Jews and religion


Just as within the broad Christian community there are different types of churchmanship with  variations on theology and practices, so it is with the Jewish community.  A number of Jews are secular.  They recognise their Jewish ethnicity but do not practise the religion.  A smaller number are orthodox; these are highly religious, holding fast to the historical tenets of the faith.  A growing number have recognised Jesus Christ as their Messiah and have become Christians, often referred to as Messianic Jews.

Another significant group are Hasidic; they have specific beliefs based on Jewish Kabbalah, and it is the beliefs of this group that we will examine in this article.

What is Kabbalah?

Kabbalah combines aspects of the occult and mysticism and is gaining popularity today, largely because celebrities such as Madonna and Demi Moore are associated with it.  It can be traced back to the first century AD when Jews were preoccupied with the Hebrew language and with numbers, both of which are key features in Kabbalah.

The development of Kabbalah

We need to look at the first century AD to understand how Kabbalah became rooted in Jewish thinking.  By the end of the 1st century AD, the Council of Jamnia was convened to redefine Judaism in light of the situation they encountered.  With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans, they now had no temple, no blood sacrifice, and therefore no means for forgiveness of sins.  Instead, good works became paramount in Jewish thinking and Gnosticism (esoteric knowledge) was becoming popular.


Over the next three centuries the Jewish Talmud developed.  This is a number of documents based on Jewish oral traditions which supplement the ‘Law, Prophets and Writings,' i.e. the Jewish scriptures or Old Testament of the Bible.  The Talmud incorporated Jewish civil and religious law and came to supersede the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, known as the Law).  The Jews venerated the Rabbis who interpreted the Talmud above the texts themselves. 

It was from the musings of the Rabbis that Kabbalah (meaning 'received tradition') emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries.  In the Talmud, 'Kabbalah' refers to the Prophets and Haggiographia which are not in the Torah or in the Jewish oral traditions.  Kabbalah, or esoteric theosophy, became crystallised in Spain and Provence at that time.  Today, Kabbalah refers to mystic and esoteric aspects of Judaism stemming from the 13th century.

Kabbalah disciplines were limited to an elite.  Secret societies of disciples developed around a mystical teacher, particularly within Hasidic Judaism (hasid means a pious or righteous person).  There was a strong emphasis on the hidden codes in the Torah, and an art form of the names of God with magical powers developed.  The secrets of the Hebrew alphabet were studied in great depth.

Spreads across Europe

Kabbalah spread across Europe in the 15th century with the expulsion of all the Jews from Spain in 1492.  Over the next couple of centuries different strands developed, based on the revelations of key Kabbalah scholars such as Isaac Luria (1534-1572) and Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676).  Another couple of centuries later, Polish Hasidism developed.  They consciously replicated the traditional strict rituals of Judaism, spoke the Yiddish language, dressed distinctively, and each community developed their own distinctive version and beliefs.

Their core belief was that everything emphasises God’s presence in their lives.  By cultivating an awareness of God’s presence they had insight into God’s inner life, thus giving them a connection with God.  Israel ben Eliezer (or Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Divine Name) is a key name from this era.  His goal was to spread the essence of Kabbalah by learning from the elite and spreading the knowledge to the masses of Eastern Europe.  He had many disciples.  Hasidism was banned by some Jews as heretical, e.g. by Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon (Vilna Gaon).

Interestingly, the majority of victims in the holocaust in Hitler’s Germany were Hasidic Jews, and therefore associated with Kabbalah.  Today there are 300,000 Hasidic Jews worldwide and new Kabbalah centres have been created.

Major books of Kabbalah

Book of Creation (emphasis on the Hebrew alphabet) and Book of Brightness (the parallel between God and the female deity Shekinah).

Core beliefs of Kabbalah

Kabbalah’s aim is to re-establish the nature of the Godhead.  Humanity can redeem the Godhead, which is in disarray.  God made a mistake in creation and Israel brings redemption to God.  The elite within Israel assists in the repair of the universe (the evil shards are dissipated).  The Godhead is unknowable, non-finite, divine nothingness.  The details of Israel’s history through the centuries are symbols of the inner life of God.  Thus the behaviour of the true Israel affects/manipulates God.  The Torah is seen as the name of God; the Torah created the universe.  The Godhead is seen as many inter-related elements.  The Supreme Crown is at the apex and there are 10 other elements.  These constitute the 10 pillars of the Kabbalah.  Each relates to a part of the human body.  Man is seen as the image of God, and God as the image of man.  See the Tree of Life opposite.

Hasidic interpretation of the Torah

They look at the text in four different ways - literal, allegorical, hermeneutical(practical application) and mystical.  The Hebrew initial letters for these disciplines are PRDS (which is the spelling of the Hebrew word for Garden or Paradise).  The Mystical (Sod) inferences of this were developed by Moses de Lyon, author of Sefer ha-Zohar, in the 11th century.  It indicates limitless conjectures, e.g. 332 ways of interpreting one phrase in Deut 3:23.  Alphabetical and numerical mysticisms developed by examining the minutiae of the Jewish texts.

Why is an understanding of Kabbalah important?

The rise in popularity in Kabbalah is evident; see how many books on the subject are available in your local bookshop!  As a deviant from orthodox Judaism, and because of its mystical qualities reminiscent of New Age and Neo-Pagan spirituality, we consider Kabbalah to be a significant deception, drawing people into the realm of the occult, which the Bible expressly forbids.

Other types of Judaism in Britain

In Britain several types of Judaism are practised.  We’ll look at some of these.


The Assembly of Masorti Synagogues says this:

Masorti is traditional Judaism practised in a spirit of open-minded enquiry and tolerance.  Masorti Judaism accepts the binding force of Jewish law, and understands that it has developed throughout history.

Masorti synagogues are traditional in that they follow the standard prayerbook and read the Torah according to the annual cycle.  The difference between Masorti and any other traditional synagogue is that Masorti recognises that the Talmud permits some practises which orthodox synagogues don’t carry out.  Masorti allow these, which include letting women read the Torah and allowing men and women to sit together.  The exact way in which services are carried out varies from synagogue to synagogue and depends on the wishes of the congregants who meet in each one.

Liberal Judaism

The Liberal Judaism web site says this:

Liberal Judaism is the dynamic, cutting edge of modern Judaism.  Liberal Judaism reverences Jewish tradition and seeks to preserve the values of the Judaism of the past while giving them contemporary force.  It aspires to a Judaism that is always an active force for good in the lives of Jewish individuals, families and communities today and equally makes its contribution to the betterment of society.

Liberal Jews are non-authoritarian and each congregation is self-governing.  They have a strong intellectual tradition and they interpret Judaism in the light of modern scholarship, thinking and morality.  They are opposed to the strict obedience to the law upheld by orthodox Jews.

Liberals encourage Jews to assess the Jewish laws according to their practicality in modern culture, so there’s no obligation to keep the dietary laws.  Liberal Judaism is more radical than UK Reform Judaism, and encourages people to make their own decisions within the Jewish framework but to question the framework. 

Liberal Judaism is part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and is the largest grouping of Jews in the world, numbering around 1.7 million.

Kabbalah combines aspects of the occult and mysticism and is gaining popularity today, largely because celebrities such as Madonna and Demi Moore are associated with it

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