Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Brief History of the Qabbalah - Part 3

This is part 3 of the three part history of the Qabbalah. I hope that you enjoyed it. 

5.  Classical Qabbalism. From the 11th through the 17th centuries C.E. This period saw a four phase migration that witnessed periods of intellectual blossoming in Provence, Moorish and Christian Spain, Safed in Palestine, and finally, returning to Europe at the advent of the Renaissance. During this period there were also some calamities that afflicted various Jewish cultural centers, such as the Albigensian Crusade (1209 - 1229), the sack of Baghdad by Ikhanate Mongol forces in 1258, and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

Despite the calamities that forced the Jewish peoples to relocate from one place to another, the study and spread of Qabbalah became much more wide-ranging than at any other time.  It was also a period that saw an extensive development and evolution of ideas, when the Qabbalah started to become a solidified discipline, acquiring many of the features that occultists today would recognize. During this period, the study of Qabbalah supplanted previous forms of Jewish theology, and for a time, completely dominated Jewish religious thought. However, even as the Qabbalah became more accessible to Jewish lay scholars (and even Christian academics), it was still the provenance of a select few, even though that exclusivity began to evaporate by the beginning of the 16th century.    

Provence: It was in this location that the classical Qabbalah had its true birth. Various writings, speculations and insights assembled from sources in the East (Baghdad) and from Germany (Worms) were used to write the first true Qabbalistic work, called the Sefer ha-Bahir, which was ostensibly an occult form of the Midrash, consisting of various commentaries on verses from the Torah, particularly those of a decided mystical or mythical nature. Many of the various speculations begun in the geonic period are given a greater development in the book of Bahir, particularly, the concept of the Shekinah as a distinct entity. Provence was where rabbinic culture achieved a high state of development, and many pagan philosophical works were translated, most notably by Judah ibn Tibben, and many of these translated works were from neoplatonic sources. It is here that gnostic speculation was fully wedded with neoplatonic philosophy within a Jewish religious framework. Qabbalistic practices focused on an emphasis of seeking communion with the Deity through meditation on the sephiroth and their occult analogues. Also, the concept of the Ain-Soph was developed as a way to explain the manifestation of the finite material world through the agency of an infinite and unmanifest Godhead. From Provence, the Qabblah spread to Spain via Catalonia.

Gerona, Toledo and Castile - Spanish Qabbalah: It was in Spain that the Qabbalah acquired its more modern qualities, and it was here that the Qabbalah split into three distinct schools, and where some of the scholars sought to bridge that split. Gerona was the first location to flower, establishing the basic structure and tenets that became the Classical Qabbalah. It was in Gerona that ecstatic tendencies were renewed and propagated. From this foundational school, two other opposing perspectives began to dominate the practice and teachings of Classical Qabbalah. On the one side presided what could be called the rational school of Qabbalah (Isaac ibn Latif), where its adherents sought to describe it through a more philosophical and mystical interpretation, removing the more occult elements and seeking to use a system of devotion and contemplation to realize the various tenets. They taught that the adherent should contemplate on the sacred names and letters to produce mystical states resulting in prophecy. The other side (Isaac ha-Kohen) was characterized by a school declaring the opposite perspective, that of gnostic theosophy, occult speculation and the deliberate practice of theurgy. It is from this more occult school that the speculations of a Tree of Evil (demonic emanations) began to be developed, which included the developing of a more systematic hierarchy of angelic and demonic spirits, as well as equating the Logos (as found in Greek philosophy) with a new angel called Metatron.

Zohar: this was the first successful attempt at producing a Qabbalistic Midrash. Moses de Leon wrote this monumental work in around 1281 as an attempt to mediate these three different schools into a single unified one, producing a work that merged rational philosophy with gnostic and occult insights and tenets. This work consisted of a vast multi volume set of homiletics on the Torah, the books of Song of Songs, Ruth and Lamentations. These were not comprehensive commentaries, but instead focused on strategic passages. The Zohar had the effect of producing a kind of uniquely Jewish theology, (even though it was wedded to tenets that were particularly uncanonical), and this helped to bring it into the mainstream of Jewish thought.

Safed: When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them found their way to Safed in Palestine, and also Italy. It was in Safed that Qabbalah acquired its messianic and apocalyptic qualities, and these were wedded to the core of its beliefs and tenets. It was also here that the Qabbalah found its greatest teacher and intellectual exponent (Isaac Luria) and began its powerful and compelling spread throughout the Jewish diaspora.

Isaac Luria Ashkenazi - the “Ari” Lion - (1534 - 1572): It was Luria who brought all of the various strains of Spanish Qabbalah together to synthesize it into a powerful modern religious system. Many of the idiosyncracies and philosophical problems in the Qabbalah were brilliantly and completely resolved by the writings and teachings of Luria. It was Luria who developed the concept of the sephiroth as divine personas, arranged them into three pillars (creating a cosmogonic dialectic) and saw them as the dynamically changing and evolving manifestation of the will and mind of the Deity. He also developed the notion of the four qabbalistic worlds, and resolved the issue of how the infinite unmanifest Godhead was able to create a finite material world through the mysterious artifice of contraction, concealment and veilings - the generation of a vacuum of empty space before creation.

Luria also developed the speculation that became the qliphoth, discussed the shattering of the six lower sephiroth above Malkuth (allowing for the incursion of evil), and the attribution of a mythic and psychological drama associated with the redemption of spiritual “sparks” of the individual human entity, now divided into four specific parts of the soul. His teachings had a powerful messianic quality, where he predicted that the messiah was immanent, and that event would also begin the ending of the world as the messiah recollected all of the spirits of humanity and delivered them up to the Deity. After his death, Luria’s teachings, for a time, eclipsed all other teachings and became part of the Jewish mainstream. The messianic tensions found in his teachings, along with his various vague apocalyptic pronouncements, ultimately produced the heresies of the aborted Shabbatai Zevi messianic crusade (b. 1670 - d. 1730).      

6.  Period of Transference. From the 15th through 18th centuries. There are many indicators that Christians and occultists had been distilling the Jewish Qabbalah beginning from the time that it had emerged into Europe during the middle ages. An examination of Agrippa’s work, the “Occult Philosophy,” demonstrates that by 1531, the entire corpus of the Qabbalah (particularly the practical and occult practices) had already been thoroughly translated and dispersed by academics throughout most of Europe. This would lead one to conclude that various contents of the Zohar and the writings of Luria had been leaked or deliberately shared with sympathetic Christian scholars and occultists. It is also likely that various Jewish magical practices and techniques had also been appropriated by individuals in Christian circles. How and exactly when this occurred is unknown, but it was likely the impetus for the development of the Solomonic system of ceremonial magick.  However, it was not until the year 1671 that Christian Knorr Von Rosenroth translated and published four books of the voluminous Zohar in Latin, making it available to nearly anyone who had at least a rudimentary education. Additionally, Rosenroth also published other translated Qabbalistic writings, and these included works by Luria. It’s also likely that the spread of the Qabbalah within the Christian community also facilitated the spread of Qabbalah within the European Jewish community.

Decline of Jewish Qabbalah: After the failed messianism of Shabbatai Zevi, the Jewish Qabbalah began to slowly decline in the 18th century. It would seem that the harsh lesson of Shabbatai Zevi, and the obvious heterodoxic nature of the Qabbalah, caused it to become increasingly rejected by various orthodox groups, with the exception of the Hasidic Jews, where it continued to be practiced through the 19th century and even later.  

7.  The Modern Occult Qabbalah. From 19th to 20th centuries.  In the mid 19th century, the scholarship of Eliphaz Levi, Papus and MacGregor Mathers determined the current structure of the  Qabbalistic Tree of Life, and attributed the Tarot Trumps to the 22 Letters associated with the Pathways. MacGregor Mathers reintroduced the discipline of the practical Qabbalah, and translated the works of Von Rosenroth into English. Mathers was also responsible for either publishing or translating the Lesser and Greater Key of Solomon, the Grimmoire of Armadel, the Enochian magical system of Dr. John Dee, and the Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage. The teachings of the Magickal Fraternity that he established (Golden Dawn) has influenced many subsequent students of the Qabbalah, including Aleister Crowley, W. E. Butler, Israel Regardie, Dion Fortune, William Grey, Gareth Knight and Kenneth Grant.

Mather’s ground breaking work was taken up and developed by other occultists, who thereby brought it into the mainstream of occult beliefs and practices in the 20th and 21st centuries. Most notable for their contributions was Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and Israel Regardie, who distilled and advanced the basic Qabbalistic knowledge of the Golden Dawn so that it became more of a meta-system than a repository of Jewish gnostic and theosophic speculation. Like Mathers, these individuals intrinsically wedded the Qabbalah to the practice of Western Magic. Aleister Crowley was the first to publish the Golden Dawn Qabbalistic writings on gematria, tables of correspondence as well as his own writings and interpretations, and expounded on the Tarot as an adjunct to the Qabbalah, producing his own Tarot deck (Book of Thoth).

Dion Fortune blended many extensive theosophical speculations into the Qabbalah, and Paul Foster Case blended the Tarot with the Qabbalah, so that the Tarot was defined and given its meaning solely through Qabbalistic symbolism. W. E. Butler and Gareth Knight, who were both students of Dion Fortune, produced a correspondence course on the Qabbalah, and Knight later wrote a ground breaking text book (Practical Qabalistic Symbolism), one that most modern occultists have read and studied. William Grey wrote a concise work (Ladder of Lights) and established himself as one of the truly gifted occultists of the 20th century. He went on to write many more books about ceremonial magick and the Qabbalah. Israel Regardie developed and refined the Golden Dawn teachings of the Qabbalah, first put forward by Mathers and his associate, Westcott. Kenneth Grant sought to develop and integrate the qliphoth with the sephiroth, referring to it as the backside of the Tree of Life, and thus show the integral relativity of both the lefthand and right-hand occult paths.

Recap of the Overall Evolution of the Qabbalah

The first stage of the evolution of the Qabbalah concerned itself with various attempts to depict and conceptualize the powers and majesty of the Deity. It was not an idle process, since it was meant to allow for greater access and individual conscious assumption of the mysterious Hebrew Godhead. These intentions were hidden within mysticism, but early Judaism contended with the doctrine of an invisible and unknowable Deity amidst a plethora of highly represented pagan deities, both gods and goddesses. The concept of Elohim (gods) as one of the representations of this Deity clearly shows the probable amalgamation of many deities into the one, ultimately called Yahweh. The Hebrew nation did not become truly monotheistic until later in their history (possibly 6th or even 5th century B.C.E), and so there was always a tendency for polytheism inherent in Judaism. When the orthodox doctrine of monotheism (there is only one God) finally became enforced, the tendency to polytheism found other avenues, particularly in the areas of mysticism and the illicit practice of ritual and ceremonial magick. Access to the powers and glories of a monotheistic Deity was expressly forbidden by the cannon of the law and established traditions, but the Merkabah and Heikhalot systems of mysticism and magick certainly allowed speculation and practices that were essentially heretical in nature.

The impact of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism on Jewish thought has been little noted in Jewish mystical circles, particularly in regards to the origins of the Qabbalah. While it is certainly true that Jewish writers such as Philo were later discredited and ignored by the scholars of the Talmudic period, non Jewish systems of theosophy and theurgy continued to invade the fringes of Jewish thought. The core doctrines and beliefs of the Qabbalah were developed long after similar speculation had already been written down and established in philosophical and gnostic circles. Still, the Qabbalah was a very tight synthesis of traditional Jewish thought and Greek philosophy; but it remained on the fringes of scholastic writings and the established traditions and liturgies of the rabbinic culture until the late Renaissance. It was almost as if one had to be both a Jew and a Qabbalist, since they were not synonymous. The middle ages saw great Qabbalistic works written, such as the Zohar, but there were other works created, like the Sword of Solomon, the Sepher ha-Ratziel, and the Book of Abramelin, which represented the magickal practices of the Qabbalah. These magickal works, or grimoires, and their associated theosophical and occult speculation represented a problem with the emergence of the Qabbalah as a system of Jewish theology. It was due largely to these and other excesses that Judaism narrowed its accepted practices, which lead to the eventual abandonment of the Qabbalah as a Jewish religious tradition. The Jewish Qabbalah was just too prone to uncanonical practices and heresy, and seemed to advocate highly unacceptable religious speculation.

During the late middle ages, the doctrines and beliefs of the Qabbalah began to filter into the scholarly world of Christian Europe, and by the 19th century, it had been completely taken over and made into an occult doctrine. The greatest contributions to the works of the Qabbalah were made in the middle to late 19th century, and these were made by individuals who were not practitioners of Judaism. Certainly, the evolution and derivation of the Qabbalah from its Hebrew source did not allow it to be easily reintegrated into Jewish religious doctrine, and so there are now at least two versions of the Qabbalah, since the resurgence of its study in the present age was promoted first by adherents of the Hasadim, and then by others, which caused some orthodox and reformed Jews to return to and expand on the earlier writings of Isaac Luria, and many others.

Modern occultists are divided as to whether the Qabbalah should be used for meditation and contemplation only, or with the inclusion of ritual and ceremonial magick. Certainly Mathers and Crowley proposed the full incorporation of the Qabbalah when they wrote their books, formulated their rituals and ceremonies, and taught these practices to their students; but others have moved away from the practice of magick as being too controversial and prone to heretical practices and derivations. Still, for practicing ritual magicians, the Qabbalah is of critical importance. I would therefore recommend that it should be studied and mastered by all occult students, used in meditation, contemplation and employed to construct magickal rituals and ceremonies. I am recommending such an extensive use so that the various symbolic archetypes and spiritual hierarchy might become internally available to the seeker to experience and fully realize in a very direct and immediate fashion. In this manner, the Qabbalah becomes a real and living process that illuminates the spiritual and allegorical domains, and reveals the various qualities of the Deity and the fate of humankind. Therefore as a practice, it will lead to the highest possible states of spiritual illumination.

I hope this brief historical analysis has assisted you in realizing that the Qabbalah is an ever evolving discipline that has undergone a considerable amount of change and revision over the centuries. However, formulations of a kind of gnostic inspired theosophy as well as the continued use of the Qabbalah in various methods and techniques of ritual and ceremonial magick have been a constant factor in the evolution of this discipline. Anyone who seeks to divorce the heterodoxic nature of the Qabbalah, or to refute its use and application in forms of theurgy are promoting an egregious falsehood that belies its history, essential nature and practical use.

Frater Barrabbas

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