So, I asked someone who’s a good source for these kinds of questions, and this is what he said is the essence of Kabbalah:
In Judaism, there are 6 “constant mitzvot” (i.e. the obligation and opportunity to perform them is always there as long as you are alive and conscious; they are not dependent on any factor outside of that)
- Knowing there is a G-d
- Not having any other gods
- Unifying G-d (i.e. appreciating that G-d is One)
- Loving G-d
- Fearing G-d
- Not straying after your heart and eyes
These are all biggies - but how do we do them on more than a simplistic level?
Take Unifying G-d, for example. On the simple level, I know that G-d is one and not two. Going deeper, I appreciate that G-d doesn’t have any constituent “parts” to Him. He is Infinite, and Infinite existence can’t have any limits or boundaries anywhere, in space or in time (otherwise it would be finite, not infinite). Going deeper, I realize that if Infinite existence can’t have any limits, then it must encompass everything, everywhere, all at once, all together.
And there we run into an issue - because if G-d is the Infinity, the Everythingness, then how do I exist? How does this finite universe exist, apart, as it is, from the Infinity?
Kabbalah is the part of Torah that directly relates to that question. While we can’t know about the nature of G-d itself (known as Infinity’s Essence), since finite minds can’t grasp the nature of Infinity, we can have some insight into the aspects of G-d that He reveals to us via His interaction with His finite creation (known as Infinity’s Will).
So Kabbalah is the study of the nature of the finite universe G-d created, how that can logically work (to have a finite universe co-existing with Infinity), and how G-d interacts with the finite world (again, as perceived over here, on the finite side of things).
The deeper your appreciation and understanding of these areas, your deeper your ability to fulfill the mitzvah of Unifying G-d.
The same goes for the constant mitzvot of Knowing there is a G-d, Loving G-d and Fearing G-d. You can fulfill them on the simple level of appreciating G-d’s power and His bestowing goodness upon us. But the deeper your appreciation of the Infinity, its creation of the finite and interaction with that finite, the more your love and fear can reach new heights.
The deeper understanding of Kabbalah means we can do these mitzvot better.
That’s the “kosher” motivation for learning Kabbalah - to be able to love, fear and unify G-d at the highest level possible.
There are “non-kosher” motivations also, as @Melinda and @Sarah alluded to above. The most common non-kosher motivation is the desire to “feel spiritual.” A person is drawn to mysticism, mysteries or spirituality, and he thinks that learning Kabbalah will make him feel more spiritual.
The problem? There’s no value in Judaism in “feeling spiritual” - that’s the kind of value that back in the day led to idol worship and false prophets. In Judaism, there’s only value in being spiritual - and that takes a lot of work. Work on character traits, work on overcoming desires, work on learning and practicing skills. Being spiritual a challenging road that requires patience and committment.
Just as one example, any real works of Kabbalah need to be learned and understood with the same analytical tools that one uses for Gemara study. Those tools themselves take a skilled mentor to teach and guide your practice. It takes a significant time period (usually years) just to gain the tools to approach higher, deeper levels of Jewish learning. Like any craft from weaving to chess to playing the violin, the beginning stages require a lot of discipline and are not always much “fun.” Like any craft, the resulting achievements when you reach the level of master craftsman are worth it 1000x over - but 99% of people will drop off before they get anywhere because “it’s too much work.”
That’s the only way you’re going to get real spirituality out of works of Kabbalah. “Reading” books of Kabbalah might make one “feel” spiritual, but in terms of actual understanding, it’s kind of like reading Gemara in a really bad translation without understanding most of the key words. If you assume you can draw conclusions about Jewish law out of a Gemara reading like that, you’re going to make lots of erroneous legal decisions, and likely end up with more sins than mitzvot.
The same goes for Kabbalah. If one learns Kabbalah without the appropriate preparation - mentor, tools, practice, skills, kosher motivation, etc. - he’s going to come to a bunch of erroneous conclusions about G-d and His created universe. The conclusions might be so erroneous that they would actually put him in the category of heretic. (Yeah, that’s pretty bad. That would be why Kabbalah study isn’t encouraged unless someone is appropriately motivated, committed and prepared.)
I haven’t asked Madonna what her reasons were for learning Kabbalah, but I think we could all take an educated guess. I don’t think she put in years of study of the analytical tools with which to learn Gemara before she cracked open a translated Kabbalah book. And if you’re studying Kabbalah for the right reasons, it will translate into your actions and performance of the mitzvot. That is, after all, the whole idea.
That said, there are books that have simplified concepts of Kabbalah that can be appreciated by an amateur without the danger of heresy. These concepts - more like advanced philosophy - can enhance your love of G-d, fear of G-d and appreciation of G-d’s Unity. Here’s a recommended reading list (to be read in this order):
- Derech Hashem (The Way of G-d) - by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato
- Daas Tevunos (The Knowing Heart) - by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato
- Inner Space - by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
- Klalim Rishonim (no English translation available) - by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato
- P’tach Sha’ar Shamayim (no English translation available) - by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel (he also discusses how you know if you are ready to move onto deeper works of Kabbalah)
(Side point: There are also other concepts that Kabbalah talks about, such as the nature of the soul, reward and punishment, etc., but they are more as outgrowths of the main thrust as described above.)
Well, I have to thank all of you - because I certainly learned a lot from this!