There is a lot of interest in Kabbalah these days. From Madonna to Hasidic Jews, it seems at times as if the whole world (or at least the alternative world) is captivated by Jewish mysticism in one way or another. In fact, a lot of the time, it seems like it has become so mainstream that people don’t even know its Jewish mysticism, and instead think that it is either a completely new religion, or that it is not religious at all and is just a type of “spirituality.” My wife’s late grandmother (not jewish or religious in any way), may her memory be a blessing, even spoke of kabbalah lessons during the last year or so of her life. This I see as one of the dangers of kabbalah, but the reason for the danger is thicker.
Imagine, if you will, a person who learns that there is a thing called an automobile, and that it is something that can carry a person down the road. Then, without even having a clue about how to drive, he goes out and buys the world’s fastest and most expensive sports car and hits the streets of San Francisco. This is about the same thing as one who delves into kabbalah without having first the proper knowledge and practice in torah to utilize it properly.
To put it another way, kabbalah is like the frosting of a cake, and torah is the cake. One who eats only frosting is bound to get sick. So too, a person who learns and practices only kabbalah will end up with a spiritual bellyache.
It is no wonder that kabbalah is as intriguing as it is. For many disenfranchised Jews of the last 40 years kabbalah has shown them that the very spiritual experience that they sought out in disciplines like Buddhism, and Hinduism was already present in the Judaism of their ancestors. Such a comfort was this, that many of these Jews have come back to Judaism, with a heavy influence on kabbalah. Unfortunately, most of these jews were not raised in torah judaism, and so the foundation for such practices was not well formed, and learning since their return to Judaism has either been incomplete or tempered by kabbalistic views. This can often have the effect of diminishing importance of torah learning and observance as such things take a back seat to the excitement and clear ethereal nature of mystic practices.
So, what then is the problem with such things? As jews, our contract with the Almighty is to keep torah, and although there are certainly mystical teachings that may be drawn from torah, the observance of torah is to be done in the physical world, in the natural rather than the supernatural. Without the strong grounding in such observance that is provided by years of learning and practice in torah, kabbalah threatens to keep one’s head in the clouds without keeping their feet on the ground, and turns torah observance into a question of subjective morality and relevance.
This, perhaps, is the reason that the sages from ancient to present have stated that it is ill advised at the least, and forbidden at worst, to teach kabbalah to a jew that is less than forty years of age–and this is considering that said jew has always been torah observant.
So what then is my suggestion for one who is interested in kabbalah? Be patient. Learn the foundation of torah, and how to implement it. We all can probably agree that getting a credit card without income, let alone the knowledge and discipline to keep it up to date, is a bad idea. In the same way, kabbalah isn’t inherently bad, or evil, but it is a further tool of a much larger spiritual discipline.
If you are interested in learning further, I suggest learning torah from Rambam (Maimonides), whose very straight forward and practical teachings are a mainstay of torah learning for application. I also suggest the book The Gerus Guide, the only step-by-step guide to orthodox conversion in the world, which can be purchased at http://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?keyWords=the+gerus+guide&categoryId=100501 Whether you are a non-jew interested in conversion, or a jew interested in furthering observance, this book is a very, very good guide for you, which does not expect that you can jump in all at once.
For Rambam, consider Mishneh Torah, which can be purchased with english translation on amazon or at any online jewish bookstore such as:
First and for most though, one should be well versed in the tanach (hebrew bible). A good translation can be had in the Stone Edition tanach, which has commentaries as well to explain some of the classic teachings of the text.
If you have any questions, I can provide more links or give personal advice on good places to look or start.