Section 3: A Potted History of Kabbalah

Kabbalists and scholars disagree on the date of the origins of the Kabbalah. Many Kabbalists trace the tradition back to 1st. century A.D. Palestine. Scholars tend to identify Kabbalah with specific ideas which emerged in 12th. century Provence in the school of R. Isaac the Blind, who has been called "the father of Kabbalah". What is abundantly clear however is that there is a continuous thread of Jewish mysticism running from early times, and these strands have become so intertwined with Kabbalah that it is difficult to know where one ends and another begins. For example, the highly influential text, the Sepher Yetzirah, was the subject of widespread commentary by medieval Kabbalists but the text may have been written as early as the 1st. century. Again, ideas from Jewish Gnosticism from the 2nd. and 3rd. centuries have also become deeply embedded in Kabbalah.

The earliest documents associated with Kabbalah come from the period ~100 to ~1000 A.D. and describe the attempts of "Merkabah" mystics to penetrate the seven halls (Hekaloth) of creation in order to reach the Merkabah (throne-chariot) of God. These mystics appear to have used what would now be recognised as familiar methods of shamanism (fasting, repetitious chanting, prayer, posture) to induce trance states in which they literally fought their way past terrible seals and guards to reach an ecstatic state in which they "saw God". An early and highly influential document, the Sepher Yetzirah, or "Book of Formation", originated during the earlier part of this period.

By the early Middle Ages further, more theosophical developments had taken place, chiefly a description of "processes" within God, and the development of an esoteric view of creation as a process in which God manifests in a series of emanations, or sephiroth. This doctrine of the sephiroth can be found in a rudimentary form in the "Sepher Yetzirah", but by the time of the publication of the book "Bahir" in the 12th. century it had reached a form not too different from the form it takes today.

A motive behind the development of the doctrine of emanation can be found in the questions:

"If God made the world, then what is the world if it is not God?"

"If the world is God, then why is it imperfect?"

It was necessary to bridge the gap between a pure and perfect being, and a manifestly impure and imperfect world, by a series of "steps" in which the divine light was successively diluted. The result has much in common with Neoplatonism, which also tried to resolve the same difficulty by postulating a "chain of being" which bridged the gap between the perfection of God, and the evident imperfection of the world of daily life.

One of most interesting characters from the early period was Abraham Abulafia (1240-1295), who believed that God cannot be described or conceptualised using everyday symbols. Like many Kabbalists he believed in the divine nature of the Hebrew alphabet and used abstract letter combinations and permutations (tzeruf) in intense meditations lasting many hours to reach ecstatic states. Because his abstract letter combinations were used as keys or entry points to altered states of consciousness, failure to carry through the manipulations correctly could have a drastic effect on the Kabbalist. In Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism Scholem includes a fascinating extract from a description of one such experiment. Abulafia is unusual because (controversially) he was one of the few Kabbalists to provide explicit written details of practical techniques.

The most influential Kabbalistic document, the Sepher ha Zohar or "Book of Splendour", was published by Moses de Leon (1238-1305), a Spanish Jew, in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The Zohar is a series of separate documents covering a wide range of subjects, from a verse-by-verse esoteric commentary on the Pentateuch, to highly theosophical descriptions of processes within God. The Zohar was highly influential within mainstream Judaism (in some communities it was ranked as highly as the Talmud as a source of interpretation on the Torah), and within the more orthodox sects it still is.

An important development in Kabbalah was the Safed school of mystics headed by Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and his successor Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Luria, called "The Ari" or Lion, was a highly charismatic leader who exercised almost total control over the life of the school, and has passed into history as something of a saint. Emphasis was placed on living in the world and bringing the consciousness of God through into the world in a practical way. Practices were largely devotional.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Judaism as a whole was heavily influenced by Kabbalah, but two influences caused its decline. The first event was the mass defection of Jews to the cause of the heretic and apostate pseudo-messiah Shabbatai Tzevi (1626-1676), an event Scholem called "the largest and most momentous messianic movement in Jewish history subsequent to the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt." The Shabbateans included many prominent rabbis and Kabbalists, and from this point Kabbalah became inextricably mired with suspicions of heresy.

A second factor was the rise in Eastern Europe of a populist Kabbalism in the form of Hasidism, and its eventual decline into superstition, so that by the beginning of this century a Jewish writer was able to dismiss Kabbalah as an historical curiousity. Jewish Kabbalah has vast literature which is almost entirely untranslated into English.

A development which took place almost synchronously with the translation and publication of key texts of Jewish Kabbalah was its adoption by many Christian mystics, magicians and philosophers. Some Christians thought Kabbalah held keys that would reveal mysteries hidden in the scriptures, and others tried to find in Kabbalah doctrines which might be used to convert Jews to Christianity. There were some who recognised in Kabbalah themes with which they were already familiar in the literature of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism.

The key figure in what has been called "Christian Kabbalah" is Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola. The liberal atmosphere in Florence under the patronage of the Medici family provided a haven for both Jewish scholars (usually employed as translators or physicians) and humanist philosophers. The fall of Byzantium provided a rich source of Greek texts such as works of Plato and the Corpus Hermiticum. Della Mirandola not only popularised Kabbalah, but influenced humanist scholars such as Johannes Reuchlin to learn Hebrew and study important source texts. Kabbalah was progressively bundled with Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism to form a snowball which continued to pick up traditions as it rolled down the centuries. It is probably accurate to say that from the Renaissance on, virtually all European occult philosophers and magicians of note had a working knowledge of some aspect of Kabbalah, and we are not talking about obscure individuals - there was a time when science, philosophy, metaphysics, theology and so-called "occult sciences" intermingled in a way which baffles the compartmentalised modern mind, and biographers of Isaac Newton still have difficulty in accepting the things he studied when not laying the foundations of modern theoretical physics!

Non-Jewish Kabbalah has suffered greatly from having only a limited number of source texts to work from, often in poor translations, and without the key commentaries which would have revealed the tradition associated with the concepts described. It is pointless to criticise non-Jewish Kabbalah (as many writers have) for misinterpreting Jewish Kabbalah; it should be recognised as a parallel tradition with many points of correspondence and many points of difference. Its strength is that a practical tradition has evolved, which many find effective and worthwhile, and the original Renaissance humanism out of which it grew has remained intact, so that while it is broadly Judeo-Christian in background, it is largely free of dogma, and places the task of self-actualisation firmly in the hands of human beings.

Very little information has survived about the Practical Kabbalah in the Jewish tradition, but there is abundant evidence that it involved a wide range of practices and included practices now regarded as magical - the fact that so many Kabbalists denounced the use of Kabbalah for magical purposes is evidence in itself (even if there were no other) that the use of these techniques was widespread. It is highly likely that many ritual magical techniques were introduced into Europe by Kabbalists or their less scrupulous camp followers.

The most important medieval magical text is the Key of Solomon, and it contains the elements of classic ritual magic - names of power, the magic circle, ritual implements, consecration, evocation of spirits etc. No-one knows how old it is, but there is a reasonable suspicion that its contents preserve techniques which might well date back to Solomon.

The combination of non-Jewish Kabbalah and ritual magic has been kept alive outside Judaism until the present day, although it has been heavily adulterated at times by Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, Rosicrucianism, Christianity, Tantra and so on. The most important "modern" influences are the French magician Eliphas Levi, and the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At least two members of the Golden Dawn (S.L. Mathers and A.E. Waite) were knowledgeable Kabbalists, and three Golden Dawn members have popularised Kabbalah - Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, and Dion Fortune. Dion Fortune's Order of the Inner Light has also produced a number of authors: Gareth Knight, William Butler, and William Gray to name but three.

An unfortunate side effect of the Golden Dawn is that while Kabbalah was an important part of its "Knowledge Lectures", surviving Golden Dawn rituals are a syncretist hodge-podge of symbolism in which Kabbalah seems to play a minor or nominal role, and this has led to Kabbalah being seen by many modern occultists as more of a theoretical and intellectual discipline, rather than a potent and self-contained mystical and magical system in its own right.

Some of the originators of modern witchcraft (e.g. Gerald Gardner, Alex Saunders) drew heavily on medieval ritual and Kabbalah for inspiration, and it is not unusual to find modern witches teaching some form of Kabbalah, although it is generally even less well integrated into practical technique than in the case of the Golden Dawn.

To summarise, Kabbalah is a mystical and magical tradition which originated nearly two thousand years ago and has been practiced continuously during that time. It has been practiced by Jew and non- Jew alike for about five hundred years. On the Jewish side it has been an integral and influential part of Judaism. On the Hermetic side it has created a rich mystical and magical tradition with its own validity, a tradition which has survived despite the prejudice generated through existing within a strongly Christian culture.


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