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The Divine Feminine

All the major religions of the present world are androcentric in nature and misogynistic in practice. The following are some typical injunctions in the Christian scriptures:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.
And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (I Corinthians 14: 34-35)

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (1 Timothy 2: 11-12)

These rulings are in spite of (or perhaps because of) women being more attentive to religious teachings, and participating more often in religious services than men (Pew Research Foundation, 2016). The two passages nevertheless serve a purpose – they provide clear evidence that the New Testament does not always represent the word of God.

The androcentricity of organized religion differs completely from prehistoric religious beliefs, wherein God was more likely female than male (Stone, 1978). Over recent centuries, however, female aspects of the godhead have become more and more recognized. This posting briefly considers some of the manifestations of the divine feminine, and mentions what might be involved in a feminist theology. 

The Primordial Mother

In prehistoric families, the most amazing and incomprehensible event was the birth of a child. The role of the father was little understood, and mothers were revered as the primary source of this new life. A female force was therefore naturally thought to be behind the creation of the universe, and was worshipped as a mother goddess (Graves, 1948; Neumann, 1963; Stone, 1978). Between 30,000 and 10,000 years BCE, small votive offering to the mother goddess – “Venus figurines” – were created throughout Europe. The illustration below shows (from left to right) the ceramic Venus of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, the limestone Venus of Willendorf in Austria and the serpentine Venus of Savignano in Italy:  

Barstow (1983) describes these figurines:

The goddess was faceless, as if to accentuate her universality, her ability to “stand for the power of the female. Lacking feet, she appeared to come straight up out of the earth, with which she was identified. Unclothed, her every body seem to have an efficacy. Often – but not always – she was big-breasted, and her hands were frequently placed under her breasts as if to display them. Many figurines show her entire body as ample, with huge breasts, belly and buttocks, as if the very plenitude of her body would ensure plentiful crops and hers. Sometimes she is pregnant, her enlarged belly emphasized by special markings.

In neolithic times, most societies began to worship multiple divinities, though female forces were among the most important – Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Astarte in Canaan, Persephone in Greece. and Isis in Egypt. These goddesses often displayed two aspects: one related to life and fertility and the other to death and war.

These goddesses were widely worshipped, with their followers often participating in extended rites called the “mysteries.” Apuleius’ Latin novel The Golden Ass (2nd Century CE) tells the story of Lucius who, while dabbling in the magic arts, inadvertently turned himself into an ass. At the end of the book, he attends one of the mysteries, and is changed back to human form through the power of Isis. The goddess announces herself:

I am here before you, Lucius, moved by your prayers—mother of the natural world, mistress of all the elements, firstborn offspring of the ages, highest of the deities, queen of the dead, first among the gods, the manifestation in a single body of all the gods and goddesses. I control by my will the luminous summits of the sky, the salubrious breezes of the sea, and the mournful silence of the underworld. I am the single divine being, worshipped the world over in different forms, with varying rites and under a multitude of names. Some call me Juno, others Bellona, some Hecate, and yet others Rhamnusia. But the people on both sides of Ethiopia who are lit by the first rays of the rising sun, and the Egyptians, pre-eminent for their ancient knowledge, worship me with the proper rituals and by my true name: Queen Isis. (Translation of Singer and Finkelpearl, 2021, pp 158-60)

The illustration below shows a pectoral ornament in the form of a winged Isis from the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. In her right hand, she holds an ankh, the symbol for “life”; in her left hand she holds what may be the hieroglyph for a sail, the symbol for the breath of life. On her head is a throne, indicating her majesty.

Judaism – Wisdom and Shekhinah

In the Hebrew scriptures Jahweh is most definitely male, and there is little mention of any female aspect to the deity. However, in Proverbs there are several passages spoken by the female figure of Wisdom (Hokhmah), one of which reads

I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:
When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth:
Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;
Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. (Proverbs, 8 22-31)

Christians have interpreted this passage as referring to Christ the Son, who they believe was with God the Father before the world began. Christ is described as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” in I Corinthians 1:24.  

This female figure of Wisdom in Proverbs is closely associated with Sophia– the goddess of wisdom and the creator of the world in Gnostic scriptures (Perkins, 1985).

Wisdom also became related to the concept of the Shekhinah – God’s “presence” or “immanence” in the world. This concept was initially used to describe the holiness of the Ark of the Covenant, but expanded to include the idea of God’s dwelling with his people. Shekhinah is manifest when believers gather to study the Torah, celebrate the Sabbath, or pray together. The Mishnah (probably derived from Jewish oral tradition in the centuries BCE) states

If two sit together and there are words of Torah spoken between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them (Pirkei Avot, 3:2)

In the medieval period, the presence of God in the world was conceived as in terms of the ten Sephiroth of the Kabbalah. The tenth Sephirah is known either as Malkuth (“kingdom”) or Shekhinah (“presence”). In Kabbalistic writings the Shekhinah became the female aspect of the Godhead (Smith, 1985; Scholem, 1991; Devine, 2014; Laura, 2015).

In the Sefer ha-Zohar (13th Century CE), the Shekhinah is considered as the intermediary between God and his people:

Every message the King requires goes forth from this Lady’s house. Any message from below that is sent to the King arrives first at the house of His Lady, and from there proceeds to the King. The Lady is thus the universal go-between, from above to below and from below to above. (Zohar 2:51a quoted by Green, 2002).

Scholem (1965) describes the uneasy status of Shekhinah in Jewish religious thought:

This discovery of a feminine element in God, which the Kabbalists tried to justify by gnostic exegesis, is of course one of the most significant steps they took. Often regarded with the utmost misgiving by strictly Rabbinical, non-Kabbalistic Jews, often distorted into inoffensiveness by embarrassed Kabbalistic apologists, this mythical conception of the feminine principle of the Shekhinah as a providential guide of Creation achieved enormous popularity among the masses of the Jewish people, so showing that here the Kabbalists had uncovered one of the primordial religious impulses still latent in Judaism. (p. 105).

Christianity – Mother Mary

Mary, mother of Jesus, is not considered extensively in the Christian scriptures. Outside of five main episodes – the angelic annunciation of the forthcoming virgin birth, the visitation with Elizabeth, the nativity of Christ, presentation of Jesus in the temple, and the crucifixion, she is scarcely mentioned. In one brief episode she visited her son while he was teaching and was ignored (Mark 6: 31-34). However, Christ did acknowledge her at the crucifixion, telling John, “Behold thy Mother!” (John 19: 26-27).

Mary was not mentioned in the first version of the Nicene Creed of 325 CE, but acknowledged as the virgin mother of Christ in the revised version of the creed in 381 CE:

Jesus Christ …. who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man

Since Christ was both God and Man, his mother was special – Theotokos, the bearer of God. This was first pronounced at the council of Ephesus in 431 CE. Mary the mother of God has been long venerated in the Eastern churches. The illustration below shows the mosaic (9th Century CE) in the cathedral (now mosque) of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople, and the icon of Mary and the Infant Jesus of Vladimir (1131 CE).

After the turn of the 1st Millennium CE, Mary began to be more and more honored in the Western Church. No one really understands this change in religious feeling. Most of the new Gothic Cathedrals in France were dedicated to Notre Dame (“our Lady”), and special Lady Chapels were built in English cathedrals. Believers thronged to images of Mary for consolation and for mercy. The following illustration shows two representations of the Madonna della Misericordia (“Lady of Mercy”), by Simone Martini (1310) and Piero della Francesca (1462).

Various traditions and beliefs have accumulated over the years so that now Marianism is an acknowledged subset of Christian beliefs, particularly in the Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches (Johnston, 1985; Leith, 2021; Matter, 1983; Rubin, 2009). In 1568 the Ave Maria was included in the Roman Catholic Breviary. The most famous setting of the prayer is by Gounod (1859) based on Bach’s Prelude No 1 (1722).

Ave Maria, gratia plena,                             Hail Mary, full of grace,
Dominus tecum                                         the Lord is with thee
benedicta tu in mulieribus                         Blessed art thou amongst women,
et benedictus fructus ventris tuis, Jesu      and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater dei,                            Holy Mary, Mother of God,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus                        pray for us sinners,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.                  now and at the hour of our death. 

 

Theologians have long argued that Mary must have been herself conceived without sin so that she might carry the incarnation of God within her womb. This doctrine of the “immaculate conception” was discussed for many years, but only finally accepted by the Vatican in 1854. Since Mary was without sin, there was no need for her to die. Theologians therefore proposed that before her death she was instead taken up directly into heaven – “the assumption of the Virgin.” This idea finally becoming Catholic doctrine in 1950. Protestants reject both these doctrines. When it comes to Mary, the Christian churches have been loathe to allow their members the beliefs they long for.     

 

Hinduism

In contrast with the Western (or Abrahamic) religions, Hinduism is adorned with goddesses of many types and purposes (Kinsley, 1986; Pattanaik, 2000). Eroticism is an acknowledged part of divinity.

The supreme goddess Mahadevi is widely venerated. She changes form at will and goes by many names. She can exist alone as Shakti, the goddess of cosmic energy, or as Kali, the goddess of time and change. The illustration below shows a bronze statue of Bhudevi, the “Goddess of the Earth” (13th Century CE) from the Los Angeles Museum of Art

The female goddess often serves as the consort of a male divinity – Parvati with Shiva, and Lakshmi with Vishnu. Sometimes these pairs become unified into one deity – the androgynous Ardhanarishvara, whose right side is feminine and left side male. The illustration below shows a sandstone relief of Shiva and Parvati (11th Century CE) from the Dallas Museum of Art, and a bronze Ardhanarishvara (circa 1000 CE) from the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

Buddhism

Buddhism is often considered as a religion without the need for gods or goddesses. Since the universe has existed forever there is no need to postulate a divine force that once created it. However, the Buddha in his various manifestations and many of his enlightened followers (the Bodhisattvas, from bodhi, knowledge, and sattva, being) are revered as sincerely as any of the gods in more definitely theistic religions.

The Buddha and most of the Bodhisattvas are male. The hierarchy of priests and monks in Buddhism are male (Faure, 2008). However, over the centuries the feminine has made its appearance.

One of the most important of the Bodhisattvas was known as Avalokitasvara – “the lord (isvara) who gazes (lokita) down (ava) at the world.” This Bodhisattva of Compassion is described as the “Regarder of the Cries of the World” (Reeves, 2008) in Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (the Sanskrit original deriving from the1st century CE, Chinese translations occurring in the third to sixth Centuries CE).

As the centuries passed and as Buddhism spread from its origin in India to Tibet, China and South East Asia, Avalokitasvara changed into female form (Yü, 2000). In Tibet, the Bodhisattva became Tara (Blofeld, 1979; Shaw, 2006). Tara herself is manifest in many different ways. Among them are white Tara, the goddess of Compassion, and green Tara, the goddess of Enlightenment. The illustration below shows an Indian stone sculpture of Avalokitasvara (9th Century CE) and a gilt copper-alloy casting of Tara (14th Century CE) from Tibet or Nepal and now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Avalokitasvara is holding a lotus flower. Tara’s left hand shows the mudra (gesture) of teaching and her right hand the mudra of charity.

In China Avalokitasvara evolved into Guanshiyin (the Chinese translation of “the one who perceives the sounds of the world”) or Guanyin (pinyin; Kuan Yin in the Wade-Giles romanization). In Japan Guanyin became Kannon, re-assuming a male identity. The illustrations below shows a painted wooden carving of Guanyin (circa 1100 CE) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas, and a colossal statue of Guanyin (2015) in the Tsz Shan Monastery in Hong Kong.

The Jesuits first arrived in China in the 16th Century. Christian concepts soon became part of life and culture in Southern China. One particular effect was the syncretism (from Greek syn together and krassis mixture) of Guanyin and the Virgin Mary (Paul, 1983; Reis-Habito, 1993). The illustration below from Pham (2021) shows two ivory carvings in the Metropolitan Museum of Ar in New York: a European representation of Mary (13th Century) and a Chinese representation of Guanyin (16th Century).  

The Eternal Feminine

With the Scientific Revolution and the Age of the Enlightenment, reason began to exert itself in the affairs of the soul. The existence of God was either denied, or considered only in the abstract. However, cold reason could not handle the emotions, which came to the fore in the Romantic Movement. Feminine forces were the means to handle feelings.

At the end of Goethe’s Faust Part II (1831), Faust, who had sold his soul to the devil in order to achieve knowledge and power, is saved from damnation by the intercession of female heavenly powers. Their final chorus in the play celebrates the power of the “Eternal Feminine.”

Alles Vergängliche                 All that has happened
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;              Is only a parable;
Das Unzulängliche                 The insufficient
Hier wird’s Ereignis;               Is now fulfilled;
Das Unbeschreibliche            The indescribable
Hier ist’s getan;                      Is now realized;
Das Ewig-Weibliche               The Eternal Feminine
Zieht uns hinan.                     Leads us upward.

The chorus has been set to music by Schumann in his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1853), Liszt in his Faust Symphony (1880) and by Mahler in his Symphony No 8 (1910). The following is the Mahler version:

 

Theosophy

From 1875 to the middle of the 20th Century the Theosophical Movement exerted an uneasy influence on our thinking. Under the initial direction of Helena Blavatsky (1831 -1891), the movement combined Western esotericism and spiritualism with Eastern religious thought, and added a dash of charlatanism. Theosophy did promote of peace in a world enamoured of war and it did increase Western understanding of Eastern spiritual ideas. However, it ultimately foundered on its own fakery. The illustration on the right shows a painting of The Mother of the World (1937) by the Theosophist painter and explorer Nicholas Roerich.

The Gaia Hypothesis

In the 1970s, studies of how the Earth’s atmosphere constantly maintained parameters of temperature and pH that were optimum for the continuation of life led to the Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek Goddess of the Earth, the primordial mother of all life:

the total ensemble of living organisms which constitute the biosphere can act as a single entity to regulate chemical composition, surface pH and possibly also climate. The notion of the biosphere as an active adaptive control system able to maintain the Earth in homeostasis we are calling the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis (Lovelock and Margulis, 1974)  

According to the Gaia hypothesis, human life is just a component of a larger self-regulating organism, the planetary biosphere. Some are skeptical of this hypothesis, claiming it describes the Earth’s process as determined by its future ends – teleological – rather than by its antecedent causes – mechanistic. However, just because science does not easily accommodate purpose does not mean that there is no underlying purpose to the universe.

The Gaia hypothesis has gained much recent support from the modern environmental movement. In some sense humanity has become a cancer on the life of the planet. Unchecked climate change threatens the homeostasis of the world and the life of everyone.

Feminist Theology

During the past few decades, feminist philosophers have challenged the androcentricity of the Christianity and Judaism (Anderson, 1998; Christ, 2003; Goldenberg, 1979; Johnson, 1984, 1992). These thinkers have pointed out the unfairness and inappropriateness of restricting the priesthood to men. And they have criticized mainstream theology for its focus on logic at the expense of intuition. One cannot prove the existence of God, but one can feel it.

Many people handle the unknowns of life by believing in the ethical instructions and the explanatory narratives that are available in religion. Science does not teach us what to do and does not always get us through the night. By providing a purpose to life and by promising ways to approach suffering and death, religion can help. Feminist religion – “theology” (Goldenberg, 1979) with its stress on grace and compassion promises to be far more effective than present mainstream theology.    

References

Anderson, P. S. (1998). A feminist philosophy of religion: the rationality and myths of religious belief. Blackwell.

Apuleius (2nd Century CE, selected by Singer, P., translated by Finkelpearl, E. D., and illustrated by Kendel, A., & Kendel, V., 2021). The golden ass. Liveright (division of W. W. Norton).

Barstow, A. L. (1983). The prehistoric goddess. In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 7-15). Crossroad.

Blofeld, J. (1979). Kuan Yin and Tara: Embodiments of wisdom-compassion. Tibet Journal, 4(3), 28-36

Christ, C. P. (2003). She who changes: re-imagining the divine in the world. Palgrave-Macmillan.

Devine, L. (2014). How Shekhinah became the God(dess) of Jewish Feminism. Feminist Theology, 23(1) 71–91.

Faure, B. (2008). The power of denial: Buddhism, purity, and gender. Princeton University Press.

Graves, R. (1948, amended and enlarged, 1961). The White Goddess; a historical grammar of poetic myth. Faber and Faber.

Green, A. (2002). Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic symbol in its historical context. AJS Review, 26(1), 1-52.

Goldenberg, N. R. (1979). Changing of the gods: feminism and the end of traditional religions. Beacon Press

Johnson, E. A. (1984). The incomprehensibility of God and the image of God male and female. Theological Studies, 45(3), 441–465.

Johnson, E. A. (1985). The Marian tradition and the reality of women. Horizons, 12(1), 116–135.

Johnson, E. A. (1992). She who is: the mystery of God in feminist theological discourse. Crossroad.

Kinsley, D. R. (1986). Hindu goddesses: visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. University of California Press. Available at Arkiv.org

Laura, J. (2015). Kabbalah: in its beginnings. Women in Judaism12(2), 1–16.

Leith, M. J. W. (2021). The Virgin Mary: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Lovelock, J. E., & Margulis, L. (1974). Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis. Tellus, 26, 2-10.

Matter, E. A. (1983). The Virgin Mary: a Goddess? In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 80-96). Crossroad.

Neumann, E. (1963, second edition 1972, translated by R. Manheim,). The great mother: an analysis of the archetype. Princeton University Press.

Pattanaik, D. (2000). The Goddess in India: the five faces of the eternal feminine. Inner Traditions International.

Paul, D. (1983) Kuan-Yin: Savior and savioress in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism. In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 161-175). Crossroad.

Perkins, P. (1985). Sophia and the Mother-Father: the Gnostic Goddess.  In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 97-109). Crossroad.

Pew Research Center (2016). The gender gap in religion around the world. (March 22, 2016).

Pham, K.D. (2021).  Compassion, Mercy, and Love: Guanyin and the Virgin Mary. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reeves, G. (2008). The Lotus Sutra: a contemporary translation of a Buddhist classic. Wisdom Publications.

Reis-Habito, M. (1993). The Bodhisattva Guanyin and the Virgin Mary. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 13, 61-69

Rubin, M. (2009). Mother of God: a history of the Virgin Mary. Yale University Press.

Scholem, G. (1965, reprinted 1996). On the Kabbalah and its symbolism. Schocken Books.

Scholem, G. (1991). The feminine element in divinity. In G. Scholem. On the mystical shape of the Godhead: basic concepts in the Kabbalah. (pp 140-196). Schoken Books.

Shaw, M. E. (2006). Buddhist goddesses of India. Princeton University Press.

Smith, C. (1985). The symbol of the Shekhinah: the feminine side of God. European Judaism19(1), 43–46.

Stone, M. (1978). When God was a woman. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Yü, C.-F. (2000). Kuan-yin the Chinese transformation of Avalokiteśvara. Columbia University Press.




Thoughts on the Kaballah

The Kabbalah is a body of Jewish thought based on mystical insight into the nature of God and an imaginative interpretation of the Torah. The word itself means “received.” According to legend this special knowledge was imparted by God either to Adam in Eden or to Moses on Sinai, and handed down thereafter from generation to generation to an enlightened few, who preserved the received wisdom and taught it to their students. This post presents some thoughts about the Kabbalah from someone who, though neither Jewish nor fluent in Hebrew, is fascinated by the intricacy of its ideas. 

Early Origins of the Kabbalah

Since at the beginning the Kabbalah was largely unwritten, we have no clear ideas about its origins. However, in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, various books on the Kabbalah were written down using the Aramaic language in the region of Syria-Palestine (Dan & Kiener, 1986; Dan, 2007; Hoffman, 2010; Matt, 1996a, Ogden, 2016).

One of these foundational texts of the Kabbalah is the Sefir Yetzirah – the “Book of the Creation,” or “Book of Formation.” The universe was created by God engraving in light upon the darkness the 32 letters and numbers of the Hebrew language (Sefir Yetzirah I:1, Kaplan translation, 1990):

With 32 mystical paths of Wisdom
     engraved Yah
          the Lord of Hosts
          the God of Israel
     the living God
          King of the universe
     El Shaddai
          Merciful and Gracious
          High and Exalted
          Dwelling in eternity
          Whose name is Holy —
               He is lofty and holy —
And He created His universe
     with three books (Sepharim),
          with text (Sepher)
          with number (Sephar)
          and with communication (Sippur).

Text and number define the nature of the universe. Its qualities are described by language, and the quantities of its components are described by number. Communication allows the universe to exist – as divine speech. Note that the Hebrew root S-F-R using the letters samech (s), pay (p/f) and resh (r) is the basis of many words denoting writing and books, counting and numbers.

Another text probably written in that period, the Sefer HaBahir – the “Book of Illumination” –associated the ten numbers with ten different ways that God was manifest in the universe that He created: the Sefirot (Verses 124-193, Kaplan translation, 1979). These divine emanations became a way to understand all things.

The following illustration shows the 10 Sefirot (singular Sefirah) together with 22 linkages, each denoted by one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. As well as the 10 Sefirot, the idea of Da’at or “knowledge” is represented in the upper half of the diagram. Originally this was not directly connected to any of the Sefirot. Rather it appeared to be entangled in the network: knowledge develops through the study of the Sefirot and their interactions. Kaplan (1990, p 25) suggests that it is “the point of confluence between Wisdom and Understanding.” Other interpretations consider Da’at to be one of the 10 Sefirot, and consider Keter as the Divine Will that infuses the whole underlying structure of the universe.    

The Sefirot are arranged in three linked columns. The middle column represents the main flow of energy from the Creator to the Creation. The left column tends toward the female aspect of the Divine, and the right column toward its male aspect (Kaplan, 1990, p 34). However, in some formulations, Malkhut is also considered as the female aspect (Shekhinah) of Keter. We shall return to this idea when we examine the Zohar.

The numbers and letters in this representation of creation could be used in various ways – to explain the nature of things, to predict the future, to ward off disease and to exert magical control. The practice of Gematria (a Hebrew word likely deriving from the Greek grammateia, knowledge of writing) represents words by the sum of their letters according to the alphanumeric cipher given in the preceding figure. Thus, the word for father av can be considered as 3 – the sum of alef (1) and bet (2): Similarly, mother em can be considered as 41 – the sum of alef (1) and mem (40). Adding father and mother together leads to the word for child yeled which has a value of 44 – the sum of yod (10), lamed (30) and dalet (4). (I am indebted to Tokarczuk, 2022, p 579 for this example).

The use of Creation’s numbers and letters in magic was the basis of Kaballah Ma’asit (practical), as compared to Kaballah Iyunit (contemplative). Amulets containing magical words were used to treat or prevent disease. The legendary Prague Golem (illustrated on the right by Philippe Semeria) was formed out of clay and brought to life by writing the Hebrew letters alef, met and tav upon his forehead – these make the word emet, “life.” Once the Golem became dangerous, he was returned to clay by erasing the first of these letters so that the word became met, “death” (Scholem, 1965/1996, pp 158-204)  

Many are the ways in which the world and its history can be mapped onto the Sephirot. One analysis relates these different emanations to the sayings of God as reported in the first chapter of Genesis (Kaplan, 1990, pp 6-7). God spoke and the universe came into being. The following are the words introduced by “And God said…” as they flow from Keter into the other nine emanations

3 Let there be light (Chochmah, Wisdom) 
6 Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters (Binah, Understanding) 
9 Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear (Chesed, Love) 
11 Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind (Gevurah, Power) 
14 Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night (Tif’eret, Beauty) 
20 Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. (Netzach, Endurance) 
24 Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind (Hod, Splendor) 
26 Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Yesod, Foundation) 
28 Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Malkhut, Kingdom) 

Likewise, each of the ten commandments as given in Exodus 20 may relate to a particular Sefirah (Bar-Asher, 2022). However, exactly which commandment goes with which Sefirah varies from one commentary to the next. Most accept that the first commandment (“I am the Lord thy God …. Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) relates to Keter.   

The ten Sefirot can be mapped to the primordial human body in many ways. The following illustration shows an amalgam of several (Kaplan, 1990, p. 151; Berenson-Perkins, 2000; Atzmon, 2003). These relations are in keeping with the idea that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).

Little definite is known about the history of Kabbalah scholarship between these early origins in Palestine and the 13th Century in Provence, France, where Rabbi Isaac the Blind (about 1160-1235 CE) wrote a commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah (Scholem, 1987, Dan & Kiener, 1986; Dan, 2007). He and his colleagues were the first to organize the 10 Sefirot in the way (see preceding figure) in which they are now most commonly considered (Dan & Kiener, 1986, pp 32, 73-86). He described the Sefirot as the emanations of a boundless God – Ein Sof, words meaning “no limit” and denoting that which is both infinite in space and eternal in time (Valabregue-Parry, 2012). Ein Sof is everything but is also nothing because it is not anything in particular. The concept of Ein Sof is therefore related to the idea of Ayin or “nothingness” (Matt, 1990). The words Ein and Ayin use the same Hebrew letters. Ayin and Ein Sof work through he first Sephirah Keter – to create the other Sefirot.

The study of the Kaballah then spread from Southern France to the Jewish communities in Spain. In Gerona, Rabbi Azriel (about 1160-1238 CE), who had studied with Rabbi Isaac the Blind, wrote

Anything visible, and anything that can be grasped by thought, is bounded. Anything bounded is finite. Anything finite is not undifferentiated. Conversely, the boundless is called Ein Sof, Infinite. It is absolute undifferentiation in perfect, changeless oneness. Since it is boundless, there is nothing outside of it. Since it transcends and conceals itself, it is the essence of everything hidden and revealed. Since it is concealed, it is the root of faith and the root of rebellion. As it is written, “One who is righteous lives by his faith.” The philosophers acknowledge that we comprehend it only by way of no.
Emanating from Ein Sof are the ten sefirot. They constitute the process by which all things come into being and pass away. They energize every existent thing that can be quantified. Since all things come into being by means of the sefirot, they differ from one another; yet they all derive from one root. Everything is from Ein Sof; there is nothing outside of it. (quotation from Matt, 1996a, p. 29)

The Spanish Rabbi Josef Gikatilla (about 1248-1305), whose name comes from the Spanish Chiquitilla (little one) wrote in his Sha’are Orah (“The Gates of Light,” translated by Weinstein, 1994):

The depth of primordial being is called Boundless (Ein Sof). Because of its concealment from all creatures above and below, it is also called Nothingness (Ayin). If one asks, “What is it?” the answer is, “Nothing,” meaning: No one can understand anything about it. It is negated of every conception. No one can know anything about it—except the belief that it exists. Its existence cannot be grasped by anyone other than it. Therefore its name is “I am becoming.”

The final comment refers to the name “I am that I am” – Eheyeh asher eheyeh – of God in the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. Since Hebrew does not clearly indicate the tense of the verb, this can also be translated as “I am who I shall be” or “I shall be who I am.”

In the Sha’are Orah, Gikatilla related the ten Sefirot to the various names of God in the Torah (this table derives from the Wikipedia article on Gikatilla):

The illustration below shows the frontispiece of a Latin translation of the Sha’are Orah (Portae Lucis) by Paulus Ricius, published in Augsburg in 1516, from the collection of the British Museum. The engraving shows a Kabbalist meditating on the Sefirot.

Mystic meditation on the ten Sefirot allows one to gain access to the nothingness of Ein Sof. Matt (1996a, p 119) quotes an anonymous Kabbalist from 13th Century Gerona:

When the soul comes into the One, entering into pure loss of self, it finds God as in nothingness. It seemed to a man that he had a dream, a waking dream, that he became pregnant with nothingness as a woman with child. In this nothingness God was born. He was the fruit of nothingness; God was born in nothingness. (quoted in McGinn, 1981).

The Zohar

Toward the end of the 13th Century, Moses de León (1240-1305), a Kabbalah scholar in Guadalajara, began to publish a set of Aramaic writings that he claimed had been written by the great Hebrew sage Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi) in the 2nd Century C.E. Rabbi Shimon is buried in Meron, Galilee, the sight of an annual ecstatic gathering of his adherents. The collection of these texts came to be known as the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Radiance), or more simply the Zohar. The legend has that Rashbi withdrew to a cave for 13 years and there, under the inspiration of the prophet Elijah, wrote the Zohar. Various lines of evidence suggest, however, that these texts were actually written by Moses de León, and that the Zohar is an example of religious pseudoepigrapha, works falsely attributed to a past author:

The quest for truth knows of adventures that are all its own, and in a vast number of cases has arrayed itself in pseudoepigraphic garb. the further a man progresses along his own road in this quest for truth, the more he might become convinced that his own road must have been trodden by others, ages before him. to the streak of adventurousness which was in moses de leon, no less than to his genius, we owe one of the most remarkable works of jewish literature. (Scholem, 1945/1995, p 204)

We have no contemporary portrait of Moses de León. The following illustration shows two modern representations: on the left a print by Arnold Belkin and on the right a bust by Luis Sanguino:

The following is the Zohar’s commentary on the first verse of Genesis. I have used Matt’s 2004 translation but I have in some places used the explanatory annotations in Matt (2002, 2004) instead of the literal translation:

On the authority of the King (i.e., Ein Sof), He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed (i.e., the first and most hidden Sefirah, Keter) from the head of Ein Sof — a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a measuring line, yielding radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit (Beginning), first command of all.

The enlightened will shine like the Zohar (radiance, brilliance, splendor) of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12: 3)

Zohar! Concealed of concealed struck its aura, which touched and did not touch this point. Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: Her stock is seed of holiness (Hokhmah) (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all.

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. this palace is called elohim, god. the secret is: Be-reshit bara Elohim, With beginning, ___ created God.

The final lines in this section propose a complete re-interpretation of Creation. Rather than the usual translation (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”), the new interpretation proposes that God is created (together with the heaven and the earth) by the unknowable and unnameable force of Ein Sof.  The Zohar proposes that since Elohim follows the verb bara, it is the object rather than the subject of the act of creation. This would fit with modern colloquial Hebrew, although there are many examples in the Hebrew of the Torah where the subject follows the verb, e.g. Genesis 1:4, Wayyar Elohim et-ha’owr, God saw the light.

Some scholars have remarked about how the expansion of the universe from a “single concealed supernal point” at the beginning of Creation might represent the Big Bang (Friedman, 1995; Matt, 1996b). we should be very cautious in relating science to scripture. Early Kabbalah ideas related the ten sefirot to the now obsolete idea that the earth is the centre of a universe surrounded by the sky and eight crystalline spheres carrying the moon, sun, the five known planets, the fixed stars, and the empyrean heaven (Chajes, 2020).

The Zohar (Matt, 2004, sections i: 53ab) makes some intriguing comments on the sin of Adam and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The tenth Sefirah is called Malkhut (kingdom) and represents the actual world which contains both good and evil. However, the Sefirah also represents Shekhinah. This word means “dwelling,” or “presence,” and as such it has come to mean the presence of God within the real world. At another level of interpretation, Shekhinah is the female counterpart of Keter or the bride of Tif’eret. Adam’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil brought evil and death into the world and distanced Shekhinah from the other Sefirot. It was not that God drove Adam out of Eden, but that Adam drove Shekhinah out of God. The goal of Judaism is then to repair this cleavage between the Creator and his Creation, to join male and female back together. These concepts were to be expanded in the teachings of Isaac Luria, which will be considered later.

Christian Kabbalah

In the 15th and early 16th centuries, Renaissance scholars began once again to study scientific, philosophical and religious works written by the Ancients but long unread by teachers only concerned with Christian Scripture. Early Kabbalah writings such as the Sefir Yetzirah were some of the sources of knowledge that were thus “reborn” during the Renaissance. Placing these ancient Hebrew writings in the context of Christian philosophy led to the formulation of a Christian Kaballah (Forshaw, 2016).

Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) in Germany published De Arte Cabbalistica in 1517. He tried to reconcile some of the ideas of the Kabbalah with Christian theology, and mapped the Christian Trinity to the upper levels of the Sefirot. The early 16th Century saw the beginning of a campaign to facilitate the conversion of the Jews in the Holy Roman Empire by burning all their books. Reuchlin successfully argued against this (Price, 2011).

The other famous Renaissance scholar of the Kabbalah was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) (Copenhaver, 2019, 2020; Howlett, 2021; Hanegraaff, 2012, pp 53-68). This young nobleman studied at the universities of Ferrara, Padua and Paris, becoming proficient in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. He then became a member of the Medici court of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence. His beautiful face and long chestnut hair was widely depicted in renaissance art. The illustration below shows him represented (posthumously) in Raphael’s School of Athens (1511) in the Vatican (upper left), in Cosimo Rosselli’s fresco Niracle of the Sacrament (1486) (lower left), and holding a medallion of Cosimo de’ Medici in an anonymous engraving (right).

In 1486 Pico published a set of 900 Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae in Rome, and offered to defend these propositions in debate with any scholar who wished to challenge them. He also published a general defense of his conclusions in his oration on the dignity of man, which became the foundational text of the new humanism, wherein man became the measure of all things:

For, raised to the most eminent height of theology, whence we shall be able to measure with the rod of indivisible eternity all things that are and that have been. (Caponigri translation, p 27).

Many of Pico’s Conclusions derived from his readings in the Kabbalah. The following are three examples (from Copenhaver, 2019, Appendix C):

Ein Sof is not to be numbered along with other Numerations (Sefira) because it is the unity of those Numerations, removed and uncommunicated, not a coordinated unity.

Someone with a deep knowledge of Kabbalah can understand that the three great fourfold names of God contained in the secrets of Kabbalists ought to be assigned to the three persons of the Trinity by a wondrous allocation so that the name אהיה (Ehyeh, I am) belongs to the Father, the name יהוה (the tetragrammaton, Yahweh) to the Son, the name אדני (Adonai) to the Holy Spirit.

One who has thought deeply about the novenary number of beatitudes that Matthew writes about in the Gospel (Matthew 5: 3:12) will see that they fit wonderfully with the novenary of nine Numerations (Sefirot) that come beneath the first, which is the unapproachable abyss of the Deity.

Pope Innocent VII considered many of Pico’s proposals, particularly those related to the Kabbalah, as heretical. He forbad the proposed debate and banned any subsequent publication of the Conclusions.

 

Pico treated all his different sources – Greek philosophers, Christian theologians, Egyptian magicians and Hebrew sages – as equal. His was a philosophy of “syncretism” (from the Greek syn together and krasis mix). The Christian Kabbalah thenceforth became part of a tradition of secret knowledge, a strange amalgam of Gnosticism, Hermetism, Alchemy, Astrology, Freemasonry, and Kabbalah. The word “cabal” entered the lexicon to denote a secret society conspiring to bring about political change by means of intrigue.

Hanegraaff (2012) characterized those systems of knowledge that are rejected by the majority yet followed by a secret few as “esotericism” – the “academy’s dustbin of rejected knowledge” (Hanegraaff, 2013, p 13). The popularity of such esoteric systems waxes and wanes. In the late 19th and early 20th Century various aspects of the occult – spiritualism, Tarot, theosophy – became popular. Later in the 20th Century various “New Age” religions made their impact. 

Safed

In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain and the great flowering of Spanish Kabbalah ceased. Kabbalah scholars moved to other regions of Europe and the Middle East. The city of Safed in in Galilee, then part of Ottoman Syria, soon became an important center of Kabbalah learning. Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570), also known as Remak, was one of the most important scholars in Safed. His name indicates that his family originally came from Cordoba in Spain. The following is from Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, “Orchard of Pomegranates” (1548):

In the beginning Ein Sof emanated ten sefirot, which are of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot. … Imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot—the variegated stained glass—judgment or compassion prevails. (quoted in Matt, 1996a, p 38).

Cordovero was followed by Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1532-1572), also known as HaARI, “the lion.” He did not leave any writings of his own, but his teachings were later recorded by his disciples. He proposed that during Creation Ein Sof initially contracted (tsimtsum) so as to make space for the universe, and that when light was emanated into the Sefirot there was some unavoidable fragmentation (shevirah). The task of the faithful is to repair (tikkun) what was broken by means of good works, charity, social justice and prayer (Drob, 2000, pp 384-433). Matt (1996a, p 15) summarized these concepts:

Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center” of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. . . . Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah.

 

Final Thoughts

There is much that is foolish in the teachings of the Kaballah. The use of the Kaballah in magic makes for wonderful stories but in reality is nonsense. The use of the Kaballah to predict the future is foolish. Sabattai Zevi (1626-1676) used the Kabbalah to claim that he was the Messiah. After gathering together thousands of followers, he was imprisoned by Sultan Mehmed IV and ultimately converted to Islam. He augmented rather than decreased the sum of human suffering.   

The great Kaballah texts are magnificent works of the imagination. They present a view of a universe infused with number and language. In the general sense that we cannot understand or control anything without number and language, these teachings are true. The writings of the Kaballah also provide meditative tools to facilitate individual mystical encounters with the infinite. 

Over the past century we have come to consider particular things as dependent on universal principles. Noam Chomsky has shown that different human languages are all related to a universal grammar; Claude Lévi-Strauss has proposed that different human societies all follow some basic rules for how human beings interact with each other. Perhaps the ideas of the Kaballah can provide us with a general structure with which to understand things – a template for the infinite. These issues are well discussed (though ultimately not resolved) in Levi’s 2009 paper “Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of mysticism or mystifications of science?”

Structural anthropology and Kabbalah, although on cursory appraisal having nothing in common—insofar as they stem from entirely different intellectual domains, the one being a modern social science and the other an ancient form of jewish mysticism—on deeper examination actually share a number of epistemological and ontological postulates. These include, but are not limited to, the idea that surface diversity conceals an underlying unity, specifically truth is discoverable within a layered model of reality, and that space, time, and matter are characterized by entropy and fragmentation.

Perhaps we might end this post with the concept of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”) as proposed in the Kabbalah teachings of Isaac Luria. this is one of the most powerful justifications of human ethics: we should be good not to benefit ourselves but to make the world a better place.

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