Kabbalah for Atheists

    April 2011 Passover          
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.


What can Judaism tell us about Enlightenment and the Spiritual future of Mankind?

By Ray Harris © 2010

The great existential debate raging today is that between Atheist Scientists and Fundamentalist Christians who endlessly argue about the existence or not of God. The intention of this article is to propose a third angle on this debate which comes specifically from a Jewish perspective. In doing so we will look at how the Jewish body of mysticism, the Kabala, can help us add to the debate and give us a very different view of the idea of God.

In this age of globalisation, advanced technology and scientific achievement it is amazing to find that so many people are still searching for God or for spiritual truth and enlightenment. Attitudes to God within Judaism today do not necessarily lend themselves to enlightened debate on the subject. Jews are often more concerned with Judaism, Israel, politics or the minutiae of observance. Jewish people can sometimes seem reluctant to engage in discussions about God; indeed it is surprising just how many Jews who whilst taking their Jewish ‘ethnicity’ seriously, do not even believe in God. On the other hand, many who do believe will not even pronounce his name let alone discuss Him with non-Jews. Of course it is right and proper that we should demonstrate respect for the Holy Name, at least as Jews we do understand the difference between the Holy and the Profane. Some of us await the imminent coming of Messiach who will surely rebuild the temple in Jerusalem whilst those who do not believe in God or strict observance as a way of expressing their Jewish-ness may perhaps regard the extended State of Israel as the ultimate Jewish destiny, a God-given right; regardless of the cost to either ourselves or our non Jewish neighbours. Please, note that I am not defending terrorist acts on any side.

Judaism contains an extensive sacred resource of mystical knowledge in the works of the Kabala. The Kabala contains much that can be misinterpreted and its apparent sexual references have often seemed to devalue its pure spiritual nature. As a result many Jews shun it altogether. It is also sad that in the same way as in India, unscrupulous people have jumped on the bandwagon of cults who wish to make money out of God and trivialise it by selling Kabalistic merchandise. One can buy ribbons and Holy Water for as little as $10; ‘blessed’ by so called rabbis and sold to the general public, which may rightly be considered to be blasphemous.

It is however fascinating to embark upon a journey to discover what the Kabala has to offer, beyond the context of strict observance or of its recent trivialisation. The Zohar is one of the largest books which comprise the total works of Kabala and in particular it contains much of potential interest that parallels the deepest spiritual mysteries that can be found elsewhere. It has not escaped the notice of some Jewish Authors (Matt, Kolb etc) that the Kabalistic system of the Tree of Life, the Grades, the Four Worlds and the Sephiroth bear more than a passing resemblance to Yogic tradition (after Patanjali and Shankaracharya for example). The knowledge of Chakras and mediation and the principle of Self Realisation is echoed in the Zohar and clearly points to the idea of the union of the individual with the Divine. Hitherto however few Jewish sources have been able to substantially elucidate what Judaism has to offer those who seek a deeper understanding of this area.

I hope that I will be forgiven if I use God’s Names in this article as I feel it important to make certain things explicit. Our own most sacred name of God, known by Christians as ‘Yahweh’ of the Old Testament receives quite a bashing nowadays from Atheists; to such an extent that even many Jews distance themselves from talking about Him publically. To illustrate; here is an extract from Richard Dawkins’ recent book, ‘the God Delusion’, telling us what he thinks about ‘Jahweh’; who he calls the ‘Supernatural’ Designer God:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction, jealous and proud of it, petty and unjust, an unforgiving control freak, a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal…..etc, etc (‘The God Delusion’ p50).

He later describes Judaism rather touchingly as:

(idem, p58.)‘ ...a tribal cult with a singular fiercely unpleasant god; morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe”.

Of course this demonstrates a breathtaking lack of respect for the name that we hold to be absolutely sacred. Many Atheists claim humanistic pretentions but lack of respect for others’ beliefs is not a notable humanistic quality. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with much that he and Hitchens (who is also apparently Jewish) have to say; indeed I share many of their concerns about fundamentalism and its’ over simplistic, literal belief in a supernatural God. Atheists cannot ‘prove’ the non existence of God any more than the faithful can prove His existence, so that argument although interesting, is in the final view ultimately inconclusive. Belief after all on either side, does not necessarily equate to reality. The Bible is a monumental literary work whether or not we believe in its literal truth. In the same way that we may criticise the fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible, an atheistic response that criticises it on the basis of its literal meaning is not necessarily any more logically valid. In addition despite the spate of ‘minimalist’ historiographic views over the past 30 years, (those supporting the view that the Bible is a myth), nothing that has so far been discovered in the archaeological record has seriously contradicted the basic historic context of the Israelites in Genesis and Exodus. (Professor of Archaeology, James Hoffmeier makes a compelling case for this in his book ’Israel in Egypt’).

It is strange to relate that in spite of such a spiritually rich tradition however, rarely if at all do we hear a rational intellectual Jewish voice defending ‘Yahweh’; in fact rarely do we hear of Jews seriously entering this debate at all. As an example, in June 2010 on no less than Richard Dawkins’ own forum, one student asks:

‘Hi, I am writing a dissertation for an MA degree on the Jewish responses to the new atheism. I was hoping you people could provide some direction to relevant source material since there actually doesn't seem to be too much.’


We do of course hear much from Jewish Atheists though (e.g. http://jewishatheist.blogspot.com), and it turns out that the ever TV-friendly face of Orthodox Judaism; R. Shmuel Boteach has also engaged in debate with the likes of Christopher Hitchins and Dawkins. Other Jewish voices such as David Wolpe are evident; for example in this highly entertaining article in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/02/AR2010070202450.html). Both Wolpe and Robert Levine have debated with and have written responses to ‘new wave’ Atheists. But perhaps it needs more than the standard religionist, traditionalist response to such debates, however witty. Perhaps it is no longer about blind faith or perceived gullibility any more than it is about scepticism or scathing doubt. People are demanding to know and they want direct experience. If they do not have that then they may understandably reject belief and faith on the grounds of their irrelevance; not to mention the trouble that religion has caused in the world in God’s name. To embark on the journey of experience is to be able to explore the genuine mystery behind religion rather than clinging to a set of beliefs and hopes rooted in a glorious past or in a highly volatile and uncertain political future. In a world where knowledge is an asset like material possession that can be ‘obtained’ pre digested, do we perhaps need to get back to the ‘attainment’ of real knowledge that comes from the wisdom of our inner self? Whereas once the earthly and heavenly, the inner and outer self were regarded as simply two aspects of existence, science has inadvertently compartmentalised the human experience. The body is treated as separate from the mind, the physical is differentiated from the non physical and we are separated from our inner experiences which are often regarded by professionals as unreal, imaginary and irrelevant.

What bugs atheists apart from religious bigotry, the tendency of the faithful to believe in the literal truth of Creation in Genesis 1 and the rejection of Darwinian evolution is the idea of the metaphysical or non-physical universe ruled by a ‘supernatural’ designer. The physical world can for our purposes here be defined as the observable, measurable Universe which is underpinned by the four fundamental forces of nature; that is Gravity, the Electromagnetic force plus the Strong and Weak forces that for example underlie atomic interactions, nucleosynthesis and radioactive decay. It most certainly needs no ‘designer’ to have brought all this into being and no fundamentalist will ever prove otherwise. The proposed existence of the non-physical world also presents serious problems to scientists because it is impossible to prove such beliefs experimentally in the laboratory. Logically we cannot know whether or not there is a world beyond the reach of the four forces of nature unless perhaps we look at our own inner processes. CG Jung (OK not Jewish...), in the 20th century demonstrated the effects on our psyche of what he called the Unconscious. Today the Unconscious which some believe to be a synonym for God, is a non-physical phenomenon but which is accepted by many Psychologists as a valid theoretical basis for effective psychotherapy. So can Science truly and unequivocally distinguish between what is physical and what is non-physical? Can we define where the truly objective external world meets the subjective inner world of experience, emotion, thought, desire, inspiration and love? Philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche came to the conclusion that there is probably no such thing as true detached rational objectivity and in fact everything is ultimately a subjective experience; even rationality and objective abstract ideas. This in no way devalues genuine and honest scientific method and research.

So what then of Yahweh? To answer this we need to refer to the Book of the Zohar. The Holy Name is in fact comprised of four letters; Y-H-V-H and is known by the Greek epithet ‘Tetragrammaton’. Although only one of many names of God that occur in the Bible, it is the most mysterious. Other names such as EL, ELOHIM, SHADDAI, ADONOI have clearer origins and some may even predate Judaism. Although the occurrence of this name in the Bible has been used by Christian Documentary Source scholars to assign Biblical authorship, the provenance of the Tetragrammaton itself is largely unknown. The Early books of the Kabala (eg the Sepher Yetzirah) were believed to have first been written down in the Holy Land by R. Simeon bar Yochai in the 1st Century CE having previously been presumably an Oral, unwritten tradition. The Zohar however was only written or at least compiled (depending on your view), in the late 13th Century by Spanish Scholar, Moses de Leon. The origin of Kabala itself is unknown, although it is believed to have originated from Abraham and from Moses on Mt Sinai; the symbology of the Four Worlds is thought to be based upon Ezekiel’s vision (Ez 1:1).

The Tetragrammaton is said to indicate the eternal nature of the Divine by containing the description of God; He was, He Is, He will be – Haya, Hoveh ve’yih’yeh, which is an anagram of YHVH. It is interesting to note that YHVH has something on common with the Sankrt word AUM, which is also said to denote the divine aspects of past, present and future. The first two letters of the Holy name are Yod and Heh. Y + H represents the Macrocosm and also the perfect Union of the Divine Mother AIMA,(Heh), with the Infinite Father (Yod); Ain Soph. In Scientific terms this state represents the primordial state of matter that we see for example at the instant of the Big Bang; the moment of inception of the Creation. Zohar itself means literally ‘flash of brilliance’. In that state all forces are in union, a unified field. Ain Soph is literally the Unified Field of all energies and One in itself; the state of non-duality. Yod is also known as Ehi’yeh, meaning existence itself. So God here is not really thought of as an individual Being, a ‘supernatural’ Designer but is the unified field of existence itself.

The second two letters are very interesting; Vav plus a second Heh. These represent the Microcosm. Human Beings are in this scheme considered to be the epitome of the universal microcosm. This represents the state of duality that we observe in our waking state; of male and female, of positive, negative and neutral, of all matter, energy and the four fundamental forces of nature differentiated into the cosmos that we live in. The Vav principle is also known to be that of the ‘Son’ which of course Christians interpret as Jesus. Whatever our current belief, this knowledge must at that time have had a firm basis in Jewish theology. The Son (Vav) in the Zohar is traditionally presumed to be ‘Israel’ and by means of the feminine power of Shechina ,or the Bride, (Heh) it is said that we may as human beings attain Union with the Divine. The Shechina therefore could be inferred to be the instrument by which we may know God. This has echoes in Eastern Yogic tradition which describes Kundalini as the instrument of enlightenment (e.g. Shankaracharya in his book, ‘Sundarya Lahari’ which means ‘Flood of Beauty).

Although some of this interpretation is my own, the knowledge described here can be found in the English translation of the Greater and Lesser Holy Assembly (sections of the greater Zohar) by McGregor-Mathers, in his English translation; ‘The Kabbalah Unveiled’. The description of the Divine Union referred to n this article is also described in the same publication. The idea of Divine Union in fact seems underlie the whole of mystical Judaism. Hitherto it has been little understood; that is until the modern age when we began to learn of parallel knowledge from Eastern cultures and their traditions. The recent discoveries of cosmology and quantum physics have helped enormously to increase our understanding of what was previously thought to be a highly predictable and mechanical universe. Our view of the Cosmos today could not be more different from that which we held only 150 years ago.

The five volumes of the ‘Soncino Zohar’ comprise the first part of the Zohar and present a commentary on the Pentateuch. Vol.1 describes the deeper meaning of the Genesis story of Creation and talks of ‘Ten Grades’ through which the pure unified energy of Ehi’yeh; the Ultimate descends through the Seven Days of Creation. Far from this being the literal history of the Fundamentalist - ‘Creation in a Week’ in the 38th century BC, one can infer all that is known by science and much beyond in this description. The first three Grades for example actually occur before the First Day of Creation. This multidimensionality and the possibility that there was existence before the Big Bang is something we are only just beginning to discover in Science.

What of the future? What can Judaism offer the rest of the world? The Torah teaches a highly advanced code of conduct that innately respects human life and dignity. From Genesis onwards it exhorts us to respect women, love our neighbours, even if they are non-Jews and to protect and respect animals. The principle of Divine Union that is described in quite some detail in parts of the Zohar is also the very same principle that appears in many other of the world’s scriptures but like many religious and cultural groups, we Jews feel intrinsically different to other races. Many Orthodox Jews believe that non-Jews do not even have a divine soul. The Jewish soul is the only soul blessed by God which precludes automatically any non Jew from gaining this blessing. Those with a more universal outlook might see this as nonsense; after all it does not explicitly say so in the Bible, although it is does seem to be suggested in parts of the Kabala. Then again Hindus see Atman (the eternal spirit) as universal but only those of Brahmin caste may attain it. Christians see God as One but only attainable through Jesus and the Church. So we are not the only ones with spiritually elitist ideas. Humanists and Atheists tend to see all humans as equal and that is in complete accord with all the genuine spiritual (as opposed to religious) traditions of the past. But how are Jews to offer anything more to the world than our hopes and vision of a potential third temple on Mount Zion or a Jewish state that occupies all of the Biblical promised lands without starting a new Middle East conflict perhaps worse than any that we have experienced so far?

Genesis may provide answers. Gen 2:2 states; ‘... and on the Seventh Day God rested’. Is it possible that we may not yet have fully grasped the full implication of this statement? Those who know the Zohar will understand the vastness and multidimensionality of the Creation that is contained in Genesis 1 once we know how to decode it. My forthcoming book, ‘the Seventh Day’ goes into much detail about this fascinating and deep subject, as well as examining our own confusing ideas in the West about God, Reality, Faith, Knowledge and Belief. According to the Idra Raba Kadusha, the Greater Holy Assembly, the Seventh Day is equivalent to the Sephira (emanation), ‘Kether’, which means Crown. Through the action of the Divine Mother in her microcosmic form (2nd Heh of JHVH) as Shechina in the Tenth Sephira; Malkuth, she may in certain circumstances unite with Ain Soph. And it is said; by this the Sons of David hope to know peace.

The hitherto obscure idea of the ‘Divine Union’ may also contain the real and deeper significance of the Shabbat. Perhaps that is why it was kept sacred for so many thousands of years and why it was embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The problem is that this understanding makes Judaism more similar to other religions than different. But if God is One then why should what our forefathers have found be any different in any essential way from the great seekers of other cultures? When God ‘rests’ it may be a way of saying that on the Seventh Day it will be us who will have to make the choice. If one day is a thousand years in the eyes of the Lord (to paraphrase Ps 90:4) and if the Hebrew Calendar is now approaching the Seventh Millennium, perhaps we have arrived at the Eve of our own ‘Seventh Day’. Recent history would tend to point to fundamental changes in the human state over the last 100 years. The word Yerushalayim means Peace, plural. This peace is synonymous with the Sephira, Kether. But it is highly unlikely that peace is going to come from the outside, from our political situation. It must surely come from each one of us, from within ourselves. That is perhaps why the world Yerushalayim is plural – peace plural perhaps means collective inner peace. So it may be we ourselves who have to find the peace that exists in Kether, perhaps we need to become our own saviours and our own Messiach. Only then will any outer peace be possible. This is a messagethat the whole world can benefit from, Jewish or not. The alternative might perhaps be too awful to contemplate.

* * * * *

Ray is currently looking for a visionary publisher for his forthcoming book ‘The Seventh Day’. He may be reached at his email: ray.harris3@virginmedia.com


from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (www.something.com)