Saturday, May 30, 2009

Qabbalah and problems regarding spatial metaphors

The following is something I jotted up to a friend as an explanation about something I said in passing on the phone with him about spatial metaphors and the Kabbalah. I assume it'll expand and work its way into the Immanence of Myth. I also have more to say about the first point, some of which was inspired by an article of Mimi Lobell's that John Lobell sent to me recently. Perhaps some of you will find it useful or interesting, if not this'll serve as a reminder to myself. Any conversations that spin off of it are always welcome- questions and conversations in many ways are helping to direct the expansion of this project.

We constantly make our metaphors spatial, often when we are not actually referring to a spatial relation. This could even be the crux of the metaphor. For instance, we commonly say something like "I'm feeling pretty up" or "I'm feeling pretty down." There's a sense that we immediately understand from these metaphors that bears no relationship with reality. In other words, even though it shouldn't make sense, it makes perfect sense. This is the nature of a metaphor, we don't say "she ran like a deer," we say "she was a deer." There's a sense in which something that is logically untrue is true in another sense; the conjoining of these two or more ideas tells us something about its nature, even though the actual statement is false.

(This is an element of mythological thought that has caused no amount of trouble in religion, clearly, but that's not what I want to get at.)

The Qabbalah is in many ways a spatial as well as numerological metaphor created to deal with metaphysical ideas that could not possibly be dealt with in such subtlety in any other way. So a structure was built that allows us to relate these very abstract ideas with one another in a way that is very concrete and intuitive to us: a spatial "map," the tree of life.

Further, it was well recognized by priests and scholars alike at the point of the birth of Kabbalah (anywhere between the 4th and 12th century), that the divine could not exist separate from anything. That is to say, the divine cannot itself have qualities, for to have a quality is to acknowledge the absence of a quality, (if God is light then does darkness exist without God? How can anything exist outside of the absolute/infinite/etc.) Yet if it is without qualities, then how can it be said to exist at all? They worked around this issue with the tree, by saying that all of these seemingly distinct elements are essentially the result of an element outpouring to the next- they are not only linked but actually inseparable.

This "tree" is broken up into what are essentially layers of reality, called Sephiroth (סְפִירָה, "eminations"), from the tangible and material (Malkuth) to the completely meta-physical (Keter). These are connected by paths which correspond to the psychological states apparent in the transition from one of these layers to the next, and as such though there are dense correspondences associated with the Sephiroth, the associations for the paths are more narrative. This is most clearly seen in the association of the Major Arcana cards of the Tarot - or the archetypes they represent - with those paths. (FN The Major Arcana are distinct from the other cards, in that they represent archetypical personas that can also be seen as "journey states," such as the Fool and the Magus. There's a lot in the Book of Thoth on these two, not to mention the Golden Bough, Arthurian legend especially the legend of Parcival, or even Apocalypse Now for that matter.)

The usefulness and meaning of these "associations" is possibly best understood not only psychologically but also anthropologically. This quotation from Claude Levi-Strauss is strangely appropriate: "The customs of a community, taken as a whole,
always have a particular style and are reducible to systems... the number of systems is not unlimited and... in their games, dreams, or wild imaginings... human societies, like individuals, never create absolutely, but merely choose certain combinations from an ideal repetior... By making an inventory of all recorded customs, of all those imagined in myths or suggested in childrens and adult games, or
in the dreams of healthy or sick individuals or in psycho-pathological behavior, one could arrive at a sort of table, like that of the chemical elements, in which all actual or hypothetical customs would be grouped into families, so that one could see at a glance which customs a particular society had in fact adopted."

Though this is not the intention of the 'original' Kabbalah we see in the Sefer Yetzirah or Zohar, it is nevertheless what it evolved into, through the practices of Christian and Jewish mystics alike, taking on its penultimate form - in this regard - in the so-called magical orders of the Victorian age. And although much of the analysis and charts of associations produced by these groups may arguably be flawed or at the least culturally biased themselves, and though they are to some extent subjective in any case, it is nevertheless an analytical as well as creative tool too useful to be simply overlooked. These charts, and an explaination thereof, is best found in works like Israel Regardie's Garden of Pomegranates, Dion Fortune's Mystical Kabbalah, or a great deal of Aleister Crowley's work, most particularly the Book of Thoth, Magick In Theory and Practice, 777, and Book 4. (At the same time, all of these should be approached with some degree of skepticism.)

However, in bifurcating the divine, an inherent heirarchy is created within the tree of life so long as you think of that spatial metaphor as literal, that Keter is "above" Chesed or Netzach, that one "ascends" to "travel" from Malkuth to Yesod, etc. None of these are the case- they are metaphysical and psychological realities which have no spatial reality. They are only said to have that as a way of thinking of them, as otherwise we simply can't wrap our head around it. It's a small lie to avoid a larger one. The only truth to the tree of life is actually Ein Sof, the unmanifest which all of the sephiroth eminate from, and even then, in an oddly Hegellian realization, the rabbis later created the idea of Ein Sof Aur, the boundless possibility to pair against the unmanifest, almost Sunyata like-ness of Ein Sof. Sunyata is the Buddhist void which is also the ground of being, both are essentially the same concept, or in this case, category, since Sunyata and Ein Sof both represent the true
monad which simply cannot be conceived, nor thought of as anything other than a quality-less void containing in potentia all possible qualities. (The idea of Sunyata may be argued to contain both Ein Sof (the negative aspect) and Ein Sof Aur (the positive) within it, but this is irrelevant to the point.)

You can see in the duality of ideas such as Ein Sof and Ein Sof Aur that we are actually incapable of creating a truly monistic concept without at least implying a duality behind it, (and often a trinity behind that). It is difficult to say if this is simply a barrier of our own nervous system or an inherent quality of the universe beyond perception- when thinking of any single thing we must "frame" it within an area that is not that thing. It is an odd pre-requisite of thought. To think of a thing outside of which there exist nothing but that thing is mind-boggling, at best we think of it ever expanding, but what would it have to expand into? This is the ground that Kabbalah and other similar metaphysical systems attempt to strike at, through some of the conceptual tricks already discussed.


  1. Anonymous8:32 AM

    I feel the need to comment on some of the 'sources' of this article.

    When people mention Aleister Crowley and Hebrew in the same sentence, it's time to find a better source. Sometimes the best thing is to rely on academic litterature on mythological subjects, since peoples 'unacedemic' idea about 'interpretations' seems to end up in 'anyhting goes'. The Gnosis of the early christians, or any esoteric experience provided by study of the qabbalah, is based deeply on human kognitive behaviour, and cannot be subject for a 'debate' where anybody can just come up with ideas and expect them to be valid like the content of the zohar. The world doesn't work like that, and it's a modern misconception that any oppinion is equally valid. Schoolteachers do not invent quantum physics.

    It's like when people discuss 'pathworking' with their nose in the sky, without being able to read a basic hebrew sentence like:
    באשתו והיו לבשר אחד
    A sentence in Genesis that is the root of the tradition of the dibbuq, the ibbur and the hasidic term 'devekuth'. All derived from only this passage.

    Speaking about qabbalah without undestanding hebrew is meaningless. That's why we constantly find 'wannabe philosophers' on the web, and why google can never beat a proper library with real books.

    Daath means knowledge, and is mentioned in genesis about the serpen /and or eve exchaning knowledge about being like God. It has nothing to do with a sephirah on the tree of life. But the tree of life does certainly have something to do with that 'knowledge'. Look into the gospel of phillip, gospel of mary etc, and the rest of naghammadi, and it is clear that jesus, and the gnostic sect knew their qabbalah, and madwe their own version for their own purpose.

    If one comments on 'Qabbalah' and don't take the effort to either do a background research, or try to learn basic hebrew to at least read the words used in the terminology, i basically consider it unserious. It would be more proper to simply write: I don't know where to begin - can anyone help me read these sources? and then maybe get a debate on translation... then the heart of the text would open it self up to anyone participating.

  2. Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous:

    I think you're missing the point of this article.

    For what it's worth, though my focus in regard to Qabbalah - when I was interested in it - was on the "Western Esoteric" variants, for which being fluent in Hebrew is really not necessary, I did take quite a few college level courses on Jewish mysticism, and Qabbalah in particular.

    The Qabbalah of Rabbis in the 12th century is not what Dion Fortune or Crowley were working with. You'll find no argument here. I am personally only interested in it in what you might call a Jungian context: as a potential map of consciousness. I could personally give a flying fuck about being true to its historic roots, though you can feel free to.

    But this is the rough draft of an article that is using Qabbalah as an EXAMPLE of something, it isn't ABOUT Qabbalah.



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