Question: Mr. Avishai Rubinstien: Is one allowed, prohibited, or obligated to learn Kabbala today?
Answer: Before discussing this topic, it would be appropriate to quote from the introduction to our discussion regarding Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut: The issue of reciting Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut has always been a very complicated and controversial one. Both sides argue with passion and excitement, stressing the legitimacy and correctness of their respective opinions. While it is highly praiseworthy to be passionate in our convictions and actions, it is improper for our passions to lead us to our positions. Rather, we should approach a sugya, a topic, with “Chochma”, “Bina” and “Daat”. Malbim (Proverbs, 24:3) explains that “Chochma” is that which we learn from others; “Bina” is “Hamaivin Davar Mitoch Davar”(deduction) and “Daat” is intuition. For example, a trained doctor may have a legitimate intuition how to deal with a cancer patient, (God have mercy we never hear of such), choosing chemotherapy, surgery or another option. A layman, on the other hand, who has no Chochma or Bina in medicine, cannot have legitimate intuition in this matter. The same applies to every Mitzvah in the Torah; one can have Daat – intuition – regarding a Mitzvah, but only after he has the first two types of wisdom. For example, only a judge with thorough knowledge in the Yoreh Dayah (Laws regarding Kashrut) could decide whether a meat spoon found in a dairy dishwasher needs koshering or not. This same approach applies to Yom Haatzmaut and the recitation of Hallel. Only after going through the relevant sections such as Baal Toseef, Batlah Megillat Taanit, Chiyuv Hallel after Geula, etc. can one really have a legitimate understanding of the topic. Until then, he should follow his Rabbi and respectfully differ with those who follow other “judges of Halacha”, or “poskim”.
With regard to Kabbala as well, we should approach this topic with one goal: namely, to understand and embrace the teachings of our Baalei Ha-Mesora (our unanimously accepted transmitters of the Oral Law) to learn what they determined whether the ideas are in line or against our natural beliefs and inclinations. Therefore, a “rationalist” should not simply dismiss the relevancy of Kabbala, and a “mystic” should not impulsively delve into Kabbala. Both individuals should mold their beliefs and feelings to be in line with the Mesora (accepted Torah traditions), and never follow the opposite path, God forbid, by distorting the Mesora to be in line with their own preconceived notions.
We will proceed by quoting from the Rabbis of our traditions (Baalei ha’Mesora) from the Mishnaic era, down to the greatest Rabbis of our generation.
The Mishna in Chagiga (11b) prohibits a Rabbi from teaching Maaseh Merkava (Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot) to anyone but a great Talmid Chacham, a wise Talmudic scholar. The Mishna also forbids one from investigating deep, philosophical ideas about God, and it states, “It would have been better for such a person not to be created.”
The Gemara (13a) writes that even great Mishnaic authors (Tanaim) were not prepared to delve into these topics, and some of them did and were destroyed. According to the Maharsha (Chagiga 13a, “Tah”) Kabbala is more esoteric then Maaseh Merkava (Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot) and must be hidden to an even greater extent then the latter.
See further in Maharsha where he writes that Kabbala is not mentioned in the Mishna, Gemara, Tosefta, Mechilta, Sifra or Sifree.) The implication is obvious: The average person and greatest minds - who certainly would never consider themselves comparable to Chazal - must certainly avoid Maaseh Merkava and Kabbala. This does not mean that this knowledge is not important; on the contrary, a Gadol (a great mind) who can understand these deep and abstract ideas about God and Divine Providence should deepen his knowledge and love of God by delving into the deepest area that are accessible to him. (Mishna Torah Hilchot Yesodai Hatora 4:13. See Pelah Yoaiz “Limud” where he writes that one has a Chiyuv to learn the deepest areas of Torah that are within his reach.)
However, everyone must have the humility to accept his limitations, limitations that are certainly more restricting in our knowledge then the great Rabbis, and be content to understand as much of the revealed Torah that he can. One who studies topics that are beyond his intellectual capabilities will, by definition, embrace irrational and possibly heretical concepts, since he is trying to formulate concepts about topics where his rational faculty can not assist him; he will be doomed to embrace nonsensical notions that stem from his irrational and instinctual nature, not from his Tzelem Elokim, his intellect.
In his “Guide for the Perplexed”, 1:32, 1:51 and 1:73, Maimonides contrasts the Tzelem Elokim (intellect) with the faculty of Dimyon, (imagination) and warns us not to be guided by the latter.
The Ramban, the great Talmudic, Halachic and Kabbalistic authority (see Faith and Folly by Rav Yaakov Hillel Shlita p.37) of the mediaeval era ends his introduction to Sefer Bereshith (Shilo Publishing, translation by Rabbi Chavel p.15) with the following warning:
“Now behold I bring into a faithful covenant and give proper counsel to all who look into this book, not to reason or entertain any thought concerning any of the mystic hints which I write regarding the hidden matters of the Torah, for I do hereby firmly make known to him (the reader) that my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise Kabbalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient. Reasoning about them is foolishness; any unrelated thought brings much damage and withholds the benefit. “Let him not trust in vanity, deceiving himself, “ (Job, 15:31) for these thoughts will bring him nothing but evil as if they spoke falsely against God, which can not be forgiven...Rather let such see in our commentaries novel interpretations of the plain meanings of Scripture and Midrashim, and let them take moral instruction from the mouths of our holy Rabbis: “Into that which is beyond you, do not seek; into that which is more powerful than you, do not inquire; about that which is concealed from you, do not desire to know; about that which is hidden from you, do not ask. Contemplate that which is permitted to you, and engage not yourself in hidden things.” (Bereishith Rabbah, 8:2)
The Rambam, after discussing deep ideas regarding Maaseh Bereishith and Maaseh Merkava, writes:
“The topics that we have discussed are known as Pardais (lit. “garden”, or higher matters). Even though the Tanaaim were great, brilliant people, they did not all have the abilities to fully understand Pardais. I maintain that one should not visit the Pardais until he is first satiated with “bread and meat”, which refers to knowledge of the Mitzvot. Even though the greatest knowledge is that of Pardais, the former knowledge must come first because; 1) it is “M'yashaiv Daato Shel Adam Techila,” teaches one to think clearly; and 2) it is the good that God has given to all of us to observe in this world and reap the benefits in Olam Habah, the afterlife. Everyone can partake of this revealed Torah, the young and the old, men and women, geniuses as well as average individuals.”
The Rivash, (a ‘Rishon’, of the first Talmudic commentators) writes (Siman 157) that his Rebbe Rav Peretz Hakohain prayed with intent only to God, not to any Sefirot, (Divine Emanations) like the Mekubbalim do. He also quotes philosophers who were very critical of the Mekubbalim and cynically claimed that the gentiles believe in 3 beings, the trinity, while the Mekubbalim believe in 10, God forbid, referring to the 10 Sefirot. The Rivash quotes a Mekubal who explains that the Mekubbalim pray only to God, but they ask God to respond to their prayers via the various messengers that He has created for their specific tasks; they never pray, God forbid, to anyone but God. Although the Rivash accepts this explanation, he still writes that one should simply pray to God, and He knows how to respond to the prayer. The Rivash then quotes Rabbainu Nissim who maintained “The Ramban was too involved in Kabbala, and that I would not learn it since I did not receive it from a Mekubal Chacham. I saw explanations of the principles of the Ramban but they do not reveal the wisdom of Kabbala, rather they uncover a bit and cover up so much more; one can easily stumble in this study. Therefore, I have chosen not to be involved in hidden matters.” After discussing the 10 Sefirot and the various approaches to understanding them, the Rivash concludes that one should not rely on explanations of the Sefirot unless he hears it from a Chacham Mekubal, and even then, only “maybe” (lit. “ulai”).
The Ramah, the great Halachik ruler for Ashkenaz Jewry, quotes the Rambam that one should not study Pardais until he knows laws concerning permissible and prohibited matters and laws governing the Mitzvot. (S”A Y”D 246:4)
Vilna Gaon (Gra)
The Gra (ibid 18) cites the Gemara in Chagiga (13a) as the source for this restriction. The Shach (ibid. 6) writes that the “Mekubbalim and later Rabbis (Acharonim) strongly prohibited learning Kabbala until one is a great Torah scholar, with a thorough knowledge of ‘all’ Talmudic tractates (“Shas”). Some even maintain that one must be at least 40 years old. One must also be filled with Kedusha, Tahara, Zerizut, Nekiyut, literally, “sanctity, purity, zeal and cleanliness.” Most people who involve themselves in Kabbala prematurely suffer great Divine Retribution.”
The Be-er Haitev (ibid 3) quotes the Shach verbatim, and the Pitchai Teshuva (ibid 4) also writes: “One must not learn Kabbala because our minds simply are not deep enough to understand it.” The Ramah elsewhere (Torat Haolah part 3 chapter 4) writes:
“I have seen even an true Kabbala recipient in his generation [approximately 500 years ago!] who clearly understands authentic Kabbala. Regarding the masses, they simply jump to learn Kabbala, which is a lust to their eyes, such as Zohar, Rekanati and Shaarai Orah, even though the ideas cannot be properly understood since we no longer have an authentic, oral transmission, mouth-to-mouth. Not only that, there are common men who do not know their left from their right, who can not even explain Chumash with Rashi, who run to learn Kabbala. This is all because we are an orphaned generation. There are those that glorify themselves by giving public lectures in Kabbala after dabbling just a bit in the topic. God will punish these people.”
 Maimonides Fifth Principle of his “13 Principles” states that one may not pray to anything except to God alone, to whom exclusively it is fitting to pray. Maimonides includes in this fundamental, that one may also not pray to anything, even admitting it is not God, but relating to it as an intermediary to God. Maimonides writes: “Principle V: That He, blessed be He, is fitting to serve, to laud and to publicize His greatness, and to perform His commands. And that we must not do so to lesser existences among the angels, stars, planets, and the elements, or anything made from them. For these are natural objects and on their designs there is not judgment or free will, except God alone who is blessed. Similarly, one must not serve them as an intermediary to God, but to God alone must we direct our thoughts, and abandon all else. And this is the Fifth Principle which warns against idolatry, and most of the Torah warns against this.”