Beginner Level Kabbalah: An Overview of the Kabbalistic Tradition – Advantage of Wisdom over Prophecy

The contemplative tradition, while operating within the realm of routine intellect, provides the optimal medium for attaining Divine enlightenment. It is explained in Kabbalah that the capacity for inner reflection derives from a supernal realm (that of “souls”) hierarchically superior to that from which derive the exotic forces elicited through Kabbalistic practice (that of “angels”). The elevation of thought to the point where it invites Divine wisdom and understanding constitutes the peak of spiritual accomplishment.

According to Kabbalistic tradition, the purpose of Creation is to provide God with a “dwelling place in the lower realms,” a goal which achieves fulfillment through the channeling of Divine light into the progressively denser “vessels” of human thought, feeling, and deed, and from there into the rest of material reality. By working within the realm of mundane consciousness, the contemplative tradition sensitizes one to the infinite Divine nuance within Creation. For this reason, prophecy, which transcends mundane experience, falls short of providing true enlightenment.

The advantage of chochmah (“wisdom”) over nevuah (“prophecy”) as a pathway to enlightenment is evident from the teaching of our Sages that “the wise man is greater than the prophet.” Through prophecy one may arrive at the ultimate approximation of Divine thought, but without necessarily impacting the self or Creation as a whole. It is the highest standard of character and intelligence which is said to prime one for prophecy, rather than the other way around.

Wisdom, by virtue of its conceptuality and abstraction, serves to generalize one’s experience of of the world into the terminology of ordinary consciousness, thus rendering it conveyable to others. The prophetic experience, although extraordinarily vivid in its imagery, is divorced from here-and-now reality and thus remains essentially impenetrable by others. The only individual for whom wisdom and prophecy merged into a single stream of enlightenment was Moses, who was able to receive prophecy while still in possession of his routine faculties, thereby providing the quintessential model of rectified da’at (“knowledge”). He was both the wisest of men and the most Divinely attuned; the only human who could, as it were, meet God “half-way up the mountain.”

The Kabbalistic tradition, though grounded in the prophetic experience of our forefathers and sages, has moved steadily over time in the direction of both a greater and subtler conceptual articulation. This is more than just a consequence of man’s having moved further and further away from direct experience of the Divine; it is part of a providential plan that sees the greatest benefit to God and Creation in the cultivation of a spiritual consciousness firmly grounded within mundane reality. This plan is evident from numerous verses in the Bible, such as these from the book of Isaiah (11:9, 52:8):

…the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…eye to eye, they shall see the returning of the Lord to Zion….

Kabbalah, as the framework within which Jews have historically evolved their unique understanding of reality, represents both a legacy of prophecy and of wisdom. This is portrayed vividly by the gematria (“Hebrew numerology”) of the word Kabbalah itself (= 137), which is equal to the combined value of the words chochmah (“wisdom” = 73) and nevuah (“prophecy” = 64). Through the wisdom of Kabbalah, we learn to “hear” that which our ancestors envisioned at Sinai. Once we fully comprehend the conceptual significance of that vision, we will once again begin to “see” God, but with our routine senses intact, and not only for the moment, but for all time thereafter.

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