Kabbalah and Theosophy

By Lo Guest
(Talk given at the Theosophical Library Center, Altadena, on June 3, 2005.)

For many centuries the Kabbalah was a Jewish tradition not available to ordinary people and in particular not to women. As Dvora Waysman has written:

There was a time when the word "Kabbalah," the word translated into English meaning "To Receive," was only whispered. It was said that he who delved into it without the proper preparation — meaning years or even decades of scholarly study of the Bible and Talmud, could go mad.
It was believed that the writings in one of the most important books of the Kabbalah called the Zohar, the Book of Splendour or Radiance, belonged to the moonlit landscape of mysticism and the occult. The secrets hidden in it — rendered in difficult Aramaic — could be learned only within the confines of certain sects of the Chassidic movement. The Zohar is most probably the most important work of the Kabbalah. . . .
Then came a man, who was no mystic, in fact, not even a religious Jew in the accepted sense . . . but he made the secrets of the Kabbalah available to all who wished to read them.
The late Professor Gershom Scholem spent sixty-three years of his life constructing a history and bibliography of Jewish mysticism, translating the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works into English. — Australian Jewish News, September 21, 1984

Perhaps one of the few people in the 19th century who understood the Kabbalah and its worth was not only a Gentile but a woman to boot: Helena Blavatsky. Nobody reading her Secret Doctrine and noting the many references to the Kabbalah could doubt her intimate knowledge of these writings. In her Theosophical Glossary she explains that the Kabbalah was an oral tradition, and that kabbalists are students of "secret science" who interpret the hidden meaning of the Jewish scriptures with the help of the symbolical Kabbalah:

The hidden wisdom of the Hebrew Rabbis of the middle ages derived from the older secret doctrines concerning divine things and cosmogony, which were combined into a theology after the time of the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. All the works that fall under the esoteric category are termed Kabalistic. — p. 168

Over the centuries the wisdom of the Kabbalah has fascinated many scholars, philosophers, and scientists who have tried to find its source and discover its secrets. Many have been the discussions, yet there is no agreement upon its origin. The Kabbalah as we know it is made up of many different streams of thinkers who interpreted the Bible in their own way, influenced by the life and thoughts of their own time. The main sections of the Bible examined Kabbalistically are those making up the Torah or Law, the scroll used in every synagogue or temple where Jewish religious services are held, formed of the books attributed to Moses.

The Zohar or Book of Splendor and Radiance is the basic work of Jewish mysticism, the profoundest achievement of the Kabbalah. It has traditionally been attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, dating from approximately 80 ce. However, many modern scholars believe that a large portion of it is no older than 1280 ce, when it was certainly edited and published by Rabbi Moses de Leon of Spain. In the Zohar Moses de Leon, instead of the brief allusions and interpretations of his predecessors, presents a broad canvas of interpretations and homiletics covering the whole world of Judaism as it appeared to him. Many of its passages try to throw light on mystical ideas concerning God, together with the various stages of His manifestations, and on the idea of the soul, its grades, and its destiny.

It is interesting to find that, the world over, the search for god-wisdom follows the same ideas. Sometimes these seem strange to us, as we do not fully understand the tradition they represent. For example, no one knows for certain about the mystery of creation, for none of us were knowingly present. However, we find that it is always assumed that there was a starting point, as it says in the Zohar:

"The Indivisible Point, which has no limit and cannot be comprehended because of its purity and brightness, expanded from without, forming a brightness that served the indivisible Point as a veil"; yet the latter also "could not be viewed in consequence of its immeasurable light. It too expanded from without, and this expansion was its garment. Thus through a constant upheaving (motion) finally the world originated." — 1.20a

We in our time are privileged to witness the birth of new stars, hundreds of light-years away, which helps us understand the immense power inherent in the universe working according to its own laws. When we look at the many cultures whose sages and philosophers have been occupied with solving the mysteries of the Unknowable that surround us, we find that the same conclusions have been reached. Vedic literature referred to "Nought Was" and later to Parabrahm ("beyond Brahm"), the Kabbalists to Ain ("nothing") or Ain Soph ("without end," "boundless"), and Genesis to the "Spirit" of God that moves upon the waters. In a 13th-century Kabbalistic commentary, The Gates of Light, we read:

The depth of primordial being is called Boundless. Because of its concealment from all creatures above and below, it is also called NOTHINGNESS. If one asks "What is it?" the answer is, "Nothing," meaning: no one can understand 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." — quoted in The Essential Kabbalah, Daniel Matt, p. 67

We also find in the Kabbalah the idea that there is no such thing as an isolated existence:

Everything is linked with everything else down to the lowest ring on the chain, and the true essence of God is above as well as below, in the heavens and on the earth, and nothing exists outside Him. And this is what the sages mean when they say: When God gave the Torah to Israel, He opened the seven Heavens to them, and they saw that nothing was there in reality but His Glory; He opened the seven worlds to them and they saw that nothing was there but His Glory. He opened the abysses before their eyes, and they saw that nothing was there but his Glory. Meditate on these things and you will understand that God's essence is linked and connected with all worlds, and that all forms of existence are linked and connected with each other, but derived from His existence and essence. — quoted in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, p. 223

One of the major issues occupying human minds throughout the millennia is: What happens to the real inner self when we die? The Western world rejected the idea of reincarnation until acquaintance with Eastern philosophy during the 19th century reawakened thoughts about transmigration of the soul life after life. Many are the references to this, particularly in the older Kabbalah, for the majority of the older Kabbalists believed in gilgul, the Hebrew term for transmigration. In the Zohar we find:

All souls are subject to the trials of transmigration; and men do not know the designs of the Most High with regard to them; they know not how they are being at all times judged, both before coming into this world and when they leave it. They do not know how many transformations and mysterious trials they must undergo; how many souls and spirits come to this world without returning to the palace of the Divine King.
The souls must re-enter the Absolute Substance whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this end they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them; and if they have not fulfilled this condition during one life, they must commence another, a third, and so forth, until they have acquired the condition which fits them, for reunion with God. — 2.99 et seq.

One symbol featuring largely in the Kabbalah is the Tree of Life, which pictures the evolutionary path that the soul has to pass through before it can join again with Ain Soph. However, Ain Soph is not only the hidden Root of all Roots, it is also the sap of the tree; every branch, representing an attribute, exists not by itself but by virtue of Ain Soph, the hidden God. And this Tree of God is also, as it were, the skeleton of the universe; it grows throughout the whole of creation and spreads its branches through all its ramifications from Kether the Crown to Malkuth the World (Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 214).

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Running quickly through the different stations of the Tree of Life in the above illustration, we start with Kether the Crown, also known as the Lightning Flash. It flows towards the other Sephirot starting with Hochmah (Wisdom). Here it manifests itself as Abba, the Cosmic Father or male principle, a potent dynamic at the top of the active column. It then crosses to Binah (Understanding), which as Aima, the Cosmic Mother, heads the female column. The active and passive columns are also called the pillars of severity and mercy, the latter being the male. It is at this point that the Trinity of Creation begins to function, as the divine energy out of perfect equilibrium seeks to find its level and resolve again.

The flow then crosses undiminished over the central column to Hesed (Mercy), and from there over to Gevurah (Judgment), and passes on to Tipheret (Beauty), which has a special relationship with Kether the Crown, being connected through the axis of the central column. The only thing that separates Tipheret from Kether is an unseen Sephirah known as Daat (Knowledge), which functions only in particular conditions. At Tipheret an image is held, a mirror of Kether, but operating on a lower scale. The emanation then passes into Netzah (Eternity), then across to Hod (Splendor): its function is to pass on information. From here it again touches the central column and focuses on Yesod (Foundation). Directly below is the last Sephirah, Malkuth (the Kingdom).

Using the Tree of Life, the Kabbalah built up a system of symbolic correspondences between the manifestations of divine powers, letters, numbers, and the different parts of the human body. We can see this in its explanation of the universally known symbol of raised hands conveying a blessing: "This is because there are ten fingers on the hands, a hint to the ten Sefirot by which the sky and the earth were sealed. And those ten correspond to the Ten Commandments."* Each hand is bearing 16 letters corresponding to the 32 ways of wisdom of the first Sephirah, the Crown or Kether (quoted in Kabbalah, Three Thousand Years of Mystic Tradition, Kenneth Hanson, p. 117).

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In every tradition we find the questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? and What caused "The Creation"? However, neither in the Kabbalah nor in any other tradition has a final answer yet been found. Whether it is the Unknowable of the Vedas or the Ain Soph of Judaism, this veiled truth remains a mystery. As Kenneth Hanson writes, the Kabbalah "counsels spirituality without narrow dogmatism. It admonishes reaching for the stars while keeping one's feet planted firmly on the ground." He goes on to say:

The last bit of Wisdom taught by the Zohar is, interestingly, a commission and a call to action: "Rabbi Hiyya rose to his feet and said 'Until now the Holy Spark within us has looked after us; now is the time to engage in honoring him!' "
Honoring involves upright conduct, which in turn demands a certain resolution of will. The reader of the Zohar is left with something to do, and that something involves making the world a fundamentally better place. Such is the message and the mission of the mystics. — pp. 252, 148

Further Reading:

Henrietta Bernstein, Cabalah Primer
H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine
Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi, Tree of Life, An Introduction to the Cabala
Gershom Sholem, Kabbalah
———, ed., The Zohar: The Book of Splendor
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2005/January 2006; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

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Birds chirping, dogs run, mountains are high,
valleys low. It’s all perfect wisdom!
The seasons change, the stars shine in
the heavens; it’s perfect wisdom.
Regardless of whether we realize it or not,
we are always in the midst of the Way.
Or, more strictly speaking, we are
nothing but the Way itself. — Taizan Maezumi