Practical Kabbalah: Is our anger really necessary?

“Well, these are all religious practices,” said Wolf. “But what,” he persisted, “is religious behavior?”

Torah scroll from synagogue of Biella (Piedmont), Museum of Italian Judaism and Holocaust. (photo credit: MUSEUM OF ITALIAN JUDAISM AND THE HOLOCAUST)
Torah scroll from synagogue of Biella (Piedmont), Museum of Italian Judaism and Holocaust.
(photo credit: MUSEUM OF ITALIAN JUDAISM AND THE HOLOCAUST)
Joining a cruise to Norway, looking forward to glaciers and trolls and swishing through fjords surrounded by mountains, I was expecting a restful encounter with like-minded fellow travelers.
One passenger, however, was scholar-in-residence psychotherapist, psychologist, and group facilitator Rabbi Dr. Laibl Wolf, a white-haired and fluffily bearded Australian guru who maintains there is no such thing as anger.
To rage or not to rage, that is the question.
He maintains that there is no such thing as rage. This and other thought-provoking assertions were made by this riveting world lecturer.
In several of his workshops, which I and many others attended aboard the cruise ship, Wolf swayed the opinions and feelings of his rapt audience in many directions. One who became very angry was a stout fellow whose rapidly reddening face was cause for concern. How, he burst out, could such a suggestion be taken seriously when in many countries road rage seemed indomitable – especially hurtful to those of us from Israel, the country from where most of those present came, he shouted.
Wolf, nonplussed, led the discussion in a direction that he assured us would give us pause and offer insights into his hypothesis.
“What is religious behavior?” he asked.
Audience members called out such ideas as praying, going to religious centers such as synagogue three times a day, attending Sabbath services, keeping the Sabbath, fasting on Yom Kippur, believing in God, and so on.
“Well, these are all religious practices,” said Wolf. “But what,” he persisted, “is religious behavior?”
Again the audience signaled: loving your fellow man as yourself, being honest, and being modest, to which Wolf responded, “Yes, these are manifestations, but what is religious behavior?”
Finally, and with a kindly smile, he turned to the puzzled and increasingly frustrated audience and in a gentle, slightly Australian-accented tone explained, “Religious behavior is the way we internalize and perceive life.”
It took a while for the aghast audience to absorb his idea. Was it really so simple?
Looking toward us all in what might be interpreted as fatherly concern, Wolf elaborated: “The way we look at the world can be variously positive or negative. What does that depend on? And what does practical Kabbalah (also the title of his 1999 publication) have to offer us today?”
Most of us had become somewhat tense during this interchange: how could this question be answered when it was common knowledge that Kabbalah is based on ancient Jewish intelligence that interprets the sources of energy?
At its base, among several ideas is one of balance. He elaborated that most people consider “giving” a positive attribute. In Kabbalah this is termed hesed, lovingkindness, representing generous tendencies.
We were all given pause by his example of how non-stop giving in to a child’s demands creates a situation in which he or she has an unreal sense of entitlement and no preparation for the real world. Thus we have to balance this tendency with the often difficult task of having to refuse to give in to impractical requests. In Kabbalah this is termed gevura – withholding by focusing on creating a healthy balance, however painful at that moment it might be.
Sensing that his audience had become intent on appreciating these concepts, Wolf then turned to our breathing patterns.
Neshima, the Hebrew word for breath, is actually aligned with neshama, Hebrew for soul. Offering us a focused exercise, Wolf suggested that those who so wished should gently place their hands in a relaxed fashion on their knees, close their eyes and consider their breathing patterns.
Common in many visualization exercises, this was not new. But in this case I was still curious as to how this would explain his earlier assertion that religious behavior is the way we internalize and perceive life.
Still, I was happy to follow his softly intoned suggestion that we clear our mind and see in our mind’s eye something calm and pleasant. I immediately heard the sea swishing past when on deck, and saw it through the porthole of my cabin when I lay on my bed.
Indeed, into my mind came Wordsworth’s phrase from his poem The Daffodils:
“When oft upon my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon my inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.”
True, Wordsworth was a pantheist believing nature to be the manifestation of God – but hardly a kabbalist! So where was this leading? At last we were instructed to gently open our eyes. Then came the notion, as Wolf also suggests in his book:
“The Kabbalah does not teach that the ‘science of breath’ is an end in itself, nor that the emptying of the mind a virtue in its own right. Rather, they are disciplines that lead to greater insight and are instructed by defined devotional practices.”
That’s when I had my aha! moment. Religious behavior is indeed the way we internalize and perceive life. It contains the essence of balance. If we attain it we will not suffer road rage – we will give way knowing that we do not need to practice power games.
Another aha! moment. Balance between hesed – giving – and gevura – withholding – is another way of internalizing and perceiving life.
Wolf created an opportunity for recognizing that this holiday had become more than a cruise. It had become a journey offering tools that could be used toward devotional practices or toward meditation. With training and discipline these tools could also lead to greater inner interpersonal balance and harmony with our family members, friends, colleagues and community.
Thus “To rage or not to rage” becomes a choice. Inner harmony provides the crucial balancing pivot that enables us to be pro- rather than re-active. We can choose our responses to the many difficult challenges facing us in our daily life.
Wolf offered several maps of the soul in his all-too-few lectures. Clearly however, his Practical Kabbalah does indeed offer modern-day insights. It offers us perception leading to perspective. It allows us to achieve greater self-awareness and confidence.
The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Wolf is also a lawyer and educational psychologist, specializing in teenage rebellion. He is the founder and director of the Human Development Institute, a foundation dedicated to the progress of humankind through insight and personal mastery. He received his rabbinic ordination from the chief rabbi of Israel, and has studied under great Hasidic masters, his foremost mentor being the revered Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who was known globally for the passionate wisdom he bestowed on humankind. Wolf lives in Melbourne with his wife, Leah, and the younger two of their seven children.
Dr. Pessy Krausz is a psychotherapist and founder of the Shalshelet Enhancing Relationships Center in Jerusalem. She can be reached at [email protected]