Departing from the historical view, traditionalists take a more mythical approach, not unlike believers in any religion:
Traditional practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date world religions, forming the primordial blueprint for Creation’s philosophies, religions, sciences, arts, and political systems.¹
Abraham Abulafia (born 1240) says that unlike Old Testament prophets who passively experience different degrees of God‘s light through grace or revelation, the meditating Kabbalist consciously ascends through levels of light to the final realization of God.
As with some Hindu mystics who maintain that Sanskrit is a spiritually privileged language, Kabbalist mystics tend to believe that the Hebrew letters are both physical and spiritual. The three “mothers” or primordial Kabbalist letters (aleph, mem and shin) are said to contain all of the potential elements of the universe as expressed in its various modalities.
Because all Kabbalist letters are said to be ruled by angels, when pronounced properly, a single letter apparently evokes its corresponding angel and merely writing a Hebrew letter transports the mind to a higher sphere.
While the Zoharic school of Kabbala advocates contemplation of various spheres within a ‘cosmic tree,’ Abulafaria says this is only a prelude to the contemplation of Names, leading to the Divine Name.
Abulafaria openly defies the chain of secrecy that has been maintained for centuries by previous Masters. In the Light of Intellect, he claims to have been the first to bring this wisdom to the ordinary person (to include non-Jews), making him popular among Jews and Christians alike.
He also warns his students against the false meditation manuals found in the Middle Ages, which advocated worldly power through magic.
A prominent Kabbalist, Israel ben Eleazer, a.k.a. the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Holy Name), further popularized this enticing form of Jewish-based mysticism, making it universally accessible.
The Baal Shem Tov founded what is now called Hasidic mysticism. Following his example, the Hasidim democratized the Torah, delivering it from elite scholars to the ordinary person.
As for the dangers of the Kabbalist mystical quest, Perle Epstein is worth quoting at length:
Kabbalists who uttered God’s Names and altered their breathing patterns were making use of the third rung of the soul’s ladder, the breath which tied them to the spiritual world. By binding himself mentally to a specific ‘spiritual being,’ the Kabbalist could either elevate himself further (as Abufalia taught) or he could obtain significant information about the future. This second practice was dangerous, for it often resulted in making contact with shedim, demonic beings who altered and confused the meditator’s mind. Along this path lay the danger of insanity. The ‘breath,’ or third level of soul, was therefore regarded as a two-edged sword. Only utmost purity of purpose assured the Kabbalist safe passage to the next rung. But spontaneous ecstasy would occur here, too-a condition in which the mystic, without any conscious effort, might find himself flooded with a rush of divine bliss. Yet even this level of ‘divine inspiration’ was not really considered true ‘prophecy.’²
Interestingly, the above outlines a theme recurring in many religious traditions: The line between madness and mysticism is a fine one, without outcomes perhaps at least partially influenced by the psychological maturity or health of the practitioner.
For instance, if someone has a considerable unresolved complex (or complexes) hidden away in the depths of their psyche, chances are they will become like a madperson, even if appearing entirely sane on the outside. Others might simply suffer a breakdown and hopefully emerge with greater wisdom, as in keeping with the hero myth.
How it all turns out I think depends in part on the sincerity of the seeker. But in addition to mere psychological factors, most likely physiological, sociological and theological influences also come into play.
I wrote about this general theme on more than one occasion in my academic journey. One professor’s response was extremely positive and he happily supplied letters of recommendation facilitating my entry into grad studies.
With another professor, however, it was a different, dark story. And I have honestly wondered if perhaps that second professor was a functional madperson, more conventionally understood as a sociopath.
This being said, the term “sociopath” arguably demands further examination. I think the older phrase a “Jekyll and Hyde” character more aptly describes many whom we casually call sociopaths because most scoundrels and evildoers display at least moments of sanity and contrition before they snap back into their dark other.³
² Perle Epstein, Kabbalah: the way of the Jewish mystic, Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1978, p. 143.
³ Perhaps a more current metaphor would be the Darth Vader figure. Vader did a lot of damage but when push came to shove he just couldn’t let Luke Skywalker die. By doing the right thing, Vader was redeemed in the Jedi afterlife.