Kabbalah, Jewish mystical practice, has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, providing Jews a path of connecting with the Divine and one another they may have never discovered before.
Some Jews have even extended their mystical journey into the world of tarot – like Heather Mendel, a Jewish mystic, author, artist, and speaker who has spent her life exploring this connection and has written extensively about it, most recently in her new book and tarot card deck The Parallax Oracle.
We spoke with Mendel to learn more about Judaism, tarot, and how she believes Jews can utilize this connection to enhance their spirituality.
ReformJudaism.org: How did you first become inspired to practice Kabbalah?
Heather Mendel: Raised in apartheid South Africa, where segregation and separation were the norm, my parents were first-generation offspring of Litvak immigrants. They were raised in traditional Orthodox homes, but their lives took a distinctly untraditional turn the day they were married: My maternal grandmother collapsed as my mother and father stood under the. From that day on, my mother began questioning fate, coincidence, and life after death in ways considered “inappropriate” for Jews in the 1940s.
In response to my grandmother’s death and their Orthodox peers questioning them for their own questioning, my parents started a spiritual search that included mediums and seances, propelling my interest in the mystical, mythical, and mysterious at an early age. I read voraciously, discovering the inner teachings of Eastern and indigenous religious/spiritual traditions, and in 1978, I began studying writings from rabbis who taught Kabbalah. I realized this approach to Judaism made the most sense to me, and to this day it’s where I feel most at home.
ReformJudaism.org: In your view, how does Kabbalah align with Reform Jewish belief and practice?
For a mystical path to be meaningful, it must be practical in the here and now, not just in meditative isolation. Living in a world of dualities, we can bring the mystical and pragmatic together in ways that expand consciousness and presence on a daily basis.
As Reform Jews, our contemporary prayers and practices must more than just saying the words and doing the rituals. When we recognize that the spark of Divinity connecting us to one another, to the world, and to the Holy (Wholly) Blessed One is the identical spark, we become the blessing itself.
For Reform Jews, social justice is the raison d’etre we experience and express as our life force. In embracing , we participate in the mandate to be an or l’goyim, a light to the global family.
How did your mystical journey connect you to tarot?
I once avoided tarot, believing it was a prognosticative tool. In 2013, after the publication of my book Dancing in the Footsteps of Eve, research led me to discover that tarot’s Major Arcana was composed of 22 cards: the same number of letters in the aleph-bet and the number of pathways on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
I learned that many psychotherapists use tarot images to help patients attune to their own inner world and personal stories, and some writing instructors advise the use of the cards to develop storylines and characters. But because these cards tell the story of the mythic hero’s journey in ways I found to be Christocentric and patriarchal, I wondered how I could tell the same story in a more universal way, couched in the language and imagery of a feminist Judaism.
I started illustrating cards of my own, connecting each one with a Hebrew letter and a pathway on the spiral journey through the Tree of Life. This led to the publication of The Syzygy Oracle, a book and card deck that offers a daily spiritual practice reflecting my personal Jewish belief – which led to the eventual creation of The Parallax Oracle.
The Parallax Oracle is a card deck and 180-page workbook providing a simple yet profound introduction to Kabbalah and providing a step-by-step daily practice that both offers tarot to the progressive Jewish community and Kabbalah to the tarot world. By selecting a card a day, practitioners learn the teachings of the 10 sefirot (emanations) of Kabbalah. Each card contains an affirmation, some key words, and information about the particular sefirah, providing an opportunity to apply Kabbalah’s teachings to daily life.
Why do you believe it important for people on a religious path to embrace the mystical in addition to just the exoteric?
As individuals raised in Western culture, we’ve been trained to value the singular dimension associated with the “left side” of the brain – the pragmatic, logical, and linear – and view it through a patriarchal and hierarchal lens. In doing so, we diminish the intangible and ignore the ethereal.
Our souls live in the paradox between ego and essence, communicating in symbols, metaphor, visions, poetry, pattern, rhythm, feelings, and music – the language of the “right side” of the brain. Our reliance on merely the intellectual and analytic dismisses the grandeur of the possible.
How do you connect this philosophy to Judaism?
God’s unpronounceable name, YHVH, suggests that God isn’t a noun but a verb. While it normally translates to “I am that I am” or “I will be that I will be”, I prefer “I become that I become.” The Jewish people are an ever-evolving human family in partnership with an ever-evolving complexity we experience as Divinity.
As the “People of the Book,” we turn to sacred text to access the full beauty and mystery of who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. We read Torah on multiple levels rather than just the literal.
Kabbalah, therefore, delves beneath the surface and superficial. Instead of focusing on Judaism’s particularity, it helps us focus on our universality. It’s a pathway to discovering our commonalities with all people – to celebrating our differences in order to sanctify life rather than fearing them.