December 5, 2023

Education Through Experience: Hadar Cohen on Learning and Teaching Jewish Mysticism

By Madison Margolin

What is it to be spiritual, to walk with wisdom from Above and to apply it down here not only to everyday life, but to the issues facing our generation? How does one learn spirituality, learn to be in relationship and connection with G-d, and how do our schools and systems of education teach to cultivate knowledge, as well as ways of being? In an interview with Hadar Cohen (a few months before the war in Israel/Palestine broke out), we discussed these questions and more.

As an Arab Jewish scholar, mystic, and artist, she founded Malchut, a mystical school where she teaches spirituality, Jewish mysticism, and the direct experience of God. Originally from Jerusalem, with ancestral origins in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, her goal as a Sephardic mystic is to build decolonial frameworks for worshiping God. And as an artist, she employs various modalities, including performance, movement, writing, weaving, sound, and ritual to integrate the spiritual and political—arching toward transformation of systemic structures, and healing for all. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Madison Margolin

So how did you get started? What has been your journey to becoming who you are right now?

Hadar Cohen

I’ll start with emphasizing the importance of education in my life, and the learning process. It started in college at Cooper Union, which offered free tuition to anyone who was accepted. It wasn’t just this free model, but also the style of education there was so fundamentally different from other colleges in the US.

When I was in school, I  wrote my own book—“The Education Manifesto”—dissecting the philosophy of what education is and why we invest in it. I found that learning, at its heart, is very spiritual, because to learn, first, there needs to be this acknowledgement that “I do not know.” If I know everything, then there’s no space for learning—which is so much about an exploration of the unknown and a willingness to challenge previous assumptions. That process is the heart of life. It’s about letting go of our attachments to a certain way of thinking or knowledge set, so we can be open to another state of consciousness. 

I also got into activism during my time at Cooper. I remember my teachers would joke that we got a double education: not only was I studying electrical engineering, but we were also learning about political activism and systems change through the fight against student debt and capitalism, in a movement that we called Free Cooper Union. 

MM

What you’re saying reminds me of how much “learning” is a core aspect of Judaism. What educational models do you think work best for spiritual growth or sustenance?


HC

In Judaism, we have this concept of learning for the sake of learning. It’s not like, “oh, I’m learning, so I can get a degree or a job.” It’s learning for the sake of it because there’s something so profound about that process and experience. 

Regarding transformative educational models, I was very influenced by bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress. It touches on justice issues as well, and how we train and cultivate people’s minds. What I’ve found is that the best education is grounded in direct experience. That’s why at my school, Malchut, the tagline is “teaching direct experience of God” because knowledge is useful, but if it’s merely in the mind, or if it’s merely intellectual, it’s actually not worth that much. 

I’m curious about what I call embodied wisdom or embodied spirituality. Let’s say, for instance, you want to learn about love: You can google “love,” explore schools of thought about love, understand that there are different forms of love, watch movies about love, but until you experience it, you’re not going to know it. If I had an experience of love, I’m forever changed because it’s permanently embedded in my consciousness. Education through experience of the body, of lived reality is where the learning happens. 

So I really believe in the power of experience; that’s the first thing. The other thing is a sense of oral tradition. Sometimes the Jewish community gets too hooked on being “the People of the Book.” But “the book”—Torah—is not actually only the written word. The word of God is a living channel. And we always say “Torah is life itself.” Our tradition passes through oral transmission. The best schools are where there’s a real relationship between the teacher and the student, not just a place where books are assigned to be read.

Especially nowadays when anything can be taught on YouTube or through AI, that dynamic between teacher and student is priceless. The Talmud even says that your relationship with your teacher is more important than your relationship to your parents, which is a really high statement given that we have laws in Judaism about respecting your parents. In my own personal learning process, I read spiritual books and I had my own spiritual experiences, but the best spiritual learning that I received was through  direct transmission from my teachers—whether through meditation practices or even observing their ways of being.  

Observation of your teacher is also in the Talmud. Students would go to the house of the teacher to see how they eat, how they walk, as a way to witness how they live life from close up, how they do all these things. Because at the end of the day, the Torah or spiritual wisdom is about how we practice, how we move. Halacha means “walking with God,” and although we think of it as staying up all night studying legal issues, it’s not about what we know but rather, how are you walking with God? If you’re walking down the street, can a stranger observing you be able to tell that you’re walking with God? 

Regarding Malchut’s tagline (“mystical school”), what differentiates a mystical school from a regular school is that most modern schools teach content, or what I call Googleable knowledge, whether it’s math, history, or English. It is the content of the mind. But mystical schools teach a quality of mind, how the mind knows. In other words, mystical schools teach students how to cultivate certain ways of being, not just information or content that goes toward knowledge. Ways of being are at the heart of spiritual learning because it’s how wisdom is integrated into our life. They are character traits that make up who we are, like courage, humility, kindness. It’s like how physical muscles require training to grow—spiritual essences also require cultivation. 

MM

So what is it to experience God, to walk with God, to be with God on an embodied level? And how does one learn that or how can it be taught, especially if it’s something (like love) that you only get by direct experience?

HC

I’ll start with the teachings of Kabbalah, which articulates a cosmology of creation. Creation didn’t happen once and that’s that—it’s an ongoing process. It’s constantly happening. The breath, the in and the out, that’s a creative process. Kabbalah articulates the creative process with high level precision. The Kabbalists were also scientists and mathematicians, who studied the breath, the mind, the body, and nature. They were studying every field of creation to find God there. And I think that is spirituality. 

Kabbalah articulates the creative process with high level precision. The Kabbalists were also scientists and mathematicians, who studied the breath, the mind, the body, and nature. They were studying every field of creation to find God there.

It’s not just one field: Spirituality is everything and there are different ways of teaching it. Let’s just say that to be devoted to God means to be in an ongoing relationship, a study of God, because of course we’ll never be complete, we’ll never fully understand who God is, but we can show up to that study and we can be invigorated by that.

I believe that in some ways, the first teaching on the spiritual path is when we learn to shift our perspective from being externally based to internally based. We shift from the outer gaze of the physical eye, which sees life as happening to us, to the spiritual eye that sees life as happening through us. Reality is inside us. God is inside us, consciousness is inside us. Sometimes consciousness can be another name for God. When we learn to shift the outer gaze to the inner gaze, that’s actually when we begin the journey of direct experience. And then we realize we have a whole internal world, which is key because if you don’t know how to be with your own mind, how to be with your own heart, how to be with your own body, the teachings won’t land. Spirituality comes from the inside.

In terms of practical spiritual skills, it’s how you eat, breathe, relate to judgment, relate to your depression, how you know things… I created my own curriculum of cosmology that’s structured around three channels: the mind, the body, and the heart. And each one requires different skills to cultivate. This is so empowering because no one can do it for you, even if you had all the material wealth in the world. No one can get into your mind. It’s your own responsibility—your heart, your capacity to feel, your capacity to be in your body, these are all things that are only in your power. Spiritual skills really begin when we understand that the internal world is central. That is the space of our power and transformation. That’s a space where the world is also created. Many spiritual teachings point to God being inside—but it’s a lot of work to embody that wisdom.

So the first channel is the mind, or consciousness; it’s learning how to understand the nature of the mind. Many practices in meditation teach us to observe the mind and uncover insight into our thought patterns. In Kabbalah, we have the four worlds, the four emanations, or the four stages. Often, we can get confused because we think that if something has a physical, tangible reality, then it’s real, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not real. But creation ranges from subtle to dense. Thoughts are also creation, but in a very subtle state. And if you really track it down on the quantum physics level, you’ll realize they actually do have density—just much lighter than something that’s physical.

So we must learn how to work with our thoughts and understand their structures and origins. Sometimes I call that an awareness-based practice because it’s not necessarily about the content itself—what we are seeing or thinking—but rather how we are seeing, how we are being aware.

The body’s a whole other system because sometimes you can be an avid meditator, but terrified of going into the full expression of the body. The body is also energy. Sometimes people hear “energy” as a woohoo word, but I come from an engineering background, so I think the heart of spiritual wisdom is the integration of science and spirituality. Energy is the fabric of reality. It’s what all existence is made out of. The relationship between energy and consciousness is spiritual wisdom and I believe it works well with today’s discourse about somatic healing, psychology, and inner work. 

In theology, there are two ways of experiencing God: transcendent God and immanent God. Transcendent is God outside the body or personal self; we must leave the body to experience God-Transcendent, such that, in the context of consciousness, we obliterate the self in order to receive this higher spiritual teaching.That’s often seen as the masculine view. The immanent view is more feminine: encountering God through the body, through reality, through lived experience, through the earth. While there’s been discourse about unifying God-outside-the-body and God-through-the-body—the without and the within—for the last 2000 years or so, society has mostly prioritized the experiences of transcendent God. But over the last few decades, we’ve seen an evening out, or a flip, with greater interest in balancing the two views. It’s like, I want to actually feel God through the body. I want to understand that experience. I live in material reality. 

The third channel is the most important of them all: devotion. Having studied this in various spiritual schools across the world, I’ve observed that some which are focused on consciousness, in terms of meditation, training, and observing the mind, are missing the more relational or felt sense skills. And with schools that focus on energy, the body, and psycho-somatics, sometimes they’re missing a connection to what I say is the teaching of love, which to me is where all the spiritual teachings cohere. If spiritual teachings aren’t grounded in this knowledge of love, the teachings scatter because, then what’s the purpose? We’re just going to keep healing? Healing for what? Or we’re just going to learn so much about the mind—to what end? 

This harkens back to the Kabbalistic teachings that the purpose of creation is for tikkun: We are here to heal ourselves, each other, and then the world. I think we can only do that through love. But we don’t always wake up and feel love. Especially if we don’t have a morning practice, when we wake up, we may feel miserable, anxious, or any of these lower frequency vibrations. Love is something we have to cultivate and practice. And that’s where prayer for me becomes so essential—because when we show up to synagogue and sing, we activate the heart.We move from the head to the heart—but it’s that movement from head to heart that spiritual people say is the hardest journey of all. You think it’s harder to travel halfway across the world than to move from your head to your heart? It’s so close yet so far. 

MM

Sometimes when people do psychedelics, such as DMT, they may interact with God, or “see” God as, for instance, a ball of light. I’ve also personally had direct experiences of God on psychedelics, which at times were very intense. Sometimes I wonder if it could be dangerous, as if ‘too much light’ could shatter the vessel. 

So my question is, what is the end goal? Are we even trying to reach such spiritual heights, experience God face-to-face, or is it that maybe such spiritual aspirations are arrogant, risky, or simply masturbatory? What is really the point? Are we trying to get that close to God’s light just for the sake of it, for the high of it, or rather, is spirituality about seeing the sunlight and how that touches everything down here on earth, seeing the light shining from the sun (rather than looking straight into the sun itself—to use the metaphor)? What kind of closeness are we trying to cultivate with God? And what is your own personal experience of God?

HC

I love that question, it’s so important. Even Moses couldn’t see the face of God—it’s too intimate—so Moses could only see the back of God. I’m so drawn to the story of receiving the Torah, receiving direct experience, receiving spiritual wisdom because after Moses comes down from the mountain, he sees the people are worshiping the golden calf. They’re all misaligned, so he smashes the tablets. He’s like, what is this? What is this spiritual teaching worth? What is having this “light consciousness” experience if this is how people are acting?

But after Moses breaks the tablets, he goes up the mountain a second time. My theory is that when you do something for the first time, it’s bound to fail because any step of creation means a breaking had to take place. But the key is actually going a second time. It’s having that courage to go again. The second time Moses came down, he came down in a totally different way—in a way that integrated the spiritual teachings. 

My theory is that when you do something for the first time, it’s bound to fail because any step of creation means a breaking had to take place. But the key is actually going a second time. It’s having that courage to go again. The second time Moses came down, he came down in a totally different way—in a way that integrated the spiritual teachings. 

We see this also with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who received the teachings of the Kabbalah when he was in a cave, and when he came out, wherever he looked, his gaze made things catch on fire and he started burning the trees. The Divine voice was like, what are you doing? Why’d you come here to burn my world? Go back to the cave and study. So he went back to the cave and then came out a second time after he’d integrated the teachings and could safely navigate mundane reality. 

A lot of people have that experience with psychedelics, especially if it’s the first time. It’s so expansive, but then they have to contract right away. There’s a whiplash effect. 

The purpose of spirituality isn’t necessarily to only have very high-level experiences. I really do believe that at some point in every person’s life, they will have some sort of experience of God, whether it’s in a dream, during a nature walk, or in a connection with a loved one. It’s not only about having the experiences of God, but also about learning how to integrate them into lived reality.

You were asking me about experiences I’ve had of God, which are many because God is in the everyday. God is in everything and the practice is to learn how to see God in everything. When you see the ocean or some magnificent view, it’s very easy to say, oh, that’s God. But when you are faced with trauma or pain or suffering or injustices (and there are so many in this world) then we forget God. So the spiritual teaching is to see God through all the pain and through all reality.

MM

Switching gears a bit, what is it to be a mystic? Do you consider yourself one?

HC

Yeah, I do. I think a mystic is devoted to God and to learning about God. Mysticism translates to “hidden wisdom.” A mystic is on the path, seeking the hidden wisdom of God. We don’t just read what is written in the Torah, but we actually read the empty spaces—the white fire, not just a black fire.* That’s at the heart of it: the mystic works with the unseen world, with the invisible world, and sees things that others can’t because people are so attached to the physical mind. 

MM

What do you mean by the “unseen world”? Other Kabbalistic realms beyond Asiya? 

HC

Yeah, looking beyond physical reality into different realms, whether it’s emotional consciousness, intellectual consciousness, or spiritual consciousness. Working with the unseen is learning how to work with what is stored in the body that perhaps a person is not even conscious of. That’s also why I think it also gets to the depth of psychology. The path to God is through the self. Part of our tradition is to examine the self in this way and be committed to that journey of self-exploration. That to me is also an experience of God—when we go inside and realize, okay, I worked through my inner child stuff and now I have my ancestral stuff and my attachment issues. We are constantly uncovering another layer, getting deep into our soul’s existence. And that to me is mystical work.

MM

Not to push back on what you’re saying, but I want to ask, since I often see that in psychedelic, spiritual, hippie spaces people often talk of being in the “process” of a “healing journey,” which occasionally may come across as a bit self-indulgent. Both of us have lived in LA, and there’s a lot of that there. My father’s and Ram Dass’s guru Neem Karoli Baba says, if you want to be close to God, serve people. In other words, go beyond yourself for the sake of tikkun olam. I see you as a great example with your activism. How can we view our own personal healing as not just for the sake of ourselves as individuals, but for serving God’s world?

HC

I completely agree with what you’re saying. I think there’s a lot of selfishness that arises in new age spiritual healing communities. And when I say “the self,” I mean that the self and the world are mirrors of each other, just like how in the Kabbalah, we have the upper world and the lower world. The inner world and the outer world are also reflections of one another. So the reason to go into the self is not so we can just isolate ourselves from society, be happy, and do our own thing, but actually, because that is how we transform the world. If I were to go outside myself to transform the world, it’s not going to work.

There are many ways spiritual teachings are used in selfish or individualistic ways, which I think is more of a product of the Western capitalistic society than of the spiritual teachings themselves. That’s why devotion is so important: It’s where the teachings of love and interconnection overlap, in that my liberation is bound up in your liberation. We can’t give without receiving and we can’t receive without giving. When we’re in harmony with the giving and the receiving, that to me is a mark of true spiritual work.

MM

When you talk about devotion, what does it mean to be devoted to God, to love God, to feel that God loves you? 

HC

One midrash asks, why did we receive the Torah in the desert? What is it about the desert? Why do we have to go to the desert to receive? The teachings says that anyone who does not make themselves ownerless, like the desert, cannot receive the teachings. Those teachings get to the heart of devotion, because what it means to be ownerless is so beautiful—to get outside the realm of owning things, and not just material things like owning property, but also about attachments or relationships.

To me, devotion is to surrender and let go—the spiritual process is about not acquiring, but actually emptying. That’s why the desert is so beautiful because the desert always makes you want to do less or have less (all of a sudden you’re like, “why am I carrying all my belongings in the middle of the desert, I can let go of half of these things. I don’t need to carry them. They’re too heavy here”). When we empty out, we uncover the true nature of our hearts, and that is when we are available to receive the teachings. Anything that we don’t give up will be taken from us eventually by God, by death, by force. So we might as well give it up by our own will because that is where we will uncover the true essence of who we are. 

MM

The last thing I want to get to is how spirituality and mysticism relate to being an Arab Jew, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to other justice issues you’re passionate about.

HC

As an Arab Jew, I feel like the spiritual and the political are so interrelated. My identity itself is inherently political so I can’t run away from that. Additionally, there’s been so much erasure and appropriation, so much hurt and harm around Sephardic and Mizrahi lineages—including traditions and practices that connect us to Kabbalah in an embodied way. We are often not included in the story of what it means to be Jewish.

As an Arab Jew, I feel like the spiritual and the political are so interrelated. My identity itself is inherently political so I can’t run away from that. Additionally, there’s been so much erasure and appropriation, so much hurt and harm around Sephardic and Mizrahi lineages—including traditions and practices that connect us to Kabbalah in an embodied way. We are often not included in the story of what it means to be Jewish.

Since spirituality is an inner journey into the self, we cannot skip over identity and the wounds related to it. The view of a transcendent God misses the quality of God on earth, and accepting the limitations of the vessels of who we are. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was born into the identity that I was. I probably could have been doing this work if I was a completely different identity, but the identity that I’m in is, according to a teaching in Jewish mysticism, like a garment that we wear. It’s not who I am, but it helps design my path. Often in spiritual communities, there’s a notion of “all one,” but that can be harmful because it bypasses real social issues based on identity and the external ways that we show up in the body.

I could choose to run away from the complexities of my identity and their political relations, but then my spirituality would only go so deep. Spiritual depth comes from facing what is uncomfortable, and specifically what is both uncomfortable and personal. To me there is great liberation in the choice to confront the political realm. Ultimately, politics, in its philosophical understanding, is about how we as humans relate to each other. You can say politics is the test of spiritual work because it is where the relational realm is alive. It is where our true interconnection is revealed.

To dismantle systems of oppression, we need to investigate identity and how it impacts the experience of the body. For me in particular, I do a lot of solidarity work with Palestinians and Arab Jews because that is where my personal investigation of self leads me to.

MM

When we talk about God immanent and God transcendent, God in the spiritual realm, and God in the present, tangible reality, how does that relate to land? How do we reconcile the Jewish relationship to land, to Eretz Yisrael, including spiritually and politically charged places, such as Hebron, that are in the West Bank and so controversial? How can we claim spiritual relationship to the land of Israel without perpetuating the harms that come from the current political paradigm?

HC

I’ll just say briefly that there’s the Jerusalem lemalah, the Jerusalem of above, and the Jerusalem of below, the spiritual Jerusalem and the physical Jerusalem. And our work is to make them match up. The spiritual city, which is a city of God, a city of truth, a city of prophecy, should be actually a match to the lived experience of the city. Nowadays, Jerusalem is a racially segregated city. It’s divided between East and West, between Palestinians and Israelis. And to me, there’s nothing more misaligned from the spiritual teaching. Can you imagine the temple of God being racially segregated? It just doesn’t make any sense. I think so much of the pain and suffering in the world comes from systems of separation. I think that’s part of facing reality as it is, in looking at apartheid and occupation and segregation and at what’s being done, however painful it may be. We can’t circumvent that work. We actually have to face it. 

Footnotes

  1. See Rashi on Deuteronomy 33:2. “The Law which had been written before Him from olden times in black fire upon white fire (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 1).”

Hadar Cohen is an Arab Jewish scholar, mystic, and artist. She is the founder of Malchut, a spiritual skill building school teaching Jewish mysticism and direct experience of God. She is a 10th-generation Jerusalemite with lineage roots also in Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq and Iran. Hadar weaves the spiritual with the political through performance art, writing, music and ritual. Her podcast, Hadar’s Web, features community conversations on spirituality, healing, justice, and art. hadarcohen.me or malchut.one.  // @hadarcohen32

Madison Margolin is a journalist covering psychedelics, cannabis, spirituality, and Jewish life. She is the cofounder of DoubleBlind Magazine and has written for publications like Rolling StonePlayboy, and Vice, among others. Also a cofounder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit and host of the Set & Setting podcast on the Be Here Now Network, Madison has traveled from cannabis farms in Northern California to underground ceremonies in Brooklyn to the shores of the Ganges River and all over Israel|Palestine, reporting on the role of entheogens in religion, culture, and healing. Find out more about her work here, or follow her on social media.