The Kabbalah

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The Kabbalah

By Adolphe Franck


Although one finds in the Kabbalah a complete system on things of a moral and spiritual order, yet it can not be considered either as a philosophy or as a religion; I mean to say, it rests, apparently at least, neither upon reason nor upon inspiration or authority. Like most of the systems of the Middle Ages, it is the fruit of the union of these two intellectual powers. Essentially different from religious belief, under the power, and one can say, under the protection of which, it was born, it introduced itself, thanks to peculiar forms and processes, unnoticed into the minds. These forms and these processes would weaken the interest of which it is worthy, and would not always permit conviction of the importance which we believe to be justified in attributing to it, if, before making it known in its different elements and before attempting the solution of questions incident thereto, we do not indicate, with some precision, the place it occupies among the works of thought, the rank it should hold among religious beliefs and philosophic systems, and, finally, the requirements or laws which could explain the peculiar means of its development. It is this we shall attempt to accomplish with all possible brevity.

It is a fact, proven by the history of entire humanity, that moral truth, the knowledge which we can acquire about our nature, our destiny and the principle of the universe, were, at first, not accepted on the strength of reason or conscience, but by the effect of a power which was more active upon the minds of the people, and which has the general attribute of presenting to us ideas under a nearly material form, sometimes under the form of a word descended from heaven to human ears, sometimes in the form of a person who develops them in examples and actions. This power, universally known as Religion or Revelation, has its revolutions and its laws; notwithstanding the unity that rules at the bottom of its nature, it changes its aspect, like philosophy, poetry and arts, with the centuries and countries. But, at what time and at what place this power may come to establish itself, it can not off-hand tell man all that which he needs to know, not even in the sphere of duties and beliefs which it imposes upon him, nor even when he has no other ambition but to understand it in so far as is necessary for his obeisance to it.

In fact, there are in all religions, dogmas which need to be explained, principles the consequences of which remain to be developed, laws without possible application, as well as questions totally forgotten which, surely, touch upon the most important interests of humanity. The work of answering to all those needs calls for great mental activity; and the intellect, therefore, is impelled to the use of its own powers by the very desire to believe and obey. But this impulse does not produce everywhere the same results and does not act upon all intellects in the same manner.

Some intellects will not yield any place to individual independence; they drive the principle of authority to its last consequences, and set up, side by side with written revelation where nothing but .dogmas, principles and general laws are found, an oral revelation, a tradition or perhaps a permanent power infallible in its decisions, a sort of living tradition which furnishes explanations, forms and details of religious life; and which produces, if not in faith, in cult and symbols at least, an imposing unity. Of such are the orthodox of all beliefs. Other intellects trust no one but themselves, that is to say, their power of reasoning to fill these gaps and to solve the problems in the revealed word. All authority other than that of the holy texts appears to them as an usurpation; or, if they do follow it, it is only when it is in accord with their personal feelings. But. little by little, their mental forces, their reflection and judgment gain in firmness and development, and, instead of exerting themselves on the religious dogmas, they rise above these and seek in their own reason, their own conscience, or in the conscience and reason of their fellow-men--in a word--in the works of human wisdom, the beliefs which they were once obliged to let descend bodily from heaven.

Finally, there is in this sphere a third class of thinkers--those who do not admit tradition or, at least, whom tradition and authority can not satisfy, and who certainly can not or dare not use reasoning. On the one hand they are too high-minded to admit the revealed word in a natural and historic sense which accords with the letter and spirit of the masses; on the other hand, they can not believe that man can dispense entirely with revelation, or that truth reaches him in any other way than by the effect of divine teaching. It is because of this that they see nothing but symbols and images in the greater number of dogmas, precepts and religious tales; that they search everywhere for a mysterious, profound meaning in accord with their thoughts and feelings, but which, because preconceived, can not be found in or interpreted into the sacred texts except by more or less arbitrary means.

It is principally by this method and by this tendency that the mystics are recognized. I do not say that mysticism did not show itself sometimes in a bolder form. At a time when philosophical habits had already held sway, mysticism finds in this very consciousness the divine action, the immediate revelation which it claims to be indispensable to man. It recognizes it either in the feelings or in the intuitions of reason. Thus it is, to cite an example, how mysticism was conceived in the fifteenth century by Gerson. 1 But when mystical ideas require the support of external sanction, that support can be produced only in the form of a symbolical interpretation of what people call their Holy Scriptures.

These three tendencies of the mind, these three ways of conceiving revelation and of continuing its work, are found in the history of all the religions that have struck roots in the human soul. I shall cite only those religions which are nearest to us and which, therefore, we can know with more certainty.

In the bosom of Christianity, the Roman Church represents tradition and authority in their highest degree of splendor. We find reason applied to faith not only in the majority of Protestant communions, among the defenders of the so-called rational exegesis, but also among the scholastic philosophers who were the first to subject religious dogmas to the laws of syllogism and who showed the same respect for the words of Aristotle that they showed for the words of the Apostles. Who does not see symbolical mysticism with its arbitrary method and exaggerated spirituality in all the agnostic sects, in Origen, in Jacob Boehm, and in all who follow in their steps? But no one carried the system as far, nobody formulated it as frankly and as boldly as Origen whose name we shall yet meet in this book. If we glance at Mohammed's religion, if among the many sects it brought to light, we stop at those which show a decided character, we are immediately struck by the same spectacle. The Sunnis and the Chiits, whose separation came from the rivalry of individuals rather than from a marked difference of opinion, equally defend the cause of unity and orthodoxy; but, the first, in order to attain their purpose, admit in addition to the Koran a collection of traditions--the Sunnat--from which they derive their name; the others, the Chiits, reject the tradition, but replace it by a living authority, a sort of continued revelation, in as much as one of the most essential articles of their belief is that after the prophet, his apostle Ali and the Imams of his race are the representatives of God on earth. 2

Islamism had also its scholastic philosophers, known by the name of Motecallemin, 3 and it had also a large number of heresies which seem to have joined the doctrine of Pelagius to the rational method of modern Protestantism. This is how a celebrated orientalist defined the latter: "All sects of the Mutazilahs agree generally in that they deny the existence of attributes in God, and they endeavor particularly to avoid everything that could injure the dogma of the unity of God; and then, in order to maintain the justice of God and ward off any idea of injustice from Him, they accord to man full liberty of his own actions and deny God all interference with them; finally, they agree in teaching that all the knowledge necessary to salvation is within the province of reason, and that it can be acquired solely by means of the light of reason before, as well as after, revelation." 4

The Karmates, whose existence dates from the year 264 of the Hegira, embraced the system of allegorical interpretations and all the opinions serving as bases for mysticism. If we are to believe the author already quoted--who does nothing more than translate the words of an Arabian historian--"they called their doctrine the science of the inner faculties, and which consists in turning the precepts of Islamism into allegories and in substituting things founded on imagination for external observance, as well as allegorizing verses of the Koran and giving them forced interpretations." There is more than one point of resemblance between this doctrine and the doctrine which we aim to make acquaintance with. 5

Finally we come to Judaism, from whose breast, nourished by its spirit and its essence, sprang the two rival creeds already cited. We have intentionally reserved the last place for Judaism, because it leads us naturally to our subject. Besides the Bible, orthodox Jews recognize traditions which receive from them the same respect as the precepts of the Pentateuch. At first transmitted from mouth to mouth and scattered everywhere, then collected and edited by Judah the Holy 6 under the name of Mishnah; and, finally, prodigiously augmented and developed by the authors of the Talmud, they now leave not the smallest part to reason and liberty. Not only do they deny in principle the existence of these two moral forces, but they strike them with paralysis by usurping their places everywhere.

They cover all actions from the expression of exalted moral and religious feeling to the vilest functions of animal life. They have counted, regulated and weighed everything in advance. It is despotism of every day and of every instant against which one is inevitably compelled to fight with trickery if he does not want to substitute a higher authority in its place. The Karaites, who must not be confounded with the Saducees whose existence does not reach beyond the destruction of the second temple 7--the Karaites are, in a way, the Protestants of Judaism; they reject, apparently, the tradition and pretend to recognize nothing but the Bible, I mean the Old Testament, for the explanation of which reason seems to them to be sufficient. But others, without ceasing to be believers and admitting the principle of revelation, and who certainly form no religious sect, have succeeded in giving Reason a much greater and a much finer place in the domain of Faith. These are they who would justify the chief articles of their belief by the very principles of Reason; who would reconcile the legislation of Moses with the philosophy of their times, that is that of Aristotle, and who have founded a science entirely similar in its name and in its objects to the Arabian and Christian scholastics.

The first, and beyond a question the boldest of them, is the celebrated Rabbi Saadia, who at the beginning of the tenth century was at the head of the academy of Sura in Persia; and whose name is cited with respect by Mussulman authors, as well as by his coreligionists. 8 After Saadia came Abraham Ibn-Ezra, Rabbi Bachye, Arabic author of an excellent moral and theological treatise; 9 and Moses Maimonides, whose stupendous reputation was detrimental to the many, who, coming after him, defended the same cause. Those among the Jews who saw in the law only a gross exterior under which was hidden a mysterious meaning, much higher than the historical, literal meaning, divided themselves into two classes, the distinction of which is of great importance to the aim we have set.

To one class, the inner, spiritual meaning of the Scriptures was a philosophical system somewhat favorable, it is true, to mystic exaltation, but drawn from a source entirely foreign; it was, in short, Plato's doctrine a little exaggerated, as it was later on in the school of Plotinus, and mingled with ideas of Oriental origin. This is the character of Philo and all those who are customarily called "Hellenizing Jews," because, mixed among the Greeks of Alexandria, they borrowed from the latter their language, their civilization, and such of their philosophic systems as could best reconcile with the monotheism and religious legislation of Moses. 10

The others obeyed the impulse of their intelligence only. The ideas they introduced into the sacred books, in order to make it appear that they had found them there, and then to pass them on in the shadow of mystery, it is true, and under the protection of revelation, these ideas are entirely their own, and constitute a system truly original and truly grand which resembles any other system, whether philosophical or religious only in that it comes from the same source, in that it was called forth by the same causes, in that it responds to the same needs, in short, in that it rests upon the general laws of the human mind. These are the Kabbalists 11 whose opinions must be drawn from original sources to be known and justly appreciated; because, later, cultured minds supposed that they honored them by mixing them with the ideas of the Greeks and Arabians. Those, who through superstition remained strangers to the civilization of their times, gradually abandoned the deep speculations of which they were the result, and conserved only the very gross means originally designed to disguise their boldness and depth.

First of all we shall try to determine near what time we find the Kabbalah fully formed, in what books it was preserved for us, how these books were formed and transmitted to us, and, finally, what foundation we can lay upon its authenticity.

We shall make an attempt to give of it a faithful and full account, to which we shall, as much as possible, make the authors themselves of this doctrine contribute; passing their language into ours with as much exactitude as our feeble means may permit. At last, we shall occupy ourselves with the origin and influence of the Kabbalah, and ask whether it was born in Palestine, solely under the influence of Judaism, or, whether the Jews borrowed it from a foreign religion or a foreign philosophy. We shall compare it successively with all previous and contemporaneous systems which will offer us any resemblance to it; and we shall finally follow it to its most recent destinies.

liv:1 "Considerationes de Theologia Mystica." From the very beginning this proposition confronts us: Quod si dicatur omnis scientia procedens ex experientiis, mystica theologia vere erit philosophia. p. lv Consid. 2d, He goes even so far as to define the nature of this experience. Experientiis habitis ad intra, in cordibus animarum devotarum. (Gerson.)

lvi:2 Maracci, Prodromus in ref. Alcor., B, IV. De Sacy, Exposé de la religion des Druzes, introduction.

lvi:3 The rabbis converted the name to ‏??????‎ which means speakers or dialecticians.

lvi:4 De Sacy, Introduction à l’exposé de la religion des Druzes, p. 37.

lvi:5 I shall cite but one of those points. The Karmathians hold that man's body, when standing, represents an Alef; that when kneeling, it represents a Lam, and that when prostrate, it represents a He. So the p. lvii body of man is like a book wherein one reads the name of Allah. (See De Sacy's Introduction à l’exposé de la religion des Druzes. p. 86, 87.) According to the Kabbalists, the head of a man forms an Yod (‏?‎); his two arms hanging on either side of his breast, form a He (‏?‎); his bust forms a Vav (‏?‎); and his two legs, surmounted by a basin, form another He (‏?‎). So that his entire body represents the thrice-holy name, Jehovah. (Zohar, 2nd part, fol. 42, published in Mantua.)

lvii:6 Better known as Judah ha-Nassi (the Prince).--Transl.

lvii:7 Peter Beer. History of the religious sects of Judaism. 1st part. p. 149.

lviii:8 The commentary which he wrote in Arabic on the Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most ancient monuments of the Kabbalah, is of wholly philosophical meaning, and it is wrong that he is counted by Reuchlin and other historians of the Kabbalah among the defenders of that system. His book, "Beliefs and Opinions" (‏??????? ??????‎), translated from the Arabic into Hebrew by Rabbi Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, very probably served as model for the famous book of Maimonides entitled "Guide for the Perplexed" (‏???? ??????‎--Moreh Nvuchim). From the first lines of the preface Saadia frankly places himself between two opposing parties; "those," he said, "who, because of incomplete researches and ill-directed meditations, have fallen into an abyss of doubt; and those who regard the use of reason as dangerous to Faith."

He admits four kinds of knowledge: 1st, that which comes through the senses; 2nd, that which comes through the mind or through the conscience--as when we say that falsehood is a vice and truth a virtue; 3rd, the knowledge which furnishes us intuition and reasoning--as when we admit the existence of the soul because of its operations; 4th, the authentic tradition (‏????? ??????‎) which should take the place of science with people who are not in a condition to exercise their intelligence. *)

lviii:*) The Hebrew commentary attributed to Saadia is forged. Comp. Rapaport, Biography of R. Saadia. Note 30, Munk, Notice sur Rabbi Saadiah Gaon. p. 14-15.--Jellinek

lviii:9 This work is called ‏????? ??????‎--"The Duties of the Heart." The author lived around 5921 (1161).

lix:10 They are mentioned in this passage of Eusebius:

Τ? π?ν ?ουδα?ων ?θνος, ε?ς δ?ο τμ?ματα δι?σηται. Κα? τ?ν μ?ν πληθ?ν τα?ς τ?ν ν?μων κατ? τ?ν σητ?ν διανο?αν παρηλλελμ?ναις ?ποθ?καις ?π?γε, τ? δ?τερον τ?ν ?ν ?ξει τ?γηα, τα?της μ?ν ?φ?ει, θειστ?ρ? δ? τ?νι κα? το?ς πολλο?ς ?παναβεβηκε?? φιλοσοφ?? προσ?χειν ?ξ?ον θεορ?? τε τ?ν ?ν το?ς μ?τοις κατ? διανο?αν σημαινομ?νον. (Euseb. 1.8.c. 10.)

The author puts these words in the mouth of Aristobulus, who could not have known the Kabbalah.

lix:11 Although we shall later on find opportunity to speak at length of Philo, it is necessary to point out here his distinction from the Kabbalists with whom several historians confounded him. First, it is almost certain that Philo was ignorant of Hebrew, a knowledge of which, as we shall soon see, is indispensable to the Kabbalistic method. Then again, Philo and the Kabbalists differ no less in depth of their ideas. The latter admit p. lx but one principle, the immanent cause of all that exists; the Alexandrian philosopher recognizes two, one active, the other passive. The attributes of God, according to Philo, are Plato's ideas which have no resemblance whatever to the Sefiroth of the Kabbalah. "?στιν ?ν το?ς ο?σιν, τ? μ?ν ε?ναι δραστ?ριον α?τιον, τ? δ? παθητ?ν κα? ?τι τ? μ?ν δραστ?ριον ? τ?ν ?λων νο?ς ?στιν ε?λικριν?στατος κρε?ττωντε ? ?ρετ? κα? κρε?ττων ? ?πιστ?μη κα? κρε?ττων ? α?τ? τ? ?γαθ?ν κα? α?τ? τ? καλ?ν τ? δ? παθητ?ν ?ψυχον κα? ?κ?νητον ?ξ ?αυτο?, κινηθ?ν δ?, σχηματισθ?ν κα? ψυχωθ?ν ?π? το? νο?'', etc. Philo, de Mund. opific.



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