Kabbalah and Humanistic Psychology: A Search for the Human Potential

Kabbalah and Humanistic Psychology: A Search for the Human Potential

Between the 9th and the 15th century, Jewish philosophy was mostly concerned with inquiries of the nature of the human soul. Following the occupation of Constantinople in the East by the Muslims, scripts of ancient Greek philosophies had been translated and rediscovered, which brought about a great interest to Judaism. Judaic tradition incorporates many ideas from Greek philosophical teachings, especially Aristotelian and Platonist philosophy, making it a rather theological area of study (Samuelson, 2009). Its beginning was marked by two notable rabbis, which started deconstructing the meaning of life, beyond what was then known as dedicating life to the devotion of God. The first rabbi to incorporate these philosophical debates, Aristotelian in particular, was Saadia Ben Joseph Gaon. To his interpretation “The soul is… not a substance but something attached to a substance in the way that colour, sound, number, and so forth is attached to a body; the soul is external and internal”
(Samuelson, 2009, p. 527)

Thus, even back in the 6th century, great thinkers such as Gaon attempted to distinguish the physical body from the mystical body . To him, the mystical body is an abstract that is not to be seen or felt by the senses; it is the soul which thinks, executes, and rationally analyzes events and issues in life. He claimed, however, that a soul is given a shape and form depending on the person it resides within. Since every person has a soul, it has an external face; a face which attaches to the body and shapes the person throughout his or her development (Samuelson, 2009). The soul also has an internal face, which ought to grow and become part of an infinite and divine part, part of God. Gaon preceded his writings about the soul until his death; although, he did not go on further to explain the exact purpose of the soul, which question began showing great interest in the Middle East.

Successor rabbis who tried to develop Gaon’s ideas in later ages were not well documented in historical sources, and one suggestion is that they did not survive the resistance of the synagogue. However, only one rabbi succeeded in imprinting his ideas onto Judaic knowledge. Issac Israeli claimed that the soul, which he called ruach, has to develop and learn its nature, although it has to co-exist with the body (Samuelson, 2009). To him, the soul perfects the body’s external state, by guiding its development, rather than shaping it. In the meantime, a person cannot perfect his soul without exploring their environment, through the body God has created for humankind. This cycle of perfecting the soul was another explanation to which the ruach reincarnates over and over again to reach its perfect state (Herbart, 1932). By both being courtyard physicians and philosophical scholars, the theories of Gaon and Israeli paved the way for the rise of Kabbalah in the 11th century.

Around the 11th century, a reformed movement called Kabbalah had emerged out of the earlier philosophical theories. Kabbalah means ‘receiving’ in Hebrew; its purpose was to perfect and shape the faith of Judaism altogether. These are teachings of the fundamental aspects of the soul, by explaining the significance of humans’ full potential (Chazan, 2004). It achieves this by looking at a relationship between an immortal creator in an infinite universe, and relating these to the human soul (Herbart, 1932). Kabbalah then seeks to define the purpose of human life, and explains its nature in order for all humankind to achieve unity with the infinite.

According to Kabbalah, the soul has 613 desires to receive, or as we today call it, be selfish. This originates in the disperse spreading of the soul: Adam’s soul. Throughout life, a constant force is reinforcing the soul to create a desire to give. This external force is represented by God, who directs humans into achieving the full potential of their soul. The goal is to correct those 613 desires to receive, and transform them into giving, which may take more than one lifetime (Ariel, 2006). In fact, this process may take hundreds of rebirths, until the perfected state of the soul has been achieved. The process of soul growth is constructed of 613 stages, which’s specific order had not been determined for centuries following the primary emergence of Kabbalah. At any rate, each stage has a stronger power to give than its previous one, until this desire is perfected and not needed anymore; this judgment can be only passed by the creator. Thus, every stage of soul growth surpasses an uncorrected desire, until all of the former desires are appropriately corrected.

On the individual level, a realization of this structure has to begin the process. A soul begins its path in a person who is in their incorrect level, thus feeling pleasure by being on the receiving end. At some point in reincarnation, however, the individual soul realizes that pleasure is being endowed by God (Ariel, 2006). This desire, posed by the external force, makes it want to transform and be on the giving end so that it can be closer to God. However, the desire to be on the giving end ought to be perfected through practice, which may require many births and deaths of the physical soul.

The cycle of the soul goes through many lives, and in each life its uniqueness is expressed through its matchless talents. The goal of forgetting, or not being able to remember past lives, is because reality would not fit in the newly reborn soul; its purpose is to attain an abstract capacity of knowledge, and diminish thoughts of simply receiving (Ariel, 2006). In other words, memories of past lives are simply not needed; forgetting is the function of promoting the chances of the soul to move to the next level in spiritual growth. People’s bodies, according to Kabbalah, exist for the sake of the soul. This is why “we can exchange organs and limbs with other species and continue to live, even without our parts, because the body exists for the sake of the soul” (Herbart, 1932, p.632). The purpose of a body is hence to help a soul move through the stages and be closer to God. Once all the stages are perfected, the soul may feel such gratification that it does not seek to be reborn again. By achieving its full potential, it can reside closer to God as a perfected state, which Jews title as Heaven. Many of the incorporated ideas in these theories reside with Platonic philosophies. Although Kabbalah saw great interest and followers in the medieval ages, its decline is strongly correlated with the industrial revolution (Samuelson, 2009). One reason for that may be the liberation of the ultimate knowledge from God, and the change of direction in empirical science. Yet, Kabbalah is still practiced today, and has not disappeared as a philosophical thought completely.

The strengths of this approach were several. First, the Judaic humanistic philosophy emphasized on free will and a desire to grow. This is an important historical element in human history, where an objective reality has been attempted to be made in congruence with religion. Second, the undesirable elements of the human soul are important characteristics which identified mental illnesses in the medieval era. For instance, Judaism explained illnesses such as depression as an indulgence and unbalance on the receiving end. Mania, on the other end, was seen as a distorted perception of the receiving end by being a giving end instead; thus, people who suffer from mania are unaware that they are not as near to God as they believe to be (Chazan, 2004).

However, some limitations exist to this approach. Most was written as hidden lessons in parables, others were philosophical interpretations of biblical and Talmud scripts. The theories of reality have no empirical basis, which might be a central cause to why there was such a decline in followers (Samuelson, 2009). Even though the conclusions are interesting, the inability to prove the hypothesis either wrong or right makes it unreliable when looked upon from a psychological perspective.

The first emerging signs of understanding mental illness start in the belief of lost balance, as seen in Kabbalah. Together with its humanistic approach, it paved the road towards a positive personal growth; whether spiritual or empirical. Moreover, this is an important event in the history of psychology in the sense that Platonist and Aristotelian theories had been preserved and incorporated into people’s everyday lives. This marks merely the beginning of the growth of knowledge and spiritualism in Judaism.

Today modern psychology, humanistic psychology specifically, looks upon the individual as a collective whole as well, rather than being subtracted to its elements. In the core of humanistic psychology is the notion that a person is a collective system that has a meaning, values, potential, and the ability to self-actualize (Hergenhahn, 2009). Although not necessarily for the purpose of God, a person ought to self actualize by their own means to achieve the most they can out of their lives. By stressing personal values, humanistic psychology is comparable to medieval Judaism in the sense that they both encourage people to seek a climax to their personal development; whatever the means, they need to achieve the necessary ends.

Humanistic psychology offers religion as a method for self actualization. As Adler stated, not only the philosophy, or the idea, of a certain assertion is important; these have to be laid under the optimal circumstances, and “contain a considerable social interest” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p.561). Thus, meaning and society are related and essential for the development of one’s self, which have to be balanced and harmonized.

Ariel, D. (2006). Kabbalah: the mystic quest in Judeism. Rowman &Littlefield Publishers:
Oxford, UK.
Chazan, R. (2004). The Jews in Europe and the Mediterranean basin. c.1024-c.1198. Cambridge
University Press 4(1). doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521414104.018
Herbart, A., D. (1932). Proofs for eternity, creation, and the existence of God in medieval
Islamic and Jewish philosophy. Oxford University Press: New York. pp. 428-440.
Hergenhahn, B., R. (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology 6th e.d. Wadsworth
Cengage Learning: CA. pp.558-561
Samuelson, N., M. (2009). Reasoning and demonstration: from aniquity through the seventeenth
century. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521843232.009