Kabbalah vs. Cabala vs. Qabalah
To someone unfamiliar with the topic, you might think that these three words and practices are interchangeable; people on the internet certainly treat them as if they are... But they most definitely are not.
image by Chabad.com, link in sources.
Kabbalah Kabbalah is a system of Jewish mysticism which blossomed into existence in 12th century Spain, propelled largely by Sephardic Jews, though it spread quickly throughout the Jewish diaspora.
There are multiple forms of Kabbalah, and it is not the only form of mysticism within Judaism, but it is often used as an umbrella term for all Jewish mysticism. There are traditional restrictions on Kabbalah as it is meant to be studied by those well versed in Judaism, as well as have the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with the spiritual intensity of the study and practice. In some very rare situations, Kabbalah may be actually spelled "Cabalah" by Latin language speakers, even when they are referring to Kabbalah. However, this is the very rare exception to the rule, not the rule itself.
Cabala Cabala refers to a Christianized form of Kabbalah that seeks to reimagine it through an entirely Christian lens. The spelling is on a decline, as is the practice, and is also commonly referred to as "Christian Kabbalah".
In 1200, the first Christian dove into Kabbalah. Robert Lull is believed to be the very first Cabalist. His intentions were to find information that could be used to convert Jews. Cabala's sole purpose, for centuries, was to find ways to convert Jews using "Jewish" thought and mysticism. However, just as Christians misinterpreted the Torah in the Jewish perspective, Cabala meant nothing to most Jews and failed as a method of conversion. For centuries, it was practiced solely by the clergy who were responsible for oppressing Jews.
"Those readers who enter an investigation of (Christian) cabala after having studied (Jewish) kabbalah may well become impatient at the outset with the misreadings and deformations characteristic of “Christian developments.”2 Perhaps even more frustrating, after co-opting such kabbalah as was desired, virtually all Christian Cabalists sought to transform it into a dogmatic weapon to turn back against the Jews to compel their conversion." (3)
The first known "Christian Kabbalistic" work was created by a converso, or a Jew who was forced to convert during the Inquisition. However, it is comprised entirely of fake quotes from both real and made-up Kabbalistic sources, including fictional rabbis. It is a work of nonsense, though it still had massive prevalence in Christian Cabalistic circles.
There were a few Christian Cabalists who studied with Jews, though documentation shows that no Jew partook in such discussions with the intention of Christians bastardizing or "transforming" Kabbalah. Just as Jewish and Muslim mystics engaged in great discussions, it was done so with the intention of sharing, but not using, knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
One of the creators of Qabalah, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, surprisingly, did study with a Jewish teacher, however, many occultists choose to romanticize this time as a golden age of shared information. Yochanan Alemanno was a Jew who, like many others, lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place as he and other Jews were prohibited from working. As a scholar, he did not have a library of his own but rather would teach from the libraries of his patrons. It is often stated that Mirandola learned all he did from Alemanno, however, his introduction to Kabbalistic information pre-dates their meeting. That is not to say that Alemanno did not tutor him, as it is well documented that he tutored him in Hebrew, Torah, and Talmud, as well as a few other subjects, but he was not his first introduction to Kabbalah. There are also texts that prove that he learned Hebrew with the sole intention of learning Kabbalah, not the other way around (4).
Mirandola learned from only 4 Kabbalistic texts, though he wrote his Cabalistic theses before completing the translation of any of them (4).
It is once again important to note that while he did learn from a Jew, it is clear that Mirandola went into his studies with the intention of learning Kabbalah for his own use.
Within Cabala, and the subsequent Qabalistic traditions, is a deep vein of antisemitism. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was a Jesuit priest and Christian Cabalist who "rejected Islam, Gnosticism, and Judaism" while also accepting Cabala, "believing that it had been passed down from Noah to his son Ham. According to Kircher, Ham was the progenitor of the Egyptians, and they were the custodians of the true Cabala. Moses was an initiate, but all later Jews had corrupted the Cabala" (6).
This appreciation and acceptance of bastardized Jewish theology paired with antisemitism is not uncommon and can be seen within most prominent figures of both Cabala and Qabalah.
Qabalah Perhaps the most popular form, Qabalah is a Frankenstein-like tradition. Like Cabala, Qabalah is based in Jewish mysticism.
According to Wikipedia, Qabalah is a blend of, "Jewish Kabbalah, Western astrology, Alchemy, Pagan religions, especially Egyptian and Greco-Roman (it is from the latter that the term "Hermetic" is derived due to the fact that Hermeticism’s founding texts were purported to have been written by Hermes Trismegistus, often associated with the Greek God Hermes and the Egyptian God Thoth), Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, the Enochian system of angelic magic of John Dee and Edward Kelley, hermeticism, tantra and the symbolism of the tarot".
It's earliest roots appear to be in the 15th century with Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (2), who we discussed above, though German occultist Agrippa is also acknowledged. However, as this is a blended practice, pinpointing its modern form in history is difficult, particularly due to the fact that Qabalah prides itself on being the "original Qabalah", despite the fact that it is far predated by Judaism's Kabbalah, and the word itself is actually rooted in Judaic Hebrew. Its originators also acknowledged that it is based in Judaism.
Judaism is a closed practice, meaning that you must be born into it or you must convert (initiate) into it, and unlike the Cabalists, who entered into it as a means of converting Jews, Qabalists were not interested so much in eradicating Jews as they were in cherry-picking our beliefs.
Éliphas Lévi, who was actually born Alphonse Louis but badly translated his name to Hebrew to appear more Jewish and therefore more authentic in his C/Qabalah, was an 18-1900's ex-Roman Catholic priest who sought power by becoming a "Kabbalist" and ceremonial magician. I have yet to see evidence that he ever studied with any Jewish person, but rather copious evidence that he studied from the texts of Cabalists who were already using a Christianized version of a few texts. He is known to have inspired the likes of antisemite Aleister Crowley, who is credited with propelling Hermetic Qabalah into the modern public view.
There are many practices based in Hermetic Qabalah, many of which go by long, complex names. These are far outnumbered by practices that use Kabbalistic concepts but never name it.
So, why is it important to know the difference? It is often said that Kabbalah is the heart of Judaism. Without a body, the heart cannot function.
When you remove Kabbalah from its roots, it is like a heart without a body. This is why Cabalists and Qabalists must draw from other places to supplement their belief systems. Qabalah draws from many other places while Cabala must use Christian beliefs to supplement their supposed understanding. Kabbalah is inextricably linked to Judaism. The central text used by Kabbalists (though there are many), is the Zohar, which is a commentary on the Torah. As I mentioned in “The Differences Between Judaism and Christianity”, the Torah is not the same as the Christian Old Testament.
Traditional restrictions on Kabbalah were in place to ensure that those who studied it were prepared-intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. These restrictions all pointed to one point: you must be well versed in Torah.
Like every single topic in the Jewish community, Kabbalah is not agreed upon. There are some, like the rabbis before us, who seek to "de-mystify" Judaism as a means of making our community more approachable, less threatening, and ultimately protect us from bigots who use our mysticism as a weapon against us (after all, the word "cabal" stems from "Kabbalah"). Maimonides was famously anti-mysticism and anti-spirituality, (though it is noted that before his death, he did learn Kabbalah and wrote in a letter that he would have written differently on it had he learned it) (5). The reality, there are many within the community who are unfamiliar with Kabbalah, but that does not change the fact that Kabbalah, like all Judaism, is closed to non-Jews. Non-Jews may be invited into our ceremonies (like being invited to Shabbat), may even be invited to study (I have non-Jewish theological study partners), but they may not practice on their own. Think of it like a birthday: you may be invited to a birthday party, but that doesn’t mean that it suddenly becomes your birthday.
This problem of appropriation in the occult community is in no way limited to Kabbalah. Jewish religious practices, culture, and beliefs are frequently bastardized by the occult community, in new and improved ways even in the modern-day. From occultists using Jewish prayers but subbing in the names of their deities to having fake Shabbat ceremonies, the appropriation of Judaism isn’t new, but that doesn’t mean that it is okay.
Judaism is not a dead religion, it is not a religion that has had to be “reborn” or “revived”. We have endured and survived, and to pretend that you can pick and choose from it without being part of it is ignorant, arrogant, and disrespectful. This idea of picking and choosing from closed practices is one that the occult community continually faces-from Indigenous practitioners asking that people stop “smudging” to Voudou practitioners facing backlash after white people insert themselves into it, the occult world must see a reckoning in regards to understanding and respecting the closedness of a practice.
Novak, B. C. “Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola and Jochanan Alemanno.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 45, 1982, pp. 125–147. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/750969. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.
The Study of Christian Cabala in English Don Karr 0
Pico della Mirandola's Encounter with Jewish Mysticism (Chaim Wirszubski, Harvard University Press).
The Dybbuk Gershon Winkler
A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot. Michael Dummett, Ronald Decker, and Thierry Depaulis