The Kabbala - What it was, what it is, and what it could be
In the following article we are going to take a look at the history of Kabbala - starting from the origin-myths, speculations on the real origins, scientific facts, evolution of the Christian Kabbala, and it's development into what we call "Modern Western Kabbala". We will briefly discuss the present "paths" of it, from the Traditional and Orthodox Jewish ways to the neo-Kabbala of certain American pop singers; and from there we will probe into various aspects of how Kabbala could develop, to meet the needs of a non-monotheistic, non-Abrahamite group, while keeping all the values that make it noteworthy in the first place.
The first of the two most well known origin-myths of the origin of Kabbala is that it was given to Adam by the angel Ratziel. Esoterically this is an interesting idea. Ratziel's name comes from the stem "lirotz", "to will", therefore it means "the will of God". This myth implies that Kabbala originally was a method for doing Magic by exercising the Will, and was received as a sort of angelic-type help when Man fell from grace.
According to the other story, Moses received it on mount Sinai from the "Angel of Jahve" (the one who is referred to as Metatron). This suggests that Kabbala is a help and a way to understand the Laws better, rather than being a magical method.
Both implications are correct. Man has always sought power, a way to control the weather, a supernatural aid against enemies. Part of the Kabbala (the part known as Practical Kabbala) is about that - remnants of Mechashafit, the sorcery of the Judaic people; having said that, the other parts, methods were clearly meant to be a path to help better understanding of the scriptures, and therefore the mystical truth about the world.
As we see, we are dealing with a broad subject here, Kabbala is not one single thing, as most books would have you think.
Historically, we can only speculate on the beginnings of Kabbala; and even to do that, we need to understand the nature of the Jewish religion from which it stems from. Judaism, as all other religions, is constantly changing, in keep with the needs, philosophical and religious trends of the time - I hope to illustrate that point later on in my talk. To put this simply: Judaism wasn't originally monotheistic.
The fact that it was henotheistic is obvious in the scriptures (e.g. "you shall not have other gods before me" rather than just saying "do not have other gods" in the Commandments, or the "send the goat to Azazel" in Mos III. 16:8, 16:26), however, there is a whole polytheistic concept too, as I later hope to demonstrate.
Let us now return to the history of Kabbala. Most likely, originally it was compiled of several existing systems - the superstitions of the tribes, philosophies both indigenous and foreign, meditations, etc., as a method for a more intimate understanding of the then (relatively) newly compiled T'nach (for those with a more Christian background: the Old Testament) - as we know that most of the scriptures were already there, and the myths of the tribes were combined in the book as well.
The word "Kabbala" comes from the stem "lekabel", "to get"; "Kabbala" means a (feminine) thing that we receive; this is true both in Hebrew and Old Arameic too. There are a lot of "codes" that imply a certain background logic to the T'nach; on the other hand, Kabbala is not mentioned in it - not even once; from which we can deduct that it either was not a full-blown system yet, it didn't exist at all, or that even the existence of it was a secret. Most people prefer the latter explanation, for I am yet to see an entirely unromantic Witch or Magician, but we have to know that this is only a "Truth of the Heart".
We do know that there are traces of mystical hermeneutics even in the earliest rabbinic texts, but the bulk of the knowledge was, and still is conveyed by word of mouth. In around 1020, polygamy becomes an anathema - this is clearly a sign of Christian philosophy having a strong effect on Judaism.
By the XIIth century, there are whole Kabbalistic schools in Provence and Castilia - the (pre-) scholastic period effects the Jewis population as well. These schools were very strict, elitist and esoteric; but they were there, teaching the Kabbala.