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Kabbalah 1 from 12

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http://theophyle.wordpress.com
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Theophyle
Original Date
March 22, 2009

About the Origins of Kabbalah

The Kabbalah  is the specific term for the esoteric or mystic doctrine concerning God and the universe, asserted to have come down as a revelation to elect saints from a remote past, and preserved only by a privileged few. At first consisting only of empirical lore, it assumed, under the influence of Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean philosophy, a speculative character. In the geonic [1]  period it is connected with a Mishnah-like textbook, the “Sefer Yetzirah,” and forms the object of the systematic study of the elect, called “Mecubalim (sig. Mecubal)” or “ba’ale ha-Kabbalah” (possessors of, or adepts in, the Kabbalah). These receive afterward the name of “maskilim” (the wise), and because the Kabbalah is called (”Hokmah  nistarah“  =  the hidden wisdom), the initials of which are ??, they receive also the name of ????? ?? (”adepts in grace”) . From the thirteenth century onward the Kabbalah branched out into an extensive literature, alongside of and in opposition to the Talmud. It was written sometimes in Hebrew but most of the times in a peculiar Aramaic dialect, and was grouped as commentaries on the Torah, around the Zohar as its holy book, which suddenly made its appearance. Kabbalah is divided into a theosophical or theoretical system, Kabbalah ‘iyunit and theurgical  [2]  , speculative or practical Kabbalah. In view of the fact that the name “Kabbalah” does not occur in literature before the eleventh century and because of the pseudepigraphic [3]   character of the almost all-Kabbalistic writings. Most modern scholars, have treated the Kabbalah with a certain bias and from a rationalistic rather than from a psychological-historical point of view; applying the name of “Kabbalah” only to the speculative systems which appeared since the thirteenth century, under pretentious titles and with fictitious claims, but not to the mystic lore of the Geonic and Talmudic times. Such distinction and partiality, however, prevent a deeper understanding of the nature and progress of the Kabbalah, which, on closer observation, shows a continuous line of development from the same roots and elements. Kabbalah comprised originally the entire traditional lore, in contradistinction to the written law (Torah), and therefore included the prophetic and hagiographic [4]  books of the Bible, which were supposed to have been “received” by the power of the Holy Spirit rather than as writings from God’s hand. Each “received” doctrine was claimed as tradition from the Fathers—”masoret me-Abotenu“—to be traced back to the Prophets or to Moses on Sinai. So the Masorah, “the fence to the Torah” is, a correlation to Kabbalah.” The chief characteristic of the Kabbalah is that, unlike the Scriptures, it was entrusted only to the few elect ones. Wherefore, Moses, on Mount Sinai, when receiving both the Law and the knowledge of wondrous things, was told by the Lord: “These words shalt thou declare, and these shalt thou hide.” Accordingly the rule laid down for the transmission of the Kabbalistic lore in the ancient Mishnah) was “not to expound the Chapter of Creation (”Ma’aseh Bereshit,”) before more than one hearer; nor that of the Heavenly Chariot (”Merkabah,”) to any but a man of wisdom and profound understanding”. That is to say, cosmogony and theosophy were regarded as esoteric studies. Such was the “Masoret ha-Hokmah”; and likewise the twofold philosophy of the Essenes  [5]  , “the contemplation of God’s being and the origin of the universe,” specified by Philo. Besides these there was the eschatology—that is, the secrets of the place and time of the retribution and the future redemption; “the secret chambers of the behemoth and leviathan”; the secret of the calendar (”Sod ha-’Ibbur“)—that is, the mode of calculating the years with a view to the Messianic kingdom and, finally, the knowledge and use of the Ineffable Name, also “to be transmitted only to the saintly and discreet ones” and of the angels. All these formed the sum and substance of the Mysteries of the Torah, “Sitre or Raze Torah”, “the things spoken only in a whisper”.

[1] The geonic or Gaonic period in Judaism begin in the 5th.century CE and finished in  11th. century CE. 
[2] Magic performed with the help of beneficent spirits 
[3] Texts written between 200 BC and CE 200 but ascribed to various prophets and kings in the Hebrew scriptures; many are apocalyptic in nature 
[4] Biographies that idealizes or idolizes the persons 
[5] Among the Hebrews, a sect remarkable for their strictness and abstinence – see the appendix “ Hebrew Society before Jesus Christ

Antiquity of the Kabbalah

How old the Kabbalah is, may be inferred from the fact that as early a writer as Ben Sira [6]  warns against it in his saying: “Thou shalt have no business with secret things”. In fact, the apocalyptic literature belonging to the second and first pre-Christian centuries contained the chief elements of the Kabbalah; and as, according to Josephus , such writings were in the possession of the Essenes, and were jealously guarded by them against disclosure, for which they claimed a hoary antiquity. That many such books containing secret lore were kept hidden away by the “wise” is clearly stated in 4 Esdras 14: 45-46, where Pseudo-Ezra is told to publish the twenty-four books of the canon openly that the worthy and the unworthy may alike read, but to keep the seventy other books hidden in order to “deliver them only to such as be wise”. A study of the few still existing apocryphal books discloses the fact, ignored by most modern writers on the Kabbalah and Essenism, that “the mystic lore” occasionally alluded to in the Talmudic or Midrashic literature is not only much more systematically presented in these older writings, but gives ample evidence of a continuous Kabbalistic tradition; in as much as the mystic literature of the Gaonic period is only a fragmentary reproduction of the ancient apocalyptic writings, and the saints and sages of the tannic period take in the former the place occupied by the Biblical protoplasts, patriarchs, and scribes in the latter.

[6] Ben Sira (or Sirah), was an eminent Hebrew theologian, lived around 2nd. Century in Judea, author of Wisdom or Ecclesiasticus.

Continuous Tradition

More instructive still for the study of the development of Kabbalistic lore is the Book of Jubilees written under King John Hyrcanus, which also refers to the writings of Jared, Cainan, and Noah, and presents Abraham as the renewer, and Levi as the permanent guardian. These ancient writings because it offers, as early as a thousand years prior to the supposed date of the “Sefer Yetzirah,” a cosmogony based upon the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and connected with Jewish chronology and Messianology. While at the same time insisting upon the heptad as the holy number rather than upon the decadic (10-based) system adopted by the later haggadist and the “Sefer Yetzirah; and regarding the number seven compare Ethiopic Enoch. The Pythagorean idea of the creative powers of numbers and letters, upon which the “Sefer Yetzirah” is founded, and which was known in Tannaic times — compare Rab’s saying:” Bezalel knew how to combine  the letters by which heaven and earth were created” is here proved to be an old Kabbalistic conception. In fact, the belief in the magic power of the letters of the Tetragrammaton[8]   and other names of the Deity seems to have originated in Chaldea[9]  . Whatever, then, the theurgic Kabbalah was, which, under the name of “Sefer or “Hilkot Yetzirah,” induced Babylonian rabbis of the fourth century to “create a calf by magic” an ancient tradition seems to have coupled the name of this theurgic “Sefer Yetzirah” with the name of Abraham as one accredited with the possession of esoteric wisdom and theurgic powers. The very fact that Abraham, and not a Talmudic hero like Akiba, is introduced in the “Sefer Yetzirah,” at the close, as possessor of the Wisdom of the Alphabet, indicates an old tradition, if not the antiquity of the book itself. The “wonders of the Creative Wisdom” can also be traced from the “Sefer Yetzirah,” back to Ben Sira, and the Merkabah-travels to Abraham shown Kabbalistic traditions and terminologies.

[8]  Four Hebrew letters usually transliterated as YHWH (Yahweh) or JHVH (Jehovah) signifying the Hebrew name for God which the Jews regarded as too holy to pronounce
[9] An ancient kingdom in southern Mesopotamia; Babylonia conquered Israel in the 6th century BC and exiled the Jews to Babylon (where the Daniel became a counselor to the king,), and an  ancient region of Mesopotamia lying between the Euphrates delta and the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert; settled in 1000 BC and destroyed by the Persians in 539 BC; reached the height of its power under Nebuchadnezzar II.

Gnosticism and Kabbalah

But especially does Gnosticism testify to the antiquity of the Kabbalah, of Chaldean origin, as suggested by Kessler and definitively shown by Anz, Gnosticism was, Jewish in character long before it became Christian.  Gnosticism—that is, the Kabbalistic “Hokhmah” (wisdom), translated into “Madda’ ” (Aramaic, “Manda’ ” = knowledge of things divine in modern Hebrew = science)—seems to have been the first attempt on the part of the Jewish sages to give the empirical mystic lore, with the help of Platonic and Pythagorean or Stoic ideas a speculative turn. Hence the danger of heresy from which Akiba and Ben Zoma strove to extricate them, and of which the systems of Philo, an adept in, and of Paul (St.) show many pitfalls.  It was the ancient Kabbalah which, while allegorizing the Song of Songs, spoke of Adam Kadmon, or the God-man, of the “Bride of God,” and hence of “the mystery of the union of powers” in God before Philo, Paul, the Christian Gnostics, and the medieval Kabbalah did. Speculative Kabbalah of old spoke of “the germ of poison from the serpent transmitted from Adam to all generations” before Paul referred to it. And while the Gnostic classification of souls into pneumatic, psychic, and hylic [10] ones can be traced back to Plato. Paul was not the first (or only one) to adopt it in his system.

[10]   Pertaining to essential matter

Kabbalistic Dualism

The whole dualistic system of good and of evil powers, which goes back to Zoroastrianism [11] and ultimately to old Chaldea, can be traced through Gnosticism; having influenced the cosmology of the ancient Kabbalah before it reached the medieval one. So is the conception underlying the Kabbalistic tree, of the right side being the source of light and purity, and the left the source of darkness and impurity (”sitra yemina ve sitra ahora), found among the Gnostics. The fact also that the “kelippot” (the scaling of impurity), which are so prominent in the medieval Kabbalah, are found in the old Babylonian is evidence in favor of the antiquity of most of the Kabbalistic material. It stands to reason that the secrets of the theurgic Kabbalah are not lightly divulged; and yet the Testament of Solomon recently brought to light the whole system of conjuration of angels and demons, by which the evil spirits were exorcised; even the magic sign or seal of King Solomon, known to everybody (unfortunately, one of the Holocaust symbols) as the Magen David, has been resurrected. To the same class belongs the “Sefer Refu’ot” (The Book of Healing), containing the prescriptions against all the diseases inflicted by demons, which Noah wrote according to the instructions given by the angel Raphael and handed over to his son Shem. It was identified with the “Sefer Refu’ot” in possession of King Solomon and hidden afterward by King Hezekiah whereas the secret of the black art, or of healing by demonic powers, was transmitted to heathen tribes, to “the sons of Keturah” or the Amorites. So striking is the resemblance between the Shi’ur Komah and the anthropomorphic description of the Deity by the Gnostics and the letters of the alphabet laid across the body in Atbash , or Alpha and Omega order, forming the limbs of the Macrocosms, that the one casts light upon the other. But so have “the garments of light,” “the male and the female nature,” “the double face,” the eye, hair, arm, head, and crown of “the King of Glory,” taken from the Song of Solomon, and other familiar texts, even “the endless their parallels in ancient Gnostic writings. On the other hand, both the mystic Cross and the enigmatic primal “Kav laKav,” or “Kav-kav” receive strange light from the ancient Kabbalistic cosmogony, which, based upon, spoke of “the measuring-line”—Kav, “drawn”, “crosswise” ? and consequently applied also the term (Kav le-Kav), to the prime motive power of creation. This was to express the divine power that measured matter while setting it in motion; whereas the idea of God setting to the created world its boundary was found expressed in the name shadai ??? (”the Almighty”), who says to the world dai  ?? (“sufficient”). As a rule, all that is empiric rather than speculative, and that strikes one as grossly anthropomorphic and mythological in the Kabbalah or Haggadah, such as the descriptions of the Deity as contained in the “Sifra de Zeni’uta” and “Iddra Zutta” of the Zohar, and similar passages in “Sefer Atzilut” and “Raziel,” belongs to a pre-rationalistic period, when no Shimon bar Yohai lived to curse the teacher who represented the sons of God as having sexual organs and committing fornication (fallen angels). Such matter may with a high degree of probability be claimed as ancient lore or Kabbalah. And as to speculative Kabbalah, it was not Persia with her tenth-century Sufism but Alexandria of the first century or earlier. The strange commingling of Egyptian, Chaldean, Judean, and Greek culture, that furnished the soil and the seeds for that mystic philosophy which knew how to blend the wisdom and the folly of the ages and to lend to every superstitious belief or practice a profound meaning. There sprang up that magic literature which showed the name of the Jewish God and of the Patriarchs placed alongside of pagan deities and demons, and the Hermes [12]  books, which, claiming an equal rank with the Biblical writings, enticed also Jewish thinkers. But above all it was Neoplatonism which produced that state of enthusiasm and entrenchment that made people “fly in the air” by “the wagon of the soul” and achieve all kinds of miracles by way of hallucinations and visions. It gave rise to those Gnostic songs which flooded also Syria and Judea. The whole principle of emanation, with its idea of evil inherent in matter as the dross – Shells, kelippot  is found there. The entire Theurgic Kabbalah is in all its detail developed there; even the spirit rapping and table-turning done in the seventeenth century by German Kabbalists by means of “shemot” (magic incantations).

 [11] System of religion founded in Persia in the 6th century BC by Zoroaster; set forth in the Zend-Avesta; based on concept of struggle between light (good) and dark (evil)
 [12]  Hermes Trismegistus (Greek for “Hermes the thrice-greatest” or Mercurius ter Maximus in Latin) is the syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth.

Kabbalah’s Dualism Critics

One of the most serious and sustained criticisms of Kabbalah is that it may lead away from monotheism, and instead promote dualism, the belief that there is a supernatural counterpart to God. The dualistic system of good and of evil powers, which goes back to Zoroastrianism, can be traced through Gnosticism; having influenced the cosmology of the ancient Kabbalah before it reached the medieval one. Some early mystics believed in a heavenly being called Metatron, a lesser Adonai-”God”, that worked in concert with the greater Adonai. While this essentially Gnostic belief was never a mainstream trend within Jewish thought, some Kabbalists accepted it. Later Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar, appear to more strongly affirm dualism, as they ascribe all evil to a supernatural force known as the Sitra Ahra (”the other side”.) “The dualistic tendency is, perhaps, most marked in the Kabbalistic treatment of the problem of evil. The profound sense of the reality of evil brought many Kabbalists to posit a realm of the demonic, the Sitra Ahra, a kind of negative mirror image of the “side of holiness” with which it was locked in combat. “. However the Zohar indicates that the Sitra Ahra has no power over God, and only exists as a creation of God to give man free choice. According to Kabbalists, no person can understand the true, unknown nature of God. Rather, there is God that makes Himself known to man and a hidden Ein Sof (infinite) that is totally removed from man’s experience. One can have a reading of this theology, which is totally monotheistic; however one can also have a reading of this theology which is essentially dualistic. Professor Gershom Scholem writes, “It is clear that with this postulate of an impersonal basic reality in God, which becomes a person – or appears as a person – only in the process of Creation and Revelation, Cabalism abandons the personalistic basis of the Biblical conception of God…. It will not surprise us to find that speculation has run the whole gamut  – from attempts to re-transform the impersonal Ein-Sof into the personal God of the Bible to the downright heretical doctrine of a genuine dualism between the hidden Ein Sof and the personal Demurrage of Scripture [14]  Although it was criticized by a small number of rabbis, Kabbalah has nevertheless been a fundamental part of most Jewish theology for many centuries, and is particularly influential in Hasidic and Sephardic thought. As well, the Vilna Gaon, the greatest leader of the Mitnagdim – opponents of the Hasidim – was also a major Kabbalist scholar, Gershom Scholem has written that between 1500 and 1800 “Kabbalah was widely considered to be the true Jewish theology”. Though many Modern Orthodox Jews do not ascribe to Kabbalah, most other Orthodox Jews still consider it a fundamental part of Jewish thought and belief. The idea that there are ten divine sefirot could evolve over time into the idea that “God is One being, yet in that One being there are Ten” which opens up a debate about what the “correct beliefs” in God should be, according to Judaism. Rabbi Leon Modena, a 17th. Century Venetian critic of Kabbalah, wrote that if we were to accept the Kabbalah, then the Christian trinity would indeed be compatible with Judaism, as the Trinity closely resembles the Kabbalistic doctrine of sefirot. This critique was in response to the fact that some Jews went so far as to address individual sefirot individually in some of their prayers. Belief in the sefirot would be similar to the Christian belief in the Trinity, which states that while God is One, in that One there are three persons. This interpretation of Kabbalah in fact did occur among some European Jews in the 17th century. Kabbalah had many other opponents, notably Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (The RIVA’SH); he stated that Kabbalah was “worse than Christianity”, as it made God into 10, not just into three. The critique, however, is considered untenable. Most followers of Kabbalah never believed this interpretation of Kabbalah. The Christian Trinity concept posits that there are three persons existing within the Godhead, one of whom literally became a human being. In contrast, the mainstream understanding of the Kabbalistic sefirot holds that they have no mind or intelligence; further, they are not addressed in prayer, and they can not become a human being. They are conduits for interaction – not persons or beings.

[14]  Gershom Shalom  – Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism Shocken Books p.11-12

 Summary

Apocalyptic literature belonging to the second and first pre-Christian centuries contained some elements of later Kabbalah, and as, according to Josephus, such writings were in the possession of the Essenes, and were jealously guarded by them against disclosure, for which they claimed a hoary antiquity (see Philo, “De Vita Contemplativa,” iii., and Hippolytus, “Refutation of all Heresies,” ix. 27). That many such books containing secret lore were kept hidden away by the “enlightened” is stated in 4Esdras 14 :45-46, where Pseudo-Ezra is told to publish the twenty-four books of the canon openly that the worthy and the unworthy may alike read. But keep the seventy other books hidden in order to “deliver them only to such as be wise” (compare Daniel 12 :10); for in them are the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the stream of knowledge. Instructive for the study of the development of Kabbalah is the Book of Jubilees written under King John Hyrcanus. It refers to the writings of Jared, Cainan, and Noah, and presents Abraham as the renewer and Levi as the permanent guardian, of these ancient writings. It offers a cosmogony based upon the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and connected with Jewish chronology and Messianology, while at the same time insisting upon the heptad  as the holy number rather than upon the decadic system adopted by the later haggadist and the Sefer Yetzirah. The Pythagorean idea of the creative powers of numbers and letters, upon which the Sefer Yetzirah is founded, and which was known in the time of the Mishnah (before 200 CE).

 

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