The roots of Kabbalistic tradition can be traced back to the ancient prophetic experience of our ancestral forebears--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The wisdom and insight born of their intimacy with the Divine formed the basis of the spiritual legacy passed on to their children, the twelve tribes of Israel. The ultimate verification of this legacy came at the moment when Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, the heavens parted and the spirit of God descended from on high amidst thunder and lightning fire. In revealing Himself to the entire community of Israel, God in essence laid bare the hidden core of Kabbalistic truth which up to that point had been the privilege of a select few. At that very moment, the verse tells us, Moses ascended up the mountain into a thick darkness where God privately revealed to him the complex of Divine wisdom and law that was to fill the void that remained after His retreat back into the heavenly sphere.
The wisdom which Moses received on Sinai and later passed on to his people was comprised of both esoteric and exoteric elements. The exoteric tradition--or niglah (that which is "revealed")--became the identified focus of Jewish life, both in study and practice, for generations thereafter. It is this tradition which we are familiar with through the classical works of Jewish law and scholarship--chief of which is the Talmud. On the other hand, the esoteric tradition, known as nistar (that which is "hidden"), was transmitted to a select few in each generation suited for initiation into its mysterious depths.
This tradition, which is the basis of Kabbalah, wove its way like a hidden thread through the course of Jewish history. At providential points throughout that history, this thread would periodically surface so as to embellish the evolving spiritual consciousness of our people. Interpreted by men of unusual vision and intelligence, this tradition slowly found its way into written form as works appeared expounding upon both its theoretical and practical aspects.
The traditional terminology employed in referring to these two distinct aspects of Kabbalistic inquiry is that of Kabbalah iyunit ("contemplative Kabbalah") and Kabbalah ma'asit ("practical Kabbalah"). Although we will see that this distinction can often be quite arbitrary, it will help us to isolate various trends within the development of Kabbalistic tradition.
Ideally, everyone should be able to study Kabbalah. Kabbalah is the inner wisdom of creation revealed to us by God in order to bring us closer to Him. Clearly, God desires that all human beings come as close to Him as possible. Thus, Kabbalah is important for all people.
That said, it is important to clarify that each of us has to study Kabbalah at his own individual level, which, contrary to common misconceptions, may have nothing to do with age, gender, or any other imagined limitation.
Can Non Jews Study Kabbalah?
Since Kabbalah is part of Jewish tradition, it is often mistakenly assumed that it has no pertinence to non-Jews. However, much of Kabbalah is pertinent to all human beings, since the study of Kabbalah arouses in all students the desire to worship One God, as commanded in the Torah to all mankind.
The Torah anticipates that every human being become a righteous servant of the One God of Israel, exclusively. For a non-Jew, this means to become a Righteous Gentile, unless he desires to proceed even further and to convert to Judaism. Much of the Kabbalah is pertinent to the consciousness of Righteous Gentiles. Kabbalah and Chassidut arouse one to the true worship of God, a commandment relevant to all mankind. In order to worship, one has to be conscious of and to experience the emotions of love and fear of God, two of the six constant commandments of the heart. In order to experience these emotions, one has to have meditative content and input. Chassidut teaches that non-Jews should also meditate on those truths and depths of reality of Divine Providence in the world that will arouse their hearts to serve the One God of Israel. These sections of the Kabbalah are prerequisites for non Jews to come close to God.
The levels of Divine Light that are pertinent for non-Jews to study are the explicitly immanent levels of Divinity. This is the influx of Divine energy that is present in the creative process. God's Infinite Light is absolutely transcendent. The ultimate purpose of Chassidut is to bring transcendence into the perspective of immanence. Until Mashiach comes, though, this is still relatively a state of Jewish consciousness. Thus, a non-Jew should learn in Kabbalah those secrets of creation that help him to appreciate and become aware of God's immanent light in creation. This draws him closer to God and augments his desire to serve Him.
Clearly, in order for non-Jews to study Kabbalah--which, after all, is an intrinsic expression of Jewish faith--they have to identify with receiving this wisdom through the channel of the Torah and the Jewish People, and commit themselves to worship the One God of Israel and live in accordance with the seven commandments given by Him to Noah for all peoples.
Is There an Age or Gender Limitation on the Study of Kabbalah?
Even though there is an opinion that one should not begin to study Kabbalah until the age of 40, the great masters of Kabbalah and Chassidut did not agree with this opinion. Some of the greatest teachers of Kabbalah--including the Ari, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (also known as the Ramchal), and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov--did not live to the age of 40! From an early age they began to study Kabbalah. In the Zohar we find that a sign of the coming of the Mashiach is when children will study and discuss Kabbalah.
Chassidut reveals to us the drama of God’s creation of the universe. It is like a game of hide-and-seek. In this Divinely inspired game, God conceals Himself, but He desires that we seek Him. He promises us that if we seek Him with all our heart and soul, we will ultimately find Him.
The seeking is the study of Kabbalah. It can begin from the first moment that a person realizes that there is more to this world than what meets the eye, and this can be at a very early stage of life.
The reason that some authorities have warned against studying Kabbalah at too early an age was that there were instances in Jewish history, even relatively recently, when most negative phenomena resulted from the misrepresentation and misuse of Kabbalah. For example, approximately 350 years ago, a misguided Jew, Shabbetai Tzvi, proclaimed himself the Messiah, basing himself on misinterpretations of Kabbalah. Before he was proven a fraud, he had wrought great material and spiritual suffering upon a significant portion of European Jewry.
This is one of the reasons that the Ba'al Shem Tov revealed a new dimension of Kabbalah--Chassidut. Chassidut expresses Kabbalah in a way that is accessible to every soul and that excludes all possibility of misinterpretation. Thus, it is highly recommended to study Kabbalah within the framework of Chassidut. When Kabbalah is studied within this framework there is no danger. If there is no danger, there is also no age barrier or other limitation on the study of the inner dimension of Torah.
Indeed, the study of the inner dimension of Torah--Kabbalah and Chassidut helps all people to fulfill the "duties of the heart"--the six constant commandments mandated by the Torah, which include the faith in God's Omnipresence and Providence over all, and love and awe of God.
These commandments are relevant to men, women and children. Indeed, these commandments are key in the education of children, as they relate to the foundation of one's rectified state of consciousness.
True experiences of faith, love, and awe depend upon the meditative process, as explained by Maimonides--the great Jewish philosopher and author of Mishneh Torah ("Review of the Torah"). This experience comes with the study of the inner dimension of the Torah. Even thoughMaimonides lived before the revelation of the Zohar, it was clear to him that one has to try to access the secrets of creation. This is what strengthens one's faith in God and arouses in the heart the emotions of love and awe.
Thus, if Kabbalah and Chassidut are studied for the sake of fulfilling "the duties of the heart," there is no difference between men and women, for these commandments are equally pertinent to all.
The study of the more technical sides of Kabbalah may not immediately produce the emotions of love and awe in the heart. However, the same cannot be said of the study of Chassidic works. The Tanya, for example, brings down to earth the abstract and often impenetrable formulae of classical Kabbalah and translates them into the terms of ordinary human experience. Indeed, the explicit purpose of the Chassidic works is to arouse in the heart the emotions of love and awe.
Of course, any subject must be studied at the level or degree of comprehension of the individual student. There are endless levels of understanding. One has to begin at the level relevant to him, and proceed from there.