Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Brief History of the Qabbalah - Part 1

 Gershom Scholem

This is part 1 of a 3 part article on the history of the Qabbalah. It was very rewarding to pull together this research, and I hope that you find it as interesting and engaging as I found it in doing the research. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Gershom Scholem and his book, the Kabbalah, for helping me to piece together the history of this most interesting discipline.
Since I have been writing about the metaphysical nature of the Qabbalah, I thought it would be prudent to also present it’s historical evolution. Qabbalah did indeed come from a purely Jewish Mystical tradition, but along the way it became modified and blended with other philosophical systems; first Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, then Christianity, and finally, modern occultism mixed with some Theosophy; all of these disciplines added layers to it. What exists today in print is mostly a Christian and Theosophical based occult system, although some authors are pushing the Qabbalah back to its Jewish roots, and others are attempting to divest it of its Christian and Jewish underpinnings to make it useable to non-Christians, such as Wiccans and Neopagans.

What I have sought to do myself is to emphasize the Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean influences, so as to make it a system that is more friendly and accessible to modern paganism. All of these different approaches are laudable and commendable, since there is no right or correct way in seeking to adapt the Qabbalah to one’s personal spiritual perspectives. The Qabbalah is a meta-system, so it lends itself to adaption and reinterpretation, and it has been placed in this role since the very beginning of its inception. Still, understanding the history of the Qabbalah and how it evolved over time will help us appreciate it more. We may even perhaps realize why it was created and how it was and is still being used.

Let’s take a brief trip through time and seek to realize that the Qabbalah is a system of thought that has a long history, whose roots exist at the same point in time with some of the newer books of the Old Testament and the early Palestinian Talmud. By examining this time line, we will get an idea about how much this system has actually changed over time, allowing us to realize that the Qabbalah was many things to many people through the passage of the ages. The fact that it is still in use today, and that it’s effective for many people, some of whom come from startlingly different religious and spiritual practices, is both remarkable and amazing. It indicates to me the essential core of truth that resides in the basic tenets and practices associated with the Qabbalah.

Qabbalah has had quite a journey, both in time and geographically. It began in the Jewish homeland with various occult and mystical speculations, then migrated wherever Jews migrated, becoming a part of the great waves of the Jewish diaspora.  The first major milestone in time was when the book called the Sepher Yetzirah was written, which was likely in the Galilee area, perhaps at Sepphoris in the 3rd to 6th century. Then these teachings migrated to Babylonia in the 7th century, and then later in the middle ages to Italy and the Provence area of Southern France, where it acquired the name of Qabbalah in the early 13th century.

Because of the terrible Albingensian crusade, the adherents of the Qabbalah fled to Moorish Spain where it truly flowered, producing a Talmudic like document called the Zohar. European and Palestinian Jews (Safed) later took on and promoted the Qabbalah after the Jews were expelled from Catholic Spain and spread throughout Europe, where it reached its peak in the 17th century, with Isaac Luria (15th century) and Shabbatae Zevi. However, as the Qabbalah declined in Jewish circles, it received a resurgence within various Christian intellectual circles, until the late 18th century, when it changed hands with Christian occultists, who brought it into a more recognizable form in the late 19th century. Dion Fortune and her group (SIL), as well as the Golden Dawn (Mathers), Aleister Crowley and Israel Regardie added their particular stamp to this body of lore. Occultists have continued to work with it, but it has also found a resurgence in some Jewish circles as well.   

The history of the Qabbalah has been researched and corroborated by Gershom Scholem in his wonderful book “Kabbalah” (New American Library 1974, pages 8 through 86). Although I have examined many books on the history and evolution of the ideas of the Qabbalah, this book, in my opinion, is the most thorough, incisive and historically unbiased. Unlike many authors, Mr. Scholem has admitted that the Qabbalah and its various antecedents were employed in occult and magical practices from the very beginning, and that only later were such practices disassociated from the main body of mystical speculation. A useful quote from his book, found in the introduction, sets the whole tone of his rather straightforward work. 

From the beginning of its development, the Kabbalah embraced an esotericism closely akin to the spirit of Gnosticism, one which was not restricted to instruction in the mystical path but also included ideas on cosmology, angelology and magic. Only later, and as a result of contact with medieval Jewish philosophy, the Kabbalah became a Jewish ‘mystical theology,’ more or less systematically elaborated. This process brought about a separation of the mystical, speculative elements from the occult and especially magical elements, a divergence that at times was distinct but was never total.”

This divergence, according to Mr. Scholem, produced two opposing but not completely distinct disciplines, one based wholly on speculation (the Kabbalah iyyunit) and associated mystical practices such as meditation and contemplation, and another based wholly on practical or magical techniques (Kabbalah ma’asit). The practical applications concerned themselves with determining angelic and god names, and promoted occult systems of theurgy, practical spell work and goetic (demonic) magic. This divergence occurred probably sometime around the 14th century, so before that time, magic and theurgy played an important part in the formation and development of the Qabbalah. That Mr. Scholem admits the primacy and importance of magical practices and occult speculation to the formation of the Qabbalah appears to be quite unique, since many other recent authors appear to either deny this possibility or to denigrate the obvious practical applications of the Qabbalah as a divergent and unimportant later development.  

In his book “Kabbalah”, Mr. Scholem proposes seven distinct levels in the historical development of the Qabbalah. Each of these levels has its own features and important contributions, which helped to build up the body of lore that modern occultists have found so important and useful. These seven levels consist of particular periods of development, such as the origins of esotericism (Merkabah), followed by the period of Heikhalot mysticism, the period of the Sepher Yetzirah and Qabbalah Ma’asit, to the Geonic period of the Talmud, to the period of the classical Jewish Qabbalah, followed by a period of transition where the Qabbalah became the provenance of Christian occultists, and then its final metamorphosis into the modern system used by occultists today. We will now briefly examine each of these seven periods.

1. Jewish Apocalyptic Esotericism. From the 7th Century B.C.E., certain influences began to emerge in classical Hebrew spiritual beliefs. The process of expressing an otherwise invisible and unknowable God began to be conceptualized in a mythical and symbolic format. These speculations began to build a body of mystical insights and ideas, causing the exoteric history and laws of the Jews to become a secret and esoteric universal doctrine.

Perhaps the most striking speculation developed out of one of the more obscure books of the prophets, Ezekiel, who saw a vision of the Throne of God that was placed within a chariot and surrounded by protective angels (Cherubim). One could compare this motif with the Chariot card in the modern Tarot. The Chariot Throne, also known as the “Merkabah,” fueled a great deal of imaginative speculation. So, too, did Jacob’s Ladder, and the “Brasheit” of Genesis, which produced speculation about the nature of divine creation (Brasheit is Hebew for “In the beginning” and is part of the first sentence of Genesis).

Jacob’s vision of a ladder of lights, where angels constantly descended and ascended was also an important and intriguing concept, particularly since one of the later names for the Qabbalistic Tree of Life was the Ladder of Lights. As important as the Chariot Throne were the “Palaces” of the House of God, known as the Heikhalot. Supposedly, there were seven of these palaces, arranged in ascending order, which made them analogous to the seven heavens or celestial spheres. The Heikhalot mysticism would play an important role in forming the practical Qabbalah, since obtaining access to the various palaces would require ecstatic and magical techniques and occult knowledge. The first Book of Enoch has an excellent example of this heikhalot structure.

These various mystical speculations produced a body of esoteric lore that was also grounded in actual practical and magical rites. The Essenes were reputed to be knowledgeable of certain magickal practices, and some of their specialized psalms would seem to bear this reputation out, as would the first Book of Enoch, which was also produced during that time. It can be assumed that by the beginning of the first century of the common era, the various sources of the Qabbalah would have already been well established. It could also be assumed that the methodologies of various ecstatic and magical practices were already in place, giving an immediacy and accessibility to this speculation which it might not have otherwise had. 

2. Heikhalot Mysticism. From the 1st Century C.E., a system of detailed exercises was established to produce magickal and ecstatic effects used to attain the spiritual state of ascent that would allow a  celebrant to commune directly with the Deity, first accessing the various Palaces of the House of God, then on to the very Chariot of God itself, and to also command spirits through the use of various secret names, seals, and by those same, to cast out demons. These practices may be similar to those practiced by the Essenes and other itinerant magical practitioners.

Most important from this period is the introduction of a body of esoteric literature that discussed in great detail all of the attributes of the various levels of the heavenly palaces (heikhalot), and the various angelic beings and spirits that reside there, especially their hidden names. In addition, methodologies of gaining access to the Chariot Throne of Glory, and even piercing the veil to the heavenly man-like being within who was the manifestation of God’s glory, but was not the actual being of the Godhead (who had no form). Considerations of the Brasheit passage (in Genesis), which triggered speculation about cosmology (ma’aseh bereshit), and even considerations about the supposed measurements of the various limbs of the mysterious Chariot Driver (Shi’ur Komah) are given full expression in esoteric literature. The Shi’ur Komah (measuring of the body) was a collection of speculation that sought to measure the “Glory” of the Godhead, and was linked to esoteric interpretations of the Song of Songs, particularly the descriptions of the beloved, which were called the Body of the Divine Presence (guf ha-Shekhineh).

There is a blending between mystical literature of the Merkabah and the Jewish theurgistic literature. In addition to the specifically magical practices, there were ascetic practices, such as a meditation posture where the head is placed between the knees and certain ecstatic hymns are sung to generate the proper ecstatic mind state, enabling one to obtain a highly potent visionary trance state.

Mr. Scholem also discusses that there might be a dissemination of mystical and magical ideas amongst Jews who have either converted to Christianity or fringe Gnostic sects, such as the Ophites and possibly, the Sethians/Barbeloites, all of whom were originally Jews. Most of the Heikhalot literature was developed in Palestine, but the literary branch was later picked up and migrated to Babylonia sometime before the sixth century. It is also believed that the greatest grimoire, known as the Sepher ha-Razim was composed at this time (at the end of the Palestinian Talmudic period), which was a magical text wholly adopted from heikhalot mysticism, but whose incantations probably had a Greek source.

(To be continued..)

Frater Barrabbas

No comments:

Post a Comment