There are certain religious texts that confirm a person’s beliefs (loudly or quietly) and please him or her. But there are others, like Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag’s Introduction to the Zohar, that upend the believer. For what Ashlag does here — among many other things — is present us with the more ignoble human motivations; with what matters more than one would ever have thought and what is meaningless; with who and what he deems God is and is not; with the makeup of the ultimate future and the content of the human situation given that; and with, at bottom, the point of it all. He demands a lot of the reader in the process, including considering who he or she actually is and what life is all about. He likewise challenges that same reader to see things through a Kabbalist’s eyes, which is to say complexly and in grandly, splendidly nuanced ways.
In point of fact, Kabbalah is a very technical subject that’s rooted in principles and mechanisms that God is said to have used in creation and which He then continues to use to nourish and maintain the cosmos, which its practitioners lay out so as to enable the adept to experience a sort of reenactment of all of that deep in his or her being.
As such, there’s a world (and more) of data to contend with in Kabbalistic texts, a wealth of principles to grasp and internalize, and a staggering amount of worldly and otherworldly interactions to have explicated. The truth be known, Ashlag’s Introduction to the Zohar doesn’t touch on the latter very much at all (though it offers a fair share of technical points). Instead, it’s a philosophical work rooted in the experience of one who is said to have gone through all the above on his own and tried to express that to non-Kabbalists in more experiential terms. It’s also an arcane and tightly bound work that’s difficult to understand since it delves into the sort of existential issues we’d noted above.
Curiously enough though, despite its title, this work actually has very little to do with the Zohar per se. Though it indeed bears upon ideas expressed or implied there, still-and-all Introduction to the Zohar is actually a misnomer. This short work is more like an introduction to Ashlag’s own thoughts. It’s only given the title it has because it comes at the beginning of his major commentary to the Zohar (discussed below), and because of the few though important references to the Zohar toward the end.
Indeed, the work would best be termed One of Several Introductions to Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag’s Edition of the Zohar since he offers other preparatory essays before starting his comments to the Zohar, but such a title wouldn’t do. So I’ve decided to call this book The Kabbalah of Self because it helps us understand ourselves through Kabbalistic eyes.
Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag wrote a number of very technically exact and well-ordered works on the “nuts and bolts” of Kabbalah, with all many components laid out plain therein. The most prominent of them is his Talmud Esser Sephirot (“A Study of the Ten Sephirot”) which is an encyclopedic laying-out and explanation of the eminent Kabbalist Yitzchak Luria’s writings; and his several other shorter works, include his P’ticha L’Chochmat HaKaballah (“Opening to the Science of Kabbalah”) and others we’ll mention shortly.
Considered by many to be the last major Kabbalist in our age, Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag was born on September 14, 1885 in Warsaw, Poland and died on Yom Kippur Day (September 26) 1955 in Tel Aviv, Israel. He was reported to have studied Kabbalah from the age of seven, and to have hidden away kabbalistic works in the Talmudic text he was presumed to be studying from.
A loyal Chassid, Ashlag was a student of the Rebbe of Prosov who belonged to the school of the renown and sharp-witted Kotzker Rebbe where he was nourished on many of the thoughts that he would later expand upon in his own works. Yet Ashlag learned German on his own at a certain point and read the works of the renowned philosophers Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche in the original. Ashlag is even said to have participated in socialist and communist demonstrations in Warsaw and to have closely followed world political developments.
He moved to Israel at age 31 and quickly found his way to the kabbalistic Yeshiva of Beit El, but he was terribly and virulently disappointed with the Jerusalem Kabbalist’s whose approach to Kabbalah study which he later harshly attacked. For while he sought to plumb its depths, the Beit El scholars who in fact knew the Zohar and Isaac Luria’s works by heart, nonetheless claimed that it was not humanly possible to grasp their meaning, and so they merely recited and meditated upon them but never delved upon them. Ashlag called them “fools”.
Ashlag eventually drew around him a group of disciples who studied Kabbalah every night with him in the 1930’s from midnight until dawn. And he openly promoted the study of Kabbalah for all. Aside from Talmud Esser Sephirot and P’ticha L’Chochmat HaKaballah cited above, Ashlag also authored a translation into Hebrew of the Zohar from the original Aramaic with his original commentary, known as HaSulam (“The Ladder”), and several other kabbalistic-philosophical works including Mattan Torah (“The Bestowing of the Torah”), Pri Tzaddik (“Fruit of The Righteous One”), and others.
A couple of points need to be made about this work, though. First off, we set Ashlag’s words by bold font, while our comments are set in standard font; and we’ve broken down the chapters into sections for ease of reference. Secondly, we’ve tried to offer a translation that’s true to the original which is nonetheless accessible to an intelligent, well-read readership that’s unacquainted with classical Jewish thought and would need to have details filled in. As such, we’ve taken some liberties with the original text and have gone to great pains to explicate its author’s complex ideas.
Because this work is difficult we’ll lay-out its themes here and direct you to the chapters that delve into the subject at hand.
Ashlag starts off the first chapter by saying that he’d “clarify certain ostensibly simple things that everyone contends with and which a lot of ink has been spilt over trying to explain, that still-and-all haven’t been spelled out clearly or adequately enough”. And he begins by raising five succinct and cogent questions:
1) What are we essentially? 2) What role do we play in the great course of events which we’re such minor players in? 3) When we consider ourselves closely we find ourselves to be as tainted and lowly as can be, and yet (conversely) when we look at our Creator we can’t help but praise Him for how utterly exalted He is! But wouldn’t a perfect Creator’s creations be expected to be perfect? 4) Logic would suggest that God is all-good and utterly benevolent. So, how could He have purposefully created so many people who suffer and are tried their whole lives long? Wouldn’t an all-good Creator be expected to be benevolent — if not at least less malevolent?, and 5) How could finite, mortal, and ephemeral creatures (like us) ever derive from an Infinite Being who is without beginning or end?
He then raises another series of inquiries in the second and third chapters that he feels we’d need to clear up before we could solve the more essential questions raised before.
He now asks, 6) How could anyone imagine a completely original creation, something utterly new-sprung that hadn’t already been incorporated in God’s Being from the first, when it’s obvious to any thinking person that everything was originally incorporated in His Being? 7) But since He’s omnipotent, He could certainly have created something out of sheer nothingness; so what then what is this “thing” that was created out of sheer nothingness? 8) The kabbalists say that the human soul is a “part of God”, the only difference between them being that God is the “whole” while the soul is a “part”. And they equate the two to a rock hewn from a mountain; with the only difference between them being that one is the “whole” and the other is a “piece”. But a stone that’s hewn from a mountain had to have been hewn by an axe made for the express purpose of separating the “piece” from the “whole”. But how could anyone ever imagine hewing a separate “part” of God, i.e., a soul? 9) Since evil is utterly removed from God’s being, then how could it have been culled from and created by Him, let alone allowed to go on? 10) And seemingly tangentially, why would a human body be resurrected along with the soul, as we’re taught it is to be? And why would the body be brought back to life with all of its defects in place, as we’re taught it will be? 11) And finally, the sages say that man is the focal point of reality, that all the upper worlds as well as this corporeal one along with everything in it were created for him alone; but why would God bother to create all that for man? And besides — what would man need all that for?
The answers are laid out in the rest of the book. But Ashlag warns us that we’d need to begin by learning why we were created in the first place. And so we’re told that “the only reason God created the universe was to grant pleasure to His creations”; and as a consequence He “created us with a great desire to accept what He wanted to grant us”, measure for measure (Ch. 6).
This “desire to accept”– what’s also termed our willingness to only accept, rather than to bestow or our ratzon l’kabel in Hebrew — will prove to me Ashlag’s greatest insight into the human mind.
It not only touches on our very human need to satisfy our every desire, but also on basic human selfishness and egocentricity. Perhaps his greatest perception into that, though, is the fact that it isn’t all-bad as we might think he’d take it to be. After all, it was granted us by God for His own intentions, which were that we use this desire to accept so as to derive the sort of pleasure He’d like us to. Ashlag is not claiming that God allows us hedonism though, by any means; or that the spiritual life is worthless and counterproductive. His point will be that the sort of pleasure that God would like us to derive is “the pleasure of His company” if you will, which is to say, the experience of God’s being itself. This will all be explained in the book.
In any event, Ashlag’s point is that this ratzon l’kabel is in fact the one and only completely original, utterly new-sprung creation that hadn’t already been incorporated in God’s being from the first, as was raised in question 6 (see Ch. 7).
The answer to question 8, how our souls could be said to be a part of God “much the way that a stone is a part of the mountain that it’s hewn from; the only difference between them being that one is a ‘piece’ while the other is the ‘whole’”. The answer is that the only sort of “axe” that could ever “cleave”, that is, that would differentiate our soul from God would be the fact of our disparate natures. For when two entities are drawn to and repelled by the selfsame things and thus resonate utterly with each other, they can be said to be one and the same, for all intents and purposes, so to speak. That’s to say that while we’re certainly not God nor is He a human being, nevertheless the closer in nature and wherewithal we are to Him, the more Godly are we (Ch’s 8 and 9). This whole notion is chock-full with implication and import, and we explore some of that in the text.
Question 9 about the nature of evil is discussed in Ch’s 10-16 along with a discussion of the two metaphysical systems — the four worlds of so-called “holy-A.B.Y.A.” and their counterpart, the four worlds of “defiled-A.B.Y.A.” — and how all that works toward drawing us closer to God. Included in all this is a far-ranging explanation of Ashlag’s understanding of eternity, free choice, the ultimate redemption, and more.
The question of our apparent lowliness (no. 3) is cause to explain our true spiritual station in Ch. 17, while Ch. 18 goes on to respond to the fifth question, about our having derived from God’s infinite being, and it leads to our being the focal point of all of creation.
That brings us back to the fourth question about the place of human suffering in the grand scheme (Ch. 19) which then brings us all the way back to Ashlag’s very first question about our essential makeup, which allows for a discussion about our ultimate destiny (Ch’s 20-24). We turn from there to a solution to question 10 about the makeup and ramifications of resurrection, which then leads to an explanation of how we’re to undo our willingness to only accept (Ch’s 25-28).
We then come to question 2 about the role we play in the great course of and delve into the stature and role of the mitzvah-system development (Ch’s 29-32).
Chapters 33-40 delve into the final question about mankind’s place in the cosmos, and explain the interplay between humankind and other beings in the process. Chapters 41-55 explain why we humans would need all the upper worlds God created for us. And the remaining chapters (56-70) address the spiritual makeup of the present age, and they reveal how our knowledge of the Zohar (which is of course the book’s underlying topic) in particular and Kabbalah in general would help rectify us and satisfy God’s intention for creation.
(c) 2010 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).