The Wisdom of Kabbalah and Philosophy by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
What is spirituality?
Philosophy has gone through a great deal of trouble to prove that the physical is the offspring of the metaphysical, and that the soul generates the body. Still, their words are unacceptable to the heart in any manner. Their primary mistake is their erroneous view of spirituality since they postulate that the metaphysical fathered the physical, which is certainly a lie.
For any parent must, somehow, resemble its child. This relation is the path and route by which its offspring emanates. In addition, every agent must have some agency by which to reach it. Since they say that spirituality is denied any physical occurrence, then such a path does not exist, nor any means by which the spiritual can contact and set it into motion.
However, understanding the meaning of the word רוּחָנִיוּת (ruḥaniut), “spirituality,” has nothing to do with philosophy. This is because how can they discuss something that they have never seen or felt? What does their foundation stand on?
If there is any definition that can tell the spiritual from the physical it belongs only to those who have attained a spiritual thing and sensed it and these are the authentic kabbalists. Thus, it is the wisdom of Kabbalah that we need.
Philosophy with regard to His essence
Philosophy loves to occupy itself with His essence and prove which laws do not apply to Him. However, Kabbalah has no dealings with this whatsoever, for how can the unattainable and imperceptible be defined? Indeed, a negative definition is just as relevant as a positive definition. For if you see an object from a distance and apprehend its negatives, meaning all that it is not, that, too, is considered seeing or some degree of apprehension. If an object is truly out of sight even its negative qualities are not apparent.
For example, if we perceive a black form from a distance, but can still determine that it is neither human nor bird, this is considered vision. If it be farther still, we would be unable to determine that it is not human.
This is the cause of their confusion and irrelevance. Philosophy prides itself on understanding all the negatives about His essence [see Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 1:58]. However, here the sages of Kabbalah put their hand to their mouth, and do not give Him even a simple name, for we do not define by name or word that which we do not attain [cf. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason]. That is because a word designates some degree of attainment. However, kabbalists do speak a great deal about His illumination in reality, meaning all those illuminations they have actually attained, as legitimate as tangible attainment (in my opinion, philosophy has generally worn a mantle that it does not own, for it has stolen definitions from the wisdom of Kabbalah, and made delicacies with human understanding. Had it not been for that, they would never have conjured such fabrications).
The spiritual is a force without a body
That is what kabbalists define as “spirituality” and that is what they talk about. It has no form, space, time or any physical value. However, it is only a potential force, meaning a force that is not clothed in a material body, but rather a force without a body.
A spiritual vessel is called a force
Here we must note that in spirituality the concept of a force does not refer to the light itself. Since this light is immaterial it emanates directly from His essence, blessed be He, and if so is the same as His essence. This means that we have no perception or attainment of this light that we can define by name. Even the word, אוֹר (or), “light,” is borrowed and is not [actually] true. Thus, we must know that the word כֹּחַ (koaḥ), “force,” without a body, refers specifically to a כְּלִי רוּחָנִי (keli ruḥani), “immaterial vessel.”
Lights and vessels
Therefore, we must not inquire how the sages of the Kabbalah, which fill the entire wisdom with their insights, differentiate between the various lights. Since these observations do not refer to the lights themselves, but to the impression of the vessel, being the aforementioned force, which is affected by its encounter with the light.
Vessels and lights
Here we must add the distinction between the gift and the love that it engenders. The lights, meaning the impression on the vessel, which is detectable, is called צוּרָה וְחוֹמֶר (tsurah ve-ḥomer), “form and matter” together. The impression, she is the form and the aforementioned force, he is the matter.
However, the love that is engendered is considered צוּרָה בְּלִי חוֹמֶר (tsurah beli ḥomer), “form without matter.” In other words, if we strip the love from a gift, as though it was never clothed in any gift, but only in the abstract designation, “love of the blessed Holy One,” then it is regarded as form and it belongs to the formative Kabbalah. However, unlike formative philosophy it still concerns what is real since the spirit of love remains in the attainment, completely abstracted from the gift, which is the light itself.
Matter and form in Kabbalah
The reason is that although love is merely a result of the gift, it is still far more important than the gift itself. It is like a great king who gives something insignificant to someone. Although the gift itself is worthless, the love and attention of the king make it priceless and precious. Thus, it is completely abstracted from the matter—the light and the gift—so that the whole affair remains engraved only in the attainment of love itself, while the gift is forgotten from the heart. Therefore, this aspect of the wisdom is called חָכְמַת הַקְבָלָה הַצוּרָתִית (ḥakhmat ha-qabbalah ha-tsuratit), the formative wisdom of Kabbalah, and it is the most important part of the wisdom.
This love consists of four parts, similar to human love: when we first receive a gift, we do not call the giver of the gift one who loves us, all the more so if the giver of the gift is important and the receiver is not equal to him.
However, the persistence of many gifts will make even the most important person seem like a true and equal lover, since the law of love does not exist between great and small, as two true lovers must feel equal.
Thus, you may gauge four rungs of love. The incident is called עֲשִׂיָה (assiyah), Actualization, the repetition of gift giving is called יְצִירָה (yetsirah), Formation, and the appearance of the love itself is called בְּרִיאָה (beri’ah), Creation.
It is here that the study of the formative wisdom of Kabbalah begins, for it is with this rung that love is abstracted from the gifts. This is the meaning of [I form light,] and create darkness (Isaiah 45:7), meaning the light is removed from Yetsirah and the love remains without light, without its gifts.
Then comes אֲצִילוּת (atsilut), Emanation. After one has tasted and entirely stripped the form from the matter, as is written, and create darkness, he becomes worthy of ascending to the rung of Atsilut, where form clothes matter once more, meaning light and love together.
The origin of the soul
Everything spiritual is perceived as a separate force from the body because it has no physical form. However, due to this, it remains isolated and completely separate from the physical. If so, how can it set anything material in motion, much less generate anything physical, when it has no means of coming in contact with the physical?
The acidic element
However, the truth is that the force itself is actually considered matter as well, just as any physical matter in the material world, and the fact that it has no form that the human senses can perceive does not reduce the importance of the substance, which is the “force.”
For example, take a molecule of oxygen, which most substances in the world are composed of. Yet, if you have a bottle with pure oxygen you will find that it seems as though the bottle is totally empty, and you are unable to discern anything of it, as intangible air invisible to the eye.
If we remove the lid and smell it, we find no scent; if we taste it, we find no flavor; and if we put it on a scale, it will not weigh more than the empty bottle. The same applies to hydrogen, which is tasteless, odorless, and weightless too.
However, when putting these two elements together, they immediately become a liquid—drinking water that possesses both taste and weight. If we put the water inside active lime, immediately it mixes with it and becomes as solid as the lime itself.
Thus, the elements, oxygen and hydrogen, in which there is no tangibility whatsoever, become a solid. Therefore, how can we define natural forces as not being material substance just because they are not arranged in such a way that our senses can perceive them? Moreover, we can evidently see that most of the tangible materials in our world originally consist of the element of oxygen, which the human senses cannot sense and perceive!
Moreover, even in material reality, solid and liquid, which we perceive vividly in our world, can turn to smoke or vapor at a certain temperature. Likewise, vapors may turn to solids when the temperature drops.
And if so, one wonders how does something give that which it does not possess? For we have clearly seen that all material forms are derived from elements that are in and of themselves intangible, and do not exist as material in and of themselves. Likewise, all the fixed pictures that we know and use to define materials are inconsistent and do not exist in their own right. Rather, they only clothe and unclothe in forms under the influence of conditions such as heat or cold.
However, the essence of material substance is the force in it, though we are not yet able to tell these forces apart, as with chemical elements. Perhaps in the future they will be discovered in their pure form, as we have only recently discovered the chemical elements.
Equal force in spiritual and physical
In a word: all the names that we ascribe substances are imagined, that is they come from our five senses. They do not exist in and of themselves. On the other hand, any definition we ascribe to the force which abstracts it from the material, is also imagined. Even when science reaches its pinnacle, we still must regard only material reality. This means that any physical action we sense, we must perceive its actor which is also material, like the action itself. There is a correlation between them, or they would not have come to it.
We must realize that this erroneous separating of the actor from the action originates in formative philosophy, which insisted on proving that a spiritual action causes a physical action. This resulted in mistaken conclusions such as the above, which Kabbalah has no need for.
Body and soul of the supernal ones
The opinion of Kabbalah on this matter is crystal clear, without any admixture of philosophy. Since in the minds of the kabbalists, even spiritual, abstract, conceptual entities, which philosophy denies having any material reality and portrays as purely conceptual substance, although they are indeed spiritual, sublime and abstract, they still consist of a body and soul, just like the physical human being.
Therefore, you need not wonder how two can win the prize and say that they are complex. Furthermore, philosophy believes that anything complex will eventually disintegrate and decompose, meaning die. Thus, how can one declare that they are both complex and eternal?
Lights and vessels
Indeed, their thoughts are not our thoughts, for the way of the sages of the Kabbalah is one of discovering actual proof of attainment, making its intellectual refutation impossible. But let me make these matters clear for everyone’s understanding.
First, we must know that the difference between lights and vessels is understood immediately with the first emanated being from Ein Sof. Naturally, the first emanation is also the most complete and purer than everything which follows it. It is certain that it receives this pleasantness and completeness from His essence, which wishes to grant it every pleasantness and pleasure.
It is known that the degree of the pleasure is essentially the desire to receive it. That is because what we most want to receive feels as the most pleasurable. Because of this, we should discern two aspects in this first emanation: the desire to receive the essence and the received essence itself.
We should also know that the desire to receive is what we perceive as the “body” of the emanated, meaning its primary essence, being the vessel to receive His goodness. The second is the essence of the good that is received, His light, which is eternally emanated to the emanation.
It follows that we necessarily distinguish two aspects that clothe one another even in the most sublime spiritual that the heart can conceive. It is the opposite of the opinion of philosophy, which postulates that abstract entities are not complex materials. It is necessary that that desire to receive which necessarily exists in the emanated (for without it there would be no pleasure but rather coercion, and no sensation of pleasure) is absent in His essence. This is the reason for the name הַנֶאֱצָל (ha-ne’etsal), “the emanated,” since it is no longer His essence, for from whom would He receive?
However, the bounty that it receives is necessarily a part of His essence, for here there need not be any innovation. Thus, we see the great difference between the generated body and the received abundance, which is deemed His essence.
How can spiritual generate physical?
It is seemingly difficult to understand how the spiritual can generate and emanate anything material. This question is an ancient philosophical problem for which much ink has been spilt attempting to resolve.
The truth is that this question is a difficult one only if one follows their method. That is because they have defined spirituality without a connection to anything material [i.e., metaphysics]. That produces a difficult question: how can the spiritual lead to or generate anything material?
But it is the view of the sages of Kabbalah that this is not difficult at all, for their terms are the complete opposite to those of philosophers. They maintain that any spiritual quality equalizes with the physical quality like two drops in a pond. Thus, the relationships are of the utmost affinity and there is no separation between them, except in the substance: the spiritual consists of a spiritual substance and the physical consists of a physical substance.
However, all the qualities in spiritual materials abide in physical materials too, as explained in the article, The Essence of the Wisdom of Kabbalah.
The old philosophy presents three opinions as obstacles before my explanation: The first is their deciding that the power of the human intellect is the eternal soul, man’s essence [cf. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3:27]. The second is their conjecture that the body is an product of the soul. The third is their saying that spiritual entities are simple objects and not complex.
Not only is it the wrong place to argue with them about their speculations, but also the time of supporters of such views has already passed and their authority revoked. We should also thank the experts of materialistic psychology for that, which built its foundation on the ruin of the former, winning the public’s favor. Now everyone admits to the irrelevance of philosophy, for it is not built on solid foundations [materialist psychologists generally agree that consciousness (the mind) is the function of the brain. Mental processes can be identified with purely physical processes in the central nervous system, and that human beings are just complicated physiological organisms, no more than that. Some identify Rabbi Ashlag’s “materialistic psychology” with Freudian theory, see Garb, Yearnings of the Soul, p. 109].
This old method became a stumbling block and a deadly thorn to the sages of Kabbalah because where they should have subdued themselves before the sages of Kabbalah, and assumed restraint and skepticism, holiness, and purity before the sages revealed to them even the tiniest thing in spirituality, they easily received what they had wanted from formative philosophy. Without payment or price, they watered them from their fountain of wisdom to satiation, and refrained from delving in the wisdom of Kabbalah until the wisdom has almost been forgotten from among Israel. Hence, we are grateful to materialistic psychology for handing it a deadly blow.
I am Solomon
The above is much like a legend that our sages tell: Asmodeus drove King Solomon four hundred parsas from Jerusalem and left Him with no money and means of sustenance. Then he sat in King Solomon’s throne while the king was begging at door ways. Every place he went, he said: “I am Qohelet!” but none believed him. And so he went from town to town declaring, “I am Solomon!” But when he came to the Sanhedrin they said: “A fool does not utter the same foolishness all the time, saying, ‘I was once a king’” [see JT Sanhedrin 2:6; Pesiqta de-Rav Kahane (Buber), 169a; Tanḥuma (Buber), 3:55; Qohelet Rabbah 2:2].
It seems as though the name is not the essence of a person, but rather the owner of the name is [cf. BT Berakhot 7b; Bahir §80-§81; Zohar 1:60a; 2:179b]. Therefore, how can a wise man such as Solomon not be recognized if he is indeed the owner of the name? Moreover, it is the person that dignifies the name and he should display his wisdom!
There are three reasons that prevent us from knowing the owner of a name: Because of its profundity, the wisdom becomes clear only when all its details appear together. Therefore, before one knows the entire wisdom, it is impossible to see even a fraction of it. Thus, it is the publicity of its truth that we need, so as to have enough belief in it prior to making a great effort.
Just as Asmodeus, the demon, wore the clothes of King Solomon and inherited his throne, philosophy sat on the throne of Kabbalah with easier concepts to grasp, for a lie is quickly accepted. Therefore, there is a twofold trouble here: first, the wisdom of truth is profound and arduous, while philosophy is false and easily grasped; and second, it is [considered] superfluous, because philosophy is quite satisfying.
As the demon claims that King Solomon is mad, philosophy mocks and dismisses Kabbalah. However, as long as wisdom is sublime, it is elevated above the people and separated from it. Because he was the wisest man, he was also higher than every man. Thus, the finest scholars could not understand him, except those friends, meaning the Sanhedrin, whom he taught his wisdom to every day for days and years. They are the ones who understood him and publicized his name in the entire world.
The reason for it is that minor wisdom is perceived in five minutes, and is thus attainable by anyone and can be easily publicized. However, a weighty concept will not be understood in less than several hours. It may even take days or years, depending on the intelligence. Accordingly, the greatest scholars will be understood only by a selected few in the generation, since profound concepts are founded on much prior knowledge.
It is therefore not surprising that the wisest of all men, who was exiled to a place where he was not known, could not demonstrate his wisdom or even show a hint of his wisdom before they believed that he was the owner of the name.
It is the same with the wisdom of Kabbalah in our time: the troubles and the exile that have come upon us have caused us to forget it (and if there are people who do engage in it, it is not in its favor, but rather harms it, for they did not receive it from a kabbalist sage). Hence, in this generation, it is like King Solomon in exile, declaring, “I am the wisdom, and all the flavors of religion and Torah are with me,” yet none believed it.
But this is perplexing, for if it is a genuine wisdom, can it not display itself like all other wisdoms? It cannot. As King Solomon could not display his wisdom to the scholars at the place of his exile and had to come to Jerusalem, the place of the Sanhedrin, who studied and knew King Solomon, and attested to the depth of his wisdom, so it is with the wisdom of Kabbalah: it requires great sages who examine their hearts to study it for twenty or thirty years. Only then will they be able to attest for it.
And as King Solomon could not prevent Asmodeus from sitting on his throne, pretending to be him until he arrived in Jerusalem, sages of Kabbalah observe philosophic theology and complain that they have stolen the supernal shell of their wisdom, which Plato and his Greek predecessors had acquired while studying with the disciples of the prophets in the Land of Israel. They stole basic foundations of the wisdom of Israel and wore a mantle that is not theirs. To this day, philosophic theology sits on the throne of Kabbalah, being a slavegirl that is heir to her mistress (Proverbs 30:23).
And who would believe the sages of Kabbalah while others sit on their throne? It is as when they did not believe King Solomon in exile, for they knew him to be the demon Asmodeus sitting on his throne. As with King Solomon, it is hopeless that the truth be exposed, for the wisdom is deep and cannot be revealed by testimony or experimentation except to those believers that dedicate themselves to it with heart and soul.
Just as the Sanhedrin did not recognize King Solomon as long as the falsehood of Asmodeus was not apparent, Kabbalah cannot prove its true nature, and no revelations will suffice for the world to know it before the futility and falsehood of theological philosophy that has taken its throne becomes obvious.
Therefore, there was no such rescue for Israel as when materialistic psychology appeared and struck a lethal blow on the head of theological philosophy.
Now, every person who seeks the blessed Holy One must return Kabbalah to its throne and restore its former glory.