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Gevurah and Chesed

“The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old or mixed, are good laws and good arms; and because there cannot be good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms there must needs be good laws, I will omit speaking of the laws and speak of the arms.” - Machiavelli
“God is the great urge that has not yet found a body but urges towards incarnation with the great creative urge.” - D.H. Lawrence

The title of the sephira Gevurah is translated as “strength”, and sometimes as “power”. The sephira is also referred to by its alternative titles of Din, “justice”, and Pachad, “fear”. The title of the sephira Chesed is translated as “mercy” or “love”, and it is often called Gedulah, “majesty” or “magnificence”. Gevurah and Chesed lie on the Pillars of Form and Force respectively, and possess a more definite and generally agreed symbolism than any other sephiroth: Chesed stands for expansiveness and the creation and building-up of form, what can very appropriately be referred to as anabolism, and Gevurah stands for restraint and both the preservation of form, and the breaking-down (or catabolism) of form.

Within the symbolism of the Kabbalah the most explicit and concrete expression of form occurs in Malkuth, the physical world, and as it takes a conscious being (e.g. thee and me) to comprehend the world in terms of forms which are built-up and broken down, so Chesed and Gevurah express something vital about our conscious relationship with the external, material world. When I see something beautiful being created I may well think this is “good”, but when I see the same thing being wantonly destroyed, I would probably think this is “bad”, and this type of thinking pervades early Kabbalistic writing. In his commentary on “The Bahir”, Aryeh Kaplan writes [1]:

“The concept of Chesed-Love is that of freely giving, while that of Gevurah-Strength is that of restraint. When it is said that Strength is restraint, it is in the sense of the teaching “Who is strong, he who restrains his urge”. It is obvious that man can restrain his nature, but if man can do so, then God certainly can. God's nature, however, is to do good and therefore, when He restrains His nature, the result is evil. The sephira of Gevurah-Strength is therefore seen as the source of evil.”

The Zohar also contains many references to the “rigorous severity” of God (another synonym for Gevurah) and its being the source of evil in the creation. However, when one considers that the creation and uncontrolled growth of a cancer would correspond to Chesed, and the attempts of the immune system to contain and destroy it would correspond to Gevurah, it should be clear that it is not useful to consider creation and destruction in terms of good and evil. It is useful to look at a living, organic system as a balance between these two opposed tendencies, and the manifest Creation in Kabbalah is very definitely pictured as a living, organic system (i.e. a Tree of Life).

The most vivid metaphors for Chesed and Gevurah come from a time when European societies were ruled by kings and queens, when (in principle at least) the ultimate authority and power in society rested in a single individual. Chesed corresponds to the creative aspects of leadership, and early texts are one-sided in characterising this by love, mercy and majesty. Gevurah corresponds to the conservative aspects of leadership, to the power to preserve the status-quo, and the power to destroy anything opposed to it. These two aspects go hand-in-hand - try to change anything of consequence in society, and someone will invariably oppose that change. To bring about change it is often necessary to have the power to over-rule opposition. Consensus is an impossibility in society - there will always be someone whose opinions are at best ignored and at worst suppressed - and Chesed and Gevurah represent respectively the kingly obligation to seek what is good for the many (enlightened leadership of course!), and the power to judge and punish those opposed to the will of the king. The following description of Margaret Thatcher comes from Nicholas Ridley, a minister in her cabinet [2]:

“She governed with superb style, carrying every war into the enemy's camp, seeking to destroy rather than contain the opposition, and determined to blaze a radical trail. But she never let power corrupt her; nor did she ever fail to be compassionate and kind as a human being.”

Whether this description is accurate or not is irrelevant to this discussion; what it does do is capture in two sentences something essential about a leader, the balance between power, strength and militancy on one hand, and humanitarianism, compassion and caring on the other. This is very much a model of divine kingship (or queenship!): a king who loves and cares for his people and seeks to bring about “heaven on earth”, but at the same time punishes transgression, and fights for and preserves what is good and worth preserving. Kabbalists thought of God in this way: God loves us (so the argument goes), and the mercy and benignity of God is represented by the sephira Chesed, but at the same time God has made his laws known to humankind and will judge and punish anyone who opposes these laws. Read the book of Proverbs in the Bible if you want to enter into this view of reality.

Many modern Kabbalists have a more jaundiced view of leadership than medieval Kabbalists, and certainly do not see Chesed as purely the love or mercy of God. In the twentieth century we have seen a succession of leaders harness their vision, creativity and leadership to the four Vices of Chesed, which are tyranny, bigotry, hypocrisy and gluttony. It takes an uncommon skill and vision not only to contemplate the annihilation of entire races, but to create a structure in which it happens. And how many people would dream of a socialist utopia where traditional communities are forcibly bulldozed and replaced by dilapidated concrete slums, and have the power to bring this about? You may not like this kind of leadership, but it is still leadership, and in its own way it is inspired. A leader may be inspired by a vision, and may have the power to bring that vision into reality, but it is unfortunately also the case that the result can become a new definition of evil. Good and evil are not static qualities with fixed meanings; in every generation there are exemplars who define for the whole of society the meaning of the words in new contexts. Tamerlane may have built pyramids from skulls, but what did he know about asset stripping?

Tyranny, bigotry, hypocricy and gluttony, the vices of Chesed, are the meat and drink of daily newspapers. Tyranny is leadership without authority, an illegitimate or unconstitutional leadership usually oiled with large helpings of cruelty, the Vice of Gevurah. Bigotry is a quick and easy way to drum up a power base: find a minority group in society, emphasise and magnify to grotesque proportions the differences between them and the rest of society, and use the natural fear of the strange or unfamiliar to do the rest. Hypocrisy can be found in religious leaders who denounce normal human behaviour as a sin, sin comprehensively in private, and use genuine religious aspirations as in excuse to line their pockets. It can be found in those who talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat in public and buy their luxury goods from exclusive party shops - the collapse of state socialism in Europe has revealed to those who didn't already know it the full extent to which pious utterances about social equality were a cover for almost limitless privileges for the few. Gluttony is over-consumption, an appetite well in excess of need, and one has only to remember Imelda Marcos's wardrobe to get the idea. It is virtually a fashion among modern tyrants to siphon billions of dollars into Swiss bank accounts - the scale on which men like Idi Amin Dada, Ferdinand Marcos, Baby Doc Duvalier, Mengistu, and Saddam Hussein (to name but a few) were able to beggar nations for their own personal advantage goes so far beyond any rational measure of human need it is hard to comprehend.

When one looks at the worst twentieth century tyrants, men who were directly responsible for the deaths of thousands or millions of people, it is hard to find any Einsteins of evil - one is struck by the sheer ordinariness of these men. Clever, manipulative, politically adept, lucky, exceptional in their ability to climb to the top of the heap, successful in grasping and holding power, but not conscious, plotting allies of a terrible dark power. Behind the brutality, murder, torture, imprisonment, and the apparatus of oppression one can see a very human vulnerability, self-importance, vanity, folly, insecurity, and greed. The vices of Chesed are the vices of all the other sephiroth writ large - power magnifies a vice until it becomes a ravening monster. A man with rigid and unbending views on human morality will do no harm if he has no audience, but give him enough power and he will put society in chains which might last a thousand years. A greedy man with enough power might loot an entire country. A petty and irrational bigot with enough power might enslave or annihilate whole races. They say power corrupts, but this is not so; corruption is already within all of us, and we lack only the necessary authority and power to unleash our own personal evil on the world.

The moral is that power needs to be tempered by mercy and love, and the correspondences for Chesed emphasise this so strongly it is easy to for a novice to ignore the appalling negative qualities of Chesed - power without restraint, indiscriminate destruction, everything in excess. The Virtue of Chesed is humility, the ideal of leadership without self-importance and all its accompanying vices. The Spiritual Vision of Chesed is the Vision of Love, love and caring for all living things, and the desire to find a way (be it ever so small - remember humility) to make the world a better place. There is a strong message in the positive correspondences for Chesed: without humility and love, leadership and power become the instruments of self-importance, and the petty vices of human nature are transformed into the monsters of evil which terrorise the human race.

The illusion of Chesed is Right, in the sense of “being right”. It is difficult to lead without conviction, when one sits on every fence and wavers on every question, but no-one is ever right with a capital “R”, and anyone who seeks the reassurance of Being Right is evading the essence of responsibility.

The qlippoth of Chesed is ideology, not in the philosophical sense, but in the common-use sense of “political ideology”. The rationale behind this is that it is very easy to take a creed, or a doctrine, or a dogma, or whatever, and use it as a platform for leadership. If you see a politian (or a religious leader) being interviewed on television, and the response to every question is just the same old empty jargon, the same old formulae, the same old evasions, the same old arguments and irrefutable assertions, and you feel you have heard the same thing a dozen times before out of a dozen different mouths, then this is the dead, empty shell of leadership.

The sephira Gevurah is as often misunderstood as the sephira Chesed. The planet associated with Chesed is (appropriately) Tzedek, Jupiter, leader of the gods; the planet associated with Gevurah is Madim, Mars, the god of war and destruction. The magical image of Gevurah is a king in a chariot, or conversely a mighty warrior. Most novices take this imagery at face value and envision Gevurah as a very forceful, violent and destructive sephira, and cannot understand why it is positioned on the pillar of form. Almost all novices will (wrongly) attribute the emotion of anger to Gevurah. It is worth recalling from Chapter 3. the traditional Kabbalistic view [3]:

“It must be remembered that to the Kabbalist, judgement [Din - judgement, a title of Gevurah] means the imposition of limits and the correct determination of things. According to Cordovero the quality of judgement is inherent in everything insofar as everything wishes to remain what it is, to stay within its bounderies.”

This is a statement about form. The form of something determines what it is, in distinction from everything else, and when it no longer has that form, it no longer is. Take a table tennis ball and squash it; it stops being a table tennis ball…it stops being a ball. Something still exists in the world, but its form as a ball has been destroyed. Take these notes and randomly jumble the letters; the letters still exist, but the notes are gone. These notes are contained in the form of the letters; destroy the form of the letters and the notes are also destroyed.

Everything in the world is its form. We cannot see the natural substance of the world; we cannot see atoms, and even if we could, we would see protons, neutrons and electrons arranged in different forms to create the chemical elements. It has taken physicists most of this century to deduce that the protons, neutrons and electrons are not the “true” stuff of the world, and underneath there might be “quarks”, “leptons” and “gluons” arranged in different forms to create the fundamental particles. Is that the end? Are quarks and gluons the “true stuff”, the raw, primal gloop which carries all form? No-one knows. Sometimes I think, in common with the earliest Kabbalists, that Malkuth sits upon the throne of Binah, and at no point will we find the raw gloop of Malkuth. Someone will write down an equation and show the properties of quarks and gluons are a natural consequence of the form of the equation, and the form of the equation is one of those things beyond any possibility of explanation. “Look” we will say, “The form of all things is a potential outcome of this one equation. The mother of everything that exists can be written down on a piece of paper. Look, here it is!”

There is a deep mystery in form. The world is made not of things, but of patterns. In our minds we accept the reality of these patterns, and forget that the sweet, white stuff we put in our tea and coffee is just one of an infinite number of patterns of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon is just one of a large number of combinations of protons, neutrons and electrons, and so on. We forget that “War and Peace” is just one of an infinite number of combinations of letters of the alphabet. The patterns are our reality, and I suspect that only the patterns are real - there is nothing more real than patterns waiting to be discovered. I have read graduate texts on quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics, and I find no grey gloop mentioned anywhere. These texts do not explain the world, but they predict it, often with astonishing accuracy, and something one does not find is a prediction that the world is founded on a formless gloop. As a programmer I have built realities out of pure mathematical forms - sets, functions, containers - and nowhere did I need any grey gloop; my worlds were the way they were because the objects within them behaved the way they did, and that behaviour was simply the structure or form I created. The view of reality in Wittgenstein's “Tractatus” [4] has a deeply Kabbalistic (if one-sided) flavour, the Vision of Splendour of Hod in a distilled form:

“If I know an object I also know all its possible occurences in states of affairs.

(Every one of these possibilities must be part of the nature of the object).

A new possibility cannot be discovered later.

If I am to know an object, though I need not know its external properties, I must know all its internal properties.

If all objects are given, then at the same time all possible states of affairs are also given.

Each thing is, as it were, in a space of possible states of affairs.

……..

Objects contain the possibility of all situations.

The possibility of its occuring in states of affairs is the form of an object.” (my italics)

I have digressed this far into the nature of form because I do not believe it is possible to understand either Chesed or Gevurah in depth without understanding the importance of form in Kabbalah, and when talking about form I am not “talking mystical”. Programmers work with form; they shape programs out of forms with the same inquisitive delight as a glassblower handling a blob of molten glass. They talk about objects, and behaviours, and classify objects in hierarchies according to behaviour. They create new objects with a given abstract behaviour; they leave unwanted objects to be tidied up by the “garbage collector”. There is much more which can be said about this, but as many people are not programmers and most programmers do not admit to being Kabbalists, I must leave this as a trail to be followed. The important point is that when I talk about form I find similar thinking in chemistry, physics, computer science, and Kabbalah; the world of human beings is perceived in terms of form, and form is created and destroyed. That is what Chesed and Gevurah represent.

The sephira Binah is the mother of form. That is, Binah contains within her womb the potential of all form, just as woman in the abstract contains within her womb the potential of all babies. The birth of form takes place in Chesed, and that is why Chesed corresponds to the visionary; the preservation and destruction of form takes place in Gevurah, and that is why Gevurah corresponds to the warrior.

In most societies even a warrior takes second place to the Law. The Law comes first, and the warrior swears to defend both the Law and the country. This may sound a little idealistic, but if one takes the trouble to listen to a few oaths of allegiance (e.g. British Police, British Army, Soviet Army) one should find that the essence is to obey, uphold and defend. Nothing about violence, destruction, mayem or anger. The essence of Gevurah is to uphold and defend - as Cordovero says, “the quality of judgement is inherent in everything insofar as everything wishes to remain what it is, to stay within its bounderies”. If Cordovero had the jargon he might have talked about “the immune system of God”.

The Virtues of Gevurah are courage and energy. There is a saying among managers that “any fool can manage when things are going well”. The acid test of management is to have the courage to tackle, and essentially destroy, organisations (forms) which no longer work, and to have the energy to keep going against the inevitable opposition. The Vice of Gevurah is cruelty - power is seductive, and destruction can be pleasurable.

The spiritual experience of Gevurah is the Vision of Power, and the Illusion is invincibility. I don't think these need any explanation.

The qlippoth of Gevurah is bureaucracy, in the common-use sense of a system of rules and procedures which has become an end in itself. My most memorable experience was the time I went into a social security office to ask whether they could issue me with a social security number.

“You'll have to take a ticket and wait,” the woman behind the counter said.

“But you only have to tell me yes or no,” I protested.

“You'll have to take a ticket and wait!” she snapped. So I took a ticket and waited for twenty minutes. When my turn came I asked the question again.

“Can you issue me with a social security number here?”

“No! Next please!”

This is probably not the best example of the dead hand of bureaucracy at work, as it contains a certain amount of deliberate cruelty, but we have all encountered endless forms which have to be filled in, pointless procedures which have to be observed, interminable delays and so on. The essence of bureaucracy is that there is real power behind it, otherwise we wouldn't suffer the indignities, but the power is locked up and everyone is rendered impotent by the forms of bureaucracy.

Gevurah is a hard sephirah to work with, as Kabbalistic magicians often discover to their cost. There is absolutely no place for emotion, no place for excess, no place for ego. The warrior works within the Law, and ignorance of the Law is not an excuse. If you don't know what the Law is, don't work with Gevurah. Most people are sloppy in thinking about problems, and take what appears to be the simplest and superficially most convenient solution. Gevurah is clinically exact, and if you invoke Gevurah you are invoking well above the level of emotion, particularly your emotions, and as you judge, so will you be judged. Invoke on the Pillar of Form, and cause and effect will follow without the slightest regard for your feelings. All good programmers who have sweated throughout the night with a programming error of their own making know this in their bones.

Associated with Chesed and Gevurah are two tendencies which are so pronounced, readily observed, and deeply rooted that I have called them the Power myth and the Annihilation myth, where I use the word myth in the sense that there is pre-existent, archtypal script in which anyone can play the role of protagonist.

The Power myth features a protagonist who seeks power because power means control. Everything is specified and controlled down to the finest detail to eliminate every possibility of discomfort, surprise or insecurity. The world becomes an impersonal mechanism designed to provide for every demand. The natural world is destroyed to reduce its unpredictability and untidyness. All knowledge is subverted to control. Personal relationships are restricted and formalised to minimise intrusion or any possibility of personal hurt, and are modelled to increase self-importance. Anyone who won't play can be removed or suitably punished. The protagonist lives at the centre of the world.

In the Annihilation myth the protagonist lives for the Cause. The Cause is the most important thing in life. The protagonist prays to be released from the thrall of ego and self-importance that he may better serve the Cause with every atom of his soul. “Yea, I am nothing”, he whispers, “Less than the smallest worm in the ground compared with the glory of the Cause. I humble myself before the Cause. I live only to serve the Cause.” Pain, suffering and death are mere adornments for the ever-lasting glory of the Cause. The Cause might be the Beloved, the Revolution, the Great Work, the Mistress or Master, or God (to name only a few).

Examples of both these myths in practice are legion; two examples are the package-holiday tourist as an example of the Power myth, and many Christian mystics as an example of the Annihilation myth. Both myths can be observed in glorious, infinitely repetitive, and predictable detail in S&M fantasies.

The God name associated with Chesed is “El”, or Almighty God. The archangel is Tzadkiel, the “Righteousness of God”. The angel order is the Chashmalim, or Shining Ones. In Ezekiel, Chashmal is a substance which forms the splendour of God's countenance, and as chashmal is the modern Hebrew word for electricity, I find it useful to think of the Chashmalim in terms of crackling thunderbolts - it goes well with the Jupiter correspondence.

The God name associated with Gevurah is Elohim Gevor. All the sephiroth on the Pillar of Form use Elohim in their God names, and in this case it is qualified by “gevor”, a word which expresses the qualities of a great hero - strength, might, and courage. The name is sometimes translated as “God of Battles”. The archangel is is sometimes given as Kamiel, and sometimes as Samael. Samael, the “Poison of God” is an angel with a long history - see [5], and is essentially the Angel of Death. Samael is not the first choice of angel to invoke when working Gevurah - work on Gevurah is tricky at the best of times, and the Angel of Death does not mess around. Neither does Kamiel (which I have been told means “sword of God” - I cannot confirm this), but there is marginally more scope for interpretation! The angel order is the Seraphim, or Fiery Serpents.

Chesed and Gevurah are the sceptre and sword of a king; there are many statues of medieval kings in British cathedrals which show a king seated with the sceptre of legitimate authority in one hand and the sword of temporal might in the other. In Kabbalah the King corresponds to the sephira Tiphereth, the union of Chesed and Gevurah. This is a symbol of a human being in relationship to the world - at the bottom of all initiations is the full consciousness that we are kings and queens with the freedom and power to do anything we please, and total responsibility for the consequences of everything we do. Somewhere between the extremes of power and love each one of us has to find our own balance, and somewhere in a garden a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil still grows, and still bears fruit.

  1. Kaplan, Aryeh, “The Bahir”, Samuel Weiser 1979
  2. Ridley, Nicholas, “My Style of Government: The Thatcher Years” Hutchinson 1991
  3. Scholem, Gershom G., “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”, Schocken 1974
  4. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”, Routledge 1974
  5. Graves, R., and Patai, R., “Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis”, Arena, 1989

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