Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (review)

Daniel C. Matt, Castle Books, 1997

Reviewed by Tom Bland
(who is facilitating a reading group in London based around this title - see end of review for details)

Daniel C. Matt, in his book The Essential Kabbalah, provides us with a perfect introduction to the central teachings of the Kabbalah. His book is a series of passages translated from the primary source material of the Kabbalah, organised and arranged by theme. He also provides a short and precise introduction that outlines a basic history of the tradition.

In his introduction, Matt touches upon the famed Lurianic Kabbalah, and provides an answer to why Rabbi Luria wrote down so little of his teachings.(1) Matt answers this through a reply Luria gave to a student who asked him why he had not written a book. Luria replied:

It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received? How can I set it down in a book? (p14)
The question that Luria asks in the passage above is one I am sure Matt asked himself in composing this volume of extracts. Matt has chosen a poetic and graceful approach to the material. There is a simplicity to his translations that are both profound and yet subtle in style. It is this style which makes the renditions gentle in their nature. They have a contemplative quality that allows for the text to be meditated upon in a quiet space.

Matt’s translations are interpretative in nature. It is a hermeneutics that is grounded in good scholarly research on the passages. He provide notes on the passages at the end of the book, detailing the meaning of the more abstruse Hebrew and Aramaic terms, comparing the quotes to passages in other books of the Judaic canon, and finding connections with other mystical traditions in a way that is both relevant and meaningful.

This book is quite simply a good introduction to the esoteric teachings of the Kabbalah.(2) Matt writes with an eloquence that is able to speak to the soul as it comes from the soul. This mystical element is integral to the work, which is perfectly balanced with providing good and sound scholarship. This is what makes it remarkable is that Matt joins these two elements in a coherent whole, without privileging one over the other. It is truly what Henry Corbin calls a ‘dualitude,’ which means ‘two inseparable and two independent parts of a whole.’(3)

This is what makes Matt’s book essential reading for those involved either in Middle Eastern mysticism or in the Western esoteric tradition. It is important from an occidental perspective, because of the modern interest in Kabbalah, as expressed in A. E. Waite’s The Holy Kabbalah, Israel Regardie’s The Garden of Pomegranates, and Charles Ponce’s Kabbalah.(4) It offers a means of re-assessing these works in light of the original source material of the Kabbalistic tradition. It provides a way of deconstructing and reconstructing, deepening and elevating our knowledge of the Kabbalah.

To end this review, I quote a passage from Matt’s work that reveals the experience of wholeness, which is at the heart of the Kabbalah(5):

When you contemplate the Creator, realize that his encampment extends beyond, infinitely beyond, and so, too, in front of you and behind you, east and west, north and south, above and below, infinitely everywhere. Be aware that God fashioned everything and is within everything. There is nothing else. (p25)

1) For more information on the Lurianic Kabbalah, see Sanford Drob’s website, which can be found at

2) Matt’s synchronic introduction to the Kabbalah is perfectly complimented by J. H. Laenen’s historical approach to the subject in his Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2001).

3) The quote comes from Henry Corbin’s paper, The Dramatic Element Common to the Gnostic Cosmogonies of the Religions of the Book, published in the journal, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 14: 3 4, Summer-Autumn, 1980, p. 220, n. 18.

4) Although occidental thinkers have known about Kabbalah since the Renaissance, it is only in the past hundred years that it has taken upon such a central role in the Western esoteric tradition, which is partially due to these texts.

5) See Chapter 4 of Moshe Idel’s Kabbalah: New Perspectives (Yale, 1988) for a discourse on the role of union and unity in the mysticism of the Kabbalah.


‘Just as your hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so this small earthly life keeps us from seeing the vast radiance that fills the core of the universe.’
Nahman of Bratslav
This reading group is an introduction to the mysteries of the Kabbalah. It seeks to provide an overview of the essential concepts of the tradition. It will do this through the reading of the primary source material as translated in Daniel C. Matt’s book, The Essential Kabbalah, Castle Books, 1997. The book is a collection of passages from the whole range of Kabbalistic literature arranged by theme. The meetings will follow the general arrangement of the book.

Each meeting will consist of a basic fourfold structure. Firstly it will begin with a presentation on a particular theme, secondly by exploring the passages Matt provides on the concept, thirdly by comparing and contrasting these quotes, and finally by providing space for discussion and consideration. The topics will include the tree of life, God, creation and meditation. There will also be some presentations on topics not covered in Matt’s book, such as magic, angels and messianism.

The group is open to all. It attempts to integrate many different perspectives into a coherent whole. It embraces the scholarly, esoteric and mystical study of the Kabbalah.

The group will be held at the C. G. Jung Club Library in Chelsea, London. It will meet fortnightly on a Sunday from 4 to 6 pm. The dates for the group are:

September 11th and 25th
October 9th and 23rd
November 13th and 27th

The cost for attending each meeting will be £10.00.

The reading group will be led by Tom Bland.

Tom Bland is an independent researcher specialising in the study of the Kabbalah. He is also studying the writings of Carl Jung through Andrew Burniston’s study group. He is a member of the C. G. Jung Analytical Psychology Club.

To join the reading group please contact Tom on 020 8686 4373, or email him at


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