For more than forty years I have devoted myself to both a serious investigation as well as the practical implementation of Kabbalistic teachings in my everyday life. For me "Kabbalah" was like a pair of old slippers, i.e. absolutely comfortable and easily slipped into, and it has remained so for the entire period that I have been associated with it. There are certainly times when I battle with the obscurities of the doctrines found in some of the primary texts, but, in the main, Kabbalah has served me well on many levels, whether these be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. In terms of my everyday existence, I have found the teachings of "Practical Kabbalah" especially meaningful, despite the endless warnings about these being "bad," and that I might incur "the wrath of the Almighty."
Of course, it is worth noting that "Kabbalah" and Orthodox Judaism have always been uneasy bedfellows. Sometimes they would be more or less comfortable in their relationship and need of each other, but at other times they would burst into open conflict. The strong messianic tendencies of certain Kabbalists, like for example Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, or, much further back, that of Abraham Abulafia, contributed to the notion amongst the orthodoxy that the tradition is a blasphemous quagmire out to snare the gullible. Yet, should the same Messianic tendency shine forth in what appears to be a most godly and sanctified individual, such as Rabbi Isaac Luria, then we can relax and bask in the glory of his "unique light," without any trepidation of being led up the garden path, so to speak.
We know that mysticism goes hand in hand with Judaism, as it does with other faiths, provided it stayed on the thin and narrow and managed to dress its visions, miracles, and what can only be termed "magical activities," in the garb of the formal and accepted religious views of the day. Step out of line, and that individual, who was deemed into manifestation in order to be redeemed in eternity, will be doomed by his peers unto the aeons. To put it simply, certain concepts of Kabbalah entered into mainstream Judaism, and comfortably remained there to this very day. These concepts mainly pertained to the speculative side of the Tradition. In fact, many Rabbis were both Kabbalists and orthodox religious leaders of their communities, as they are still today, with no particular problem one way or the other.
Having said that, I should also mention that some of them did keep their more "controversial" experiences and activities quite hidden for fear of rejection, as for example the case of Rabbi Joseph Caro and his Maggid clearly indicates. However, the more individualistic aspects of the tradition, such as "Practical Kabbalah," which patently involves magical practices, often led to a fracas everywhere, and yet there were again many orthodox Rabbis who beneficially utilized this forbidden zone of the tradition. In fact, many still do with their Kameot (Hebrew amulets), Segulot, Terufot, and magical use of holy writ. To this day the grave of Rabbi ben Duan in Wazzan outside Fez in Morocco, is used as a place where miraculous healings take place. Prior to his demise, the good Rabbi issued an instruction that a certain Kamea (amulet) should be engraved on his tombstone, which would then cause the grave itself to become a place of healing when the sick are placed on it. I can relate a first hand example of its effectiveness, but it will make this introduction much too lengthy. It would appear that the many people undertaking a healing pilgrimage to the good Rabbi’s tomb, is not bothering the orthodoxy unduly.
Naturally we need to recognise that the rise of pseudo-messiahs, such as the earlier mentioned Shabbetai Tzvi and Jacob Frank, contributed enormously towards the fall of Kabbalah from grace in the eyes of mainstream Judaism. Even more so after Shabbetai Tzvi’s conversion to Islam, following the Jewish authorities denouncement of him as a blasphemer to the Muslim authorities. He caused a lot of havoc with his enormous influence over thousands of Jews across the then "civilized" world, and naturally this was more than worrying to the rabbinical authorities who wanted to protect their flocks, and who could see Tzvi’s appeal as spelling disaster for Jewry as a whole. This was certainly a very dark period for both Kabbalah and Judaism alike. However, today Shabbatai Tzvi and his approach to both Kabbalah and Judaism, are understood in a much more open manner, and he appears less of a threat. The same cannot be said for "Practical Kabbalah," which is still drawing vehement condemnation from mainstream religious authorities.
I recently responded to a post online in which it was claimed that Joseph Karo, the great 16th century legalist and Kabbalist, referred to "Kabbalah Ma'asit" (Practical Kabbalah) in his Shulchan Aruch as "black magic." Seeking clarification I wrote:
"In the numerous pre-Lurianic Kabbalistic texts, as well as several subsequent works of the same genre penned by East European Baalei Shem, the term 'Kabbalah Ma'asit' referred to 'Practical Kabbalah' exclusively. There is no specific indication in these writings that the appellation 'Kabbalah Ma'asit' referred to 'Black Magic' per se. When exactly did it acquire the adverse connotation you are referring to?"To this I received the following response:
"Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De'ah.....laws of Avoda Zerah. The Shulchan Aruch makes very clear that Kabbalah Ma'asit is what the Torah was referring to when it spoke about magic. There are a few rare exceptions, but by and large that is the status."Since I could not find any reference to Kabbalah Ma'asit being "black magic" in the reference provided, I continued quizzing lest it appeared somewhere else in that authoritative legalistic tome, asking:
"Does the Shulchan Aruch use the specific appellative 'Black Magic' in reference to 'Kabbalah Ma'asit,' and does this turn astute and highly revered Kabbalists like Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Rabbi Moshe Zacutto, Rabbi Avraham Chamaui, et al, who openly shared techniques belonging to the 'Kabbalah Ma'asit' arena, into heretics who pandered what is forbidden? By the same token are 'Practical Kabbalistic' writings like the Sefer Raziel, Brit Menucha, Shorshei ha-Shemot, amongst others, considered 'black magic' texts?"In response I was told:
"Actually the Sh"A refers to black magic and all other forms of forbidden sorcery as Kabbalah Ma'asit. As well as enumerates the practices that are forbidden. Considering that R' Cordovero was actually a teacher of R' Karo, I would assume that R' Karo learned what was forbidden from him. Receipt and knowledge of Kabbalah ma'asit is not forbidden, its usage is. Read the introduction by R' Zecuto (who is post-Lurianic by the way) he specifically warns against the usage of what he has written. There are exceptions to this within the bounds of halacha, but one first must be a competent Rav versed in the applicable halachot to know what they are and when they can be properly applied."Realising the "deflective" nature of this response, the lack of direct textual references, the absurdity of the claim that it is in order to read and learn about Practical Kabbalah, but that you are not allowed to put such knowledge to practical use, and that I am not likely to get a clear answer to my query, I did not press for further details. It quickly became abundantly clear that pursuing the matter any further would just result in me listing more and more of those astute rabbis who did not only wrote about, but actually employed that which the individual in question termed "Black Magic," and likewise he will come back with a list of equally as many astute rabbis who decried "Practical Kabbalah." So why bother?
I thought the statement that Moses Cordovero was the teacher of Joseph Karo, and that the respondent assumed that accordingly "R' Karo learned what was forbidden from him," to be indeed most curious, since Cordovero himself freely shared techniques of the Kabbalah Ma'asit (Practical Kabbalah) genre in his Pardes Rimmonim (Garden of the Pomegranates). Joseph Karo was certainly not unfamiliar with the more "extreme aspects" of Kabbalah. After all, he diligently kept a diary, albeit a secret one, of his clairvoyant channelling of a Maggid, a heavenly spirit mentor, and he apparently left his mark in the local lore of Nicopolis, the town in which he grew up, where visitors are still shown Karo's Kan Gishmi (Fountain of Blood), a spot where it is said he "performed miracles." One wonders if the latter were of the "Practical Kabbalah" variety?
Regarding Moses Zacutto's warning "against the usage of what he has written," we know that he personally employed many of the magical techniques he listed so openly and enthusiastically in his Shorshei ha-Shemot (Roots of Names) and Sefer ha-Sodot she-Kibbalti mi Rabbotai (The Book of Secrets I Received from My Masters). In fact, in many instances he affirmed the efficacy of these procedures with the phrase "tested by me," and hence J.H. Chajes appears to be correct in his observation that Zacutto "assembled this magical material for practical and not merely theoretical purposes." It is also curious, as also noted by Chajes, that both Chaim Vital, of Lurianic fame, and his son Samuel did not hesitate to consult with Muslim magicians when they felt it necessary to do so!!