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The Kabbalah

By Adolphe Franck

Systems Which Offer Some Resemblance to the Kabbalah. Relation of the Kabbalah to the Philosophy of Plato

The systems which, because of their nature, or because of the age which has given rise to them, seem likely to have served as basis and pattern for the esoteric doctrine of the Hebrews, are partly philosophical and partly religious. To the first belong the systems of Plato, of his unfaithful Alexandrian disciples, and Philo, whom we can not possibly confound with the latter. Of the religious systems we can mention at present Christianity only, and that in a general way. Right here, though, I wish to state frankly that none of these grand theories of God and Nature can explain to us the origin of the traditions with which we have previously become acquainted. It is this important point we wish to establish first.

No one will deny that there is a great analogy between the Platonic philosophy and certain metaphysical and cosmological principles taught in the Zohar and in the Book of Formation. On both sides we see the Divine Intelligence or the Word shaping the universe according to types contained within Himself before things were brought forth. On both sides we see numbers play the role of intermediaries between the ideas, between the supreme idea and the objects which are the incomplete manifestation in the world of this idea. On both sides, finally, we find the dogmas of the pre-existence of the souls, of reminiscence and of metempsychosis. These various resemblances are so striking that the Kabbalists themselves--I refer to the modern Kabbalists--recognized them, and in order to explain them, they thought it best to make Plato a disciple of Jeremiah, 1 just as others made Aristotle a disciple of Simon the Just. 2

But will any one dare to conclude from such superficial relations that the works of the Athenian philosopher inspired the first authors of the Kabbalah? and what is more astonishing, that this science, of strange origin and the child of a heathen mind, was held in such a high regard and considered such a deep mystery by the Mishnah? Strange to say, those who hold to this opinion are just the very critics who look upon the Zohar as a mere invention at the close of the thirteenth century, and let it therefore come into existence at a time when Plato was not known; for no one will claim that the scattered citations in the works of Aristotle, and the caustic criticism accompanying them, can give a conception of the Platonic doctrine.

In no case can the actual affiliation of the Kabbalah with the Platonic philosophy be admitted, a view we shall now endeavor to submit to our scrutiny. I shall not rely upon external reasons which will be more opportune later on. I shall only remark here that the resemblances first noticed in the two doctrines are soon wiped out by their differences. Plato acknowledged (in abstracto) two principles: spirit (causa intelligens) and matter--the intelligent cause and the inert substance; although from what he says, it is hard to have as clear an idea of the second as of the first. The Kabbalists, on the contrary, encouraged by the incomprehensible dogma of a creation ex nihilo (from nothing), admitted as basis of their system the absolute unity; a God Who is, at once, the cause, the substance and the form of all that is, as well as of all that can be.

Like every one else, they too acknowledge the struggle of good and evil, of spirit and matter, of power and resistance; but they subordinate this struggle to the absolute principle and ascribe it to the difference which necessarily exists in the generation of things between finite and the infinite, between all individual existence and its limitation, between the furthest points of the scale of beings. This basic dogma, which the Zohar sometimes interprets by deep philosophical expressions, appears already in the Sefer Yetzirah, under quite a phantastic and coarse form, it is true, but at the same time, clear enough to permit the belief in its originality, or to reject, at least, the intervention of the Greek philosopher. When we compare the theory of ideas and the theory of the Sefiroth with each other, and these two with the lower forms that flow from them, we shall find them separated by the same distance, and we can not help understanding it otherwise, noticing as we do, dualism on one side and absolute unity on the other.

By creating an abyss between the intelligent principle and inert matter, Plato can see in the ideas nothing but forms of the intelligence, I mean of that supreme intelligence of which our intelligence is but a conditional and limited part. These forms are everlasting and incorruptible like the principle to which they belong; for these forms are themselves the idea and the intelligence, there can consequently be no intelligent principle without them. In this sense they represent also the essence of things, since the latter can not exist without form or without the imprint of the divine idea. But they (the forms) can not represent all that exists in the inert principle, neither can they represent the principle itself; and yet, since the principle exists, and since it exists, like the first, in all eternity, it is necessary that it have also its own essence, its distinctive and invariable attributes, although it is subject to all changes.

We reject the argument that Plato meant to point out matter as a mere negation, that is to say, the boundary which circumscribes each particular existence. This role he assigns (in Phoebus, p. 334, trans. of Victor Cousin) expressly to the numbers, the principle of every boundary and of every proportion. But along with the numbers and the productive and intelligent Cause, he admits also that which he calls the "Infinite," which is more or less susceptible to that from which the things are produced, in short--matter--or, to be more exact, substance separated from causality. There are therefore existences, and this is the point we are driving at, or rather forms of existence--unchangeable modes of being--which find themselves necessarily excluded from the number of ideas. This is not the case with the Sefiroth of the Kabbalah, among which we see matter itself (‏????‎--Y’sod) figure. The Sefiroth represent both the forms of existence and those of the idea, the attributes of the inert substance, that is to say, of the passivity or the resistance as well as the forms of the intelligent causality, since they consider them perfectly identical.

The Sefiroth are therefore divided into two great classes, which are designated by the metaphysical language of the Zohar as the "Fathers" and the "Mothers," and these two, apparently opposite, principles, coming from one inexhaustible source--the Infinite (Ayn Sof)--unite again into one common attribute which is called the "Son," whence they separate under a new form to unite anew. Therefore the trinitarian system of the Kabbalists, which no one can possibly confound with the Platonic trinity.

Having made reservations for our further discussions, it must be admitted that in consideration of such different foundations, the Kabbalistic system, even if brought forth under the influence of the Greek philosophy, may still claim originality. For absolute originality is exceedingly rare, and perhaps never to be found in metaphysics; and it is known that Plato himself does not owe everything to his own genius. All great conceptions of the human mind on the supreme cause, on the first existence and on the generation of things, have shown themselves under a more or less coarse veil before assuming a character really worthy of reason and science. Thus, a tradition which is not derogatory to the independence and to the fertility of the philosophical spirit, may become admissible.

And yet, notwithstanding this protecting principle, we maintain that the Kabbalists had no connection whatever, at least directly, with Plato. Indeed, if we picture these people having drawn from the source of the most independent philosophy, and having been nourished by this jesting and pitiless dialectic which puts everything to question and which destroys as often as it builds up; if we imagine also that, even by a superficial reading of the "Dialogues," they were initiated into all the elegance of the most refined civilization, are we then able to understand the irrational, the rude and unbridled imagination in the most important passages of the Zohar? Can we explain that extraordinary description of the "White Head," those gigantic metaphors mingled with puerile details, that supposition of a secret revelation older than that of Sinai, and, finally, those incredible efforts, aided by the most arbitrary means, to find their doctrine in the Holy Scriptures.? 3

In these different characters I recognize, indeed, a philosophy which, springing from the bosom of an eminently religious people, dares not admit its own audacity, and which, for its own satisfaction, tries to cover itself with the cloak of authority. But I can not reconcile these characters with the perfectly free choice of a strange and independent philosophy which openly avers that it holds its authority, power and enlightenment from reason only. Moreover, the Jews never denied their foreign teachers, nor did they refuse to pay respect to other nations for the knowledge they sometimes borrowed from them. 4 Thus we are told by the Talmud that the Assyrians furnished them with the names of the months, of the angels and with the characters of the letters which they use to this day for the writing of their holy books. 5 Later on, when the Greek language began to spread among them, the most venerable teachers of the Mishnah spoke with admiration of it, 6 and permitted even its use at religious ceremonies in place of the scriptural text. 7 During the Middle Ages, when the Jews were initiated by the Arabs into the philosophy of Aristotle, they did not hesitate to give the same honor to this philosopher as to their own, except, as we said before, that they made him a disciple of their oldest teachers, and ascribed a book to him in which they picture the head of the Lyceum acknowledging upon his deathbed the God and the Law of Israel. 8

Finally, in a very remarkable passage previously quoted by us, we are informed by the Zohar itself that the books of the Orient come very close to the Divine Law and to some views taught by the School of Simeon ben Yohai. 9 It is added only that this ancient wisdom was taught by the patriarch Abraham to the children begotten from his concubine, and by whom, according to the Bible, the Orient was populated. What then would have prevented the authors of the Kabbalah from dedicating also a souvenir to Plato? Could they not just as easily as their modern followers have him schooled by some prophet of the true God? According to Eusebius 10 this is exactly what Aristobulus 11 did when, after interpreting the Bible in accordance with the philosophy of Plato, he did not hesitate to accuse the latter of having taken his knowledge from the books of Moses. The same strategy is used by Philo against the head of the Portico. 12,  13

We are, therefore, entitled to the opinion that the origin of the Kabbalistic system is not to be looked for in the so-called Platonism. Let us see if we can find it with the philosophers of Alexandria.

214:1 Compare my review on Lindo's English translation of the "Conciliator" by Manasseh ben Israel in Fuerst's "Orient" of 1848, col. 348.--Jellinek

214:2 Compare Aree-Nohem (The Roaring Lion) by Leon de Modena, ch. XV, p. 4-4 (edited by Dr. Julius Fuerst, Leipzig, 1840). Others maintain that Aristotle, while in Palestine with Alexander the Great, saw the works of Solomon, and that these furnished him the principal elements for his philosophy. See ‏????? ?????‎ (Paths of Faith), by R. Meir Aldoli. (Should be Aldabi--Jellinek.)

217:3 This last argument is a weak one; for it has been at all times the task of the Jewish religious philosophers to carry into the Bible the given contents of a philosophy. It has been done so from the time of Saadia to the time of Hirsch. As to the arbitrary means, it is part of the nature of mysticism to look for and find symbols to replace its ideas. Indeed, Neoplatonism came forth from Platonism.--Jellinek

218:4 We must take into consideration that the Talmudists were very scrupulous about mentioning the name of the originator of an opinion. Compare especially Abboth, ch. 6, the saying: ‏?? ????? ??? ??? ?????‎ (One who mentions anything in the name of the one who said it (at first), brings redemption into the world).--Jellinek

218:5 Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh-Hashanah ‏???? ??????? ??????? ??? ???? ????‎ (The names of the angels and of the months came with them from Babylon). At another place (Tract. Sanhedrin, ch. XXI) it says, in speaking of Ezra, that the characters of the letters were changed by him, ‏????? ???? ?? ???‎ and that these characters are still called ‏?????‎ (Assyrian).

218:6 The Talmudist applied the Biblical passage ‏??? ????? ????‎ (May God enlarge the boundary of Japhet), Genesis IX, 27, to the Greek language.--Jellinek

218:7 Babylonian Talmud, Tractat Megillah, ch. I, Tract. Sota, ad fin.

218:8 This book is called ‏??? ?????‎, Book of the Apple.

218:9 Zohar, part I, fol. 99, 100. Sect. ‏????‎.

219:10 Eusebius of Caesarea, considered the father of Church history, (264-340).--Transl.

219:11 Aristobulus of Paneas, Jewish Alexandrian philosopher of the second or third century B. C.--Transl.

219:12 Quod omnis probus liber, p. 873, Ed. Mangey.

219:13 Refers to the philosopher Zeno (360-270 B. C.), founder of the school of Stoics, so called because the disciples were taught on a "stoa" or porch.--Transl.



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