“Kabbalah” has been, since about the year 1200, the popularly accepted word for Jewish esoteric teachings concerning God and everything God created. The word “Kabbalah” means “tradition,” in the particular sense of “reception,” and at first referred to the whole of Oral Law. But there existed among the Jews, both in their homeland and in Egypt, during the time of ferment when Christianity began, a considerable body of theosophical and mystical lore. These speculations and beliefs appear to have been influenced by Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, and it seems fair to characterize the history of subsequent Kabbalah as being a struggle between Gnostic and Neoplatonic tendencies, fought out on the quite alien ground of Judaism, which in its central development was to reject both modes of speculation. But Kabbalah went out and away from the main course of Jewish religious thought, and uncannily it has survived both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, in that Kabbalah today retains a popular and apparently perpetual existence, while Gnosticism and Neoplatonism are the concern of only a few specialists. As I write, the desk in front of me has on it a series of paperback manuals, purchased in drugstores and at newsstands, with titles like Tree of Life, Kabbalah: An Introduction, Kabbalah Today, and Understanding the Kabbalah. There are no competing titles on Gnosticism today, or on understanding Neoplatonism, and it is important that the continued popularity of Kabbalah be considered in any estimate of the phenomenon of the current survival and even revival of ancient esotericisms.
Popular handbooks of Kabbalah are not always very exact in their learning, and tend to be dangerously eager to mix Kabbalah up with nearly everything else in current religious enthusiasms, from Sufism to Hinduism. But this too by now is a Western tradition, for Christian popularizations of Kabbalah starting with the Renaissance compounded Kabbalah with a variety of non-Jewish notions, ranging from Tarot cards to the Trinity. A singular prestige has attended Kabbalah throughout its history, and such prestige again is worth contemporary consideration. Accompanying this prestige, which is the prestige of supposedly ultimate origins, is an extraordinary eclecticism that contaminated Kabbalah with nearly every major occult or theosophical strain in the Renaissance and later in Enlightened Europe. A reader deeply versed in the interpenetrations of Kabbalah with these strains learns to be very tolerant of every popular version of Kabbalah he encounters. The five I have read recently were all terribly confused and confusing, but all were palpably sincere and even authentically enthusiastic in their obfuscations.
Yet educated readers need not rely upon such manuals. The lifework of Gershom Scholem of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, was summed up by him, magnificently, in the various articles on Kabbalah in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, only a few years ago. These entries, revised by Scholem, are now available in one large volume of nearly five hundred pages, published under the title Kabbalah.1 Most of what follows in this essay is based upon either this book or on Scholem’s other major studies of Kabbalah, several of which are easily available in American paperback reprints. Where I will depart from Scholem cannot be on any factual matters in kabbalistic scholarship, but will concern only some suggestions on the continued relevance of Kabbalah for contemporary modes of interpretation, and a few personal speculations on how Kabbalah itself might be interpreted from some contemporary perspectives.
Scholem’s massive achievement can be judged as being unique in modern humanistic scholarship, for he has made himself indispensable to all rational students of his subject. Kabbalah is an extraordinary body of rhetoric or figurative language, and indeed is a theory of rhetoric, and Scholem’s formidable achievement is as much rhetorical or figurative as it is historical. In this deep sense, Scholem has written a truly kabbalistic account of Kabbalah, and more than any other modern scholar, working on a comparable scale, he has been wholly adequate to his great subject. He has the same relation to the texts he has edited and written commentaries upon that a later poet like John Milton had to the earlier poems he absorbed and, in some ways, transcended. Scholem is a Miltonic figure in modern scholarship, and deserves to be honored as such.
Any brief account of Kabbalah has to begin with descriptions of Gnosticism and of Neoplatonism, for these opposed visions are the starting points of the more comprehensive vision of Kabbalah. To most modern sensibilities, Gnosticism has a strong and even dangerous appeal, frequently under other names, but Neoplatonism scarcely moves anyone in our time. William James reacted to the Neoplatonic Absolute or God, the One and the Good, by saying that “the stagnant felicity of the Absolute’s own perfection moves me as little as I move it.” No one is going to argue with James now, but a thousand years and more of European cultural tradition would not have agreed with him.
Neoplatonism was essentially the philosophy of one man, the Hellenic Egyptian Plotinus (205-70 C.E.), whose seminars in Rome were subsequently written out as the Enneads (“sets of nine”). Seeing himself as the continuator of Plato, Plotinus sought vindication for the three mystic and transcendent realities that he called “hypostases”: the One or the Good, Intelligence, the Soul. Beneath these hypostases was the world of nature, including human bodies. To bridge the abyss between the unified Good and a universe of division and evil, Plotinus elaborated an extraordinary trope or figure of speech, “emanation.” The One’s plenitude was so great that its love, light, glory brimmed over, and without the One itself in any way decreasing, its glory descended, first into the realm of Intelligence (the Platonic Ideas or Ideal Forms), next into a region of Soul (including each of our souls), and at last into the body and nature. On this bottom level, evil exists, but only by virtue of its distance from the Good, its division of an ultimate Oneness into so many separate selves, so many objects. The body and nature are not bad, in the vision of Plotinus, but merely have gone too far away from their beloved fatherland. By an intellectual discipline, Plotinus held, we can return to the One even in this life.
Plotinus had a strong dislike for the Gnostics, against whom he wrote an eloquent treatise, calling them “those who say that the Maker of the world and the world are evil.” There is no great scholarly book of our time on Neoplatonism (for many of the same reasons that there are no drugstore manuals) but there is a superb work, The Gnostic Religion, by Hans Jonas, a worthy complement to Scholem’s Kabbalah. Jonas usefully compares Gnosticism to nihilism and existentialism, citing many analogues between Valentinus, the greatest of the Gnostic speculators, and the philosopher Heidegger. Gnosticism, according to
Jonas, is the extremist version of the syncretic, general religion that dominated the eastern Mediterranean world during the first two Christian centuries. Jonas refers to this general religion of the period as a “dualistic transcendent religion of salvation.” “Dualistic” here means that reality is polarized into: God against the creation, spirit against matter, good against evil, soul against the body. “Transcendent” here means that God and salvation are alike transmundane, beyond our world. Gnosticism takes its name from gnosis, a Greek word for “knowledge.” Though the Church Fathers attacked Gnosticism as a Christian heresy, it appears to have preceded Christianity, both among the Jews and the Hellenes. Gnostic “knowledge” is supposed knowledge “of God,” and so is radically different from all other knowledge, for the gnosis is the only form that salvation can take, according to its believers. Tin’s is therefore not rational knowledge, for it involves God’s knowing the Gnostic adept, even as the Gnostic knows Him.
Gnosticism was always anti-Jewish, even when it arose among Jews or Jewish Christians, for its radical dualism of an alien God set against an evil universe is a total contradiction of the central Jewish tradition, in which a transcendent God allows Himself to be known by His people as an immediate presence, when He chooses, and in which His creation is good except as it has been marred or altered by man’s disobedience or wickedness. Confronted by the Gnostic vision of a world evilly made by hostile demons, the talmudic rabbis rejected this religion of the alien God with a moral passion surpassing the parallel denunciations made by Plotinus. We can contrast here the most famous formula of Valentinian gnosis with an equally famous rabbinic pronouncement of anathema upon such speculations:
What makes us free is the knowledge who we were, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth.
Whosoever speculated on these four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world—what is above? what is beneath? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter?
The rabbis believed such speculation to be morally unhealthy, a judgment amply vindicated by the sexual libertinism of many Gnostics. Since Kabbalah, in all of its earlier phases, remained a wholly orthodox Jewish phenomenon, in belief and in moral behavior, it seems a puzzle that Kabbalah had so large a Gnostic content. This puzzle can be clarified by even the briefest account of the origins of the Kabbalah. Kabbalah proper begins in 12th-century Provence, but Scholem and others have traced its direct descent from the earliest Jewish esotericism, the apocalyptic writings of which the Book of Enoch is the most formidable. This earliest Jewish theosophy and mysticism centered about two biblical texts, the first chapter of the prophet Ezekiel and the first chapter of Genesis. These gave impetus to two modes of visionary speculation, ma’aseh merkabah (“the work of the Chariot”) and ma’aseh bereshit (“the work of creation”). These esoteric meditations were orthodox parallels to Gnostic reveries on the pleroma, the unfallen divine realm, and can be considered a kind of rabbinical quasi-Gnosticism, but not yet Kabbalah.
Some eight centuries after the Gnostics subsided, a short book, the Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Creation”), became widely circulated among learned Jews. There are at least half-a-dozen English translations of Sefer Yetzirah available, and the little book probably will always be popular among esotericists. In itself, it is of no literary or spiritual value, but historically it is the true origin of Kabbalah. The date of its composition is wholly uncertain, but it may go back to the 3rd century. Later kabbalist gossip attributed it to the great Rabbi Akiba, whom the Romans had martyred, which accounts for much of the book’s prestige. What matters about Sefer Yetzirah is that it introduced, in a very rudimentary form, the central structural notion of Kabbalah, the Sefirot, which in later works became the divine emanations by which all reality is structured. Since the next kabbalistic text of importance, the Sefer ha-Bahir, was not written until the 13th century, and since that work presents the Sefirot in fuller but not final development, all students of Kabbalah necessarily confront the problematic of a thousand years of oral tradition. All of Jewish medievalism becomes a vast labyrinth in which the distinctive ideas of Kabbalah were invented, revised, and transmitted in an area ranging from Babylonia to Poland. In these vast reaches of space and time, even Scholem becomes baffled, for the very essence of oral tradition is that it should defeat all historical and critical scholarship.
The Sefer ha-Bahir (bahir means “bright”) has been translated into German by Scholem, another service, as this book is incoherent, and its mixture of learned Hebrew and vernacular Aramaic makes it difficult even for specialists. Though fragmentary, the Bahir is a book of some real literary value, and truly begins the kabbalistic style of parable and figurative language. Its major figuration is certainly the Sefirot, the attributes of God emanating out from an infinite center to every possible finite circumference. Where the Sefirot, in the Sefer Yetzirah, were only the ten primary numbers, a neo-Pythagorean notion, in the Bahir they are divine properties and powers, and supernal lights, aiding in the work of creation.
But this was still only a step toward the true emergence of Kabbalah, which took place in 13th-century southern France, and then spread across the border to find its home among the Jews of Spain, a process culminating in the masterpiece or Bible of Kabbalah, the Sefer ha-Zohar. The Zohar (“splendor”) was written by Moses de Leon between 1280 and 1286 in Guadalajara, and with its circulation Kabbalah became a full-scale system of speculation. After seven hundred years the Zohar, with all its faults, remains’ the only indubitably great book in all of Western esotericism. Most of the Zohar is written in Aramaic, but as an artificial, highly literary language, rather than as a vernacular. There is an adequate five-volume English translation (published by the Soncino Press) still in print, and well worth reading, but it represents only a portion of the Zohar, which is, however, a unique book in that it is impossible to say what a complete version of it would be. The book (if it is a book) varies from manuscript to manuscript, and seems more a collection of books or a small library than what ordinarily we would describe as a self-centered work.
Rather than attempt a description of the Zohar here, I shall pass on immediately to a summary account, largely following Scholem, of the basic concepts and images of Kabbalah, and then return to glance at the Zohar before giving a sketch of the later Kabbalah, which was created after the Jews were exiled from Spain. For the Zohar is the central work of classical Kabbalah, centering on the doctrine of the Sefirot, but Kabbalah from the 16th century until today is a second or modern Kabbalah, largely the creation of Isaac Luria of Safed in Palestine (1534-72), and needs a rather different exposition.
Classical Kabbalah begins with a Neoplatonic vision of God. God is the ein-sof (“without end”), totally unknowable, and beyond representation, all images of Whom are merely hyperboles. As ein-sof has no attributes, His first manifestation is necessarily as ayin (“nothing”). Genesis had said that God created the world out of nothing. Kabbalah took this over as a literal statement, but interpreted it revisionistically as meaning just the opposite of what it said. God, being “ayin,” created the world out of “ayin,” and thus created the world out of Himself. The distinction between cause and effect was subverted by this initial kabbalistic formula, and indeed such rhetorical subversion became a distinctive feature of Kabbalah: “cause” and “effect” are always reversible, for the kabbalists regarded them as linguistic fictions, long before Nietzsche did.
Kabbalah, which thus from the start was revisionary in regard to Genesis (though asserting otherwise), was also revisionary of its pagan source in Neoplatonism. In Plotinus, emanation is a process out from God, but in Kabbalah the process must take place within God Himself. An even more crucial difference from Neoplatonism is that all kabbalistic theories of emanation are also theories of language. As Scholem says, “the God who manifests Himself is the God who expresses Himself,” which means that the Sefirot are primarily language, attributes of God that need to be described by the various names of God when He is at work in creation. The Sefirot are complex figurations for God, tropes or turns of language that substitute for God. Indeed, one can say that the Sefirot are like poems, in that they are names implying complex commentaries that make them into texts. They are not allegorical personifications, which is what all popular manuals of Kabbalah reduce them to, and though they have extraordinary potency, this is a power of signification rather than what we customarily think of as magic.
Sefirah, the singular form, would seem to suggest the Greek “sphere,” but its actual source was the Hebrew sappir (for “sapphire”), and so the term referred primarily to God’s radiance. Scholem gives a very suggestive list of kabbalistic synonyms for the Sefirot: sayings, names, lights, powers, crowns, qualities, stages, garments, mirrors, shoots, sources, primal days, aspects, inner faces, and limbs of God. At first the kabbalists dared to identify the Sefirot with the actual substance of God, and the Zohar goes so far as to say of God and the Sefirot: “He is They, and They are He,” which produces the rather dangerous formula that God and language are one and the same. But other kabbalists warily regarded the Sefirot only as God’s tools, vessels that are instruments for Him, or as we might say, language is only God’s tool or vessel. Moses Cordovero, the teacher of Luria and the greatest systematizer of Kabbalah, achieved the precarious balance of seeing the Sefirot as being at once somehow both God’s vessels and His essence, but the conceptual difficulty remains right down to the present clay, and has its exact analogues in certain current debates about the relationship between language and thought.
The Sefirot, then, are ten complex images for God in His process of creation, with an interplay between literal and figurative meaning going on within each Sefirah. There is a fairly fixed and definite and by now common ordering for the Sefirot:
- Keter Elyon or Keter (the “supreme crown”)
- Hokhmah (“wisdom”)
- Binah (“intelligence”)
- Gedullah (“greatness”) or Hesed (“love”)
- Gevurah (“power”) or Din (“judgment” or “rigor”)
- Tiferet (“beauty”) or Rahamim (“mercy”)
- Nezah (“victory” or “lasting endurance”)
- Hod (“majesty”)
- Yesod (“foundation”)
- Malkhut (“kingdom”)
It is best to consider these allegorical images as carefully as possible, for the interplay of these images in some sense is the classical or zoharic Kabbalah, though not the later Kabbalah of Luria, out of which finally the Hasidic movement was to emerge. It is not a negative criticism of Scholem to say that the Sefirot have not interested him greatly. Scarcely a dozen pages out of the five hundred in Kabbalah are devoted to the details of Sefirot symbolism, just as only ten pages of the four hundred and fifty of Scholem’s earlier Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism were concerned with expounding the Sefirot. Scholem is impatient with them, and prefers to examine larger mythological and historical aspects of Kabbalah. In contrast, popular expositions of Kabbalah for many centuries down to the drugstore present tend to talk about nothing but the Sefirot. What is their fascination for so many learned minds, as well as for the popular imagination? Contemporary readers encounter the Sefirot in curious places, such as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where these fundamental images of Kabbalah are used to suggest tragic patterns of overdetermination, by which our lives are somehow lived for us in spite of ourselves. Like the Tarot cards and astrology, with which popular tradition has confounded them, the Sefirot fascinate because they suggest an immutable knowledge of a final reality that stands behind our world of appearances. In some sense the Sefirot have become the staple of a popular Platonism or Hegelianism, a Kind of magic idealism. Popular kabbalism has understood, somehow, that the Sefirot are neither things nor acts, but rather are relational events, and so are persuasive representations of what ordinary people encounter as the inner reality of their lives.
Keter, the “crown,” is the primal will of the Creator, and is scarcely distinguishable from the ein-sof, except as being first effect to His first cause. But, though an effect, keter is no part of the Creation, which reflects keter but cannot absorb it. As it cannot be compared to any other image, it must be called ayin, a “nothingness,” an object of quest that is also the subject of any search. As a name of God, keter is the ehyeh of the great declaration of God to Moses in Exodus 3:14; God says, ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I Am That I Am,” but the kabbalists refused to interpret this as mere “being.” To them, keter was at once ehyeh and ayin, being and nothingness, a cause of all causes and no cause at all, beyond action. If Kabbalah can be interpreted, as I think it can, as a theory of influence, then keter is the paradoxical idea of influence itself. The irony of all influence, initially, is that the source is emptied out into a state of absence, in order for the receiver to accommodate the influx of apparent being. This may be why we use the word “influence,” originally an astral term referring to the occult effect of the stars upon men.
Below keter as crown, the Sefirot were generally depicted as a “tree of emanation.” This tree grows downward, as any map of influence must. Another frequent depiction of the Sefirot is the “reversed tree,” in which the emanations are arranged in the form of a man. In either image, the right-hand side begins with the first attribute proper, hokhmah, generally translated as “wisdom,” but better understood as something like God’s meditation or contemplation of Himself, and frequently called the “father of fathers” or the uncreated Tables of the Law. Freud’s imago of the father is a close enough contemporary translation.
The matching imago of the mother, on the left side, is binah, usually rendered as “intelligence,” but meaning something more like a passive understanding (Kabbalah is nothing if not sexist). Binah is sometimes imaged as a mirror (very much in a Gnostic tradition) in which God enjoys contemplating Himself. We can call keter the divine self-consciousness, hokhmah the active principle of knowing, and binah the known, or reflection upon knowledge, or the veil through which God’s “wisdom” shines. In another kabbalistic image, certainly derived from Neoplatonism, binah as mirror acts as a prism, breaking open divine light into apprehensible colors.
The seven lesser Sefirot are the more immediate attributes of creation, moving out from binah in its role of supreme mother. Where the three upper Sefirot together form arikh anpin (Aramaic for “long face”), the great or transcendental “face” of God, the seven lower emanations form the “short face” or ze’eir anpin, the immanent countenance of God, and sometimes are called the Sefirot of “construction.” Unlike the great face, the constructive principles are conceived by analogy, and so are nearly identical with the principles of figurative or poetic language. The first, on the father’s or right-hand side, most often called hesed, is love in the particular sense of God’s covenant-love, caritas or “grace” in Christian interpretation. Its matching component on the mother’s or left-hand side is most often called din, “severity” or “rigorous judgment.” God’s covenant-love requires a limit or outward boundary, which is provided by din. This makes din the kabbalistic equivalent of the Orphic and Platonic ananke or necessity, the law of the cosmos. Creation, for the Kabbalah, depends upon the perpetual balance and oscillation of hesed and din as antithetical principles.
It is an unintentional irony of the Sefirot that they increase enormously in human and imaginative interest as they descend closer to our condition. Even the most exalted of kabbalist writers relax and are more inventive when they reach the lower half of the Sefirotic tree. With the sixth Sefirah, tiferet, the “mercy” or heart of God, we are in the aesthetic realm of God’s “beauty,” which for the Kabbalah is all the beauty there is. Tiferet is the principle of mediation, reconciling the “above” and the “below” on the tree, and also drawing together the right side and the left side, masculine and feminine. All kabbalistic references to centering are always to tiferet, and tiferet sometimes stands by itself for the “small face” or God’s immanence, and is frequently spoken of as the dwelling-place of the shekhinah or “Divine Presence” (of which more later). In kabbalistic dialectic, tiferet completes the second triad of hesed-din-tiferet, and governs the third triad of nezah-hod-yesod.
Nezah or God’s “victory” emanates from hesed, and represents the power of nature to increase itself, in a kind of apotheosis of male force. Hod, the female counterpart emanating from din, is a kind of equivalent to “mother nature” in the Western Romantic sense (a kabbalist would have called Wordsworth’s or Emerson’s Nature by the name of hod). Hod is “majesty” of the merely natural sort, but for the Kabbalah nothing of course is merely natural. Out of the creative strife of nezah and hod comes yesod, “foundation,” which is at once human male sexuality and the ongoing balance of nature.
The tenth and last of the Sefirot is properly the most fascinating, malkhut or “kingdom,” where “kingdom” refers to God’s immanence in nature. From tiferet, malkhut inherits the shekhinah, and manifests that glory of God in His world. So malkhut is called the “descent,” meaning the descent of the shekhinah. Malkhut is also called the “lower mother” as against the “higher mother” of binah. As the closest of the Sefirot to us, malkhut sums them up, and makes the world of emanation a pragmatic unity. The kabbalist encounters the Sefirot only through malkhut, which makes of kabbalism necessarily a sexual mysticism or erotic theosophy.
In their total structure, the Sefirot are identified with the merkabah or “celestial chariot” in which the prophet Ezekiel saw the Divine manifest Himself. This identification led to a series of further symbolic analogies or correspondences—cosmological, philosophical, psychological, indeed every area in which overdetermined meanings could be plotted out. Popular kabbalism concerns itself with these overdeterminations, but they are not the prime spiritual significance of the Sefirot. That significance comes in the interrelationships of the Sefirot, their reflections of one another within themselves.
The great master of these reflections was Moses Cordovero (1522-70), the best example of a systematic thinker ever to appear among kabbalists. But the movement from the Zohar to Cordovero and on to Cordovero’s pupil and surpasser, Luria, returns us from doctrine to history, for the later Kabbalah is the product of a second and intensified Exile, following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Perhaps Scholem’s greatest achievement as a scholar has been his analysis of Lurianic Kabbalah as a myth of exile. The Sefirot, though they lend themselves to such a myth, are too close to the unfallen worlds fully to accommodate fresh onsets of historical suffering. I touch here upon what I take to be the deepest meaning of Kabbalah, and will digress upon it, before returning to problems of theosophical meaning.
Louis Ginzberg, one of the greatest of modern talmudists, introduced the Palestinian Talmud by remarking that post-biblical Jewish literature was “predominantly interpretative and commentative.” This is true even of Kabbalah, which is curious for a body of work professedly mystical and speculative, even indeed mythopoeic. But this emphasis upon interpretation is finally what distinguishes Kabbalah from nearly every other variety of mysticism or theosophy, East or West. The kabbalists of medieval Spain, and their Palestinian successors after the expulsion from Spain, confronted a peculiar psychological problem, one that demanded a revisionist solution. How does one accommodate a fresh and vital new religious impulse, in a precarious and even catastrophic time of troubles, when one inherits a religious tradition already so rich and coherent that it allows very little room for fresh revelations or even speculations? The kabbalists were in no position to formulate or even reformulate much of anything in their religion. Given to them already was not only a massive and completed Scripture, but an even more massive and intellectually finished structure of every kind of commentary and interpretation. Their stance in relation to all this tradition became, I think, the classic paradigm upon which Western revisionism in all areas was to model itself ever since, usually in rather indirect emulation. For the kabbalists developed implicitly a psychology of belatedness, and with it an explicit, rhetorical series of techniques for opening Scripture and even received commentary to their own historical sufferings, and to their own, new theosophical insights. Their achievement was not just to restore gnosis and mythology to a Judaism which had purged itself of such elements, but more crucially to provide the masses of suffering Jewry with a more immediate and experiential personal faith than the strength of orthodox tradition might have allowed. Hasidism was the ultimate descendant of Kabbalah, and can be regarded as the more positive ultimate achievement of a movement that led, in its darker aspects, to morasses of magic and superstition, and to false messiahs and even apostates.
The Zohar, astonishingly beautiful as it frequently is, is not in itself greatly representative of what became, from the Spanish exile on, the true voice of Kabbalah. Though Cordovero and Luria derived fundamentally from the Zohar, their systems and visions actually have little in common with it. The Zohar is organized as an apparent commentary upon Scripture, just as much of the later Kabbalah is organized as an apparent commentary upon the Zohar, but it is the genius of revisionism to swerve so far from its canonical texts as to make the ancestral voices into even their own opposites. A contemporary reader encountering the Zohar will have trouble finding in it a clear statement about the structure and function of the Sefirot, let alone any of the more complex refinements of Kabbalah. Such a reader will find himself confronted by hundreds of homilies and little stories, many of them haunting in their enigmas, but finally compelling the reader to wish that the Zohar would obey its own injunction about how to interpret Scripture or the Torah:
As wine in a jar, if it is to keep, so is the Torah, contained within its outer garment. Such a garment is made up of many stories, but we, we are required to pierce the garment.
To pierce the garment of the Zohar is almost impossible, but in some sense that was the achievement of Cordovero and of Luria.
Scholem makes the point that after 1492 and the fresh dispersal of the Jews, the Kabbalah ceased to be esoteric and became “public property.” From about 1530 on, Safed in Palestine became the center of the new Kabbalah, and from Safed there emanated out to the Diaspora what became a new popular religion, which captured much of Judaism, and has left an influence (now much diminished) on it ever since. Isaac Luria was much the largest source of this new religion, and will receive more analysis here, as he does in Scholem, but Cordovero was a clearer and more systematic theorist, and some account of his ideas remains the best introduction to the intricacies of the Lurianic Kabbalah.
As early as the 13th century, kabbalists spoke of the Sefirot reflecting themselves within themselves, so that each “contained” all the others. Complex systems of pathways of Sefirot within Sefirot were set up, and meditation upon these pathways became the characteristic kabbalistic exercise, whether in vision, prayer, or intellectual speculation. This theosophical pathbreaking becomes in Cordovero what Ginzberg and other scholars have described accurately as a theory of influence. Cordovero invented a new category, behinot, to convey the multiform aspects within each Sefirot, aspects that account for the links between Sefirot. These are the six behinot or phases of the ten Sefirot, as differentiated by Cordovero: 1) Concealed before manifestation within the preceding Sefirah; 2) Actual manifestation in the preceding Sefirah; 3) Appearance as Sefirah in its own name; 4) Aspect that gives power to the Sefirah above it, so as to enable that Sefirah to be strong enough to emanate yet further Sefirot; 5) Aspect that gives power to the Sefirah itself to emanate out the other Sefirot still concealed within it; 6) Aspect by which the following Sefirah is in turn emanated out to its own place, after which the cycle of the six behinot begins again.
This cycle may seem baffling at first, but is a remarkable theory of influence, as causal yet reversed relationships. To be understood today it needs translation into other terms, and these can be psychoanalytic, rhetorical, or imagistic, for the six behinot can be interpreted as psychological mechanisms of defense, rhetorical tropes, or areas of poetic imagery. Whereas the Sefirot, as attributes of God, are manifestly supernatural channels of influence (or, rhetorically speaking, divine poems, each a text in itself), the behinot work more like human agencies, whether psychic or linguistic. Scholem indicates that, in Cordovero, the Sefirot “actually become the structural elements of all things,” but they do this only by their aspects, or behinot. One might indeed call Cordovero the first structuralist, an unacknowledged ancestor of many contemporary French theorists of the “human sciences.”
In order to see precisely the great dialectical leap that Isaac Luria took away from his teacher, Cordovero, it is necessary to expound the true, dark heart of Kabbalah: its vision of the problem of evil. Scholem rightly remarks that Jewish philosophy was not very much interested in the problem of evil, and it seems just to observe that talmudic tradition was also too healthy to brood excessively on evil. But Kabbalah departed both from normative Judaism and from Neoplatonism in its obsessive concern with evil. For Neoplatonism, evil has no metaphysical reality, but Gnosticism engaged evil as the reality of this world, which presumably is why Gnosticism now lives, under a variety of disguises, while Neoplatonism is the province of scholars. Probably, this is why the Lurianic Kabbalah came to dominate popular Judaism for many centuries, giving birth first to a series of false messiahs, and finally to the lasting glory of the Baal Shem Tov and his Hasidism.
The book Bahir speaks of the Sefirah gevurah or din as the left hand of God, and so as a permitted evil. Out of this came the kabbalistic doctrine that located evil in what Freud called the superego, or in kabbalistic terms, the separation of din from hesed, stern judgment from love. The world of din brought forth the sitra ahra or “the other side,” the sinister qualities that came out of a name of God, but then fell away.
The Zohar assigned to the sitra ahra ten Sefirot all its own, ten sinister crowns representing the remnants of worlds that God first made and then destroyed. In one of the great poetic images of esoteric tradition, Moses de Leon compared evil to the bark of the tree of the Sefirot, the kelippah. The creatures of this bark—Samael and his wife Lilith, or Satan and the chief of witches (of whom more later)—became in the Zohar almost worthy antagonists of God. Kelippot, conceived first as bark, became regarded also as husks or shells or broken vessels of evil. But even in the kelippot, according to the Zohar, there abides a saving spark of God. This notion, that there are sparks in the kelippot that can be redeemed, and redeemed by the acts of men alone and not of God, became the starting-point of Lurianic Kabbalah.
The problem of original genius in every intellectual area, past a certain date (a date upon which no two people can agree), is always located in the apparently opposed principles of continuity and discontinuity. Yet the very word Kabbalah means tradition, and every master of Kabbalah has stressed his own continuity rather than his discontinuity with previous speculators. Luria is extraordinarily original, indeed he may have been the only visionary in the entire history of Kabbalah whose basic ideas were original, since the entire tradition from the Sefer Yetzirah through Cordovero is finally only an amalgam, however strangely shaped, of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. But Luria had the originality of certain great poets—Dante, Milton, Blake—though since the important accounts of his visions are not written by him, but by rival and contrasting disciples, it is difficult to compare Luria’s powers of invention with those of other creators.
Before Luria, all of Kabbalah saw creation as a progressive process, moving in one direction always, emanating out from God through the Sefirot to man, a movement in which each stage joined itself closely to the subsequent stage, without enormous leaps or backward recoilings. In Luria, creation is a startlingly regressive process, one in which an abyss can separate any one stage from another, and in which catastrophe is always a central event. Reality for Luria is always a triple rhythm of contraction, breaking apart, and mending, a rhythm continuously present in time even as it first punctuated eternity.
Luria named this triple process: tzimtzum, shevirat ha-kelim, tikkun (contraction, the breaking-of-the-vessels, restitution). Tzimtzum originally seems to have meant a holding-in-of-the-breath, but Luria transformed the word into an idea of limitation, of God’s hiding of Himself, or rather entering into Himself. In this contraction, God clears a space for creation, a not-God. This cleared point the Zohar had called tehiru, or fundamental space. Luria saw the tzimtzum as God’s concentration within Himself of the Sefirah of din, rigor, but part of this power of stern judgment remained behind in the cleared tehiru, where it mixed together with the remnants of God’s self-withdrawn light, called by Luria the reshimu. Into the mixture (out of which our world is to be formed), God sends a single letter, the yod, the first letter of His great name, YHWH, the Tetragrammaton. This yod is the active principle in creation, even as the reshimu is the passive principle.
This creation, according to Luria, was of Kelim, “vessels,” of which the culminating vessel was adam kadmon or primal man. Two kinds of light had made these vessels, the new or incoming light that had accompanied the yod or word of God, and the light left behind in the tehiru after the tzimtzum. The collision of lights is an enormously complex process, for which this present essay lacks space, but the crucial element in the complexity is that adam kadmon, man as he should be, is a kind of perpetual war of light against light. This war emanates out from his head in patterns of writing, which become fresh vessels of creation, newly manifested structures of Sefirot. But though the three upper Sefirot held firm, and contained the pugnacious light, the six Sefirot from hesed to yesod broke apart. This breaking or scattering of the vessels was caused by the force of the light hitting all at once, in what can be interpreted as too strong a force of writing, stronger than the “texts” of the lower Sefirot could sustain. Paradoxically, God’s name was too strong for His words, and the breaking of the vessels necessarily became a divine act of substitution, in which an original pattern yielded to a more chaotic one that nevertheless remained pattern, the guarantee of which was that the vessel of the tenth and last Sefirah, malkhut or the female world, broke also, but less sharply than the other vessels.
Though some of the light in the shattered vessels returned immediately to God, much of it fell down with the vessels, so as to form the kelippot or evil forces of the universe. But these kelippot still have pattern or design, as well as sparks of light imprisoned within them. Luria appears to have believed that all this catastrophe came about because of an original excess of din, a plethora of rigor in God Himself, and it is in the Sefirah of din that the smashing-apart begins. Scholem theorizes that Luria saw the whole function of creation as being God’s catharsis of Himself, a vast sublimation in which His terrible rigor might find some peace. This is not unlike Freud’s extraordinary explanation as to why people fall in love, which is to avoid an overfilled inner self. As man must love, in Freud’s view, in order to avoid becoming sick, so Luria’s God has to create, for His own health. But He could create only by catastrophe, in Luria’s judgment, an opinion again very like that of Freud’s disciple, Ferenczi, whose book Thalassa also ascribes every act of creation to a necessary catastrophe.
Remarkable as these first two stages of Luria’s vision are, both tzimtzum and shevirah are less important in his doctrine than tikkun, the saving process of restoration and restitution, for this is the work of the human, taking place through a complex agency called the partzufim or “faces,” the Lurianic equivalent of Cordovero’s behinot. Scholem calls the partzufim “configurations” or gestalten, but like the behinot they seem to be at once psychic and linguistic, defense mechanisms and rhetorical tropes. As patterns of images, the partzufim organize the shattered world after the vessels have broken apart, and as principles of organization they substitute for or take the place of the Sefirot. Keter or the crown is substituted for by the partzuf of arikh anpin, or God as the “long-faced one,” that is to say, the God who is indulgent or forbearing even in fallen history. Hokhmah and binah are replaced by what Freud called the Imagos, abba and imma, “father” and “mother,” who together create the fourth and most important partzuf, called ze’eir anpin, the “short-faced” or “impatient” or “unindulgent” God, who stands in judgment upon history. Ze’eir anpin substitutes for the six lower Sefirot, from din to yesod, the six that broke apart most dreadfully. Ze’eir anpin thus substitutes also quite directly for the behinot of Luria’s teacher, Cordovero, and in some sense this partzuf can be considered as Luria’s revisionist misprision or creative misunderstanding of his direct precursor’s most original and important doctrine. Luria’s last partzuf is called nukba de-ze’eir, the female of the impatient God, and substitutes for malkhut or the kingdom.
Together, the partzufim make up a new and second adam kadmon, for the tikkun or restoration of creation must be carried out by the religious acts of individual men, of all Jews struggling in the Exile, and indeed of all men and women struggling in the Exile that Luria saw as the universal human existence. The nature of such religious acts of tikkun is again too complex to define in a limited space, but essentially these are acts of meditation, acts that lift up and so liberate the fallen sparks of God from their imprisonment in the shards of the kelippot. Such acts of meditation are at once psychic and linguistic, but for Luria they are magical too, so that they enter the sphere of practical Kabbalah, a puzzling world that this essay must conclude by entering also.
As a psychology of belatedness, Kabbalah manifests many prefigurations of Freudian doctrine. Yet most of these stem from the psychological notions of Neoplatonism, and are not original with Kabbalah. Thus, the kabbalistic division of the soul into three parts is Neoplatonic, where the lowest soul is the nefesh or vital being with which everyone is born. The ru’ah or anima comes about later through a spiritual awakening, but only with the highest awakening is the true soul born, the neshamah or spiritus. Lurianic Kabbalah added further souls, so as to achieve a psychic cartography. But a more truly original notion, and one more prophetic of Freud, is the tzelem, or divine image in every man, first set forth in the Zohar and then developed by Luria and his disciples. The tzelem is a modification of the later Neoplatonic idea of the Astral Body, a kind of quasi-material entity that holds together mind and physical body, and that survives the death of the body proper.
In Lurianic Kabbalah, the Astral Body also serves the function of determining an individual human personality, so that the difference between one of us and another is not necessarily in any part of the soul, but in the enigmatic joining of soul and body, that is, in the relationship between our consciousness and our body. What makes us individual, our tzelem, is the way our particular body feels about our psyche, or the way that psyche feels about the body to which it is linked. Scholem says that “without the tzelem the soul would burn the body up with its fierce radiance,” and one can add conversely that the body’s desires would consume the soul without the tzelem. It is as though Luria were saying, in our terms, that the body is the unconscious as far as the soul is concerned, or that the soul is the unconscious from the stance of the body.
It was only a step from the idea of the tzelem to the Lurianic version of the transmigration of souls, called gilgul. Luria seems to have taught that there were families of souls, united by the root of a common spark. Each person can take up in himself the spark of another soul, of one of the dead, provided that he and the dead share the same root. This leads to the larger idea of a kind of eternal recurrence, with the saving difference that gilgul can be the final form of tikkun, in which the fallen soul can have its flaws repaired. The legend of the dibbuk is a negative version of the same idea.
With the idea of gilgul, speculative Kabbalah passes into practical Kabbalah, a world of “white” magic, dependent, however, entirely upon the sacredness of a divine language. It is very difficult to distinguish practical Kabbalah from the whole body of Jewish magic and superstition, the vast accumulation of folklore that so long a tradition brings forth. Very late or popular Kabbalah also became mixed with the “occult sciences,” particularly astrology and alchemy, but these have little to do with Kabbalah proper.
Two areas of practical Kabbalah seem most authentic: demonology and what was called gematria, the explanation of words according to their numerical values, by set rules. Kabbalistic demonology became absorbed by the wilder aspects of Hasidism, and is now familiar to a wide group of contemporary readers through the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Such demonology ultimately centers upon two figures, Lilith and Samael. One can wonder why Lilith has not become the patroness of some of the more extreme manifestations of the women’s liberation movement, as her legendary career shows a strong counter-current of guilt toward women (and fear of them) moving in Kabbalah.
Kabbalah enshrined the shekhinah or Divine Presence in the shape of a woman, an image of splendor-in-exile, and the Sefirot are relatively fairly balanced between male and female sides. Yet kabbalistic texts awaken into a peculiar vividness whenever Lilith is invoked. Though she seems to have begun as a Babylonian winddemoness, she became very thoroughly naturalized in Jewish contexts. A pre-kabbalistic legend held that she was Adam’s first wife, and that she abandoned him on the issue of sexual equality, with the immediate cause of separation being that of positions in sexual intercourse, Adam favoring the missionary posture, while she insisted on the ascendancy. In Kabbalah, Lilith dwindled from a heroic self-asserter into a strangler of infants, and into the muse of masturbation, bearing endless imps to those guilty of self-gratification. Kabbalah also married her off to Samael, the principal later Jewish name for Satan as the Angel of Death. The obsessive emphasis upon Lilith’s lustfulness throughout kabbalistic literature is an obvious indication of the large element of repression in all those Gnostic fantasies that inhabit the entire history of Kabbalah.
If Lilith is a Gnostic reversal of the shekhinah, a demonic parody of the kabbalistic pathos of attempting to exalt aspects of Exile, then it seems fair to say that the techniques of gematria were a kind of parody of the sometimes sublime kabbalistic exaltation of language, and of the arts of interpretation. For gematria is interpretative freedom gone mad, in which any text can be made to mean anything. But its prevalence was itself a mark of the desperation that underlay much of Kabbalah. To open an ancient text to the experiential sufferings of contemporary men and women was the not ignoble motive of much kabbalism. Gematria, with its descents into occult numerologies, is finally best viewed as an index to how tremendous the suffering was, for the pressure of the sorrow came close to destroying one of the greatest interpretative traditions in cultural history.
“Mysticism” is a word I have avoided in this essay, for Kabbalah seems to be more of an interpretative and mythical tradition than a mystical one. There were kabbalistic ecstatics, and sub-traditions of meditative intensities, of prayer conducted in an esoteric manner. But Kabbalah differs finally from Christian or Eastern mysticism in being more a mode of intellectual speculation than a way of union with God. Like the Gnostics, the kabbalists sought knowledge, but unlike the Gnostics they sought knowledge in the Book. By centering upon the Bible, Kabbalah made of itself, at its best, a critical tradition, though distinguished by more invention than critical traditions generally display. In its degeneracy, Kabbalah has sought vainly for a magical power over nature, but in its glory it sought, and found, a power of the mind over the universe of death.
1 Quadrangle/New York Times, 492 pp., $9.95.