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Tag: Theosophy

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism

 

Lucas_van_valckenborch,_torre_di_babele,_1594,_02

Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, Paris. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.

 

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.

Mystical Spelling of the Divine Name

“In the writings of the ‘Iyyun circle, the sefiroth undergo a transformation: each one, indeed even each of the thirty-two paths of the Sophia, becomes an autonomous world in which the theosophist immerses himself.

In fact, even the mystical spelling of the divine name with twenty-four points, which Pseudo-Hai transmits here and which no doubt goes back to Oriental sources of Jewish magic, is interpreted in this manner.

The spelling obviously imitates the magical alphabet and characters as they are frequently found in amulets and that, in Jewish magic, are encountered, for example, in the old “alphabets of the angels.”

They appear below:

angelic_alphabet

The twenty-four points or stars of this script correspond, according to the author, to the twenty-four books of the biblical canon, which are perhaps woven from this “hidden name.”

The author instructs the initiate that each of these points in and of itself represents an entire world. This use of the term “worlds” for different levels of being is undoubtedly Neoplatonic. It first penetrated into kabbalistic literature in the ‘Iyyun circle.

As we have seen, Isaac the Blind speaks of the “world of separation” below the sefiroth, but it seems he still did not take the step of considering the sefiroth themselves as just so many worlds. The upper world is henceforth no longer that of the separate intelligences, as it was for the philosophers and in Isaac’s fragments on cosmogony, but the world of the divine emanations itself. In the “Book of the Unity” of Pseudo-Hammai it is said that before Creation all the powers were intertwined and hidden in God,

“ … until there came the time of the will of the first Acting One, and they emerged from potentiality to spiritual reality, and the emanation of the upper world emanated to that of the tenth fundamental stone which is called, in the language of the sages of the mysteries, the “condensed light,” ‘or ‘abh. On account of its condensation they also name it “mixed darkness,” for all the powers of the flames are mixed in it, but are also differentiated in it, and it is the foundation of all the spiritual and corporeal worlds . . . and the last seal of all the [other] seals [emanated in the higher sefiroth].”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 328-30.

Conjuring Shaddiel

“In the middle of the thirteenth century there lived in Narbonne an old kabbalist, also a disciple of Eleazar of Worms, “of whose teacher it was attested [that is, by the people of Narbonne, and not only by the former student himself] that Elijah, may his memory be blessed, revealed himself to him every Day of Atonement.”

Whether this teacher was the Eleazar just named or some other Provençal kabbalist is not clear. But the identity of the teacher is of less importance for us than the information concerning the date when the prophet Elijah regularly appeared to him. In the Talmud such an appearance of Elijah on the Day of Atonement is mentioned, to my knowledge, only once in passing ( Yoma 19b) and not as something that is repeated periodically. This revelation, whose supreme value is thrown into sharp relief by the fact of its occurrence on the most sacred day of the year, was certainly attained only after spiritual preparation and special concentration.

We possess two texts that give an exact description of the magic rituals for conjuring up the archon who is in charge of the mysteries of the Torah. These rituals take place precisely during the night of the Day of Atonement. The first of these texts is a responsum attributed to two fictitious Babylonian geonim of the eleventh century that appears to have been composed in Provence around 1200 in an artificial Aramaic.

We are given here, among other things, an utterly fantastic report concerning a very peculiar procedure that the scholars of earlier times supposedly followed on that night in order to conjure up “Shaddiel, the great king of the demons (shedim) who rule in the air,” thereby to acquire possession and knowledge of “all the mysteries of heaven.”

This mixture of angelology and demonology is very strange. It seems to me impossible that this ritual, transferred in this instance to Babylonia, was ever really practiced. But it does indicate the mood of the group from which it stems.

The second part likewise contains theurgic instructions, but these, we may assume, describe a ritual that was actually performed. These directions constitute only one link in a long chain of incantations given since very early times for conjuring up the “archons of the Torah.”

At the end of the “Greater Hekhaloth” there is a text, Sar Torah, that is also found independently and has the same aim. We possess several other conjurations of this kind that originated in the Orient and passed, in part, into the manuscripts of the German Hasidim. This text too, which similarly prescribes the eve and the night of the Day of Atonement as the time for the performance of these rituals, certainly originated in materials that came from Babylonia through Italy to France.

But the content, half conjuration and half prayer, leaves no doubt that in its extant form it was edited in France. The text contains a long list of things that one of these perushim wished to learn from the archon of the Torah. He desires that his heart be opened to the study of the Torah, with special emphasis on the various types of gematria and number-mysticism and on the comprehension of various talmudic disciplines—such as cosmogony, the Merkabah, the divine glory, the kabhod—as well as many other specific subjects of the talmudic tradition that the author considered worth knowing.

There is nothing to indicate the author’s acquaintance with the Kabbalah; his area of interest coincides, regarding theosophical matters as well, with that of the German and French Hasidim. At the same time, we learn that in those circles too one hoped for revelations concerning the exoteric and esoteric Torah during the night of the Day of Atonement. We have before us, therefore, the sort of prayer that Jacob the Nazirite might have recited had he wished to prepare himself for a revelation of this kind.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 240-2.

Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.

Gershom Scholem on the Secret Doctrine of the Talmud

“I have elsewhere dealt at length with this Merkabah-mysticism of the so- called Hekhaloth literature, and shown that a genuine and unbroken chain of tradition links these writings to the secret doctrine of the Talmud. Large parts of this literature still belong to the talmudic period itself, and the central ideas of these texts go back to the first and second centuries.

To be sure, these texts, which in their present form belong in part to the genre of apocalyptic pseudepigraphy, are not always as old as they pretend to be. But even in these later adaptations, the underlying traditional material dates back to the period indicated. The mystical hymns found in several of the most important texts may definitely be traced back at least to the third century; here it is the literary form itself that militates against the idea of a later revision. The conceptions that find expression here surely were not developed later; in fact, they may date from a much earlier time.

These writings contain instructions for obtaining the ecstatic vision of the celestial regions of the Merkabah. They describe the peregrinations of the ecstatic through these regions: the seven heavens and the seven palaces or temples, Hekhaloth, through which the Merkabah mystic travels before he arrives at the throne of God. Revelations are made to the voyager concerning the celestial things and the secrets of the Creation, the hierarchy of the angels, and the magical practices of theurgy.

Having ascended to the highest level, he stands before the throne and beholds a vision of the mystical figure of the Godhead, in the symbol of the “likeness as the appearance of a man” whom the prophet Ezekiel was permitted to see upon the throne of Merkabah. There he receives a revelation of the “measurement of the body,” in Hebrew Shi’ur Qomah, that is, an anthropomorphic description of the divinity, appearing as the primal man, but also as the lover of the Song of Songs, together with the mystical names of his limbs.

The age of this Shi’ur Qomah mysticism, which scandalized the consciousness of later, “enlightened” centuries, may now be fixed with certainty. Contrary to the views that once prevailed, it must be dated to the second century, and certainly not later. It is undoubtedly connected with the interpretation of the Song of Songs as a mystical allegory of God’s relation with Israel.

Just as in the earliest days God revealed himself to the entire community of Israel, as was the case at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, where he was visibly manifest upon his Merkabah (this idea is attested in midrashic interpretations that undoubtedly go back to the tannaim), so is this revelation repeated in the relations between God and the mystic initiated into the secrets of the Merkabah.

The most important fragments of these descriptions transmitted in the Shi’ur Qomah make explicit reference to the depiction of the lover in many passages of the Song of Songs; this depiction thus offers a biblical veneer for what are evidently theosophic mysteries whose precise meaning and exact connections still escape us.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 19-21.

Kabbalistic Influences on Freemasonry

In the seventeenth century CE, the center of the Christian Cabala moved to England and Germany, where its status was boosted by the theosophical writings of Jacob Boehme and the landmark qabalistic compendium of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth.

Von Rosenroth and Athanasius Kircher extrapolated the qabalistic allusion of Adam Kadmon to be a reference to Jesus as the primordial man in Christian theology. In the final phase in the development of the Christian Cabala in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it became permeated with alchemical symbolism and conjoined with the emerging doctrines of theosophy. This in turn greatly influenced the development of Freemasonry.

–Daniel Feldman, Qabalah: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001. Pg. 41.

On the Mahatmas

“The fact that the Masters were living human beings made their revelations of cosmic and spiritual truth, say the Theosophists, more valuable than alleged revelations from hypothetical Gods in other systems of belief. That their knowledge is, in a manner of speaking, human instead of heavenly or “divine” should give it greater validity for us. The Mahatmas were, it is said, in direct contact with the next higher grades of intelligent beings standing above them in the hierarchical order, so that their teachings have the double worth of high human and supernal authority. This, occultists believe, affords the most trustworthy type of revelation.”

–Alvin Boyd Kuhn,  A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, pg. 85.

The Lost Volumes of The Secret Doctrine

There was a third and a fourth volume of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, which never made it into print. The third volume was typed by third parties, so it is independently confirmed that it existed. Where is it now? The third volume dealt with the “lives of the great occultists down the ages.” The fourth volume was allegedly “almost entirely written, but likewise went to oblivion instead of to the printer.” Where are its drafts?

Kuhn writes:

“The whole book professes to be a commentary on the Stanzas of Dzyan, which HPB (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) alleged to be a fragment of Tibetan sacred writings of two types, one cosmological, the other ethical and devotional. The Secret Doctrine elucidates the former section of the Stanzas, and her later work, the Voice of the Silence, the latter. The Stanzas of Dzyan are of great antiquity, she claimed, drawn from the Mani Koumboum, or sacred script of the Dzungarians, in the north of Tibet. She is not sure of their origin, but says she was permitted to memorize them during her residence in the Forbidden Land. They show a close parallel with the Prajna Paramita Sutras of Hindu sacred lore.

There are of course charges that she invented the Stanzas herself or plagiarized them from some source. Max Müller is reported to have said that in this matter she was either a remarkable forger or that she has made the most valuable gift to archeological research in the Orient. She says herself in the Preface:

“These truths are in no sense put forward as a revelation; nor does the author claim the position of a revealer of mystic lore, now made public for the first time in the world’s history. For what is contained in this work is to be found scattered throughout thousands of volumes embodying the scriptures of the great Asiatic and early European religions, hidden under glyph and symbol, and hitherto left unnoticed because of this veil. What is  now attempted is to gather the oldest tenets together and to make of them one harmonious and unbroken whole. The sole advantage which the writer has over her predecessors, is that she need not resort to personal speculation and theories. For this work is a partial statement of she herself has been taught by more advanced students, supplemented in a few details only, by the results of her own study and observation.”

–Alvin Boyd Kuhn,  A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, pg. 110.

Why Constitute a False God when you have a Real Universe?

“Many old idols must be dethroned, chief of all being that of an anthropomorphized Deity, with its train of debasing superstitions.

“And now,” says K. H., “after making due allowance for evils that are natural and that cannot be avoided . . . I will point out the greatest, the chief cause of nearly two thirds of the evils that pursue humanity ever since that cause became a power. It is religion, under whatever form and in whatever nation. It is the sacerdotal caste, the priesthood and the churches; it is in those illusions that man looks upon as sacred that he has to search out the source of that multitude of evils which is the great curse of humanity and that almost overwhelms mankind.

“Ignorance created gods and cunning took advantage of the opportunity. Look at India and look at Christendom and Islam, at Judaism and Fetichism. It is priestly imposture that rendered these Gods so terrible to man; it is religion that makes of him the selfish bigot, the fanatic that hates all mankind outside his own sect without rendering him any better or more moral for it. It is belief in God and Gods that makes two-thirds of humanity the slaves of a handful of those who deceive them under the false pretense of saving them. . . . .

Remember the sum of human misery will never be diminished unto that day when the better portion of humanity destroys in the name of Truth, Morality and universal Charity the altars of their false Gods.”

“Neither our philosophy nor ourselves believe in a God, least of all one whose pronoun necessitates a capital G. . . . Therefore we deny God both as philosophers and as Buddhists. We know there are planetary and other spiritual lives, and we know there is in our system no such thing as God, either personal or impersonal. Parabrahm is not a God, but absolute immutable law, and Ishwar is the effect of Avidya (ignorance) and Maya (illusion), ignorance based on the great delusion. The word “God” was invented to designate the unknown cause of those effects which man has ever admired or dreaded without understanding them, and since we claim–and that we are able to prove what we claim–i.e., the knowledge of that cause and causes, we are in a position to maintain there is no God or Gods behind them.”

“The causes assigned to phenomena by the Mahatmas, he says, are natural, sensible, supernatural, unintelligible, and unknown. The God of the theologians is simply an imaginary power, that has never yet manifested itself to human perception. The cause posited by the Adept is that power whose activities we behold in every phenomenon in the universe. They are pantheists, never agnostics. The Deity they envisage is everywhere present, as well in matter as elsewhere.”

“In other words we believe in Matter alone, in matter as visible nature and matter in its invisibility as the invisible omnipresent omnipotent Proteus with its unceasing motion which is its life, and which nature draws from herself, since she is the great whole outside of which nothing can exist. . . . The existence of matter, then, is a fact; the existence of motion is another fact, their self-existence and eternity or indestructibility is a third fact. And the idea of pure Spirit as a Being or an Existence–give it whatever name you will–is a chimera, a gigantic absurdity.

“Why constitute a false God when you have a real Universe?”

“I do not protest at all, as you seem to think, against your theism, or a belief in abstract ideal of some kind, but I cannot help asking you, how do you or can you know that your God is all-wise, omnipotent and love-ful, when everything in nature, physical and moral, proves such a being, if he does exist, to be quite the reverse of all you say of him? Strange delusion and one which seems to overpower your intellect!

–Alvin Boyd Kuhn,  A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, pg. 89-90.

Boehme, Sophia, and Valentinus.

“Boehme extended his theosophy with the figure of the Noble Virgin of Sophia, a figure based on the allegeory in the Book of Wisdom and Proverbs. She animates the second world of “eternal nature” as a serene and reflective aspect of God. Both the terms “abyss” and “Sophia” recall mythic aspects in the Gnostic aeonology of Valentinus (second century), a remarkable example of Protestant esotericism naively invoking Hellenistic heterodoxy.”

 –Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction, 2008. Pg. 96.  

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