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The Double Hokhmah

“In fact, they occasionally seem to force this hypothesis upon us. In that case it is not too much to assume that the gnostic material of Oriental origin in the Book Bahir, once it was received and adopted by a circle of religiously agitated and productive men, amply suffices to explain the inner development of the Kabbalah up to, and including, the Zohar. But how are we to understand the development that led to that ferment, the evidence of which we have before us in the Book Bahir itself? On this point we are forced to assume the existence of some kind of connection, whether in literary or oral form, with older, premedieval materials.

Certain details, as far as I can see, can have no other explanation and above all cannot be attributed to fortuitous coincidences. They prove that the gnostic symbolisms that occupied a meaningful and comprehensible position within their own framework—as for example in the system of the Valentinian gnosis—found their way into Jewish sources, largely detaching themselves, of course, from their organic connection with gnostic mythology.

Today we can no longer (or not yet?) say anything about the nature of these sources, or whether, perhaps, there once existed entire systems of a Jewish character parallel to the classic systems of Gnosticism or to the later gnostic ramifications of the kind that survived in the Aramaic-Syrian linguistic area, such as, for example, the Mandaean gnosis. Only obscure traces of these sources, not a system but merely fragments of symbols, seem to have come into the hands of the redactors of the Bahir. Nevertheless, their attraction was still strong enough to stimulate the combination of old material with new associations of ideas and, thus, to give it a new content.

A surprising detail of this kind is the doctrine of the double Sophia or hokhmah that among the first kabbalists and as early as the Book Bahir, served as a model for similar symbols occupying a double position within the framework of the divine world, the pleroma.

Thus we have a double “Fear of God” (sections 97, 129, 131), a double “Justice” (sedeq, sections 50, 133), a double he in the Tetragrammaton YHWH (section 20), and also, without a doubt, a double Shekhinah (section 11). The region and position of these power symbols (“the lower he; the lower Justice”) are always, in this case, close to the margin and termination of the world of the aeons, and are connected with the symbolism of the Shekhinah.

But these expositions in the Bahir are most precise in just those instances where they are related to the double hokhmah. That should give us cause for thought. The Gnostics, especially those of the Valentinian school, developed the idea of two aeons that are both called Sophia. One, the “upper Sophia,” is high above, in the world of the pleroma; the other, however, which is also related to the symbolism of the “virgin of light,” is found at its lower end.

The gnostic myth of the cosmic drama told of the fall of the lower Sophia, which succumbed to the temptation of the hyle and fell from the pleroma into the lower worlds, where it is either wholly, or at least in certain parts of its luminous being, “in exile.” Even so, this lower, fallen Sophia remains related to the pneuma, the highest constitutive part of the human soul, the contact between these two entities being described by means of different symbols in different systems. This divine spark in man is connected with the drama of the exile of the “lower Sophia.”

It is precisely in the corresponding levels of the structure of the divine middoth that we find, in different passages of the Bahir, the two hypostases or aeons named hokhmah, as the second and the tenth sefirah. Wisdom simply is, in section 96 for example, the upper Wisdom, the “beginning of the paths of God” in the midst of creation.

When God placed this Wisdom in the heart of Solomon he adapted the upper Wisdom to the form of the lower Wisdom, which he was able to grasp. In the form of the lower Wisdom, which is the “daughter” whom God, as it were, gave in marriage to Solomon, “the thirty-two paths of the Sophia,” all the powers and ways of the pleroma are united (sections 43, 62, 67).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 91-2.

The Shekhinah is Bakol

“The pseudepigraphic disguise that lends it the appearance of an ancient teaching cannot deceive us concerning the true character of this dictum. “The rabbis have taught: Kol, Abraham’s daughter, is not dead. She still exists, and whoever sees her has made a great find, as it is said [Prov. 8:17]: and those who seek me will find me.”

By means of this verse from Proverbs, the daughter is clearly identified as the hokhmah or Sophia, which would be in accord with the symbolism of the Shekhinah in the Bahir, itself related to the mysticism of the Sophia (see following).

It is quite possible that the author of this dictum, preserved only in the Yemenite midrash, knew of an interpretation similar to the one that we read in the Bahir, and which must therefore already have been known in the Orient. But it is just as possible that he produced a similar interpretation quite independently stimulated by the desire to allegorize a strange phrase.

The tradition of the German Hasidim, around 1250, also shows familiarity with older materials that dealt with the interpretation of the Bakol of Genesis 24:1, though in a direction somewhat different from that taken in the Bahir. In connection with this same verse, Ephraim ben Shimshon (ca. 1240) cited a dictum of the adepts of esotericism, ba ‘ale ha-sod, according to which this blessing consisted in God’s charge to the “Prince of the Divine Presence” to grant Abraham’s every wish.

The role of the Shekhinah in the Book Bahir is here assumed by the angel Yahoel, the oldest name of Metatron, prince of the angels, whose relation to the patriarch is not only known from the Apocalypse of Abraham (early second century C.E.), but was also familiar to the German Hasidim of the twelfth century.

However, the particular exegesis relating the word Bakol to Yahoel probably originated in Germany, for it is based on the gematria method of interpretation practiced there at that time.

Whether there is a relation between the Bahir’s reference to the Shekhinah and the idea of the universal presence of the Shekhinah as current at the time particularly among the German Hasidim I would not venture to decide. Such a connection, if it exists, would rest upon a punning interpretation of the Talmud: “The Shekhinah is in every place” (Baba Bathra 25a). By abridging this phrase to shekhinah bakol, “the Shekhinah is in all things,” an association is suggested with the bakol in Genesis 24:1: the Shekhinah is Bakol.

Another example of such a reinterpretation can be found in section 126. The Talmud relates a dictum of the Babylonian amora R. Assi: “The son of David will not come until all the souls in the ‘body’ are exhausted” (Yebamoth 62a, 63b). Here “body” means the storehouse of the préexistent, unborn souls. This traditional interpretation was evidently also known to the Bahir. But there this dictum is further interpreted as a cue for the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: the “body” mentioned there would be the body of man, through which the souls must wander.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 88-90.

Bakol = Shekhinah

“But what about the oldest text, the Book Bahir itself? Here, too, many passages show that we are dealing with a later exegesis, which reinterprets, on the basis of a medieval mentality, older material that had already become authoritative and confers upon it a symbolic character.

Assuredly, biblical verses could already be interpreted in the talmudic era as symbolic of events taking place on a higher plane of being. The psychological distance between the gnostic exegetes, Jewish or not, and the biblical canon is evident. The elaboration of pagan mythology in terms of gnostic exegesis, as, for example, in the “Naassene sermon” preserved by Hippolytus, indicates a similar psychological distance between ancient myth and its new interpretation.

The Bahir already presents this type of interpretation of the talmudic Aggadah. This can be seen not only in the many passages in which parables drawn from aggadic literature in the Talmud and the Midrash, where they have a perfectly exoteric significance, are transposed to a mystical plane, the new parable often becoming, in the process, much more strange and problematic than the one upon which it is based; we can observe it above all when talmudic quotations themselves are treated as old materials of this kind.

Only during a period when, for the pious consciousness of broad sections of the Jewish population, the Aggadah itself could already claim the authority of a sacred text, and at a time when for other circles its very extravagance became a problem—from the eighth century onward, after the emergence of Karaism—is a passage like section 52 of the Bahir possible. The Talmud, Baba Bathra 16b, transmits various opinions with regard to the value of the birth of daughters.

In this connection, a discussion is reported between mishnaic teachers (second century) concerning Genesis 24:1: “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” “What is meant by ‘in all things?’ R. Meir explained: it means that he had no daughter. R. Yehudah said: Abraham had a daughter whose name was Bakol [literally: with all things].”

The Bahir made this last remark the object of a mystical exegesis, which elevated the strange statement concerning the daughter Bakol to an allegorical plane. Bakol thus becomes a designation for the Shekhinah, the last of the divine powers, which is mentioned at the end of section 51 and to the symbolism of which I shall return. Abraham is there designated as the father of this Shekhinah. Section 52 then continues:

“And whence did Abraham have a daughter? [we learn that] from the verse [Gen. 24:1] the Lord had blessed Abraham with “all things” and [Scripture also] says [Isa. 43:7] “every one” will be called by my Name, etc. Was this “blessing” his daughter or not? [another version: Or was it rather his mother?] Yes, she was his daughter. It is like a king who had a perfect servant . . . Then the king said: What should I give to this servant or what should I do for him? There is nothing left for me to do but to recommend him to my brother, so that he may counsel, protect, and honor him. The servant went home with the king’s great brother and learned his ways. The brother grew very fond of him and called him his friend, as it is said [Isa. 41:8]: Abraham, my friend. He said: What shall I give him or what shall I do for him? Lo, I have made a beautiful vessel, and inside it are beautiful gems to which none can be compared, and they are the jewels of kings. I shall give them to him, and he may partake of them instead of me. That is what is written: God blessed Abraham with “all things.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 87-8,

Jewish Gnosticism

“The decisive step beyond the other gnostic systems consists in the fixing of the number of these powers or aeons at ten, according to the ten sefiroth of the Book of Creation and the ten words of creation through which, according to the ancient Aggadah, God called the world into existence.

Once the number of these “qualities” or middoth of God was fixed they came to be associated with a large number of symbolic names, since each of the epithets by which God could be presented or named was necessarily related to one or another of the middoth. In the Bahir we can still recognize quite clearly the efforts that were made to introduce a more or less consistent terminology in the use of these symbols in relation to specific sefiroth, though it took some time until this process of the definitive crystallization of the symbolism of the old Kabbalah came to its final conclusion.

The different attempts often contradict one another. While the commentators of the Kabbalah strove to bring the symbols into accord or to unify them, the historian naturally has no interest in a harmonistic exegesis of this kind. We shall see several examples that suggest conflicting traditions that were simply juxtaposed in the Bahir. Here, too, the choice of symbols and appellations for this or that sefirah duplicates the process by which the Gnostics designated their aeons. They liked to adopt as names of aeons abstract terms such as thought, wisdom, penitence, truth, grace, greatness, silence, or images such as father, mother, abyss, etc.

These designations, some of which are identical with those found in the ancient documents while others were newly created in accordance with the methods of gnostic exegesis, fill the pages of the Bahir. There, however, they are derived from biblical verses or even the aggadic dicta of the rabbis.

Once again the question is posed: should we admit, at least for one of the strata of the book, the existence of vestiges of an ancient Jewish gnosis, of fragments that antedate the Middle Ages and in which anonymous Jewish Gnostics sought to express their mystical conception of the divinity without impairing their Jewish monotheism?

Or are we dealing with attempts by medieval men, who felt themselves newly stimulated for one reason or another, to view traditions that were intrinsically and purely Jewish from a gnostic perspective? Is our material essentially nothing but the well-known and straightforward Jewish tradition, the adaptation and transformation of which into symbols proves just how great was the psychological and temporal distance between these later authors and the period when the aggadic sayings originally crystallized?

This is the fundamental question that imposes itself upon the reader of the Bahir. It is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of general considerations; only a careful examination of the details can help us here. I do not hesitate, for my part, to affirm that the literature of the Spanish Kabbalah, especially that imbedded in the Zohar, clearly reveals a psychological attitude that, in the Middle Ages, led men to recast ancient talmudic and midrashic material according to an entirely new spirit by means of an exegetical and homiletical method that in its structure was gnostic, but that reached its full development only under the influence of the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 85-6.

The Powers of God

“Moreover, a large part of the book consists of mystical variations on motifs from the Book Yesirah. In fact, the term sefiroth was taken by the Bahir from that work, though it is no longer understood in the sense of ideal numbers that contain within them all the powers of creation, as was the case with the author of the Yesirah.

The sefiroth now signify the aeons, the powers of God, which are also his attributes. The term sefiroth, however, does not occupy an important place in the Bahir. It appears only in section 87, where the ten fingers raised in the benediction of the priests are found to be “an allusion to the ten sefiroth by means of which heaven and earth are sealed.”

In the Book Yesirah itself, only six of the sefiroth perform this function, and in this particular instance the term is evidently identified with a different conception. This is also indicated by the book’s new explanation of the meaning of the term sefiroth.

The word is not derived from safar, to count, but from sappir, sapphire. They are thus sapphirine reflections of the divinity, and Psalm 19:2: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” is interpreted by the author in accordance with this etymology: “the heavens shine in the sapphirine splendor of the glory of God.”

This mystical etymology subsequently became classic in kabbalistic literature. In view of the fragmentary condition of the book, it may not be possible to infer very much from the fact that the term sefiroth is missing in other parts of the text. It nevertheless remains surprising that the notion of the sefiroth was, so to speak, eliminated from just those passages that are very clearly based upon the Book of Creation, but appears as something known and self-evident in precisely a passage that otherwise has no connection with the motifs of the Book Yesirah.

Instead, these aeons, if we may speak of them as such, are described in completely different terms. These names reflect the fullness of meaning and “multivalence” of the aeons in gnostic mythology. They are, as we have seen, the powers of God.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 81-2.

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