History of Kabbalah

Steve Wilson Lecture Review] A summary... As it turned out, the speaker didn't turn up - but Steve Wilson gave an impromptu lecture on the history of the Qabbala which was probably much more interesting and useful than Stephen Skinner's lecture would have been. Here's a brief summary, from memory. Jewish Mysticism - as it is known today - began to develop after the diasphora (sp?) - the migration of Jews out of Israel following the disasterous failure of the rebellions against the Romans in the 1st Century CE. The Sephardic Jews travelled through Africa, eventually entering Europe through Spain, while the Ashkenazy Jews went North, through the Balkans, Russia and Eastern Europe. The Sephardic Jews developed a technique of meditation in which the mystic would sit, bending forward onto the knees, in a manner which partially restricts the breathing. He would visualise a journey through various "gates", each of which was guarded by angelic figure, and each representing a particular aspect of creation. In other words, a pathworking. This later developed into the glyph known in the West as the "Tree of Life", consisting of ten "Sephiroth". This was understood to be a representation of how everything is created, or manifested, from moment-to-moment: *not* a static picture of an historical act of creation in the past, at the beginning of time - as it has been interpreted in many Western Qabbalistic schools. Furthermore, the original metaphor was that of a RIVER flowing down from Kether (the Crown) - *not* of a tree growing upwards from Malkuth (the Kingdom, or the Earth). Hence Steve's comment on the western misconception of the Qabbala: "The Tree of Life is upside-down!" The source of the "River of Life", as it might be more correctly described, is Kether, the Crown. This represents undifferentiated divine creativity, the ineffable, incommunicable essence of all things. From this mystical point, the river flows in two streams, white and red - representing "purity" (or spirit) and materiality. They are considered *equal*; it is not a good/bad duality. These streams lead to the Sephiroth Binah and Chockmah: Wisdom and Under- standing, which correspond, more or less, to the human faculties of intuition and practical knowledge. From there onwards, the two streams tumble over a waterfall - the Abyss - in which they both merge and separate, leading to the remaining sephiroth. While this sustem was flourishing in North Africa and Spain, the Ashkenazy Jews of eastern Eurpope were developing various esoteric methods of seeking hidden meanings in the Torah - e.g., Gematria. The two big communties were very isolated, and their versions of spoken Hebrew diverged. Communication of ideas took a long time - via their common connections in Israel. Eventually, an enormous body of esoteric lore from both communities was compiled into a massive work called the Zohar - which appeared in the 14th century. Rennaisance scholars discovered the Qabbala at about this time. In fact, they thought that they had obtained complete translations of the Zohar, when in fact, they only had about 5 per cent of it! They proceeded to impose their own Christian interpretations upon the Qabbala, and conceived the immensely arrogant idea that they could then use the system as a means of converting the Jews :-( Rennaisance esotericists like Pico della Mirandola understood the word "Sephiroth" to mean "spheres" (the Hebrew meaning is quite different, but I forget what it is), and tried to relate them to the planets, in accordance with Ptolemaic actronomy. According to this world view, the Earth was the centre of the Universe, and was surrounded by a concentric series of transparent crystal spheres, in each of which was embedded one or other of the various celestial bodies: first the Moon, the Mercury, then Venus, and so on. Thus, for instance, Netzach ("victory") had to be associated with Venus, while Yod ("Splendour") was identified with Mercury. These attributions are inevitably arbitrary and illogical. Mars would seem far more appropriate for Netzach, for example. In general, the planetary attributions do not fit. Steve also dismissed the widespread belief that the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot deck are pictorial representations of the 22 paths between the sephiroth, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In early versions of the Tarot, there were as many as 40 cards in the Major Arcana; and many of the traditional attributions do not make any sense at all. Steve criticised the use of the Qabbala as a sort of "filing cabinet" of correspondences, which obscures its true simpicity and power. In the earliest original texts on the Sephiroth, the term "Daath", or knowledge, actually referred to *all* the Sephiroth below the top three - Kether, Chockmah and Binah - i.e., below the "Abyss". Daath had no sinister connotations at this time. Occultists of the 19th Century located Daath in the Abyss, which, in Christian terms, was identified with the "Dark night of the Soul"; the narrow and slender path across a terrifyingly empty and desolate wasteland. In the meditations of Western Qabbalists, thinking that the only proper way to traverse the "tree" was to climb from the base and material world of Malkuth (*Not* derided in the original texts), to Kether, the passage of the Abyss was puzzling, because they found something there - a feeling of great energy and power. So they called it Daath: a hidden, 11th Sphere. It was interpreted by some as repesenting the arrogant human intellect, refusing to submit to the self-abandonment of union with Kether. But if we look back to the original metaphor of the river, the source of the mysterious sense of energy and power becomes clear: it is the tumultuous waterfall, where the twin streams of Chockmah and Binah combine in an endless flux of creation. One final point of interest: In Eisenman's recently published translations of certain Dead Sea Scroll texts, the names of most of the Sephiroth appear in a section discussing the mystical life of the Qumran community - which existed at the time of Jesus, and of which Jesus was almost certainly a representative, a member or (at the very least) an ally. This predates the first known Qabbalistic writings by some 400 years, and indicates that the system is far older than is commonly supposed. Well, that is the gist of what I learned from Steve's talk. I hope he's going to write a book about it sometime! Andrew :-)*