5 Must-Read Books on Kabbalah

September 9, 2022

Written by Yehuda Mersky

Kabbalah, literally “reception” or “tradition” in Hebrew, is a wide and rich collection of texts, ideas, and practices, dating from antiquity and living traditions until today.

Although esoteric, Kabbalah has played an important role in Jewish history and represents an important chapter in the religious history of mankind.

Like halakha (traditional Jewish law) and other traditions of Jewish thought, the Kabbalistic tradition integrates thought and practice in the service of God. He creatively reads and re-reads the Hebrew Bible, traditional Jewish law and practices, and the Talmud (rabbinical commentaries), seeking first-hand knowledge and close contact with the divinity itself from within our deeply conflicted and imperfect world.

As always in the world of Jewish texts, the riches are so immense and intertwined that one hardly knows where to begin. What’s more, by taking their allusions from Genesis, where God’s words create the entire universe, the Kabbalists understand the Hebrew language itself as the very substance of existence.

This may seem like a hindrance to the English reader, but we must start somewhere. Fortunately, there are now several excellent folders to start with.

Barry Holtz, editor, Back the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (Simon & Schuster, 1984)

This volume (whose authors were nearly all Brandeis alumni, faculty, or both) is a great introduction to classical Jewish texts, including Kabbalah. Historical surveys, literary analysis, and careful pedagogy guide each article. Last year I did a reading course on this book with a college student and I was amazed at how fresh and luminous this book is almost 40 years after it was published.

Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford University Press, 2003)

This book opens the doors not only to the Zohar – written during the Middle Ages and perhaps the most central work of Kabbalistics – but also to the centuries of thought and practice that led to the Zohar. It provides an invaluable introduction to powerful scholarly debates about the origins and meaning of the Zohar.

Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies and Judaism Arthur Green, an eminent contemporary Jewish teacher and theologian, expertly weaves erudition, rigor and existential concern with an ever-rich human voice.

Ariel Evan Mays, ed. Out of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press, 2014)

Mayse is one of the best younger scholars of Kabbalah today. His work combines learning, philosophical intelligence, and remarkable literary sensitivity.

This anthology of Kabbalistic texts, carefully selected, prefaced, translated and annotated, takes the reader through the Kabbalistic tradition from its beginnings to the late twentieth century. It is a pleasure in itself and an invaluable basis for further study.

The Poetry of Kabbalah: A Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, translated and explained by Peter Cole, and jointly edited with a closing speech by Aminadav Dickman (Yale University Press, 2012)

In many ways, Kabbalah creatively eludes and confuses our usual categories of philosophy, poetry, mythology, theology, ritual, and more.

Peter Cole is one of the best translators alive, a brilliant poet, and an accomplished scholar, and Aminadav Dickman is a leading scholar of literary translation. Here, they present Kabbalistic texts from antiquity to the present in a way that conveys both their theological richness and their ultimate imaginative expressive power.

The translations are elegant, fluent, and strikingly beautiful, yet faithful to the originals. They are accompanied by rich concluding notes illustrating the plethora of academic debate on both Hebrew and Aramaic texts and texts themselves, from ancient texts of the ascension to contemporary Hebrew poetry.

Marcia Falk, editor and translator, The Amazing Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda (Hebrew Union College Press, 2004)

A lifelong ultra-Orthodox Christian and a member of the ruling Hasidic Hasidic family, Zelda Schnurson Myshkowski had written poems throughout the 20th century that represented a genre of her own. Stunningly beautiful, lyrical, caressing yet inviting, her work weaves the breaks of scripture, rabbinic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic into a modern language that looks deeply into the cliched aspects of everyday life but opens up a kind of transcendence of its own.

Not a rabbi or, may God preserve us, an academic (although she was a schoolteacher, and one of her students was none other than the Israeli novelist Amos Oz), her poems provide an introduction to the kinds of inner life that have driven the Kabbalists to transcend centuries, and suggest that these wonderful poetic experiences And the ethical reasoning it brings may still be possible today.

and its translator, Marcia Falk, an accomplished poet and liturgist. Reading her work, even when it’s a translation for someone else, is a bonus to her.

For more information on Marcia Falk’s work, see Less God, More Feminism: A New Haggadah from a Famous Poet and New Prayers for Ancient Jewish Feasts.