a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript - July 18, 1999
Mike Feder: Good evening, here we are
again for another edition of Toward a Meaningful Life with
Simon Jacobson. Iím your host Mike Feder. Tonightís show
is going to be on the Kabbalah, but first, before we do tonightís
program, let me tell you that we got a big response to last
weekís show, "Men and Women," or "Battle of
the Sexes," which is such a powerful and complex subject
that we want to do a Part Two. So, after tonightís show, the
show next week will be "Battle of the Sexes: Part Two."
So we want you to think about that and send us your questions
for this program, and write down the number in the studio
here at WEVD because we want you to call in about this subject,
"Battle of the Sexes." The number for listener call-in
lines is 212-244-1050, so get your questions ready for next
Tonight weíre going to talk about Kabbalah.
Hereís my initial question and I donít know anything about
this, so Iím just going to sit here and learn about this.
The question is, what is Kabbalah, and what
is the history and the origin of it? And let me throw in an
ancillary question, which is, what is mysticism?
Jacobson: Kabbalah has become a very
intriguing topic of late. I see the media interest in it accelerating
and you often hear about the different celebrities involved
in Kabbalah, so itís definitely a subject that I findóin my
travels and in my classes, and places where I speakópeople
are definitely very intrigued by it.
The word Kabbalah itself can draw a considerably
large crowd to any discussion. And Iíve been wondering why
thatís the case. Is it because of its exotic nature, because
Kabbalah is associated with the school of mysticism and its
secrets, and these unknown secrets are suddenly being opened
up? Or is it for some other reason, which I think we can explore
as well in this show.
But I think your question is most appropriate,
which is to begin at the beginning: What exactly is Kabbalah,
what does it mean, what are its origins, and how does it compare
to Jewish mysticism in general?
So Kabbalah is a word in Hebrew that means literally,
"reception," to receive. This refers to the reception
of student from teacher in a long, unbroken chain of esoteric
teachings of Jewish mysticism, the most classical text of
Kabbalah known to most people being the Zohar, authored by
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who lived approximately 2,000 years
But Kabbalistic texts have existed throughout
the ages. The book considered to be the first Kabbalistic
text is the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation.
Some attribute its authorship to Abraham.
Then thereís a book called Raziel HaMalach,
which is talking about an angel called Raziel. And
some attribute that book to Adam.
So you see, Kabbalah is something that goes
back to the beginning of time, and itís always been taught
only from teacher to student; never in a formal, organized
way, which weíll also discussówhat exactly the traditional
conditions are for the study of Kabbalah.
But let me describe the Kabbalah itself, which
also addresses the question, what is mysticism? So to use
the Zoharís analogyóand I think itís appropriate to use metaphors
and analogies from Kabbalistic texts themselves which will
be an educational experience in itselfóthe Zohar says that
everything in this universe has a body and a soul, including
the teachings of Torah.
So thereís the body of Torah and thereís the
soul of Torah. You can compare it to the body and spirit of
anything. You have, for example, a body of a book (the words,
the physical paper), but the spirit, the soul of it, is between
So in essence the body of Torah is the legal
Talmudic dimension, which tells you what the laws are: Thou
shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, keep the Shabbos, eat
kosher, keep the laws of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur.
So thatís called the body of Torah.
The soul of Torah doesnít discuss how you do
it, but why you do it. What cosmic impact it has. What personal
impact, what spiritual impact. So essentially itís the spiritual
dimension, that when fused together with the body part, create
one entire whole.
The Kabbalah is, in essence, the study of that
spirit, of that inner dimension that corresponds to every
aspect that exists in the exoteric, so thereís a parallel
in the esoteric. On the external, thereís something corresponding
on the internal level.
In that context, Kabbalah not some new creation
or new study, but really is part and parcel of what Torah
is all about. However, there are, so to speak, limitations
or, better said, specific criteria of how one studies the
Kabbalah. Because of its spiritual nature, it makes it more
difficult to master and more difficult to relate to.
Thereís a famous line that they usually say
about Kabbalah which is that those who know, donít say, and
those who say, donít know.
Because youíre dealing with a subtle, sublime
dimension of things, so itís not the same as when youíre dealing
with things on a very legal, law level, commandment level.
"Thou shalt not steal" is pretty obvious;
everyone understands that. But the Kabbalistic dimension gets
into what the implications are: What spiritual damage is created
when a person does steal, besides the ethical elements? What
are the deeper dimensions? Does it put the universe out of
whack in some way? How does it affect the relationship between
So Kabbalah deals with a much more complex area; as complex
as the legalities are, it gets much more complicated when
youíre dealing with the sublime, which is more the invisible.
Feder: Is that what mysticism might be
Jacobson: To put it in the context of
mysticism, I donít know how mysticism is translated in other
schools of thoughtóeach one has its own interpretationóbut
the Kabbalah in one way is what I just described as the soul
of the Torah.
I would add one thing, which will make it more
universal and parallel with mysticism in general: the Kabbalah
in a sense is also the building blocks, the spiritual DNA
of the universe. Understanding the Kabbalistic system in a
way is understanding the matter, the stuff, of which existence
is made of, because the Kabbalah discusses the inner workings.
So if a physicist would give us the physicistís map of the
universe, and a chemist would give us the chemical map, and
a biologist would give us the biological map, a Kabbalist,
a mystic, would give us the mystical map, which means that
for everything in existence, thereís also a spiritual counterpart.
Iíll just use the classical example: fire and
water, two of the most basic elements. In the Kabbalistic
system, theyíre building blocks, which weíll discuss a little
later. The building blocks of existence, of the universe,
consists of ten spheres. Which gets complicated because these
ten multiply many times over, but for instance when you say
"water," water is the physical manifestation of
a spiritual counterpart called chessed, which is love.
So Kabbalah sees the physical world as metaphor
and beyond metaphor. The soul of water is love. The soul of
fire is discipline, fear. This also explains the colors of
water and fire, blue and red respectively, each color having
a corresponding dimension and personality.
Essentially, the Kabbalah is giving us a deeper
internal map of existence, of phenomenon, of experiences around
us. So when you talk about Kabbalah you should also add that
itís hard to quantify because the Kabbalah itself has many
schools of thought (Iím talking about its origins), and I
could break them down into categories:
There is Biblical Kabbalah, for instance, the
is structured around the portions in the Torah, so the Torah
has 52 portions, the Zohar has a section on each of those
portions. So it essentially gives you the Kabbalistic interpretation
of the Biblical stories.
But thereís another part of the Kabbalah which
could be characterized as philosophical Kabbalah, an example
of that would be the works of Reb
Moshe Cordevero (the Ramak), a contemporary of
Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) who, in the 16th
century, wrote a classical book called The Pardes, which
means, The Garden, in which he discusses the philosophical
dimension of Kabbalah. He explains issues such as G-dís unity,
of good and evil, etc.
And thereís a part of the Kabbalah which is
very technical, called the kavannah, or inner intention
of what a person should think about when he or she prays,
the inner meditations, how each prayer, whether itís the Shema
or another prayer, it has a deeper meaning behind it.
So I just gave you three different, so to speakónot
necessarily conflictingóschools of thought within the Kabbalah:
Biblical Kabbalah (also called Classical Kabbalah), Philosophical
Kabbalah, and Applied Kabbalah which is connected to how to
pray and how you do a mitzvah, what you should think about,
what you should meditate on when you give someone charity,
things of that nature.
And then thereís a final category called Kabbalah
maaseis, which literally means Kabbalah in action,
but itís applied Kabbalah where people used the mysterious
names of G-d and different amulets not to perform magic, but
to suspend the laws of nature. For example, they say that
the Maharal of Prague built the golem, a "dummy."
Itís a famous story that in Prague the Maharal took dust from
the ground and created this, so to speak, "Frankenstein,"
but not a monster, but someone that protected the Jews at
Feder: So there is an element of "magic"
involved in this.
Jacobson: Well, that is the area of Kabbalah
which should be most avoided because, first of all, do we
have anyone today who really masters that? It can be very
much abused, and itís an area that Iíd rather not discuss
because I know so little about it. As I said earlier, those
who know donít say, and those who say, donít know. So Iím
in the category of if I say anything, you would clearly point
out that I donít know anything, so Iíd rather notÖ
Feder: You mean, when it comes to the
magical aspects of itÖ
Jacobson: Right. And also, as I said,
if a holy person knows how to use that, itís one thing, but
for the rest of us it becomes a little more sensational than
real, so itís important to avoid the sensational part of it.
So essentially Kabbalah is a very vast, wide
body of workÖ
Feder: You could spend your life studying
this every day, right?
Jacobson: Yes. A body of work that goes
back thousands of years, and different areas of Kabbalah touch
upon different areas of interpretation as I described.
For those listeners who are academically inclined
or are familiar with or interested in knowing some of the
books involved, as I said, the Sefer Yetzirah is considered
to be the first work, or the Raziel HaMalach as
I mentioned earlier.
The Zohar (sometimes called the Holy Zohar)
is the classical work of Kabbalah which was written close
to 2,000 years ago, but there are other books that follow
the Zohar, for example, the Sefer HaBahir, meaning,
The Book of Illumination. (By the way, Zohar also means
illumination). Often the names of Kabbalistic books are very
connected to light, illumination. First of all, light is one
of the metaphors used for Divine expression.
Now, after the Sefer HaBahir, thereís
a book called the Sefer HaTemunah, The Book of Portraits,
the Sefer Hakanah. Then a Torah commentator, Nachmanides,
was a famous Kabbalist (Iím just going through the centuries),
and then, one of the most famous of Jewish Kabbalists is Isaac
Luria, who lived in the 16th century, known as
the Holy Arizal, who lived in Sefat, in the northern part
of Israel. He is considered to be the preeminent, not
exactly modern, (in the last 500 years) authority on Kabbalah.
In a sense, it passed on through him, who was considered to
be a holy man, a mystic, and interestingly, his students were
some of the greatest leaders, the people who codifed Jewish
law (Joseph Caro), his other contemporaries.
Isaac Luria was the one who really revealed
dimensions of Torah that were hitherto unknown, particularly
in the area of understanding the cosmic dimension: how G-d
creates a universe, how a human being interacts with G-d.
One of the classical concepts that the Holy Ari revealed was
the concept of tzimtzum.Tzimtzum means contraction
of light, where he gave an analogy to understand how an infinite
G-d could create a finite universe, and how do you bridge
the gap of two such dichotomous, or antithetical realities
like heaven and earth. He explains it with the
concept of a tzimtzum, which is similar to a teacher
who condenses or contracts his brilliant ideas in order to
allow a small, narrow stream of information to flow to the
So thatís a metaphor used to understand this
type of relationship. Now although this stream of light condenses
it, it in no way compromises it, because within that information
lies all the intelligence and brilliance of the master teacher.
Feder: You have to decode it.
Jacobson: Right. Decode it and climb
the ladder. I want to continue regarding the Arizal. The Arizal
had many students who continued to perpetuate the teachings,
and these students became more and more known; as a matter
of fact, the Arizal had a famous student named Reb Chaim Vital,
who really was the one who wrote down all the teachings that
he heard from his great master.
Itís interesting to note that the Arizal only
lived to age 38, and most of his teachings took place in the
last year or two of his lifetime.
So Reb Chaim Vital continued perpetuating these
teachings and as the generations pass (the last 500 years),
the birth of the Chassidic movementówhen we talk about the
chassidim, the Rebbes, the Baal Shem Tovóis, in a sense, a
continuation of the Kabbalistic tradition with a Chassidic
dimension in it, but it continued to perpetuate what is considered
to be the inner dimension, the esoteric dimension of Torah
Feder: And this developed in Central
and Eastern Europe?
Jacobson: Right. And in essence itís
seen today by Torah authorities that though Kabbalah has to
be studied in a restricted way, there are certain elements
of Chassidic thought, based on Kabbalah, that are a necessity
today to survive in a world that is so materialistic, and
as we see today, many people are turning toward spirituality.
Itís difficult today to just demand or ask many young people
today to just follow dogmatically and blindly rules and lawsÖ
it sometimes requires the esoteric or spiritual dimension:
for example, what this does for the neshamah, or soul.
Even for people who are completely dedicated to tradition,
though perhaps Kaballah itself is not what should be studied,
there are elements of it which are gleaned and discussed in
Chassidic teachings which are considered to be a mandatory
study because it helps a person connect their Judaism, their
commitments, their traditions to G-d and to having a personal
relationship with G-d.
I think this is a brief overview, as brief as
one can be in describing an entire body of work.
Feder: Thatís concentrating a lot of
Jacobson: It would be like asking me,
"What is medicine?" I just want you to understand
that if someone didnít know what medicine was, how would you
capture it? So medicine, obviously, is the study of the body
and how it works, but medicine has many schools of thought:
you have neurology, the circulatory system, etc.
Itís the same with Kabbalah. Kabbalah is the
study of the soulóto sum it up.
Feder: Which is in everything,
Jacobson: Exactly. The human soul within
the human being and the soul within existence. And essentially
as complex as the study of the body is, the study of the soul
is equally as complex, if not more so because of its sublime
and invisible nature. You canít study a soul in the sense
that you canít put it under a microscope.
Feder: Okay. Letís take a quick break
here. Youíre listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, and this is
Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. My name
is Mike Feder and weíre here every Sunday night from 6-7pm
and youíre listening to WEVD, 1050AM in New York City.
This show is an outgrowth of the Meaningful
Life Center in Brooklyn, and this show is also based very
much on Rabbi Jacobsonís book called Toward a Meaningful
Life, in which almost every subject that you hear discussed
on the air here is discussed in the book.
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Iíd like to also tell you that we have a new
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Letís just plunge right back into this because
it is so fascinating to me. I just want to tumble in with
One or two questions to anchor it factually:
I was looking in this "tome" I have, the Oxford
Dictionary of Religions, which suggests or implied (and
this may be totally wrongóevery article doesnít have to be
rightóbecause there may be some other influences that are
not just exclusively Jewish influences that are in the Kabbalah)
that there may be an interaction of various mystical traditions,
perhaps even Christian or Eastern that may have gotten involved
in this, because the truth is, a lot of what youíre explaining
sounds very much like the core and essence of a lot of major
religions in the world, where thereís a soul and a force which
Jacobson: My response to that would
be that first of all, Judaism in general, is quite an ancient
religion and tradition, and the other major religions either
directly or indirectly follow Judaism. Christianity and Islam
particularly, both historically in time, but also their basis
is that first there was the prophet Moses, and so on and so
So I would say that they have been influenced
by Jewish thought rather than to say that they influenced
Jewish thought, because Jewish thought preceded that. And
Iím not pulling rank here, but the fact is, that Islam and
Christianity came later.
Feder: But Eastern religions?
Jacobson: Regarding Eastern religions,
interestingly (and Iím not trying to monopolize anything),
but the fact is that the Bible says the following statement:
Abraham sent some of his children and students to the East
and sent them with many gifts.
The consensus is that the gifts were wisdom.
Now, youíve heard the term Brahman? Many attribute that to
Feder: Is that like an actual word root
Jacobson: Yes, definitely. Actually Brahman
is a rearrangement of the letters in Abraham. Because the
source of Abrahamóeven in Islam you say Ibraham.
Jacobson: So Brahman is very much connected
and associated with that. Now, this by no means is trying
to suggest that thereís no legitimacy to the other systems,
but I frankly see parallels between different mystical systems
as a tribute that there are certain eternal truths that are
ingrained in our systems.
You, Mike, may never have studied any type of
mysticism yet there are certain truths you may have come to
through your experienceóeither good experiences or painful
Feder: Just by being a human being.
Jacobson: Right, exactly. And the fact
that you meet someone somewhere who says, you know, thatís
a very mystical concept or idea, just from my point of view,
just testifies to the truth that truth resonates, and you
will find it many different places, sometimes through individual
search, sometimes in a more formal way.
I would say that Kabbalah is a formal text and
scholarly work that documents it all, but much of it does
exist, and you will find parallels of it, in other systems.
And my style is not to go ahead and make comparisons, i.e.,
which is better, etc., but the point is that truth is truth
and it resonates.
The similarities that the universe is not just
a material machine, but thereís a spirit behind it, is obviously
universal to all spiritual/religious schools of thought and
Now regarding the actual discussion itself,
how that soul is understood, you will find differences in
different schools of mysticism. But the Kabbalah is a very
self-contained system and doesnít really depend upon or lean
on other systems. It has its own rules and its own approach,
and I would rather leave it to the student to compare and
say, okay, how does that compare to other schools of thoughtÖ
Feder: Since you mentioned such a good
answer to that question, since you mentioned student, you
said before, and I think everything youíve said before more
or less answers this question but Iíll ask it again, that
this is the kind of thing thatís traditionally studied person
to person, in other words, this is taught from a master to
a student. This is not the kind of thing that you get a whole
bunch of people in a classroom or auditorium like in a university
and you lecture them about it. Now why is this?
Jacobson: Good segue. As I mentioned
earlier as well, Kabbalah means reception. And itís interesting
that a mystical study or esoteric scholarship should be called
reception. Now there are seemingly other names that you can
give it. But I think there is an inherent component in the
word reception that really captures the power of Kabbalah
and that is, that itís not just an academic study of facts.
It really is an experience more than a study. And experience,
as we know, cannot be passed on through fax machines and computers
and books alone.
Feder: Or lectures.
Jacobson: Right. You need the human touch.
So itís not incidentalóyou know, in some systems itís incidental,
that is, the only way that a student can study is that there
needs to be a teacher. But in Kabbalah itís inherent that
it be studied teacher to student, because that teacher knows
whatís between the linesóthe spirit, the experienceóso itís
almost like a guide whoís teaching you how to live it, not
just how to understand it.
Kabbalah is much more about living than understanding.
Thatís why the Kabbalists were also very careful whom they
taught because they didnít want it to become detached from
a personís life. In other words, the most vulgar thing, the
most abusive thing for a Kabbalist would be if someone studies
it and behaves contrary to what they studied. In other words,
personal refinement goes hand in hand with the study.
Feder: So in other words, a student,
and this is the same in other traditions, has to prove that
he or she is truly interested and sincere before he is accepted.
Jacobson: Right, exactly. And thatís
the only way that that student would be worthy. So thatís
one concept, the idea of a "chain" of teacher to
student and human experience thatís passed on, that goes beyond
words, that canít just be documented on paper.
An additional point is that the Kabbalah also
means that the state of mind that you have to be in when youíre
studying it is not of an arrogant, egotist whoís a masterÖ
Feder: Ah. Receptive.
Jacobson: You feel like youíre receptive.
You have to feel like youíre a receptacle. And interestingly,
that would lead to the final point I want to make which is
that essentially the Kabbalah is meant to teach us how we
all become receptors, that we are all really here on earth
to be a channel for higher truths.
See, most of us, or all of us initially in our
lives, are self-contained individualsówith an egoóand our
main agenda is to take care of ourselves. So essentially,
youíre here to serve yourself.
One of the primary teachings of the Kabbalah
is, no, youíre not here to serve yourself, youíre here on
a mission to serve a Higher cause. And your personality, your
talents, your strengths, your unique faculties are really
all channels for something greater and higher.
Now, creative people talk about this a lot,
about being a channel for higher wisdom, for example, they
say, I allow it to travel through my arm, my hand.
Feder: A lot of writers say that they
take dictation rather than think it themselves.
Jacobson: Right. But in the Kabbalah
itís more comprehensive in that all your life is dedicated
to that. You sit down at a meal, you walk in the street, youíre
running your business. So even if youíre not a Kabbalist,
the message of Kabbalah is that youíre here to be a channel,
youíre not just here to sustain yourself, to make money, to
eat, indulge and have fun. Youíre here to be a channel, a
receptacle, Kabbalah, to be like an open container, to be
receiving something greater and it should be channeled through
you into this world, and in some way transform your little
That is, in essence, one of the most important
and relevant messages of the Kabbalah to each of us. So in
that context you understand why itís so critical to be taught
in the right environment, or else, it lends itself to exotic
The fact is, people often ask me about palm
reading, fortune telling, seeing the future, stars, astrology,
dream interpretation, reincarnation.
Now, take any one of these topics, and people perk up. And
I always wondered why. Is it because theyíre so academic and
I would say that most people perk up because
itís exotic. Itís exotica, itís unknown. Itís the curiosity
that each of us has in the area thatís unknown. Thatís one
part of it. Another part of it is that in some way if itís
not dealt with maturely, itís almost like a distraction, like
a cop-out. That if you knew that you were a frog in a previous
lifetime or something else, then it almost explains your life.
Or if you knew your future destiny it frees you of responsibility
in a way.
Feder: So youíd be fatalistic and you
wouldnít aspire to anything higher or change.
Jacobson: And unfortunately, or really
fortunately, life is not that way. We were empowered with
free will. It may not be wise for you to know your destiny
and exactly what will happen in the future, or where you come
from, what you were in previous lives.
If that knowledge helps you to be a better person
and live your life in a more responsible way, itís one thing.
But I would tend to think that many people, when they know
that, do not necessarily become more responsible, itís a flight
into a world that is exotic, unknown.
As I heard once, a person once asked a Rebbe
to interpret some of his dreams. And the Rebbe said, I have
enough problems figuring out what to do when Iím awake before
I get into dreams.
Now thereís much about dream interpretation
Feder: In the Kabbalah?
Jacobson: In the Kabbalah, definitely,
and you find it even in the Bible with Joseph interpreting
Pharoahís dreams. Itís a certain language, a certain secret
language of the soul, the psyche.
Feder: You think Freud picked some of
Jacobson: Freud definitely looked into
those books (I donít know if it was specifically the Kabbalah)
but you definitely see references to Jewish mysticism in his
The thing I wanted to say was that even though
thereís much about astrology and the stars and the powers
of the cosmos, nevertheless it has to be carefully taught
or else it merely compensatesÖ
Feder: So youíre saying that there are
places in the Kabbalah where these things are taught?
Jacobson: Yes. Any true authority will
not just teach it easily, because he or she will risk the
fact that people may abuse it by just that curiosity of knowing,
for example, what my future holds, what my palm reads rather
than really assuming responsibility. So it is really a mature
study that can only come, and is coupled with, a very mature
attitude that this does not replace or compensate for, is
not an alternative to, real hard choices in life.
Feder: So the study of the Kabbalah is
not for children or young people really.
Jacobson: Children and not just chronologically.
It may be for a child whoís an adult, meaning, it requires
a mature approach to life, number one, that youíve taken hold
of your own life, your control of it, your choices are refined,
youíve shown responsibility.
For someone who has not really assumed responsibility
for their own lives in a very serious way, if they go to a
true Kabbalist, he wonít laugh but he wonít teach them any
Kabbalah. It has to be earned. In the Talmud, the metaphor
for an ecstatic experience is "entering the garden."
You canít just enter the garden easily.
Thereís a famous story in the Talmud where four
people entered the garden. They went into an ecstatic state,
a state of mystical and spiritual ecstasy, and three of them
did not survive, did not come out intact. And they were great,
great sages. One came out insane, one died, one became an
apostate. He was overwhelmed and confused and unable to relate
to certain things he witnessed and experienced. Rabbi Akiva
was the only one who "entered in peace, and exited in
It teaches you something. You see, a person
has to earn certain journeys in life. If you donít earn it,
then you go there and you come back and itís not really you,
you canít internalize it. I donít want to compare it, but
itís similar to getting a high through an alternative foreign
substance. You havenít really earned it, youíve almost jump
started something and entered a place that you havenít earned
the right to enter into.
So you see things that you donít appreciate
or donít know what to do with when you go back to your life,
which is why there is burn-out. You canít ground it, you canít
Kabbalah is not, G-d forbid, a drug. But in
a similar way it is an experience that is of a greater nature,
which has a certain awesomeness. You have to be receptive
to it, you have to be ready to receive it, you have to also
be mature enough to say, you know, Iíve heard enough and I
donít want to jump in.
Feder: Iíll stop here for a while, right?
Jacobson: Itís a question of growth.
Feder: Itís interesting that you used
the word "burn-out" before. In every religious tradition
that Iíve ever heard of, people who are not prepared, and
thatís most of us, if they see the "face of G-d"
in any religious tradition, or are brought too close to the
great profound meaning of something, it often either kills
them or blinds them. These are experiences that are written
about in every major religious tradition.
You have to be ready for it.
Jacobson: Right. Thatís why the Mishneh
says that the "Maaseh Merkava" should
be studied only individually, not in groups. The "Maaseh
Merkava" means the "vision of the chariot"
which is one of the Kabbalistic visions in the Bible that
you find in Ezekiel, the prophet who had this vision. And
he saw a chariot with four faces and describes it in detail.
Itís actually a lot of Kabbalistic metaphors that are understood
only within Kabbalah, and that study of the maaseh merkava
is not meant to be studied except individually, not in
groups, because a group tends to dehumanize, depersonalize
the message and itís good for scholarship for itís not good
for experience, because experience is always individual.
Feder: So the experience gets diluted
Jacobson: Right. Thatís why these things
are not studied in groups, but rather individually, teacher
to student, face to face. Itís a very personal type of journey.
Feder: So there are people now who are
studying Kabbalah. As we speak, there are people out there
in the world who are studying this, right?
Jacobson: I canít speak for everybody,
because some people may be studying it which means they may
think theyíre studying Kabbalah but it doesnít mean itís Kabbalah.
Feder: You mean they might be reading
a book someplaceÖ
Jacobson: It may even be an authentic
text but not necessarily that they understand or appreciate
what theyíre reading. Now Iím not here to judge anyone or
to pass judgment on any school of thought. I think there is
an inherent immune system in the Kabbalah.
As I said, those who really know donít say and
those who say donít really know. So does that mean that every
teacher doesnít know? If he says everything, then he probably
doesnít. If itís too sensational, too commercialÖthere are
certain signs that usually signal that somethingís wrong.
The real mystics in history, the real humble people, the real
masters, would be the first to say I donít why youíre coming
to meÖ So as soon as you see that itís more of a sensationalistic
thing, a publicity thing, a celebrity thingÖ
Feder: But you started out the program
saying that itís become a popular thing, like a fad. What
is that all about?
Jacobson: I just made it as a statement,
I didnít say it in a positive or negative light.
Feder: But it is true.
Jacobson: Yes. Thatís a fact; that you
canít argue. My attitude to that, as Iíve often stated, is
that for good or for bad it brings attention to it, and itís
a good opportunity to get people thinking and get people to
fully understand it. Clearly, whenever anything is on that
type of popular level, thereís always going to be distortionsóit
has to be that way.
Again, Iím not here to speak about any individual
or any particular school of thought, but I think there are
certain questions that anyone studying Kabbalah should ask
of the teacher. Number one is the issue of receptivity: who
did you receive from?
Feder: In other words, whom did you
Jacobson: Right. Whoís your teacher?
Who have you humbly sat before? Without that, this isnít an
ego trip, this isnít an individual creation. Kabbalah is not
owned by any individual, and it canít be sold by any individual;
thereís no monopoly, no royalties. Itís a wisdom that is inherent
in existence, part of G-dís creation, and therefore cannot
be monopolized by any one person.
In addition, the humility of the teacher is
critical; what kind of humility that teacher has, what modesty
So though there may be people who know the information,
it doesnít necessarily mean that they are what I would call
a Kabbalist. A Kabbalist is not just a knower of information,
itís a true receptacle, a true humble teacher or actually
a student, who simply allows himself to be a channel for that
type of wisdom.
Feder: So the teacher is always a student.
Jacobson: Always. As a matter of fact,
in Hebrew, the word for a true teacher is talmud chocham,
which means the student of a wise person. You donít call
him a wise man, you say a talmud, the student, the
disciple of the wise.
Feder: Now you presumably have studied
this with someone.
Jacobson: Well, that depends on whether
or not you consider me to be a Kabbalist or just someone with
knowledge about the Kabbalah. I didnít make any such claim.
I think itís a good topic to discuss on a show, but I would
not categorize myself as a Kabbalist. I would say Iím familiar
with Kabbalah and I can tell you that I studied it and read
about it, and had a master, particularly the Rabbi Menachem
Mendel Schneerson, called "the Rebbe," who was clearly
a mystic and a Kabbalist, but if you look at how he taught,
he never really sat down and taught Kabbalah, it was always
integrated within a system of life, how to live your life.
If you were to ask him if was teaching about Kabbalah, he
would always say no heís not teaching Kabbalah, heís teaching
you how to live your life. But within that was woven Kabbalistic
So in that context I could say that I studied
Kabbalah, but out of curiosity I read the books and Iím familiar
with the body of work. But I would not call myself a Kabbalist.
Feder: In other words, if someone came
to you and said Iíd like to study that with you, you really
Jacobson: I would invite them to my Wednesday
night class where I try to weave it in as well. But I would
not call it a class on Kabbalah. But if someone calls it that,
that thereís Kabbalistic teachings taught there, thatís fine
with me but if you asked me what Kabbalah is, itís far beyondÖ
Feder: Now in this book of yours, Toward
a Meaningful Life, upon which this show is based, and
just to mention the book Toward a Meaningful Life by
Simon Jacobson is published by William Morrow and you can
go out and buy it and read a copy of it. Would you say that
there are some Kabbalistic teachings that have found their
way generally into it?
Jacobson: Oh, definitely. It may not
be overt because I stayed away from using prohibitive language
(Hebrew and description of concepts that require an advanced
understanding of these teachings), for that matter anything
too esoteric, because I wanted to make it more accessible,
but particularly in the chapter on G-d and the chapter on
Unity you could almost call them an introduction to Kabbalah.
Iím big into introductions. I could say I could give a good
introduction into Kabbalah; whether I could teach Kabbalah
is another story.
An introduction to Kabbalah may even be more
valuable than even studying Kabbalah because itís appreciating
what the system is; for instance, I mentioned earlier this
idea of building blocksóthe idea of the ten spheres, the four
worldsóitís a fascinating map of life that Kabbalah draws,
and it helps make sense of our lives and understand deeper
forces at work in our lives.
Feder: This brings up an obvious question,
since weíre talking about studying this subject. Do you have
to be Jewish to study Kabbalah? I mean, if you were truly
seeking, and ready, could a person come from any tradition
to learn Kabbalah?
Jacobson: Itís a difficult question to
answer because I have to go back to what the Kabbalah means.
I remember once there was a traditional Jewish person at my
class who said, "How could you be teaching any Kabbalistic
concepts in this class?" There are prohibitions not to
teach it to people under 40, and certain other restrictions
that I mentioned earlier. So I responded by saying, "Every
morning we say in the Jewish prayer, in the liturgy, ĎModeh
Ani,í we acknowledge G-d for returning my soul to me."
So if your five-year-old child were to ask you,
"What is this thing Ďmy soulí?" Would you tell your
child, you canít study that until youíre 40 years old?
Obviously not, thatís ridiculous. A soul is
something we carry from birth, before birth. Itís part of
our lives. To give children a spiritual education doesnít
mean youíre making them into Kabbalists. So your question
is a good question but I want to split it into two. I think
that if most people knew the basics of spirituality today,
thatís really whatís missing. Not Kabbalistic teachings, per
se. Kabbalah is a more intense study once youíve accepted
that thereís a soul and thereís a G-d, and you have a relationship
with that G-d. I believe that when I meet people today that
people are missing the basic element of spirituality altogether.
Thatís not Kabbalah. You donít need Kabbalah for that.
You can say obviously that it stems from Kabbalah,
but itís like the A-B-Cís. Itís the first thing and you donít
even go further. Kabbalah comes in once you know all that
and then you want to know, "How do you pray to G-d, How
do you build the relationship to G-d?"
So letís take love, for example. Today weíre
just trying to establish a relationship that works, let alone
a deeper exploration of it. Kabbalah is a deeper exploration
of it. So when you ask me the question, this is how I would
respond: Yes, to that universal dimension that all of us need,
the basic principles and fundamentals of spirituality in our
lives, that part of Kabbalah is for everyone and should be
taught and should be encouraged because it is the key to being
a productive and a responsible human being, a spiritual, transcendental
But regarding the deeper dimensions and the
deeper explorations, there are prohibitions and limitations
and that would be case by case, and depending on whom.
There are great non-Jewish leaders in history.
Bilaam, for example, was a prophet. He clearly had knowledge
of Kabbalah, so itís not an exclusively Jewish study, but
on the other hand, even among Jews themselves there are limitations.
Itís not like anyone can just study it.
So really when weíre talking about the basic
elements of spirituality, they are for everyone. The deeper
exploration depends on the individual: where theyíre at and
what theyíre doing.
Feder: Well, itís interesting growing
up in whatís considered a Conservative or Reform background,
and perhaps millions of American Jews are brought up in this
tradition. I had never even heard the word Kabbalah my entire
life until I was studying religions in college. I was not
brought up to even know that word or that tradition.
Jacobson: I had a student (a student!
Heís older than I am) but he came to one of my classes and
he said to me that until he came to this class he never knew
that Jews believed that thereís a soul. I mean this, itís
not a joke. He never heard the word soul until he heard it
was in Buddhism as a teenager. He didnít hear it at his bar
mitzvah, he didnít hear it in his Hebrew school classes.
I donít mean the actual word, of course he heard
the word soul, but it was never used, it was never an element
in experience. He never heard: okay now this is going to be
a soul, a neshamah experience. It was always very traditional,
very technical, "Just do it," type of thing. And
it was more that you have to fear G-d: if you donít do it,
G-d will do this or do that.
Feder: I remember that part.
Jacobson: So unfortunately, with such
a rich spiritual tradition of Judaism, many Jews today are
finding their spirituality elsewhere, because what they were
taught in schools was exactly the way you described it. It
was a very dry, hollow, non-resonating experience. And the
soul searches for nourishment. If it doesnít find it in its
own backyard, it will look elsewhere.
Feder: You know, youíve mentioned your
class several times this evening. Iím wondering, if people
are interested should they call up and find out where it is?
Jacobson: They can just come. Everyoneís
invited to the Wednesday Night Class in New York City, every
Wednesday night at 8:30pm, at 346 W89th Street at Riverside
Feder: On the Upper West Side.
Jacobson: You sound like youíre an Upper
Feder: I might be.
Jacobson: You sound so proud. But thereís
no discrimination. Anyone from the Upper East Side, the Lower
East Side is welcome. Itís a very eclectic group and I think
most people would find it interesting. Itís very open, as
opposed to radio you can directly argue and you canít be hung
up on there.
Feder: Okay, so now weíre coming in toward
the end of the show. So let me share with you that we have
underwriters, people who support these programs, and the name
of the underwriter of tonightís show, the person who has brought
this show to you is Richard Blackstone, and thank you very
much for making this show possible.
Jacobson: And I second that. Mr. Blackstone,
I really appreciate all his work in supporting what weíre
Feder: Now, I should also say that speaking
of underwriting and helping to support all the work and the
work of the Meaningful Life Center, we have received many
requests from people asking how they could donate to the Meaningful
Life Center, which of course brings you this radio show every
The Meaningful Life Center is a non-profit organization
dedicated to bringing a sense of peace, light, inspiration
and meaning into the world. All its activities are made possible
by donations from people like you who are listening to us
right now, people who receive the Centerís publications and
tapes, who listen to this program and visit our website.
When you contribute to the Meaningful Life Center,
you become, in effect, a partner in the work that Simon Jacobson
is doing. So weíre asking you to consider funding these radio
programs. Itís a great opportunity to perhaps honor someone
you love, and bring inspiration to thousands of people when
they hear these programs.
You can dedicate a program to the memory of
a loved one, someoneís birthday or wedding, or any other occasion.
We really do need your help. We want people to feel like theyíre
part of this and to bring this radio show to people.
A donation of any amount from a dollaróbut weíll
accept a hundred thousand dollarsóis appreciated. You can
call 1-800-3MEANING (1-800-363-2646) to take your pledges
of support. And when you pledge, when you help us out, make
sure to ask to receive our newsletter Meanings. And
remember, we donít have any commercial sponsors here. We like
to bring you as much information as possible without being
interrupted by commercial sponsors, so we count on you, the
listener, to make this show possible.
I think that does it as far as our business.
Now, we have just a few minutes left. The Kabbalah, being
such a complex, profound and difficult thingóand youíve really
given us just the briefest description of it tonight, and
you say itís a concentrated thing that has to be decoded,
so hereís my question.
We, the people who donít study it, the people
who are living our lives, who are going to take the subway
home tonight, or are going to go someplace, or wake up tomorrow
morning and go to work. What does this great thousands-year-old
body of wisdom, perhaps as old as human beings themselves,
what can it do for us, for people listening to this show,
and for me sitting here. What can we take with us into the
world? I mean, itís there to be studied, but weíre not going
to be studying it tomorrow or the next day.
Jacobson: These shows that weíre doing
here today, Mike, and the ones that will follow, in a way,
have many Kabbalistic roots in some of the teachings that
Iíve been steeped in and that I base some of our discussions
here. They have elements of Kabbalah and certainly the spiritual
dimensions of our discussions. I intend to dedicate many shows
to different topics that are Kabbalistic, and I believe that
we should a few weeks from now perhaps dedicate a show to
reincarnation, afterlife: topics that people struggle with,
death, life, and not in a sensational way, but in a meaningful
But to answer your question, Iíd like to reiterate
or perhaps rephrase something I said earlier. The Kabbalahís
main teaching is that weíre not alone in this world, and we
are channels for higher energy. Each of us has something to
contribute thatís unique: weíre on a mission. And we are receptacles
to use our strengths, our talents, our unique opportunities
to reveal a deeper spiritual dimension in everything we do.
In a sense, to spiritualize the material world we live in.
That means from when we take the next bite of food in our
mouths, itís not just an act of sustenance or indulgence,
but rather a spiritual act, as Kabbalah will teach, that there
are spiritual sparks in that food.
Feder: So every single thing we do, day
in and day out, on a daily basis is a sacred act in a wayÖ
Jacobson: Exactly. One of the Kabbalistic
teachings is the concept of redeeming or redemption/elevation
of the sparks. This means that we tarin ourselves to see and
experience spiritual "sparks" in every fiber of existence,
in all phenomenon, in every interaction -- the sparks are
scattered all over. Every time you meet a new person or someone
that you know, thereís a spark to be revealed or redeemed
in that experience. Every time you eat something, every time
you travel somewhere, there are sparks to be revealed. This
recognition changes, in an unbelievably gratifying way, the
way we life our lives. There are no random things. Wherever
you go and whatever you do, thereís a spark there for you
to bond with, for you to connect with. In addition to that,
it also gives a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose to things
that we do. Itís not just, what difference does it make if
I act this way or move that way.
Feder: Or I can waste a few hours.
Jacobson: Right. Every little act takes
the world for a cosmic spin, so to speak. In addition, another
Kabbalistic teaching is that a human being is a small universe.
Today we live in a world where quantity and quality have ceased
to be compartmentalized. We understand that a little quantity
can change a major quality; one dot in a computer program
can wreak havoc. One mutation of a cell, G-d forbid. A butterfly
effect: one little vibration in one corner of the world can
cause who knows what.
So we understand today that matter and energy
are interchangeable. This is an essential Kabbalah teaching,
that matter can be converted into energy. That even a small
little act of kindness changes the world in some way. The
fact that we donít always see it is that weíre small people
ourselves. Our vision is myopic, narrow. But there are deeper
things going on, and itís also a way of looking at the world
around you, including your experiences, and seeing it through,
and seeing that thereís a bigger picture emerging. So Kabbalah,
coupled with, fused with, the entire body of tradition, the
body and the soul, create a full dimensional experience.
A person can do something, can follow a law,
but it they donít respect the spirit in it, or they donít
have the spirit, theyíre missing an important dimension. On
the other hand, Kabbalah aloneóspirit without the actualization
in a concrete actóin turn is only a spiritual experience and
doesnít make an impact on this world and is therefore not
So I would encourage people to continue to listen
to this show, and to pursue in other ways (look at our website
and the links) to explore the fascinating treasure and journey
which is the Kabbalah, and Kabbalah in the context of all
of Judaism, and all of tradition, including its universal
message that we are here on a mission, and we are here to
fuse body and soul.
Feder: Thank you.