In the round

A circle is a powerful symbol. I think most Kabbalists would agree that a circle represents one of the most potent forces in the universe. The Jewish mystic tradition divides the world into two basic components: the source of all power, infinitely giving energy and light, and the repository of this power, which holds and gives it shape. In Kabbalah, the latter is referred to as “the vessel,” often symbolized by a circle, like a container’s open mouth. One might think that the source of power is the force in the universe that demands all our attention, but Kabbalists emphasize the critical role of the receptacle—without which the power would be undirected and useless. Much of Kabbalah concerns the proper management of this power and the word “Kabbalah” means “to receive.”

After the service at a conservative synagogue, I mentioned my intention to explore Kabbalah to a middle-aged lawyer with gentle, watery eyes. “Be careful,” he said, his eyes widening like two pools swelling, though whether he was warning me about L.A.’s Kabbalah “Centre” specifically or Kabbalah in general I wasn’t sure. Kabbalah has a reputation for being unsafe and stories abound about its ancient practitioners losing their minds, driven to madness during the exercises meant to tap into the universe’s power; these include chanting, singing, breathing, dancing, meditation, and visualization. The trick is not just drawing the energy but being able to properly channel it. When this transaction is not mastered, a person may cling to the power, feeding unhealthy self-interest—or misdirect it, fueling negative objectives. For this reason, Jewish leaders often say that only mature pupils under the guidance of the most skilled teachers should attempt to practice Kabbalah.

Yet, Kabbalistic notions seem to permeate all aspects of Jewish life. Casual references to Kabbalah and Kabbalah scholars peppered the talks of rabbis at practically every service I attended. Basic Jewish concepts were described to me using Kabbalistic ideas: the emphasis on passive activities on Sabbath is designed to foster the “receptive,” rather than “productive,” aspects of our nature and women are excused from many traditional practices because our vessel-like qualities are naturally more fine-tuned than those of men. I even encountered an explanation of the Messianic era in these terms: the period itself will be one of receptivity, which is the source of the peace that will prevail, like a Sabbath that extends indefinitely.

Without meaning to, I happened into a special Kabbalah-inspired service at a reformed synagogue. I thought it would be a typical Friday night ceremony that welcomes the Sabbath like those I had attended at other synagogues. I expected something bare bones, just a handful of people led by a lone rabbi. But this was different. The folding chairs in the large room were arranged in concentric circles starting with a small one at the center and spiraling out; by the time I arrived, the only spaces available were along the outer ring almost to the wall. A photocopied sheet explained that this “new model of worship” began a few years earlier; introduced as “Fifth Friday,” it initially took place only when a month had an extra Friday, but it was such a huge hit, they introduced it as a regular monthly service renamed “Kabbalat Shabbat.” If synagogue leaders were hesitant at first to officially label their new model Kabbalistic, they were emboldened by the congregation’s acceptance. In addition to seating in the round, the entire service is sung by everyone present.

I found an empty seat sandwiched between two young families facing the boyish rabbi and female cantor in the middle circle…

30 thoughts on “In the round

  1. My studies in Centers for Spiritual Living required a reading with a Rabbi from the book, “The Essential Kabbalah, The Heart of Jewish Mysticism” by Daniel C. Matt. I became fascinated with its story of creation or as it is called, “emanation”. If you can, enjoy the story without defining the names:
    “Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process start? If Ein Sof (God) pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence from itself to itself, withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation.
    Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly, but as the emanation proceeded some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise these sparks, to restore them to divinity through living a life of holiness.”
    I like the idea that each person is carrying a shard of that inner light and is charged with restoring it by recognizing his/her own divinity and living accordingly.

  2. My first thought upon reading about the ‘Kabbalat Shabbat’ was the concept being introduced into some Christian churches about the “maze”, a concentric circle that you ‘walk’ as a form of meditation. I have not participated in one, but it sounds somehow the same as the seating arrangment in the temple.

    I dabbled in Kabbala when I was studying metaphysics. What I learned (my own opinion only) was that sometimes you can make something simple much too complicated. Obviously, I didn’t take well as a student of Kabbala.

    Your journey is getting more and more interesting Corinna. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. There’s a beautiful labyrinth on the floor of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and every time we visit there are at least a few people deep in contemplative prayer walking the maze. Maybe being on a circular path helps direct one’s thoughts inward and outward at the same time (if that makes any sense). I don’t know much about Kabala specifically, but I have to admit I get a little skeptical when a faith practice comes with a warning label about being “too powerful” in the hands of amateurs. The Gnostics of the early Christian church claimed knowledge of mystical knowledge Jesus shared only with the apostles. I think faith—at least the basis of faith–should be simpler and more organic, flowing from that natural sense many of us have that there is existence beyond our perception. Paul talks a lot about “growing in faith” and progressing from weakness to strength, so I certainly believe we should always be willing to gain a deeper understating of our faith (or ourselves for the agnostics and atheists in the audience). But I also bear in mind Jesus’ words that we should come to faith as little children, willing to believe and learn.

    I also have to accept my understating of faith is based on Western traditions, and Judaism in general, and Kabala more specifically, is more Eastern in approach, and therefore more mystic. Just because I can’t wrap my head around it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And like Patti, I’m interested in where the next step takes you, Corinna.

    • ditto, Tim….When we were fairly new Christians, we were very open to going after a lot of new or different teachings from what we had been exposed to. It seemed that we had to do a lot of reading from different writers to get some sort of handle on it. This was some sort of Gnostic-like teaching that promised us that if we could attain the right knowledge, we would have the true peace that Jesus talks about. As we progressed in studying some of the writings, I think we began to feel as though we were gaining a superior level of knowledge to “average” Christians. After a few months, I began to realize a couple things about what we were chasing after: 1) the more knowledge we “achieved” the more prideful we became; 2) the more we exposed ourselves to what these “teachers” were writing the more subjective it was becoming.
      I’m very glad we steered away from it.

      • Good Evening, Walt–Like you, I’ve explored a lot. I’ve read several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the evolution and sometimes arbitrary changes made to the books of the New Testament (How he’s managed to keep his job at a college in North Carolina is proof enough of God’s protection). I read Tole’s “The Power of Now” and Hitchens “god is not great”, which I found disappointingly simplistic for being so controversial. But I’ve also enjoyed Max Lucado and especially C.S. Lewis. I’ve come to realize its a good thing to read a wide variety of opinions about religion, and quite often I’ve gained a new understanding or way to interpret faith in today’s world. But I keep coming back to Jesus simple and compelling message of how each of us must manifest the Kingdom of God to one another. That’s where I see the great challenge; not in uncovering some kind of secret power. The huge challenge of living a God-centered life is in the very simplicity of the call–to love one another as God loves us. Simple words that aren’t so simple in their execution!

        • Trusting God is simple, but, yes, definitely not easy! Loving others, I think, is neither simple nor easy! I’ve found great help on this account by thinking about 1 John: “We love because he first loved us.” As I’ve grown in my understanding of the Father’s unconditional love and acceptance of me–turkey that I am–it’s easier to learn to love others.
          I haven’t read much of Erhman as yet, but what I’ve read and listened to isn’t really so impressive as some think. I definitely need to get one of those “round tuits” on that guy. I recently got a copy of his “Misquoting Jesus” and want to listen to some of his discussions with N.T. Wright.

        • Hi Phil and Corrinna. I can only speak for myself, but the more I’ve come to understand the nature of my faith, the easier its become to see the divine in other’s beliefs as well. Knowledge should be used to achieve greater understanding, not just to confirm what you already believe, or worse, to use as a weapon to bludgeon others who may think differently.

          • Tim:
            Thanks for the thought; universal divinity through expanded knowledge, I think I’m experiencing increased tolerance as well, although I guess that can imply condescension. I think I’m feeling a more active understanding and appreciation of other’s devotions than tolerance might suggest. By all means, down with bludgeoning.


  4. Look forward to more discussion on this topic. Your description of it sounds much like Tibetan Buddhism.


  5. Y’know how you get feelings about certain things. Vibes, we hippies useta say. Well…it’s probably just me, but the vibes I get from Kabbalah are dark and uncomfortable. I didn’t feel that about any of the other faiths Corrina has reported on. Tim said a couple things that spoke to me: “…each of us must manifest the Kingdom of God to one another. That’s where I see the great challenge; not in uncovering some kind of secret power.” And “…faith—at least the basis of faith–should be simpler and more organic, flowing from that natural sense many of us have that there is existence beyond our perception.” Simplicity and naturalness give me vibes of light and right, but this Kabbalah…it seems to be about power and danger. I’m steerin’ clear. Perhaps I have misunderstood, so I’ll try to keep an open mind. The only thing I knew about Kabbalah up to now was that Madonna was up to her eyeballs in it, and that’s a bad vibe for sure 🙂

    • I was waiting to see if someone was going to play the Madonna card, Shelley! I try not to judge an institution by its celebrity members, but Madonna spent so much of her career being professionally superficial, its hard to see her being deeply involved in something as spiritually and mentally demanding as Kabala.

    • Can’t really judge Kabbalah by Madonna. I didn’t see anything frightening but then I tend to see good in most religious expression. Believe me there is nothing more frightening than getting stuck in a fundamentalist Christian cult that knows how to create Stepford Wives. Going in the vibes feel good. Trying to get out and finally making it to freedom is a hard won battle. I’d much prefer dancing the Kabbalah circles or become a whirling Dervish.

  6. Frank, I think there’s a threat in being stuck in any fundamentalist wing of any religion, from Christianity to Islam to Hindu. The good Lord gave us brains to use, not to follow someone else in lock-step blind faith. And my comment was meant to be more about Madonna than Kabala.

  7. Something all of you have mentioned has struck a chord with me, and that is the vibe (love it, homewithin, from one x hippie to another) that Kabbalah, or any esoteric mystic slant in many faiths, is about power. And THAT, to me, is an automatic warning. Whenever you are talking about power, you are talking about that slippery slope C.S. Lewis warned us of in “The Screwtape Letters”.

    Those of you who know me know that I am a traditionalist in my feeling about human beings and the concept of original sin. I don’t care what you attribute it to, or what you call it, but I fully believe that as humans, we tend to want to take the easy path and that the possibility of darkness of soul lies that way much more often than the path of light. I realize that you and I, Frank, probably disagree on this pretty thoroughly. But it has been my experience that people who CHOOSE (notice I say choose, NOT are chosen) for the mystical path often go a dark way, and that way can be how personal power effects them. Power is a danger, and I don’t know too many of us who are really good at using that power as it should be used. Remember the movie a few years ago that had, I believe, Jim Carrey in God’s role? It wasn’t as easy as it looked.

    The ‘mystic path to great power’ tends to be the same. I was involved once with what we will call a cult, whose leader was eventually tried for murder. Any number off people who followed her wound up willing everything they owned to her and then oddly, died. Somehow. She was eventually exposed as using Ecastacy and other mind controlling drugs on her followers. I was a fringe studier….went to meetings, learned meditation techniques, etc. But one thing she said to me instantly made me wary, and I guess was a safeguard against my following her wholeheartedly. We were talking about reincarnation (a tenant of the cult) and she informed me, quite lightly, that yes, I had been a nun in many lifetimes (I won’t dispute….could be…who knows???), and that the last time we were together, SHE was Therese of Avila, and I had been one of her nuns.

    PERSONAL power. Personal supremacy. As Walt said, “I was something superior to you.” And it doesn’t feel right.
    At one point, when my daughter was very interested in the Wiccan religion, and was talking to an old friend of mine who is now a ‘high priestess’, I said to Rachel: “Let’s look at Rose (not her real name), and her level of power in this world, which she claims as personal, and let’s look at Mother Theresa, who knows herself to be the most humble of the humble, and is and has no power save Christ Jesus within her. Rachel, which do you think is more powerful? And she said “Mother Theresa”.

    Any knowledge or strength that is pursued purely for the knowledge or power itself, FOR self, is a dangerous thing. And I don’t think most humans have the inner strength to overcome that danger. Else there would be a whooooooooolllllle lot more Dali Lamas and Mother Theresa’s and Hildegarde von Binghams and so on and so on.

    And perhaps it’s just that I know my own ego well enough to know that Kabbalah and it’s ilk is a road that I, personally, should not travel.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents worth. As I read what I’ve written, I realize that this is a theme we have all gone over in past posts. Interesting that the subject often returns, mmm?

    Tim, I might just like to find one of those meditation spirals to walk, but since losing my right inner ear, I fear I’d have to take it crawling. 🙂

    Yours in Christ

    • Pattie, I agree with you about the stumbling block of “power”. I have a belief that every minister, priest, rabbi or spiritual leader has moments of awe in which they realize the vibration of power that they hold in their hand and they must make a decision about how to use it. Even Jesus recognized that it was “the Father within who doeth the work.”
      I suspect that once a flock of people start following a leader it becomes more difficult to let go of the ego and thus many get led down a path where they think it is their power that is doing the work. Our job is to decide, as you have done, where we want to place our interest.

      • You are absolutely right, and you have said what I was trying to say about the lure of power much more succinctly! Always and always I would warn someone about any group, person or thought system that promises to teach something ‘unknown and unknowable’ by the uninitiated. It equates to the legend on old, old maps that said “That way be dragons!” And there aren’t a whole lot of St. Georges!

  8. I remember only once turning away from a church. It was many years ago and I might feel differently about it now: My ex-wife and I decided to visit a psychic Spiritualistic church one Sunday morning. We walked in and sat down. Someone started playing an organ in dirge like fashion. The dark vibes I felt were very real to me. I said to my wife, “Let’s get out of here. Something isn’t right.” She agreed and we left. I have known spiritualists and psychics that I enjoyed talking to but that morning in that place I fully believed it was too “dark” for me to enjoy.

  9. The risk of forgetting where the real power lies in nothing new. There’s the Gospel passage where the apostles try to drive out an unusually stubborn spirit. When they can’t Jesus does, They ask Him how He was able to, and He replies “Spirits such as these can only be driven out by prayer.” In other words, the apostles made the mistake of thinking the power originated with them, rather than flowing through them. Its up to each of us to discern the source of the power.

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