The history of Kabbalah

A long history of holy texts, wisdom and spiritual teachers

The History of Kabbalah
One of the most important aspects of Kabbalah charts the lineage of its teachings from master to student over its 4000 years of extraordinary history. Its controversy is millennia old – where a single Kabbalist would hand down this wisdom generation to generation often amidst the contempt of the traditionalists.

The lineage of Kabbalists follows a fascinating story, the briefest overview of which starts with:

Abraham is the Patriarch of Judaism, the seed of Christianity and the father of Islam; he authored the text Sefer Yetzirah (the book of Formation – the understanding all of creation). Originally preserved through these three religions and as the spiritual root predating them, Kabbalah holds the key to the existence and solution to all pain and suffering that has since stemmed from them.

Moses was given both the written Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the oral Torah (the Kabbalah to decode its ‘layers’). The Kabbalah, however, was tightly guarded and concealed to avoid its misuse by non-spiritualists.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
Rabbi Shimon lived in 70 C.E. a time when the Roman Empire forbade the teaching of Torah and thus his teacher Rabbi Akiva was sentenced to a brutal death.

Rabbi Shimon and his son fled and sought refuge in a secluded cave in Piquin, Israel where they spent the next 13 years.

Throughout these 13 years Rav Shimon was immersed in the spiritual teachings of Kabbalah. With his 10 students the texts of the Kabbalah were finally revealed
in written form – the books of Zohar.

The books are both educational and meditative indeed it is taught merely to own the Zohar connects us to the energy of blessings and protection.

The Ari
In the 16th Century came one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, Rabbi Isaac Luria. By the age of 13 “The Ari” (“The Holy Lion”) was already a brilliant scholar and admired by many. Before his death at the age of 38 (destroying the myth of not studying till 40!), the Ari famously pieced together the texts of the Zohar for the first time in history.
Lurianic Kabbalah became the definitive school of Kabbalistic thought, and had a dramatic impact on the world. Eminent contemporary scholars are only now discovering the profound influence this great Renaissance Kabbalist had on such intellectual luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton.

The Ba’al Shem Tov
Rav Israel ben Eliezer was born in 1698, in Poland, and passed away there in 1760. During his lifetime he was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Holy Name).

Although the Ba’al Shem Tov was attacked by more traditional factions, the movement to re-awaken Kabbalah that he founded quickly gained a vast following.

Rav Ashlag
Rav Ashlag wrote and published many great works including the Talmud Eser Sefirot (The Study of the Ten ‘Sefirot’) and his ‘Sulam’ Commentary on The Zohar, part of which makes up the present volumes. The work comprises a translation of The Zohar from Aramaic to Hebrew, as well as a detailed commentary and interpretation.

Rav Ashlag formalised the Kabbalah Centre in the city of Jerusalem in 1922.
Many leading rabbis of his generation applauded this historic opening. Others vehemently opposed it, fanning the flames of controversy that surrounded the dissemination of this spiritual wisdom. Rav Ashlag faced scorn and physical violence in his decision to share this wisdom with his contemporaries.

Rav Brandwein
Rav Brandwein succeeded the great Rav Ashlag as the spiritual leader of the Kabbalah Centre. Before his death, Rav Ashlag told Rav Brandwein that he would soon merit his own students, and that one of them would help bring this wisdom to the world, amid great protest and scorn.
A gentle and devout soul, Rav Brandwein was a man of the people. He evoked a deep love in all those with whom he came in contact. Both atheists and pious men had great reverence for him.

The Rav and Karen Berg
The Kabbalist Rav Berg carries on the legacy of illustrious masters seeking to bring the long-hidden wisdom of Kabbalah to the world. Together with Karen Berg, his wife, they brought Kabbalah out of obscurity. In so doing, the Rav faced criticism and even violence from those determined to restrict kabbalistic wisdom from the people.

Born in New York City to a family with a long spiritual tradition of scholars and teachers, the Rav’s upbringing followed a traditional religious path, and he was ordained at Torah VaDaat, the renowned rabbinical seminary. After studying in Israel with the great Kabbalist Rav Yehuda Brandwein, however, the Rav made the decision to devote his life to bringing Kabbalah to the world to fulfill the work of the Kabbalists. Though distributing education materials to all those with a desire to learn the Centre creates greater spiritual spiritual strength within each individual. Through its global charitable projects, there is a greater social responsibility within communities. This was always the Kabbalist’s job – to create a better life for all of humanity.
Suggested further reading Education of a Kabbalist by Rav Berg.

Marcus a student of Kabbalist Rav Berg is one of the leading teachers at the Kabbalah Centre London. He currently spearheads many European and African charitable projects, and coaches individuals and companies to achieve lasting success and balance.
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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage