It must be confessed that the origin of the Kabalah is lost in the mists of antiquity; no one can demonstrate who was its author, or who were its earliest teachers. Considerable evidence may be adduced to show that its roots pass back to the Hebrew Rabbis who
flourished at the time of the Second Temple about the year 515 B.C.
Of its existence before that time I know of no proofs.
It has been suggested that the captivity of the Jews in Babylon led to the formation of this philosophy by the effect of Chaldean lore and dogma acting on Jewish tradition. No doubt in the earliest stages of its existence the teaching was entirely oral, hence the name
QBLH from QBL to receive, and it became varied by the minds through which it filtered in its course; there is no proof that any part of it was written for centuries after. It has been kept curiously distinct both from the Exoteric Pentateuchal Mosaic books, and from the ever-growing Commentaries upon them, the Mishna and Gemara, which form the Talmud. This seems to have grown up in Hebrew theology without combining with the recondite doctrines of the Kabalah. In a similar manner we see in India that the
Upanishads, an Esoteric series of treatises, grew up alongside the Brahmanas and the Puranas, which are Exoteric instructions designed for the use of the masses of the people.
With regard to the oldest Kabalistic books still extant, a controversy has raged among modern critics, who deny the asserted era of each work, and try to show that the assumed author is the only person who could not have written each one in question. But these critics show the utmost divergence of opinion the moment it becomes necessary to fix on a date or an author; so much more easy is destructive criticism than the acquirement of real knowledge.
Let us make a short note of the chief of the old Kabalistic treatises.
The “Sepher Yetzirah” or “Book of Formation” is the oldest treatise; it is attributed by legend to Abraham the Patriarch: several editions of an English translation by myself have been published. This work explains a most curious philosophical scheme of Creation, drawing a parallel between the origin of the world, the sun, the planets, the
elements, seasons, man and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet; dividing them into a Triad, a Heptad and a Dodecad; three mother letters A, M, and Sh are referred to primeval Air, Water and Fire; seven double letters are referred to the planets and the
sevenfold division of time, etc.: and the twelve simple letters are referred to the months, zodiacal signs and human organs. Modern criticism tends to the conclusion that the existing ancient versions were compiled about A.D. 200.The “Sepher Yetzirah” is
mentioned in the Talmuds, both of Jerusalem and of Babylon; it was written in the Neo- Hebraic language, like the Mishna.
The “Zohar” or” Sohar” spelled in Hebrew ZHR or ZUHR “The Book of Splendour” or of “Light,” is a collection of many separate treatises on the Deity, Angels, Souls and Cosmogony. Its authorship is ascribed to Rabbi Simon ben Jochai, who lived A.D. 160;
he was persecuted and driven to live in a cave by Lucius Aurelius Verus, co-regent with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Some considerable portion of the work may have been arranged by him from the oral traditions of his time: but other parts have certainly been added by other hands at intervals up to the time when it was first published as a whole by Rabbi Moses de Leon, of Guadalajara in Spain, circa 1290. From that time its history is known; printed Editions have been issued in Mantua, 1558, Cremona, 1560, and Lublin, 1623; these are the three famous Codices of “The Zohar” in the Hebrew language. For those who do not read Hebrew the only practical means of studying the Zohar are the partial translation into Latin of Baron Knorr von Rosenroth, published in 1684 under the title of “Kabbala Denudata”; and the English edition of three treatises,– “Siphra Dtzenioutha” or “Book of Concealed Mystery”; “Ha Idra Rabba,” “Greater Assembly”; and “Ha Idra Suta,” ” Lesser Assembly,” translated by S. L. MacGregor Mathers. These three books give a fair idea of the tone, style and material of the Zohar but they only include a partial view: other tracts in the Zohar are :–Hikaloth–The Palaces, Sithre Torah–Mysteries of the Law, Midrash ha Neelam–The secret commentary, Raja Mehemna–The faithful shepherd, Saba Demishpatim,–The discourse of the Aged–the prophet Elias, and Januka–The Young man; with Notes called Tosephta and Mathanithan.
In course of publication there is now a French translation of the complete Zohar, by Jean de Pauly: this is a most scholarly work.
Other famous Kabalistic treatises are :– “The Commentary on the Ten Sephiroth,” by Rabbi Azariel ben Menachem, 1200 A.D. ;”The Alphabet” of Rabbi Akiba; ” The Gate of Heaven” ; the “Book of Enoch”; “Pardes Rimmonim, or Garden of Pomegrantes”; “A treatise on the Emanations”; “Otz ha Chiim, or The Tree of Life” of Chajim Vital; “Rashith ha Galgulim, or Revolutions of Souls” of Isaac de Loria; and especially the writings of the famous Spanish Jew, Ibn Gebirol, who died A.D.1070, and was also called Avicebron, his great works are “The fountain of life” and “The Crown of the Kingdom.”
The teaching of the Kabalah has been considered to be grouped into several schools, each of which was for a time famous. I may mention :–The School of Gerona, 1190 to 1210, of Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Rabbis Azariel and Ezra, and Moses Nachmanides. The School of Segovia of Rabbis Jacob, Abulafia (died 1305), Shem Tob (died 1332), and Isaac of Akko. The School of Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham Ibn Latif about 1390. The School of Abulafia (died 1292) and Joseph Gikatilla (died 1300); also the Schools of “Zoharists” of Rabbis Moses de Leon (died 1305),Menahem di Recanti (died 1350), Isaac Loria (died 1572) and Chajim Vital, who died in 1620. A very famous German Kabalist was John Reuchlin or Capnio, and he wrote two great works, the “De Verbo Mirifico,” and “De arte Cabalistica.”
In the main there were two tendencies among the Kabalists: the one set devoted themselves entirely to the doctrinal and dogmatic branch: the other to the practical and wonder-working aspect.
The greatest of the wonder-working Rabbis were Isaac Loria, also called Ari; and Sabatai Zevi,who curiously enough became a Mahommedan. Both of these departments of Occult Rabbinic lore have their living representatives, chiefly scattered individuals; very rarely groups of initiates are found. In Central Europe, parts of Russia, Austria and Poland there are even now Jews, known as Wonder-working Rabbis, who can do strange things they attribute to the Kabalah, and things very difficult to explain have been seen in England, at the hands of students of Kabalistic rites and talismans.
The Rabbinic Commentaries, many series deep, overlaying each other, which now exist in connection with the old treatises form such a mass of Kabalistic lore as to make it an almost impossible task to grasp them; probably no Christian nor Jew in this country can say what doctrines are not still laid up in some of the old manuscript works.
The Dogmatic or Theoretical Kabalah indicates philosophical conceptions respecting the Deity, Angels and beings more spiritual than man; the human Soul and its several aspects or parts; concerning pre-existence and re-incarnation and the several worlds or planes of existence.
The Practical Kabalah attempts a mystical and allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, studying each phrase, word and letter; it teaches the connection between letters and numbers and the modes of their inter-relation; the principles of Gematria, Notaricon, and Temura; the formation and uses of the divine and angelic names as Amulets; the formation of Magic Squares; and a vast fund of allied curious lore, which subsequently formed the basis of Mediaeval Magic.
For those who do not wish to read any Kabalistic work as a whole, but rather to glean a general view of this philosophy, there are now three standard works; two are in English; one by Dr. C. Ginsburg, 1865, a formal and concise résumé of the doctrines; the other, an excellent book, “The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah,” by Arthur E. Waite, 1902; and one in French by Adolph Franck, 1889, which is more discursive and gives fewer details.
Many points of the teaching of Indian systems of religious philosophy are not touched on by the Hebrew system, or are excluded by differences of a fundamental nature: such as the Cosmogony of other Worlds, unless the destroyed Worlds of Unbalanced Force refer to these; the inviolability of law, as Karma, is not a prominent feature; Reincarnation is taught, but the number of re-births is limited generally to three.
Some small part of the Kabalistic doctrine is found in the Jewish Talmud, but in that collection of treatises there is some grossness that is absent from the true Kabalah; such are the theories of the debasement of men into animal forms; and of men to be re-born as women, as a punishment for earthly sins in a previous life.
It must be remembered that many points of doctrine are limited to the teachings of but a few Rabbis; and that the differences between the earliest and latest doctrines on a given point are sometimes very great, as is shown by a comparison of the Books of the Rabbis of different eras and schools. Some of the Kabalistic teaching has also never been printed nor published, and has been handed down even to this day from master to pupil only: there are some points not found in any Hebrew book, which I myself have taught in the Rosicrucian Society and in Hermetic Lodges. An attentive study of some of these old mystical Hebrew books discloses the existence of intentional “blinds,” which appear to have been introduced to confine certain dogmas to certain students fitted to receive them, and to preserve them from promiscuous distribution and so from misuse by the ignorant or vicious.
Two or three centuries have now passed since any notable addition to the body of Kabalistic doctrine has been made, but before that time a long succession of commentaries had been produced, all tending to illustrate or extend the philosophical scheme.
As already said, when the Kabalah first took shape as a concrete whole and a philosophic system, may remain for ever an unknown datum, but if we regard it, as I believe is correct, as the Esotericism of the religion of the Hebrews, the foundation dogmas are doubtless almost as old as the first promulgation of the main principles of the worship of Jehovah.
I cannot now attempt any glance at the contentions of some doubting scholars, who question whether the story of the Twelve Tribes is a historic fact, or whether there ever were a Moses, or even a King Solomon. It is sufficient for the present purpose that the Jewish nation had the Jehovistic theology and a system of priestly caste, and a coherent doctrine, at the time of the Second Temple when Cyrus, Sovereign of all Asia, 536 B.C., holding the Jews in captivity, permitted certain of them to return to Jerusalem for the express purpose of reestablishing the Hebrew mode of worship which had been forcibly interfered with by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.
After this return to Jerusalem it was that Ezra and Nehemiah, circa 450 B.C., edited and compiled the Old Testament of the Hebrews, or according to those who deny the Mosaic authorship and the Solomonic régime, it was then that they wrote the Pentateuch.
The renewed worship maintained until 320 B.C., when Jerusalem was captured by Ptolemy Soter, who, however, did not destroy the foundations of the Jewish religion; indeed his successor, Ptolemy Philadelphus, caused the Hebrew scriptures to be revised and translated into Greek by Seventy-two scholars, about 277 B.C.; this has been known for centuries as the Septuagint version of the Old Testament.
Further Jewish troubles followed, however, and Jerusalem was again taken and pillaged by Antiochus in 170 B.C. Then followed the long wars of the Maccabees; subsequently the Romans dominated Judea, then quarrelling with the Jews the city was taken by Pompey, and not long after was again plundered by the Roman general Crassus in 54 B.C. Yet the Jewish religion was preserved, and we find the religious feasts and festivals all in progress at the time of Jesus; yet once more in A.D. 70, was the Holy City taken, plundered and burnt, and that by Titus, who became Emperor of the Romans in A.D. 79. Through all these vicissitudes, the Hebrew Old Testament survived, yet must almost unavoidably have had many alterations and additions made to its several treatises; the more Esoteric doctrines which were handed down along the line of the priestly caste, and not incorporated with the Torah offered to the people, may no doubt have been repeatedly varied by the influences of contending teachers.
Soon after this period was framed the first series of glosses and commentaries on the Old Testament books, which have come down to our times. Of these the earliest are the volume called the “Targum of Onkelos” on “The Law,” written about A.D. 100,and that of Jonathan ben Uzziel on “The Prophets.”
About A.D 141 there first came into note the now famous treatise written by the Rabbis of Judah, called “Mishna,” and this formed the basis of those vast compilations of Hebrew doctrine called the “Talmud,” of which there are two extant forms, one compiled at Babylon-the most notable, and the other associated with Jerusalem. To the original “Mishna” the Rabbis added further commentaries named “Gemara.” From this time the literature of Judaism grew apace, and there was a constant succession of notable Hebrew Rabbis who published religious treatises, until at least A.D. 1500. The two Talmuds were first printed at Venice in 1520 and 1523 respectively.
The Old Testament books were the guiding light through the ages of the Jews, but the learned Rabbis were not satisfied with them alone, and they supplemented them by two parallel series of works of literature; the one, Talmudic, being commentaries based upon Thirteen Rules of Argument delivered by Moses to illustrate the Old Testament, and supply material for teaching the populace; and the other a long series of treatises of a more abstruse character, designed to illustrate their Secret Doctrines and Esoteric views. The Sepher Yetzirah, and the Zohar or Book of Splendour represent the kernel of that oral instruction which the Rabbis of the olden times prided themselves upon possessing, and which they have even claimed as being “The Secret Knowledge” which God gave to Moses for the use of the priests themselves, in contradistinction to the Written Law intended for the masses of the people.
One of the principal conceptions of the Kabalah is that spiritual wisdom is attained by Thirty-two Paths, typified by the Ten numbers and the Twenty-two letters; these Ten again being symbols of the Divine Emanations, the Sephiroth, the Holy Voices chanting at the Crystal Sea, the Great Sea, the Mother Supernal, Binah; and of the Twenty-two occult forces of the Nature of the Universe symbolised by the Three primary Elements, the Seven Planets, and the Twelve Zodiacal influences of the heavens, which tincture human concerns through the path of our Sun in its annual course. I have given the names and definitions of the Thirty-two Paths at the end of my Edition of the” Sepher Yetzirah.”
Now to show the close connection between the Kabalah and orthodox Judaism, we find the Rabbis cataloguing the Books of the Old Testament into a series of Twenty-two (the letters) works to be read for the culture of spiritual life; this Twenty-two they obtained from the Thirty-nine books of the O.T. Canon, by collecting the twelve minor prophets into one treatise; Ruth they added to Judges; Ezra to Nehemiah; while the two books each of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, they called one each. The Canon of Thirty-nine works was fixed in the time of Ezra.
Returning to the books which illustrate the Kabalah, whatever may be the authenticity of their alleged origins, it cannot be denied that those ancient volumes, Sepher Yetzirah and Zohar, contain a system of spiritual philosophy of clear design, deep intuition and farreaching cosmologic suggestions; that are well worthy of the honour of receiving a special name and of founding a theological body of doctrine,–The Kabalah.
The bulwark and main foundation of the public Hebrew religion has always been the Pentateuch, five treatises attributed to Moses, which proclaim the Laws of Jehovah given to his chosen people. The Old Testament beginning with these five books is further continued by historic books, by poetical teachings and by prophetic works, but many portions are marked by materialistic characteristics and a lack of spiritual rectitude which the books of a Great Religion might be expected to display, and they even offend our present standard of moral life.
The Mosaic Law, eminently valuable for many purposes to a small nation 3,000 years ago, and containing many regulations of a type showing great attention to sanitary matters, is yet marred by the application of penalties of gross cruelty and harsh treatment of erring mortals, which are hardly compatible with our modern views of what might have emanated from God the personal Creator of this Universe with its million worlds; and the almost entire absence of any reference to a life after death for human beings shows a materialism which needed a new Revelation by Jesus, whose life has earned the title of “Christ.” Yet the orthodox of England hear this statement with incredulity, and if asked to show the passages in the Old Testament which insist on a life after death, or on a succession of lives for purposes of retribution, or the passages demonstrating the immortality of the soul, they could not produce them, and are content to refer you to the clergy, whose answer generally is, “If not plainly laid down, these dogmas are implied.” But are they? If they are, how is it that notably clear passages can be quoted which show that important authors in the Old Testament make statements in direct opposition to these doctrines? And how is it, again, that a great author of modern times has said, “Prosperity was the blessing of the Old Testament for good works, but adversity that of the New”? This could only be true if there were no future life or lives, or no coming period of reward and punishment contemplated by the Old Testament doctrine.
But the comment is true and the Old Testament does teach that man is no more immortal than the beast, as witness Ecclesiastes, iii. 19 :–“For that which befalleth the sons of men, befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea they have all one breath; so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. . . . Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?” Who, indeed, except his own Ego, Soul or Higher Self.
But perhaps this book is from the pen of some obscure Jew, or half pagan Chaldee or Babylonian. Not at all: Jewish critics have all assigned it to Solomon, who was the King of the Jews at the time of their heyday of glory; surely if the immortality of the soul were the essence of the Judaism of the people, Solomon could not have so grossly denied it.
Go back, however, to the narrative of Creation in Genesis, and the same story is found; the animals are made from the dust, man is made from the dust, and Eve is made from Adam, and each has breathed into the form, the “Nephesh Chiah,”–the breath of life, vitality; but there is no hint that Adam received a Ray of the Supernal Mind, which was to dwell there for a time, to gain experience, to receive retribution, and then enter another stage of progress, and achieve a final return to its Divine source. And yet the authors of these volumes, whoever they were, could hardly have been without the conception of the higher part of man, of his Spiritual Soul. The critical contention is that the Old Testament was deprived at some period of its religious philosophy, which was set apart for a privileged class; while the husk of strict law and tradition was alone offered for the acceptance of the people. The kernel of spiritual philosophy which is lacking in the Old Testament as a religious book may be the essential core of the Kabalah; for these Kabalistic dogmas are Hebraic, and they are spiritual, and they are sublime in their grandeur; and the Old Testament read by their light becomes a volume worthy of thc acceptance of a nation. I speak of the essentials of the Kabalah, the ancient substratum of the Kabalah. I grant that in many extant treatises these primal truths have been obscured by generations of editors, by visionary and often crude additions, and by the vagaries of Oriental imagery; but the keynotes of a great spiritual Divine concealed Power, of its Emanations in manifestation, of its energising of human life, of the prolonged existence of human souls, and of the temporary state of corporeal existence, are fundamental doctrines there fully illustrated; and these are the points of contact between the Kabalah of the Jew and the so-called Esotericism of the teachings of Buddha and of Hinduism.
It may be that the Catholic Church, from which the Protestant Church seceded, was from its origin in the possession of the Hebrew Rabbinic secret of the intentional Exoteric nature of the Bible, and of a priestly mode of understanding the Esoteric Kabalah, as a key to the true explanations of the Jewish books, which being apparently histories are really largely allegorical. If this were granted, it would explain why the Catholic Church has for ages discouraged the laity from the study of the Old Testament books, and would lead us to think that Protestantism made a mistake in combining with the Reformation of a vicious priesthood the encouragement of the laity to read the Old Testament books.
I note that the literal interpretation of the Mosaic books and those of the Old Testament generally has repeatedly been used as a support for vicious Systems of conduct; a notable example of which was seen even a hundred years ago, when the clergy of Protestant nations almost unanimously supported the continuance of the Slave Trade from arguments derived from the laws of Jehovah as stated to have been compulsory upon the Jews.
The Freethinkers of that day were largely the champions of suffering and oppressed races, and for centuries the wisest of men, the greatest scientists have maintained, and ever won, struggle after struggle with the assumed infallibility of old Hebraic Testament literal instructions, assertions and narratives.
The Old Testament may indeed be, to some extent, the link which binds together thousands of Christians, for Jesus the Christ founded His doctrine upon a Jewish people, but the interminable list of Christian sects of to-day have almost all taken their rise from the assertion of a right of personal interpretation of the Bible, which might have remained debarred to the generality by the confession that the keys of interpretation were lost, or at least missing, and that without their assistance error of a vital character was inevitable.
The vast accumulation of varying interpretations of the Bible, although a folly, yet sinks into insignificance as an incident of importance, before the collateral truth that the followers of each of the hundreds of sects have arrogated to themselves, not only the right of personal interpretation, but the duty of condemning all others–as if the infallibility they claimed for the Bible could not fail to be reflected upon their personal propaganda, or the specialities of a chapel service. Religious intolerance has cursed every village of the land, and hardly a single sect has originated which has not only claimed the right to differ from others, and to criticise, but also to persecute and assign to perdition all beyond its own narrow circle.
The Mystic, the Occultist and the Theosophist do indeed do good, or God, service, by illustrating the bases and origins of all faiths by the mutual illumination that is available. By tolerance and mutual esteem much good may arise, but by the internecine struggles of religionists, every faith is injured, and religion becomes a by-word meaning intolerance, strife and vainglory, and the mark and profession of an earnest sectarian is now that he is ever ready to condemn the efforts of others, in direct opposition to the precept of Jesus the Christ, Who said–“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
One sect of the Jews, the Caraites, successors of the Sadducees, throughout history rejected the Kabalah, and it is necessary to say here that the Hebrew Rabbis of this country of the present day do not follow the practical Kabalah, nor accept all the doctrines of the Dogmatic Kabalah. On the other hand, many famous Christian authors have expressed great sympathy with the Doctrinal Kabalah.
St. Jerome, who died in A.D. 420, in his “Letter to Marcella,” gives us all the Kabalistic Divine Names allotted to the Ten Sephiroth. Others were Raymond Lully, 1315; Pope Sixtus the Fourth, 1484; Pic de Mirandola, 1494; Johannes Reuchlin, 1522; H. Cornelius Agrippa, 1535; Jerome Cardan, 1576; Gulielmus Postellus, 1581; John Pistorius, 1608; Jacob Behmen, 1624; the notable English Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, 1637; Henry More, 1687; the famous Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, 1680; and Knorr von Rosenroth, 1689. To these must be added Eliphaz Lévi and Edouard Schuré, two modern French writers on the Occult Sciences, and two English authors, Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland. The notable German philosopher Spinoza, 1677, regarded the doctrines of the Kabalah with great esteem.