The Mystical Paths: Kabbalah and Gnosticism

The Mystical Paths: Kabbalah and Gnosticism
by Michael Szul on 2008-04-28 08:14:14
tags: gnosticism, kabbalah, mysticism, william paley

I was always taught that the greatest of religious thinkers (especially when dealing with Christianity) were the mystics. If you weren’t brought up on charges of heresy, then you didn’t have anything interesting and innovative to contribute. Judaism and true Christianity occasionally seem to be locked down by their own traditions and somewhat unable to take up new roots in fertile soil. But the mystical sides of these two compelling faiths stretch out like the very tree of creation, encompassing fresh interpretations, and evolving into a higher state of knowledge.

Of course, though Jewish Kabbalah and Christian Gnosticism are two vastly different mystical traditions, they do share certain spheres of inspiration that seem to have trickled in from Greek philosophical influences. Not that Greek tradition shaped either of these two systems (though to be honest, Gnosticism is truly a child of Greek thought), but it did add significant enhancements to both mystical paths.

Christian Gnosticism tackles the view of absolute divinity in a somewhat pantheistic way. We begin with the “unknown God”, that great thing, which we cannot imagine (Rudolph 57). For reasons unknown, this being begun to emulate itself in what is often called a “graduated decline” (Rudolph 57). From this emulation several other beings developed called “Aeons” (Rudolph 57). Chief among these Aeons is Sophia, a Greek name meaning wisdom (Rudolph 57). It is said that Sophia gave birth to an afflicted god known as the Demiurge (Rudolph 73). This god mistakenly believed that he was the only god, and created the imperfect world that exists today (Rudolph 75). This is the god of the Bible (Rudolph 73). To Gnostics, this god was an evil god, a demon in a certain sense (Rudolph 75). In fact, many of the ruling spirits of the world, according to Gnostic literature, are demons known as Archons (Rudolph 79).

In William Paley’s The Watch and the Watchmaker, we are given an analogous storyboard to reveal to us the existence of God (Lawhead 330). Skeptic extraordinaire David Hume refuted this teleological proof with several statements (Lawhead 332). One of which basically said that it couldn’t be the work of God because then that would mean God was a horrible craftsman (Lawhead 333). Obviously Hume has a preconceived notion of what God is, and lacks the flexibility to shift his perception a few degrees in either direction. Gnosticism has clearly struggled with the philosophical problems of evil and came to the final conclusion that, based on Judeo-Christian scripture, the creator God must be an imperfect God. Friedrich Nietzsche echoed this statement with his comment that “One is most dishonest towards one’s God: he is not permitted to sin” (Nietzsche 90). Gnosticism tries to answer many of the questions that often plague theists and add fuel to the fire burning within every atheist (i.e., suffering, etc).

Jewish Kabbalah almost starts with the same concept. In the beginning, there was this unknown God that began to emulate itself (Scholem 88). However, this God chose to create, it wasn’t a “graduated decline”, and he didn’t need any intermediaries for process. This unknown God removed itself from a portion of the original chaotic state, that was before creation, in almost a Big Bang fashion (Scholem 88). God then re-entered into the world through different emanations or spheres called Sephirah (Scholem 96). This was the power of God spilling over sphere after sphere until finally the material world came about in the sphere known as Malkuth – or kingdom (Scholem 106).

Kabbalists basically created an ultimate road map to the universe with this concept of the Tree of Life (the interconnection of the different Sephiroth) and of creation. The most interesting part of this philosophy, however, lies in their discussion of the Three Veils of Negative Existence. These three abstract veils exist above the tree, exist before this road map, and enlighten us as to the proper descriptions of God (Scholem 88). It is believed by the Kabbalists, that the only proper thing to call God would be nothing, or no-thing, since anything else would limit God (Scholem 94). This is referred to as Ain (Scholem 94). Next, we can assume that God has no limit (Scholem 88). Even though this is offering a description, and we are now placing adjectives on the divine, limitlessness still seems to be an appropriate quality of God (Scholem 88). Thus comes the next veil, Ain Soph, which mean infinite, or limitless (Scholem 88). Lastly we have the third veil called Ain Sophur, which means limitless light (Scholem 91). This is making another assumption on our part, by adhering to the general western tradition that light equals good while darkness equates to evil.

The major difference between these two mystical concepts of the absolute lies in the ultimate understanding of them. Christian Gnosticism takes a more literal approach. Their philosophy is real to them just as sure as the Bible is the Word of God is the verbal truth in sectarian churches. The Kabbalah approaches the Tree of Life as nothing more than an abstract idea meant to help us understand what normally would not be explainable. The Kabbalah (with the exception of the intermingling of Jewish folklore) is never really meant to be taken as an absolute truth. It is instead meant to empower the individuals with the knowledge to attain their own enlightenment. It’s almost like meditation by total immersion in study.

Kabbalistic concepts are some of the most intricate and complex diagrams in theological study today. They offer philosophical models that can be interpreted in several different, even paradoxical, ways. Most common is the fact that several important ideas can be related to the personal sphere as well as the universal. The Kabbalah offers a lot of harmony between the microcosm and the macrocosm to allow many thought provoking ideas to permeate religious understanding.

The Kabbalistic view of the Earth retains this parallel sense of complexity by placing the highest Sephirah (Kether, meaning Crown; the highest experience of the mystical that a human can enter) and the lowest Sephirah (Malkuth, the physical Earth) together in unison by declaring that “Kether is Malkuth and Malkuth is Kether” (Scholem 107). This promotes an atmosphere of the greatest spirituality still evident in the individual temple of the body, and the Earth. Look within to find what lies outside. The Earth is a necessary step of transcendence that will take you to the ultimate spiritual revelation. To the Kabbalist, the physical world is just as sacred and the highest experience on the Tree of Life, and thus should be treated with reverence.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a cheerful view of the Earth. To them, the Earth is irrefutably evil, being created by an imperfect God that chose to withhold knowledge from his creations (Hoeller). The Earth is a materialistic hedonic paradise that continues to feed the fallen soul deceitful pleasures. It is only through the power of the Christ that salvation occurs and the soul can reunite with the true God, and the kingdom of light can supplant this false Earthly kingdom (Rudolph 122).

Jesus is still the savior in Gnosticism; however, it is not through his suffering and resurrection that humans are saved (Rudolph 122). It is instead through his teachings and life that we gain gnosis, or knowledge (Rudolph 122). It is through this gnosis that we are saved (Rudolph 122). This does not, however, mean that the Earth is not important. Gnosticism believes that everything, no matter that it was directly created by an evil God, still contains a “spark” of the original unknowable Deity, and should be treated with the appropriate respect (Rudolph 58).

The Kabbalistic and Gnostic positions on violence are not unique to their mystical sects unlike most other ideas. Instead, they follow tightly along the lines of traditional Judaism and Christianity.

The Jewish tradition puts the most emphasis on the Ten Commandments. This listing of “thou shalt not’s” is the main ethical law that the society is bound by. It seems to put an emphasis on good will and duty (things you should do even if you don’t want to), and looks a lot like Immanuel Kant’s Deontology in the way it proposes a universal ethical absolutism that provides a set amount of objective moral principles that should never be violated by anyone (Boss 25). Obviously violence is a key theme in this ethical theory, and Judaism offers their form of retributive justice in the phrase “an eye for an eye.” They want to let the punishment fit the crime.

Christian ethics, as established by Jesus of Nazareth, is more of a virtue ethics theory (Boss 36). Jesus taught that towards violence one should always “turn the other cheek.” Do not answer violence with violence, for one who “lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” Jesus wanted the focus to be on the characteristics of the person. By developing a better self, one develops a better society, and then ultimately the kingdom of God will reveal itself.

In Jewish Kabbalah, ruach is another important concept in understanding the construction of the universe. Ruach means spirit or breath (Scholem 155). The two meanings are often synonymous with each other and allow for a deeper understand of Kabbalistic abstract ideas. In the Book of Genesis, it is the ruach of God that moves across the water giving life to the world. Both breath and spirit plausibly fit into this translation; however, if we take breath as the meaning, then we can definitely draw a connection with the story of the creation of man, and how God breathed into his nostrils to give him life.

We can see that by understanding the Hebrew language in even the smallest sense, we can obtain some knowledge of the microcosmic / macrocosmic parallel’s that the Jewish tradition developed. God creates humanity in a somewhat similar fashion as he did the universe.

Surprisingly, this breath / spirit does not play an important roll in Christian mysticism (Hoeller). Instead, their focus is on the soul (Hoeller). Gnosticism believes in a dualistic soul that not only contains the imperfect essence of the “blind god”, but also a minute spark of the true eternal God (Hoeller). The soul regains its complete self through the process of gaining gnosis (Hoeller).

Chief among all figures in Gnostic lore is that of the Christ, the Redeemer (Rudolph 113). Despite the godly stature that mainstream sectarian Christianity (or what Kierkegaard would have called Christendom) places on Jesus, the Christ of the Gnostics is less vilified as a god, and is more seen as great teacher (Rudolph 113).

One of the primary books of the Gnostic tradition is that of the Gospel of Thomas (Rudolph 114). In Thomas, we see a Jesus who was without a miraculous birth, performed no miracles, and wasn’t crucified (Rudolph 114). Instead, we see a teacher who passed on his knowledge like a Buddha or a Confucius would. It is Jesus that is the Shepard trying to lead us to gnosis.

Jewish lore, particularly Kabbalistic texts, places an important focus on the first wife of Adam: Lilith (Scholem 356). Lilith was the original wife of Adam who fled from his company when he tried to force himself upon her (Scholem 357). Once found, Lilith was cursed to give birth to over one hundred children a day, and exactly one hundred would die each day (Scholem 357).

Lilith then became a chief demon among Jewish lore, and the wife of Samael (the central figure of evil) (Scholem 357). She is rumored to imperil women in childbirth, prey on male victims, and strangle children (Scholem 356).

Lilith’s importance in mystical tradition is not necessarily with her demonic standing. Lilith’s character is necessary to help shape a more complete picture of the Adam in the Torah. Often you will find expanded stories of Adam and Lilith not only in Kabbalistic texts, but also in the Midrash (Scholem 358). These stories present the trials and tribulations of Adam before and after his fall from grace. Lilith plays the primary roll of the disobedient wife. Through this, we see God’s love and loyalty for Adam as he seeks out Lilith, curses her, and then fashions Adam a new wife. Lilith is then demonized and becomes the seducer and whore of Hell (Scholem 356).

The mystical traditions of these two Abrahamic religions are fascinating constructs of ideological philosophies. To truly understand any religion, I feel that it is necessary for one to also understand that religion’s folklore and mystic traditions. The Kabbalah is an integral part of Jewish tradition, and though not studied by everyone of the Jewish faith, is still revered as a powerful source of metaphysical knowledge and understanding. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is pretty much ostracized by the Christian faith. Most Christian churches see it as heretical and polluted by paganistic ideals. This is a real shame since some of the best scripture (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Phillip) are from Gnostic sources. And though the concept of the divine is somewhat radical, the Gnostic presentation of Jesus is often put forth in a more human way, rather than constantly presenting him as the “Son of God.”

Works Cited

Boss, Judith A. Analysing Moral Issues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002

Hoeller, Stephan A. The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism. 2002. (6 Sept. 2002).

Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2003

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Palmer, Donald D. Kierkegaard for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1996.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987.

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York: Meridian, 1974.