Thursday, 28 July 2011

Difference between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah

Recently Jacobus Swart posted on his blog and via an email group about what he considered to be practical Kabbalah. I responded with the following argument for what I believe is the difference between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah.

Jacobus posted that the practical application of Kabbalistic doctrines should be labelled "Practical Kabbalah". However, I'd like to ask whether you distinguish between "Meditative Kabbalah" and "Practical Kabbalah"? If so, what is the distinctive characteristics of each?

In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Meditation and Kabbalah" he describes them as follows on pp2. (after introducing theoretical Kabbalah):

    "The practical Kabbalah, on the other hand, was a kind of white magic, dealing with the use of techniques that could evoke supernatural powers. It involved the use of divine names and incantations, amulets and talismans, as well as chiromancy, physiognomy and astrology...."

    "The meditative Kabbalah stands between these two extremes. Some of the earliest meditative methods border on the practical Kabbalah, and their use is discouraged by the latter masters, especially those of the Ari's school..."
As someone who considers himself to practice Meditative Kabbalah, my current small amount of knowledge and experience leads me to believe that the transition from meditative to practical is the use of Divine names. Now you could argue that any prayer in Hebrew which has in it Divine names is Practical Kabbalah and this argument would be backed by the following quote from the Overview section of the Artscroll siddur (prayer book), 2nd edition published by Mesorah Publications Ltd, pp XVI:
    "...By referring to the primal sanctity of the Aleph-Beis, Chida answers a perplexing question. Why is it necessary to articulate the prescribed text of the prayers - doesn't God know what is in our hearts? Wouldn't it be a greater sanctification of His Name if He were to fulfill unspoken human desire? Chida explains that the combinations of letters - as formulated by the masters who composed the prayers - have the power to arouse forces beyond our imagination. Thereby new spiritual lights can be created through the agency of human beings. To accomplish this, we must articulate the prayers. This causes the sacred letters to arouse their spiritual roots; it brings about a totally unprecedented combination: The interaction of the Aleph-Beis is combined in the respective prayer and the particular set of circumstances prevailing on earth at the instant the words are uttered (Shem HaGedolim, entry on R' Yitchak of Acco)..."
However, the prayers of a simple and unlearned person can be as powerful as those of a learned person - at least according to numerous tales by the Chassidim (followers of the Baal Shem Tov). Which means that the new spiritual lights can be created even if the person praying is not aware of this information.

Hence I'd like to put forward the argument that Practical Kabbalah in prayer occurs when the person praying has (or are attempting to achieve) knowledge and experience of the spiritual realities that their use of the Divine names and Aleph-Beis are having.

By the way, I'm more than happy to be corrected in my current understanding. I'm just trying to feel for where the line is between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah if such a line is meaningful. Perhaps that distinction only exists in going from the main section to the last part of Shaarei Kedushah: The Gates of Holiness by Rabbi Chaim Vital...

In the end we agreed that the distinction between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah is not one that is easy to define, since use of Divine Names is done in both Meditative and Practical Kabbalah. Which means I need to go back to the drawing board and see if a meaningful distinction can be made or if this is a wild goose chase.