In the beginning

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

I studied the book Bahir (often translated as the Book of Brightness or Illumination) with Dr. I. O. Lehman, of blessed memory, who taught five of us in a secret class at the Hebrew Union College. In those days, Hebrew Union College was not known for its scholarship in Kabbalah. It saw itself as an institution devoted to the study of Judaism from a cultural (what was called a scientific) approach to our tradition, and other post-Enlightenment forms that the Reform Movement among others embraced. 

Bar Yochai (rabbi of the Talmud the paradigm of the mystic teacher), the holy Ari (R. Isaac Luria, 16th century founder of a complex kabbalistic system), the Baal Shem Tov (R. Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Chassidus), Rav Kook (first chief rabbi of Israel, influenced by all the above mentioned mystical sources) and other lights of mystical Judaism in my time came up less often than Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (founder of Reform movement), Leopold Zunz (early light of the science of Judaism) and Moses Mendelssohn (post-Enlightenment thinker).

When I was a student, all that was changing. Some of us wanted entry into the whole house, so to speak; we wanted to sit in the rooms where Rav Shimon (Bar Yochai) and the Baal Shem Tov and the holy Ari and Rav Kook sat and learned.

Dr. Lehman was a student of Rabbi Leo Baeck (German rabbi who taught at the liberal seminary in Berlin, survived Theresienstadt) who passed on a love for the Kabbalah, particularly the early Kabbalah, to his student. Dr. Baeck taught Dr. Lehman, then instructed him to teach it to others.

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Dr. Lehman did the same with his small group of devotees at the Hebrew Union College. I will teach you, he said, but you must promise to bring this to others. He insisted we study sources. He brought us the texts, some of which were still in manuscript form. We learned the classical commentaries, also in original languages (including Judeo-Arabic), in order to unlock the texts the best we could on their own terms. 

We began with Sefer Bahir, some disagreement on its dating but it is one of the early texts of what we now call the Kabbalah (the received tradition, mysticism). The text was often elliptical but always beautiful and evocative. It was a door that had to be unlocked before we walked through.

On Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah, we asked: Why does the Torah begin with the letter bet, and not the first letter, alef? The alef is evocative enough, but the bet is berakhah—blessing. This wisdom we have been given is a gift, more than a gift, it’s a blessing opening onto the heart of the world. 

But even the holy Torah has a precedent; there is the alef, the unexpressed One. So Torah begins with the second letter, the two, because every two implies the preceding (unexpressed) One. You may take this notion and apply it to the Magen David, the shield of David, the two triangles and the unexpressed Center (One).

One of my favorite texts from Sefer Yetzirah (often translated as Book of Formation) that influenced the Bahir describes creation this way: G*d engraved the world with 32 hidden paths of wisdom, the 10 elementals and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. 

A set of basic principles, a fixed number, let’s say there are 10. Then there are the 22 letters of language, the building blocks of creation. When you have language, you have illimitable possibilities. When you have language, you have the keys. You may even unlock the door to the 10 elementals. Thirty-two is also the acronym lev, Hebrew for heart.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.