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CHAPTER VIII

THE CABALA

1

WE come at length to the cabala, which is in some sort the vital center of occultism as it is commonly understood.

This word, cabala, which covers doctrines that are in general or very imperfectly understood, is for some enveloped in mystery and illusion of a perturbing nature, at which they all but shudder as though they saw therein a reflection of infernal fires; while for others it evokes merely an unreadable jumble of absurd superstitions, of so much sheer nonsense, of fantastic formulæ that lay claim to satanic powers; childish riddles and obsolete lucubrations which are no longer worthy of serious examination. As a matter of fact the cabala merits neither this excess of honor nor this indignity. To begin with, there are two cabalas: the cabala properly so called, the theoretical cabala, the only one with which We need concern ourselves; and the practical cabala, which is merely a sort of senile dermatosis, that gradually invades the less noble parts of the first, degenerating into imbecile practices of black magic and sordid witchcraft, in which it is impossible to take any interest.

The philosophical, critical, and scientific study of the cabala, like that of Vedism, of the hieroglyphs, or of Mazdeism, is a thing only of yesterday. Before Franck published his works on the subject, the cabala was known only by Knorr von Rosenroth's volume, the Kabbala Denudata, published in 1677, which, in surveying the "Zohar," examines only the "Book of Mysteries" and the "Great Assembly"; that is, its obscurest portions, neglecting the text, and giving only imperfectly understood extracts from the commentators. Franck, in his Kabbala ou la Philosophie Religieuse des Hébreux, which appeared in 1842, reproduced the complete and authentic texts for the first time, translating them and commenting upon them. Joel and Jellinck continued his researches, discussed his conclusions and corrected his mistakes, and the latest interpreter of these mysterious books, S. Karppe, in his Étude sur les Origines et la Nature du Zohar, returning to the problem already propounded, and going back to the sources of Jewish mysticism, gave us in 1901 a survey which enables us to adventure without fear on this perilous and suspect soil.

The cabala, from the Hebrew kaballah, which, as all the dictionaries will tell you, signifies tradition, claims to be a body of occult doctrine, coincident with or rather complementary to the teaching of the Bible, or the orthodox doctrines of the Torah, that is to say, of the Pentateuch, transmitted orally from the time of Moses, who is supposed to have received them directly from God, until a period which extends from the ninth to the thirteenth or fourteenth century of our era, when these secrets, whispered from mouth to ear, as the initiates used to say, were finally set down in writing. It is impossible to know how far this claim is justified, for beyond the first or second century before Christ the historical traces which might connect the tradition that we know with an earlier tradition are absolutely lacking. We must therefore confine ourselves to taking the two volumes of the cabala — the "Sefer Yerizah" and the "Zohar" — as we find them, and consider what they contained at the time when they were written.

The "Sefer Yerizah," or "Book of Creation," which was at first attributed, childishly enough, to the Patriarch Abraham, and then, without certainty, to the Rabbi Akiba, is briefly the work of an unknown author who compiled it in the eighth or ninth century of our era.

To give some idea of this work, it will suffice to transcribe a few paragraphs of the first chapter:

"By thirty-two voices of marvelous wisdom Yah, Yehovah Zebaoth, the living God, God the All-Highest, abiding forever, whose name is holy (He is sublime and holy), set forth and created His world in three books; the Book properly so called, the Number, and the Word.

"Ten Sephiroth unassisted, twenty-two letters of which three are fundamental letters, seven double letters and twelve simple letters.

"Ten Sephiroth unassisted, conforming with the number of ten fingers, five facing five. And the alliance of the One is exactly adapted to the middle by the circumcision of the tongue and the circumcision of the flesh.

"Ten Sephiroth unassisted, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand with wisdom and meditate with intelligence; examine them, look into them deeply. Refer the thing to its light and set its author in his place.

"Ten Sephiroth unassisted; their measure is the ten without end: profundity of beginning and profundity of end; profundity of good and profundity of evil; profundity of height and profundity of depth; profundity of east and profundity of west; profundity of north and profundity of south; one sole master, God, faithful King, reigns over all from the height of his holy and eternal dwelling.

"Ten Sephiroth unassisted; their aspect is like the lightning, but their end has no end. His command to them is that they shall hasten and come, and according to His word they hurl themselves forward like the tempest, and prostrate themselves before His throne.

"Ten Sephiroth unassisted; their end fixed to their beginning and their beginning to their end, like a flame attached to the coal. The Master is unique and has no helpers. Now what art thou before the One?"

And so it goes on interminably, plunging into a sort of incomprehensible superstition of letters and numbers considered as abstract powers. It is certain that one can make such texts say anything one pleases, and that one gets out of them anything one wants. We find here for the first time the conception of the Sephiroth, which the "Zohar" will unfold more completely; and we discover in it a system of creation in which "the Word, that is, the Word of God, by expressing the letters Alef, Mem, Schin," as is explained by S. Karppe, one of the most learned commentators of this enigmatic book, "gives birth to the three elements, and producing with these letters six combinations, it gives birth to six directions; that is, it gives the elements the power to extend themselves in all directions. Then, instilling into these elements the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, including the three letters Alef, Mem, and Schin (no longer as substantial elements, but as letters), and expressing the whole variety of words which result from these letters, it produces the entire multiplicity of things." 1

All this, as we see, reveals nothing of great importance; and I should not have lingered over these solemn tomfooleries were it not that the "Sefer Yerizah" enjoys a reputation among occultists which hardly seems deserved when one looks into the matter, and serves as a point of departure and a basis for the "Zohar," which constantly refers to it.

The occultists have endeavored to give us the keys of the "Sefer," but I humbly confess that for me these keys have opened nothing. After all, it is probable enough, as Karppe says, that this mysterious volume is merely the work of a pedagogue bent upon concentrating, in a very brief handbook, all the elementary scientific knowledge relating to reading and grammar, cosmology and physics, the division of time and space, anatomy, and Jewish doctrine; and that instead of being the work of a mystic it is rather a sort of encyclopedia, a mnemotechnical enchiridion.


2

The "Zohar" — which means "the light," — like the "Sefer Yerizeh," is the fruit of protracted mystical fermentation which goes back to a period when the "Talmud" was not yet completed; that is, before the sixth century of our era, and above all during the period known as Gaonic. After a somewhat lengthy eclipse, this mysticism revived about the year 820 A. D., and continued to manifest itself in the writings of the great Jewish theologians; Ibn Gabirol, Juda ha Levy, Abn-Ezra, and, principally, in those of Maimonides. Then directly preparing for the cabala, comes the school of Isaac the Blind, which is above all metaphysical — "an abstraction of the Neoplatonic abstractions," as some one has described it, in which Nachmanides shone with particular brilliance; then the school of Eleazar of Worms, which gave special attention to the mysteries of letters and numbers; and the school of Abulafia, which devoted itself to pure contemplation.

This brings us to the "Zohar," properly so called. Like the Bible, like the "Vedas," the "Avesta," and the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," this is not a homogeneous production but the result of a slow process of incubation, the work of numbers of anonymous collaborators, incoherent, disconnected, often contradictory, in which one finds a little of everything, of the best as well as the worst, the loftiest speculations being followed by the most childish and extravagant irrelevances. It is a collection, a storehouse, or rather a bazaar, heaped pell-mell with everything that could not find place in the official religion, as being too audacious, too exalted, too fantastic, or too alien to the Jewish spirit.

It is not easy to determine the date of a work of this kind. Franck, to emphasize its antiquity, refers to its Chaldean form. But a great many rabbis of the middle ages wrote Chaldean Aramaic. It was then maintained that it was the work of a Tanaite, Simon ben Jochai (about 150 A. D.), but nothing confirming his authorship has come to light. We find no certain trace of its existence before the end of the thirteenth century. The most probable theory — and the learned Karppe reached this conclusion after a long and minute discussion of all possible hypotheses — is that Moses de Leon, who lived at the beginning of the fourteenth century, most assuredly took a part in the compilation of the "Zohar"; and, if he was not its principal author, gathered into a single whole a number of mystical fragments, commentaries on the Scriptures — resulting, like so many other works of Jewish literature, from the collaboration of a number of writers. In any case, it is certain that the "Zohar" as we know it is comparatively modern.


3

For the Jehovah of the Bible, the only God, personal, anthropomorphic, the direct Creator of the universe, the "Zohar" substitutes the En-sof: that is, the Infinite; or perhaps we should rather say that it is superposed upon Jehovah, or is presupposed; and the En-sof is also the Ayin, that is, the non-existent, the Ancient of Ancients, the Mystery of Mysteries, the Long Face. The En-sof is God in Himself, as unknowable, as inconceivable, as the Cause without cause or the Supreme Spirit of the "Vedas," of which He is only a replica, modified by the Jewish genius. He is even nearer the nonexistent than the Supreme Spirit of the Hindus, for His first manifestation, the first Sephira, the "Crown," is still non-existence; it is the Ayin of the Ayin, the non-existence of non-existence. He is not even called "That," as in India. "When all was still contained in Him," says the "Zohar," "God was the Mystery of Mysteries. He was then without name. The only fitting term for Him would have been the interrogation: Who?" 2

Of this Deity we can give but negative and contradictory descriptions. "He is separate, since He is superior to all; and He is not separate. He has a shape, and is shapeless. He has a shape in so far as He establishes the universe, and He has no shape in so far as He is not contained in it." 3

Before the unfolding of the universe He was not, or was but a question-mark in the void. So here we find at the outset the confession of absolute ignorance, invincible, irreducible. The En-sof is but an unlimited enlargement of the Unknowable; the God of the Bible is absorbed and disappears in a vast abstraction; hence the necessity of secrecy.

But it was necessary to make this inconceivable negation — impenetrable, immobile, and eternal, like the Supreme Cause of the Indian religions — emerge from its non-existence and its immobility and pass from the infinite to the finite, from the invisible to the visible; and it is here that the difficulties begin. God being infinite (that is, filling all things, how, beside the En-sof, the Infinite, is there room for the Sof, the finite? The "Zohar" is evidently embarrassed, and its explanations lead it far from the humble and awe-inspiring simplicity of Hindu theosophy. It is loath to admit its ignorance; it wants to account for everything, and, groping in the Unknowable, it entangles itself in explanations which are often irreconcilable, and when the ground falls away beneath its feet it has recourse to allegories and metaphors, to mask the impotence of its conceptions or to provide an apparent escape from the dilemma in which it has placed itself. For a moment it asks itself whether it can admit of creation ex nihilo, extending to this first act the incomprehensible character of the divinity; then it seems to think better of it and rallies to the doctrine of emanation, which it finds in India, in Zoroastrianism, and in the Neoplatonists. It modifies their doctrine, adapting it to the Jewish genius, and complicates it to the utmost without succeeding in explaining it.

This theory of emanation as expounded in the "Zohar" is indeed strangely obscure, uncertain, and heteroclite, lapsing every moment into anthropomorphism.

To make room for the universe, God, who filled space, concentrated Himself; and in the space left free He irradiated His thought and exteriorized a portion of Himself. This first emanation or irradiation is the first Sephira, "the Crown." It represents the Infinite having moved one step toward the finite, nonexistence having taken one step toward existence, the first substance. From this first Sephira, which is still almost non-existence, but a non-existence more accessible to our intelligence, emanate or develop two further Sephiroth: Wisdom, the male principle, and Intelligence, the female principle; that is, on proceeding from the Crown the contraries appear, the first differentiation of things. From the union of Wisdom and Intelligence is born Knowledge; we have thus the pure Idea, Thought exteriorized, and the Voice or Speech which connects the first with the second. This first Trinity of Sephiroth is followed by another: Grace or Splendor, Justice or Severity, and their mediatrix, Beauty. Lastly the Sephiroth, mingling in Beauty, develop yet further, and produce a third group: Victory, Splendor, Foundation; and then the Sephira Empire or Royalty, which brings into existence all the Sephiroth in the visible universe.

The Sephiroth as a whole, moreover, constitute the mysterious Adam Kadmon, the primordial super-man, of whom the occultists will have much to tell us, and who himself represents the universe.

This explanation of the inexplicable, like all explanations of the sort, really explains nothing whatever, and conceals the incomprehensible beneath a flood of ingenious metaphors. Obeying, as previous religions had done, the necessity of building a bridge between the infinite and the finite, between the inconceivable and conception, instead of contenting itself, as did India, with the renewal or the duplication of the Supreme Cause, or the Egyptian, Persia, and Neoplatonic Logos, it multiplies the bridges by multiplying the intermediaries; but numerous though they be, these ladders none the less end in the same confession of ignorance. At all events, this explanation, by concealing this fresh admission beneath a mountain of images, has the advantage of relegating to a sort of inaccessible in pace the first confession, the principal and most embarrassing admission, which places the First Cause and the existence of God beyond our reach. After the creation of the Sephiroth and of the universe the En-sof is generally forgotten; like the That of India or the Nu of Egypt, it is by preference passed over in silence; and it is but rarely that questions concerning it are asked. It is too secret, too mysterious, too incomprehensible even for a secret and mysterious doctrine like that of the cabala, and the whole attention is given solely to the emanations which the imagination attributes to it and which one seems to know because they have been given names, virtues, functions, and attributes: in a word, because man himself has created them.


4

When did the En-sof begin to project its emanations? To this question, which India answered by the theory of the nights and days of Brahma, without beginning or end, the cabala does not give a very clear reply. "Before God created this world," it says, "He had created a great many worlds, and had caused them to disappear until the thought came to him to create this one." 4 What has become of these vanished worlds? "It is the privilege," replies the cabala, "of the strength of the Supreme King that these worlds, which could not take shape, do not perish; that nothing perishes, even to the breath of His mouth; everything has its place and its destination, and God knows what He does with it. Even the speech of man and the sound of his voice do not lapse into non-existence; everything has its place and its dwelling." 5

And what of our world? Whither is it going? What is its destiny? The Zohar being a heteroclite production, a very late compilation, its doctrine in this respect is much less definite than that of Brahmanism; but if detached from the illogical and alien elements which often cross or divert its course, it likewise attains the stage of pantheism, and by way of pantheism it achieves the inevitable optimism. The En-sof, the Infinite, is everything; consequently everything is the En-sof. To manifest itself, the pure abstraction develops itself by means of intermediaries and, in its goodness voluntarily degrading itself, ends in thought, and in matter, which is the last degradation of thought; and when the Messianic era comes "everything will return into its root as it emerged therefrom." 6

Man, who in the "Zohar" is the center of the world and its microcosm, may from the moment of his death rejoice in this return to perfection; and his purified soul will receive the kiss of peace which "unites it anew and forever to its root, its principle." 7

And evil? Evil, in the "Zohar," as in Brahmanism, is matter. "Man, by his victory over evil, triumphs over matter, or rather subordinates the matter within him to a higher vocation; he ennobles matter, making it ascend from the extreme point to which it was relegated to the place of its origin. In him, who is the great consciousness, matter acquires consciousness of the distance that separates it from the Supreme Good, and strives to approach the latter. Through man the darkness aspires toward the light, the multiple toward the single. The whole of nature aspires toward God.

"Through man God remakes Himself, having passed through the whole splendid divinity of living creatures. Since man is an expression epitomizing all things, when he has overcome the evil in himself he has overcome the evil in all things; he draws with him, as he climbs, all the lower elements, and his ascent entails the ascent of the whole cosmos." 8

But why was evil necessary? "Why," asks the "Zohar," "if the soul is of heavenly essence, does it descend upon the earth?" The reply to this great problem, which no religion has given, the "Zohar," in accordance with its habit when embarrassed, evades by means of an allegory: "A king sent his son into the country that he might grow strong and sound there and acquire the necessary knowledge. After some time he was informed that his son was now grown up; that he was a strong, healthy youth, and that his education was completed. He then, because he loved him, sent the queen herself to fetch him and bring him back to the palace. In the same way nature bears the King of the universe a son, the divine Soul, and the King sends him into the country, that is, the terrestial universe, in order that he may grow strong, and gain in nobility and dignity." 9

The disciples of Rabbi Simon ben Zemach Durin, one of the great scholars of the "Zohar," asked him: "Would it not have been better if man had never been born, rather than that he should be born with the faculty of sinning and angering God?" And the master replied: "By no means, for the universe in its actual form is the best thing in existence. Now, the law is indispensable to the maintenance of this universe, otherwise the universe would be a desert; and man in his turn is indispensable to the law." The disciples understood and said: "Assuredly God did not create the world without cause; the law is indeed the raiment of God; it is that by which He is accessible. Without human virtue, God would be but miserably arrayed. He who does evil soils in his soul the raiment of God, and he who does good puts on the divine splendor." 10 We should indeed be gracious were we more exacting than these obliging and respectful disciples.

Another question of the utmost importance, that of eternal punishment, is likewise evaded. Logically, a pantheistic religion cannot admit that God could chastise and eternally torture a portion of Himself. The "Zohar" certainly says somewhere: "How many souls and spirits are there eternally wandering, who never again behold the courts of heaven?"

But in another section it expressly teaches the doctrine of transmigration; that is, the gradual purification of the soul by means of successive existences; and it bases this doctrine, obviously borrowed from the great religions of an earlier period, on certain passages of the Bible; among others, on Ecclesiastes, Chap. IV, v. 2, in which we read: "Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive." "What is meant," asks the "Zohar," "by the dead which are already dead?" They are those who have already died once before this; that is, they were no longer bound on their first pilgrimage through life. Now, it is obvious that the doctrine of a purifying transmigration must necessarily exclude eternal punishment.


5

The "Zohar," then, as I have already stated, is a vast anonymous compilation which, under the pretext of revealing to the initiate the secret meaning of the Bible, and especially of the Pentateuch, decks out in Jewish clothing the confessions of ignorance of the great religions of an earlier period, loading these garments with all the new and complicated adornments provided by the Essenes, the Neoplatonists, the Gnostics, and even the first few centuries of Christianity. Whether it admits the fact or not, it is, in respect of the most important points, plainly agnostic, as is Brahmanism. Like Brahmanism, it is also pantheistic. For the "Zohar" likewise the creation is rather an emanation; evil is matter, division or multiplicity, and good is the return to the spirit and to unity. Lastly, it admits the transmigration of souls and their purification, and therefore Karma, as well as the final absorption into the divine; that is, Nirvana.

It is interesting to note that we have here for the first time — for other statements have not come down to us — an esoteric doctrine proclaiming itself as such; and this doctrine has nothing more to teach us than that which we were taught, without reticence and without mystery — at all events, at the outset, — by the primitive religions. Like the latter, with its wholesale admissions and its expedients, different in form but identical at heart, for passing from non-existence to existence, from the infinite to the finite, from the unknowable to the known, it follows the same rationalistic tradition that strives to explain the inexplicable by plausible hypotheses and inductions, to which we might give another shape and other names, but which, taking them on the whole, we could not, even to-day, perceptibly improve. At most we might be tempted to renounce all explanation whatsoever and extend our confession of ignorance to include the sum total of the origins, the manifestations, and the purposes of life. Perhaps this would be the wisest course.

It shows us that it is highly probable that no secret doctrine ever was or ever could be other than secret; and that the loftiest revelations which we have ever been vouchsafed were always elicited from man by man himself.

The importance assumed by this secret doctrine during the middle ages may readily be imagined. Known only to a few initiates, wrapped up in incomprehensible formulæ and images, whispered "from mouth to ear" in the midst of terrible dangers, it had a subterranean radiance, a sort of gloomy and irresistible fascination. It surveyed the world from a far loftier point of view than that of the Bible, which it regarded as a tissue of allegories behind which was hidden a truth known to it alone; it yielded to mankind, through the thickets of its fantastic and parasitical vegetation, the last echoes of the noble precepts, of human reason at its dawn.


1 S. Karppe, Etudes fur les Origins: a la Nature du Zohar; pp. 159 and 163.

2 "Zohar"; II, 105.

3 "Zohar"; III, 288-a.

4 "Zohar"; III, 61-b.

5 "Zohar"; II, 100-b.

6 "Zohar"; III, 296.

7 "Zohar"; I, 68-a.

8 S. Karppe, op. cit.; P. 478.

9 "Zohar"; I, 245.

10 "Zohar"; I, 23-a-b.

 


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