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Tag: Metamorphosis

The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

The Naassene Fragment, on the Ithyphallus

” … (7) And they say that not only the Mysteries of the Assyrians and Phrygians substantiate this teaching (logos) concerning the Blessed Nature, which is at once hidden and manifest [but also those of the Egyptians 1].

C. 2 [The Nature] which (H. he says) is the Kingdom of the Heavens sought for within man—

H. —concerning which [Nature] they hand on a distinct tradition in the Gospel entitled According to Thomas, saying as follows:

C. “He who seeketh shall find me in children from the age of seven years 3; for in them at the fourteenth year 4 [lit. æon] I hidden am made manifest.”

H. But this is not Christ’s Saying but that of Hippocrates:

“A boy of seven years [is] half a father.” 5

Hence as they place the Original Nature of the universals in the Original Seed, having learned the Hippocratian dictum that a child of seven is half a father, they say at fourteen years, according to Thomas, it is manifested. This 6 is their ineffable and mysterious Logos. 7

(8 8) S. (H.—At any rate they say that) the Egyptians—who are the most ancient of men after the Phrygians, who at the same time were confessedly the first to communicate to mankind the Mystery-rites and Orgies of all the Gods, and to declare their Forms and Energies—have the mysteries of Isis, holy, venerable, and not to be disclosed to the uninitiated.

H. And these are nothing else than the robbing of the member of Osiris, and its being sought for by the seven-robed and black-mantled 1 [Goddess].

And (they [the Egyptians] say) Osiris is Water. 2 And Seven-robed Nature—

H. —having round her, nay, robing herself in seven ætheric vestures—for thus they 3 allegorically designate the planet-stars, calling [their spheres] ætheric vestures—

S. —being metamorphosed, as ever-changing Genesis, by the Ineffable and Uncopiable and Incomprehensible and Formless, is shown forth as creation.

J. And this is what (H. he says) is said in the Scripture:

“Seven times the Just shall fall and rise again.” 4

For these “fallings” (H. he says) are the changes of the stars, 5 set in motion by the Mover of all things.

(9) S. Accordingly they 6 declare concerning the Essence of the Seed which is the cause of all things in Genesis, that it is none of these things, but that it begets and makes all generated things, saying:

“I become what I will, and am what I am.” 1

Therefore (H. he says) That which moves all is unmoved; for It remains what It is, making all things, and becomes no one of the things produced.

(H. He says that) This is the Only Good—

C. And concerning this was spoken what was said by the Saviour:

“Why callest thou me Good? One is Good 2—my Father in the Heavens, who maketh His sun to rise on righteous and unrighteous, and sendeth rain on saints and sinners.” 3

H. And who are the saints on whom He sendeth rain and the sinners on whom He also sendeth rain—this also he tells subsequently with the rest.

S. —and (H. that) This is the Great, Hidden, and Unknown Mystery of the Egyptians, Hidden and [yet] Revealed.  For there is no temple (H. he says) before the entrance of which the Hidden [Mystery] does not stand naked, pointing from below above, and crowned with all its fruits of generation.

(10) And (H. they say) it stands so symbolised not only in the most sacred temples before the statues, but also set up for general knowledge—

C. —as it were “a light not under the bushel, but set “on the candlestick” 1—a preaching “heralded forth on the house-tops.”2

S. —on all the roads and in all the streets, and alongside the very houses as a boundary and limit of the dwelling; (H. that) This is the God spoken of by all, for they call Him Bringer-of-good, not knowing what they say.

H. And this mystery [-symbol] the Greeks got from the Egyptians, and have it [even] to this day.

At any rate, he says, we see the “Hermes” 3 honoured by them in this form.

(11) S. And the Cyllenians, treating [this symbol] with special honour, [regard it as the] Logos. 4

For (H. he says) Hermes is [the] Logos, who, as being the Interpreter and Fabricator of all things that have been and are and shall be, was honoured by them under the symbolism of this figure, namely an ithyphallus.”

 G.R.S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest HermesVol. 1, 1906, pp. 155-8.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

Excerpts from the Naassene Fragment

” … In the following analysis H. stands for Hippolytus; C. for the Christian Gnostic final overwriter, the “Naassene” whose MS. lay before H.; J. for the Naassene Jewish mystic who preceded C. and overworked the original; S. for the original Heathen Hellenistic Source. …”

“(1) S. “Earth (say the Greeks 3) first brought forth Man—bearing a fair gift, desiring to be mother not of plants without feeling, nor of brutes without reason, but of a tamed God-loving life.

“Difficult is it (H. he says 4) to discover whether it was among the Bœotians that Alalkomeneus rose from the Kephisian Lake as first of men; or whether it was the Idæan Kurētes, race divine, or the Phrygian Korybantes, whom Helios saw first sprouting forth tree-like; or whether Arkadia brought forth Pelasgos [first], older than the Moon; or Eleusis Diaulos, dweller in Raria; or Lēmnos Kabeiros, fair child of ineffable orgies; 1 or whether Pallēnē Phlegræan Alkyoneus, eldest of Giants.

“The Libyans say that Garamas, 2 rising from parched plains, first picked sweet date of Zeus; while Neilos, making fat the mud of Egypt to this day (H. he says), breeds living things, and renders from damp heat things clothed in flesh.” 3

The Assyrians say it was with them Ōannēs, the Fish-eater; while the Chaldæans [say that it was] Adam.

(2) J. And this Adam they [the Chaldæans] say was the man that Earth produced—a body only, and that he lay breathless, motionless, immovable, like a statue, being an image of that Man Above—

H. —of whom they sing, and brought into existence by the many Powers, 1 concerning which there is much detailed teaching.

J. In order, then, that the Great Man from Above—

C. From whom, as is said, every fatherhood has its name on earth or in the heavens. 2

J. —might be completely brought low, there was given unto him 3 Soul also, in order that through the Soul the enclosed plasm of the Great, Most-fair, and Perfect Man might suffer and be chastened.

H. For thus they call Him. They seek to discover then further what is the Soul, and whence, and of what nature, that by entering into man and moving him, it should enslave and chasten the plasm of the Perfect Man; but they seek this also not from the Scriptures, but from the Mysteries.

(3) S. And they 4 say that Soul is very difficult to discover, and hard to understand; for it never remains of the same appearance, or form, or in the same state, so that one can describe it by a general type, 5 or comprehend it by an essential quality.

H. These variegated metamorphoses they 6 have laid down in the Gospel, superscribed “According to the Egyptians.” 7

S. They are accordingly in doubt—

H. —like all the rest of the Gentiles—

J. —whether it [sc. the Soul] is from the Pre-existing [One], or from the Self-begotten, or from the Streaming Chaos. 8

H. And first of all, in considering the triple division of Man, they fly for help to the Initiations of the Assyrians; for the Assyrians were the first to consider the Soul triple and [yet] one. …”

 G.R.S.Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1, 1906, pp. 148-51.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

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