1. Myth: Nobody goes to a Kabbalah class expecting to actually understand anything.

Truth: Kabbalah is about the human mind grasping the ungraspable.

As in every discipline, we’re never able to grasp everything. Physicists admit they don’t grasp what reality really is. Mathematicians puzzle over what numbers really are.

Kabbalists embrace the mystery of G‑d’s oneness while at the same time demystifying as much as the human mind is capable of grasping. In the words of R. Schneur Zalman, we need to bring the divine as close as possible to the human mind, even though it can never truly fit.

The Chabad school provides potent metaphor for the divine back-end of the universe from elements of the human psyche. Will and desire become metaphors for the Infinite Light. Human consciousness and personality provides us insight into the sefirot and emanations. Articulate thought and speech provides metaphor for the act of creation.

The truth is, we don’t really understand what any of these are either. What is emotion? What is consciousness? But we experience them firsthand. So speaking in these terms provides us at least a teaser of affinity to the inner workings of our universe.

That’s vital, because without some degree of clarity and understanding, you have no way to integrate what you learn into practical life. And that’s what Kabbalah is truly all about—down-to-earth life in this world in a divine mode.

2. Myth: The basic books of kabbalah have been translated and made accessible to anyone who wants to become more spiritual.

Truth: The word “Kabbalah” means “received,” because you can’t learn Kabbalah without a teacher who will provide you this wisdom through the lens of unbroken, received tradition.

Yes, the classic works of Kabbalah, such as The Book of Formation, The Book of Brilliance, and Zohar, are available in translation and with commentary. But these works were purposely composed in a format that only the initiated could decode. Understanding them is not a matter of simply reading the commentaries—these commentaries themselves require a thorough knowledge of their context within Talmud and Midrash. Most importantly, they require the wisdom and background to see through their esoteric interface.

And this is a highly delicate and treasured task. The Zohar compares one who teaches something that is not rooted in tradition and calls it a secret of Torah to one who makes a statue and calls it G‑d.

Furthermore, since the 16th century, Kabbalah has become universally based on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who cracked the code of the Zohar by revealing key doctrines, such as absolute tzimtzum, the shattering of the vessels, and the mission of the soul to effect a tikun through rescuing lost sparks and reuniting worlds with G‑dliness. He also took a microscope to the sefirot, describing their workings in terms of partzufim—detailed “faces” or matrices.

These teachings were couched in the cryptic, highly metaphorical language of the kabbalists of Tzfat that does not submit to translation. They were widely misinterpreted and even abused by those who were unable to strip away the metaphor/interface to see the light within.

Teachers such as the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritch, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi provided insight into their true meaning. They themselves relied on strong traditions and ancient teachers. In many ways, their “interface” seems to differ from the Lurianic model, but in truth they point to the same underlying reality.

To this day, Kabbalah continues to be distorted by those who imagine they can interpret the wisdom-texts at whim, without recourse to the strong traditions transmitted to us over many ages. It’s true that understanding Kabbalah requires the resonance of the soul along with the acuity of the mind. But it also demands integrity to received wisdom. With dedicated work, and authentic teachers, you can grasp truths otherwise beyond the pale of the human mind.

3. Myth: Kabbalah presents a picture-perfect view of the inner universe, composed principally of light and sefirot.

Truth: Kabbalah presents an effective human interface for engaging with the essential mysteries of existence, much as your phone or computer provides an interface so you can engage the internal processor.

Kabbalah speaks in terms of various forms of light, spheres of qualities such as wisdom, understanding, benevolence, with lines connecting them and various unifications that occur between them, of divine words and the 22 letters that combine to create those words, and of palaces of angels and other non-physical beings.

These lights, spheres, lines, words and palaces are all metaphors, a kind of human interface that allows us some meager insight into a deeper reality that is entirely beyond our grasp as long as we exist within a human form.

This is somewhat similar to how physicists speak of quantum fields and particles. Most scientists will agree that there must be a far more fundamental reality as of yet inaccessible to human investigation. The complex mathematical models they use are simply the most effective way we presently have to make predictions and describe why these predictions work.

Similarly, the language of Kabbalah provides an empowering description of the inner workings of three realms: Worlds, Souls, and G‑dliness.

“Worlds” refers to not only our universe, but the multitude of non-physical worlds as well. These are nested one within the other, the outer worlds articulating the inner worlds in more defined, concrete form. They are grouped into four general realms: Emanation, Creation, Formation, Action.

“Souls” refers to the inner workings of the human psyche, which encapsulates the structure of the worlds and connects them to their origin in G‑d.

“G‑dliness” refers to the mystery of G‑d’s oneness and how that is expressed in souls and worlds.

Kabbalah provides us a meditation into the dynamics and flow of this inner universe and explains what occurs when we perform a mitzvah. It also provides a means to grasp the magnificence of the creation we stand within, to imbue us with awe and love for the Creator.

4. Myth: Spirituality is energy and physicality is matter.

Truth: Everything is energy. It’s all on a single spectrum. What we call “physical” is just how our senses interpret the extreme end of that spectrum.

Physicality, as Western thought generally perceives it, is a foreign concept to the native Jewish mindset. Neither Biblical or Mishnaic Hebrew have a word for matter, physical, or even “thing.”

Things are devarimwhich literally means “words.” That’s because G‑d spoke and everything came into being. The true substance of everything is that energy that Torah calls “G‑d’s word.”

In later Hebrew, the word gashmiut, from the word geshem, meaning “rain,” is used to describe physical matter. Rain is a condensation of the mist that rises as water evaporates. The energy that provides physical sensation is an extreme condensation of the divine energy that creates all things.

As person who refines his or her senses gets in tune with slightly more rarified levels of this spectrum, until, in deep meditation, some kabbalists have been able to perceive reality from a higher world, where time and space are less tightly bound.

We can have a minuscule grasp of this spectrum because our own psyches function on a similar path.

Our emotional energy condenses as articulate thoughts which then condenses further into words that we speak or write to communicate with others. At each step down the chain, this energy gains sharper and sharper definition—until we can transfer it in neat little packages of words that others can interpret and integrate into their own world.

The difference is that our words don’t create anything new. The divine words of creation flow downward in an increasingly restrictive channelgenerating an endless series of worlds, each replete with its sentient denizens. The Zohar calls it “the river that waters the garden and all it contains.”

Ultimately, these divine energies arrive on the big screen of our World of Action, where we perceive them as physical sensations within time and space.

5. Myth: Kabbalah says that all things are G‑d.

Truth: Kabbalah says there is nothing else but G‑d. But that doesn’t mean that you, the chair you’re sitting on, or the device you’re reading from, is G‑d.

Because as soon as you perceive any of these as a separate being of its own, you’ve lost touch with their true context and meaning—as they are within G‑d.

All things have a place and purpose within the divine will. G‑d breathes within every creature and every event. Yet G‑d is none of these.

As the Zohar puts it, “He grasps all, but none grasp Him.”

Are these things then all illusions? Is our reality an illusion?

No. The Torah says, “In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” So they are real.

Indeed, Kabbalah describes endless strata of reality. As you rise up the ladder, the level below seems no more than a pitiful illusion, while the level above seems an utter nothingness. But then, if you would rise up another level, the view would shift again.

All of these are only contingent realities, depending each moment on a renewal of the divine will for their continued existence. G‑d is the only absolute existence, who is just because He is.

6. Myth: Chabad is a school of Kabbalah.

Truth: Chabad renders core Kabbalah concepts friendly to any thinking person’s mind and heart.

Chabad is a branch of the novel approach introduced by the Baal Shem Tov, who taught that we can all connect to G‑d at any time by doing mitzvahs with love and joy.

The Baal Shem Tov illuminated every aspect of Torah, including Kabbalah, making it vividly relevant for every Jew. He did so by uncovering the essential life of every word of Torah.

Chabad is a school founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi about 250 years ago. R. Schneur Zalman created a formal approach to implementing the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov in which study and deep contemplation—often of kabbalistic concepts—are crucial.

7. Myth: Once you have Kabbalah, you don’t need to follow the rules of halachah.

Truth: Kabbalah is the fuel that allows halachah to blast off and carry you high.

Kabbalah is simply an explanation for why Jews do things the way we do—in other words, an explanation of halachah. The Zohar is fundamentally a commentary on the mitzvahs.

In the era in which halachah was codified into the Code of Jewish Law (the Shulchan Aruch), most of those who determined the halachah studied Kabbalah. The author of the Shulchan Aruch himself, Rabbi Yosef Caro, left behind a diary containing much of the kabbalistic, inner meaning behind the halachot that he laid down. The crucial notes that made the Shulchan Aruch applicable to common Ashkenazi practice were written by Rabbi Moshe Isserle—who composed a commentary to the Zohar (unfortunately never published). His oft-quoted cousin, Rabbi Shlomo Luria, in some instances uses the Zohar to determine halachah. The commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, especially Magen Avraham, often cite the practice of Rabbi Isaac Luria.

Other important halachic authorities who composed works on Kabbalah include R. David ibn Zimra (Radvaz), R. Joel Sirkes (Bayit Chadash), R. Mordechai Yaffe (Levush), R. Yehudah Loewe (Maharal), R. Yeshaya Horowitz (Shelah), R. Eliyahu of Vilna (Vilna Gaon), R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Shulchan Aruch HaRav), and R. Moshe Hasofer (Chatam Sofer).

As well, many of the major kabbalists were also considered authorities on halachic matters.

What’s the connection between all these mitzvahs and the study of the inner universe? Shouldn’t the goal of the Kabbalist be to divest all connection with the physical sensations of this world and ascend to higher realms?

The Kabbalists tell you no, the ultimate access to the divine is through action in this earthly plane. Chabad teachings go further and say that only in the physicality of this world are we able to access the very core-essence of the divine—once we have reconnected it to its origin through our mitzvahs. That’s why, ultimately, all souls will return to this world to experience the highest possible revelations and ecstasy after the messianic era.

Think of Kabbalah as the soul and halachah as the body. Kabbalah in practice is the study of Torah and the observance of all the mitzvahs—but with tremendous joy and a fire of love.