promotes the Jewish people and a Jewish soul as superior. Jews are these incarnations of God with divine souls and non-Jews are not.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: So that's how you have a narrative of Jewish exceptionalism, or a very ethnocentric understanding of creation. That also exists. I mean, you cannot gentrify kabbalah too much. The notion that non-Jews have inferior souls or animal souls is also present. A religiously-based political discourse that would create those bridges is used by right-wing settlers who actually challenge the possibility of equal citizenship with non-Jews in Israel based on those Kabbalistic texts.

This negative connotation has contributed to centuries of anti-Semitism. The term “cabal” comes from Kabbalah. It entered the English language in the late 16th century at a time when non-Jews became more aware of Kabbalah. It means a small, powerful group that conspires to establish control, and is still used to imply secret Jewish machinations of world domination.

Kabbalah has crossed not only religious barriers, but cultural ones too, even contributing to the development of the idea of the subconscious. One doctrine found in the Kabbalist writings of Isaac Luria is tzimtzum, meaning contraction, or concealment. His idea is that God began the process of creating the world by “contracting” his ohr ein sof, his infinite light.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: In the Kabbalistic narrative, in order for God to create the world, he had to retract himself, herself, themselves, and make space for the other.

Luria wrote that carrying out the commandments is an active process of tikkun, of reparation, that would bring God’s presence back into the world, and that tzimtzum is God’s way of concealing Himself from our consciousness… and that by following the commandments we become conscious of God's presence within ourselves. The mystical idea of tzimtzum and other Kabbalistic ideas spread beyond Jewish communities and influenced thinkers like German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, and the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jacques Lacan.

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: A few thinkers who went on to influence Jung, for instance, realized that what Schelling was talking about when he first coined the term “unconscious” was actually Kabbalistic tropes, the tzimtzum, that retraction of the divine… Lacan, for instance, also described the unconscious as a place of “the other,” of “otherness.” And so those thinkers realized that at the roots of Schelling's system was his reading of Kabbalah. And then from that, they inferred that there was something about Kabbalah that could describe the unconscious, this nascent scientific concept, and that Judaism in its wisdom and as the blueprint of the world, was the place in which the notion of the unconscious had originated.

But the founders of psychoanalysis, aware of the connections between Kabbalah and notions of the unconscious, were also wary of tying their ideas to irrational mysticism. The psychologist Pierre Janet coined the term “subconscious” in order to avoid the connection to the Kabbalistic unconscious.

Of course, we can’t talk about Kabbalah without talking about the popular revival of Kabbalah in the late 90s and early 2000s.

JOHN STOSSEL, ABC’s 20/20: Good evening. It’s the latest spiritual wave to hit Hollywood. Stars are being swept up in the fervor of something called Kabbalah. It comes with red strings attached, bottled water that supposedly has special powers, and enticing claims about love, sex, and money.

Jewish and non-Jewish entertainers became adherents of a new school of Kabbalah, most prominently Madonna.

MADONNA: I haven’t converted to Judaism, and I’m not Jewish in the conventional sense, because the Kabbalah is a belief system that predates religion, and predates Judaism as an organized religion.

Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears and many others became associated with the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre. Philip and Karen Berg founded the organization to spread the teachings of Kabbalah to the masses. They also made a fortune from the sale of books, red strings to wear around the wrist, bottles of healing water, and donations. But was this actually Kabbalah and did it function in the same way that traditional kabbalistic thought and practices did?

MADONNA: I would say the most important aspect of the Kabbalah is recognizing that we are all one, that there’s no such thing as fragmentation.

HARTLEY LACHTER: It's such an interesting chapter in the remarkable journey of Kabbalah through Western history because, again, this very sort of specifically Jewish ethnocentric tradition is picked up in the new age context and is successfully repackaged as a form of ancient wisdom that guides people as they search for personal fulfillment. And Philip Berg and the Kabbalah Centre were really successful with that. And, of course, yes, Madonna was a really, really important celebrity endorsement of Kabbalah in this way. And there was a lot of significant popular interest and still is in this way of thinking of Kabbalah as an ancient wisdom that provides people with access to, they use discourse like “light of the creator,” how to balance their “desire to receive for the self alone” and their “desire to give”…

CLÉMENCE BOULOUQUE: That notion of “desire to receive,” the irony is that it was a Marxist Kabbalist, Rav Ashlag, who came up with it, and the Kabbalah Centre became this amazing business model. But it is a business model, right? So the irony, the ruse of history, a Marxist-influenced Kabbalist who ushered in this Kabbalah Centre, is fascinating.

HARTLEY LACHTER: Right, which is a very successful capitalist project right? And from this Marxist Kabbalist in Jerusalem. Yeah, everything about it is just really surprising. And also about the success of this as a way of talking about and experiencing Kabbalah for people of all different types of backgrounds. And it's very deliberately not specifically Jewish. It is regarded as a universal wisdom and has been very popular and successful.

The fascinating thing about Kabbalah, Hartley says, is how these texts can be endlessly reinterpreted over centuries to meet the needs of the people reading them and the times in which they’re read.

HARTLEY LACHTER: Every historical period involves, including by Jews themselves, involves a creative re-engagement with Kabbalistic texts. Kabbalistic texts are always read creatively and they kind of invite that. So in the contemporary period, you have everything from extremely right-wing racist discourses and illiberal political platforms advanced by people like Yitzchak Ginsburgh in Israel, while at the same time the Jewish Renewal movement in the United States and Europe and elsewhere also appropriates Kabbalistic ideas. There's Kabbalistic feminisms, there's Kabbalistic environmental theologies. In all of these different ways, Kabbalah is kind of this Rorschach test of Jewish texts and people are able to see in it something that they're looking for.

“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.

If you enjoy the podcast, we hope you'll help support it by going to to make a donation. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world’s largest Jewish studies membership organization. It features an annual conference, publications, fellowships and much more for our members. Visit to learn more. 

See you next time on “Adventures in Jewish Studies!”

Episode Guests

Hartley Lachter

Hartley Lachter

Hartley Lachter is Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University, where he directs the Berman Center for Jewish Studies. His scholarship focuses on medieval Kabbalah, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Jewish historical experiences and the development of kabbalistic discourses. He is the author of Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain.


Clémence Boulouque

Clémence Boulouque is the Carl and Bernice Witten Associate Professor in Jewish and Israel studies at Columbia University. Her interests include Jewish thought and mysticism, interreligious encounters, intellectual history and networks with a focus on the modern Mediterranean and Sefardi worlds, as well as the intersection between religion and the arts, and the study of the unconscious. She is the author of Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh's Jewish Universalism, and serves as the co-editor of the Stanford Studies in Jewish Mysticism series.

Episode Host

Avishai Artsy

Avishay Artsy

Avishay Artsy is an audio and print journalist based in Los Angeles and a senior producer of Vox's daily news explainer podcast Today, Explained. He also hosted and produced the podcast Works In Progress at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and produced Design and Architecture at KCRW. His writing has appeared in the Jewish Journal, The Forward, Tablet, JTA, and other publications and news outlets. His audio stories have appeared on NPR's Marketplace, KQED's The California Report, WHYY's The Pulse, PRI's The World, Studio 360 and other outlets. He is also an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Listen to All Episodes

Adventures in Jewish Studies Masthead

Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD

Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips