Etymologically the word Kabbalah simply means "tradition" and according to its Hebrew root, "to receive." This indicates that various traditions received what could be described as oral and written revelation. This was the case for the Hebrew people.
Birth of Kabbalah
Mysticism has always been an essential part of the Jewish spiritual life. Tradition strongly suggests that the source was Abraham himself. This religious tradition was passed along from Moses to Joshua, followed by Judges and Kings. (We can follow this tradition in the Bible itself). The priesthood of the Temple kept this religious tradition but sometimes needed the help of the Judges and Prophets to palliate the difficulties of transmission. Of course, the text was perfectly and faithfully transmitted, although all too often according to the letter.
The “breath of the spirit,” however, was necessary to preserve the heritage of this revelation through a kind of continuity of contact with God. The Prophets performed this function in the same way the oracles of antiquity received the divine message that testified to this transcendent reality. But even in this case, the commentaries or authorities had difficulty leaving the literal text to rise to the mystical or spiritual sense of the original text.
It is common today to state that Kabbalah corresponds to a group of esoteric Jewish texts that were composed in Spain, the South of France, and Provence during the Middle Ages. It is from there that specific schools of Kabbalah emerged and continued to flourish.
It is correct that 2000 years ago the rabbis of the Talmud did not use this word, but rather spoke of "nistar," which corresponds to the secret world of Torah, in contrast to the "niglah," that is, what is revealed. The fact remains, however, that the roots of this tradition unequivocally go back much further in the pagan religions of Babylonia. The Jewish tradition would appropriate a part of this heritage, adapting it to its sacred texts.
These periods in the history of the Jewish religion were times of sectarian conflicts. Like any other epoch, they were at the same time rich in theological thinking from several groups and cults. The rabbis who drafted the Talmud sought to maintain a certain orthodoxy and were obviously careful about any sectarian drift. They referred to this mysticism under the generic name Ma'aseh Merkava. The Talmud insists that what concerns this knowledge should not be taught to the masses, but only to those who are mature enough for this study. This is the apparent source of what will later be called Kabbalah.
Several mystical experiences are indicated in the Talmud, for example, the one of Rabbi Simon Bar Yochai, but there is no mention of any book he has written.
Between the third and fourth centuries, Sefer Yetzirah appeared, to become the first explicitly Kabbalistic book. All scholars do not agree that the one we have today is the one mentioned in the Talmud, but nothing seems to invalidate it.
This book shows us for the first time a different way of seeing God and his relationships with people and the world. The Hebrew alphabet is here evoked as an auxiliary of creation (which we also see in the Zohar). The correspondences between the parts of the body, the stars, the months of the year, the metals, etc. are of primary importance. This tradition developed interesting practices and rites. Beyond the Hebrew current, initiatic rites from this stage were found in the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross, after being transmitted by the Christian Kabbalists and hermetic currents of the Rose-Cross. As we will see later, this knowledge is itself the heir to the ancient Hellenistic, Pythagorean and Neoplatonic traditions. This is what would be abundantly and brilliantly explained by the Christian Kabbalists.
The most significant writings that followed were the Sefer Raziel (“The Book of the Angel Raziel”), the Sefer BahirI (“The Book of Enlightenment”). and the Zohar (“Book of Bright Light”). They were in a way the pillars of this occult tradition. According to some sources, the Zohar was discovered by Moses De Leon, who lived around 1290 in Spain. But it is attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the Rashbi, student of Rabbi Akiva who would have written this set of texts in the thirteenth century. It was after the capture and imprisonment of Rabbi Akiva that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived in a cave with his son for thirteen years. He came out of this retreat having written this “Book of Splendor” which was lost for ten centuries. Moses de Leon rediscovered it and published it. This text of the Zohar is a set of several volumes of commentaries of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Its style contrasts greatly with the usually very rationalistic comments. From there, it became the reference text developing the wisdom of the Kabbalah.
At the end of the thirteenth century, Jews experienced an unstable and dangerous period in Spain. This, however, did not prevent great mystics like Abulafia from preaching tolerance and open-mindedness, and writing works of great depth. The Jews were expelled from Spain and several took refuge in Safed in Galilee, where a new school of Kabbalists appeared.
During this time, the Kabbalah developed in a place where Christians and Jews still lived in good intelligence: Provence. This extraordinary civilization had not yet known the Crusades that would definitively destroy it. The courses were given freely in the various universities of Languedoc, without considering the teachers’ confessions. Philosophical works from different spiritual and philosophical streams, including Islam, were translated. Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides were thus published and studied for the greater glory of the human spirit. We must emphasize that it was also in Languedoc (the South of France) where the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross was revealed a few centuries later.
In the 16th century, in Rabat, Morocco, Rabbi Isaac Luria and several Kabbalists continued the work on earlier writings. They developed practices and techniques that could help them perform the experiments described in the books they were studying. The Kabbalah was thus better known and better understood. It became the way to cross the letter of the text by using its wealth and power. These traditions were at the same time oral and written: oral in the sense that techniques and teachings were passed from Masters to disciples; written in the sense that a number of texts and pieces of advice were recorded. But it was not uncommon for the Masters to die by bequeathing one-third of their writings to their followers, burning another third and getting themselves buried with the last third. It was important to them that the essential techniques were the result of an interior work and not a simple reception of a text remaining out of the individual experience. We find traces of this custom in the traditions of the Christian Kabbalah and the Rose-Cross. According to legend, when the tomb of the founder of this tradition, Christian Rosenkreuz was found, he held in his arms a book, Book T.
Kabbalists developed their practices and studies outside the powers of religious institutions. This often created an opposition from the rabbinate. It was also rather difficult to identify a specific authority in the Kabbalah tradition because this knowledge was used in various groups interested in mysticism, magic, esotericism, and so on. All this contributed to the suspicious character of Kabbalah.
Nevertheless, it continued to develop both in the Jewish environment of North Africa (Sephardim) and in the Jewish milieu of Central Europe (Ashkenazi). It was so until our time when several Jewish masters became the heirs of this ancient current. We must remember that this Kabbalistic tradition continues to help individuals of Jewish faith to deepen the spirituality of their tradition.
For this reason, as early as the 15th century, Christians looked at this Jewish tradition and tried to adapt it to their own faith.
Christian Kabbalah and Hermetic Kabbalah
The humanist Pico della Mirandola (Pic de la Mirandole) claimed to be the first Latin student in the 15th century to study Kabbalah and this seems likely, even if converted Jews began before him. In any case, he was the first Christian to study it. As early as the 13th century, it was recognized that the Talmud and Midrash contained Christian elements and that this could facilitate Jewish conversions. Ergo, some Christians began to study the Hebrew tradition as well as the Kabbalah. This is indicated, for example, in the dedication letters of the works of the Christian Kabbalists to the Pope. In this way the authors could hope to bypass the suspicions weighing on every Christian studying the Kabbalah, especially if one wanted to address the issue of practices.
The first true Jewish convert to Christianity was Abner de Burgos (1270-1348). He took the name of Alfonso de Valladolid in 1320. Like Abulafia, he had experienced spiritual visions that occurred while he worked on the techniques of the permutations of letters.
When Pico della Mirandola was born, the Jews were experiencing a period of social peace, both under the Muslim rule in Spain and in the Christian lands of Languedoc and Provence. This encounter between the different thoughts yielded a mutual enrichment that lasted until the recapture. Then the hatred towards the Jews increased and eventually led to the atrocities known by everyone. Jews were displaced as early as 1477 and suffered a massive deportation from Spain in 1492. However, Christians gave them a choice between forced departure and conversion. Although this last situation was very precarious, many Jews chose it. This allowed them to continue the study of what had become the Old Testament and in a much more discrete way, the Kabbalistic tradition.
Despite this rejection of the Jewish people, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church itself accepted the interest of these studies - although not just for the sake of instruction.
Translations of Jewish and Kabbalistic texts were made by several converted Jews. One was Samuel ben Nissim Abulfarash (1226-1286), better known after his conversion as Flavius Mithridates. He translated more than 3000 pages of Hebrew works and trained Pico della Mirandola. Mithridates, as later other Christian Kabbalists did, sought to convince the Pope that he could prove the Christian truths by the Kabbalah. No doubt it was also he who translated more specialized works for the teaching of Pico della Mirandola. Some researchers, however, noted that Kabbalistic knowledge of Pico was quite limited.
Mithridates introduced the Sepher Ha-Bahir to Pico, who studied it in his original language. Interestingly, this work appeared in Languedoc around 1150 and already showed a connection between the Jewish Kabbalistic, Neoplatonic and Gnostic traditions.
We should also notice two other figures who influenced the young Pico: Pablo de Heredia (1408-1486) and the mysterious teacher Dattilo or Dattylus. Both were known for having written a lot about magic. Some of Pico della Mirandola's ideas clearly show this influence.
Christian Kabbalists had an entirely new approach to Judaism. Of course, they recognized the quality of this religious tradition. For some of them, previous religions, including this one, formed the foundation of Christianity. It is difficult today to know what they had in mind when formulating this idea. We have two things to judge: their writings and the occult traditions derived from them. As previously noted, these writings were published under the control of the Church. Consequently, it is important not to take these texts too literally. As for the traditions that followed, their successors, such as Agrippa, give a clearer idea of the original intent. What we can say is that the foundation of their thinking lay in the preceding spiritual religions such as those from Sumer, Egypt, Greece, or Judaism. All have participated in the foundation of a kind of esoteric universal religion.
It was easy for Christian Kabbalists to call this religion “Catholic” as this word etymologically means “universal.” However, reading these texts shows us that their conception of this universal religion is in no way identical to that of the Orthodox and Roman churches. This universal religion, derived from the esoteric principles of the Kabbalah, was nothing but a Neoplatonic hermeticism. It is indeed a form of spirituality integrating in a harmonious and tolerant way the different religions of the Western tradition. As for the initiated priests, they became followers of the true science of Kabbalah – which is a generic term for the knowledge gained by initiates to these mysteries. Far from being a new reading of Christianity, it was rather a new religious movement that would have consequences throughout the West. In addition to the Neoplatonist theurgic schools, it can also be found in the manifestation of the Masonic, Rose-Cross, and occultist movements.
It is interesting to read the specific history of the Kabbalistic tradition in Reuchlin's preface to Pope Leo XIII. We can be surprised, either by his disconcerting naivety or by the boldness of his remarks. He begins his letter with a clear explanation of the circumstances of the renaissance of Neoplatonism and the new Platonic Academy in Florence. Clearly, he knew about the real nature of the academy, the initiative of Cosimo de Medici and the teachings of Plethon, the last heir of the Hellenistic pagan tradition. He introduced into western Christianity a vivid knowledge that was able to break dogmas, revealing exceptional individuals. Even if this revival of classical philosophy had been limited to this aspect, it would have been extraordinary. However, it also gave birth to a great movement that literally transformed letters and the arts. The seed of freedom had sprouted and could then hatch all over Europe. But this new movement was not limited to letters. It is clear today that behind the Platonic Academy was the occult and initiatory tradition of hermeticism. We want to talk about a real teaching, both symbolic and ritualistic, involving a complete set of practices. Presumably the initiates of the academy received what we would call “esoteric teachings” and were united in a true spiritual family. This hermetic tradition dates to a pre-Christian period when the Bible had not yet been written. At that time, Hebrews were still polytheistic. Thot Hermes was the God who brought science and magic to humankind through sacred hieroglyphic writing. At the end of the Egyptian Empire, Alexandria became the extraordinary meeting place for all wise men who perpetuated this wonderful tradition under the garments of the cults of Mysteries and theurgy. This tradition was maintained through what was called the golden chain of followers and was fully revealed during this exceptional period.
Here is what Reuchlin wrote about it: “For this mission [‘the way to find the secrets that were hidden in the monuments of the Ancients.’] he [the illustrious Laurent de Medici, father of Pope Leo X] endeavored to bring from all over the world the most learned men in ancient literature, who joined science in eloquence, including Demetrios Chalkokondyles,, Marsilio Ficino, Georges Vespucci, Christophe Landino, Valori, Ange Politien, Jean Pic, Count of Mirandola, and all the greatest scientists in the world. [These men] brought to light the inventions of the ancients and the mysterious antiquity which the misfortune of the times had forgotten, the greatest minds competing with one another. As one made comments, one made collections, the other interpreted and translated from one language to another, Marsile brought Greece to Lazio, and Politien brought the Romans back to Greece. We did not bring much glory to the Medici." […]
"Also, in the thought that only the Pythagorean doctrines had been lacking to scholars, even though fragments of them are scattered throughout the Laurentian Academy, I thought that it would not displease you if I explained to the public what Pythagoras and the great Pythagoreans thought; with your happy assent the Latins will read what they have hitherto ignored, and for Italy Marsilius published Plato, and for the French, Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples renewed Aristotle. I will finish and I, Capnion, will show to the Germans a Pythagoras, whose renaissance by my care is dedicated to you. The work could not have been completed without the Hebrew Cabal. The philosophy of Pythagoras began with the precepts ‘Cabalaei,’ and the memory of the Patriarchs leaving Great Greece returned to hide in the works of the Cabalists, so it was necessary to draw [from] almost everything, so I wrote about cabalistic art, which is a symbolic philosophy, to make known the teachings of ‘Pythagoraei’ to scholars.”
It is interesting to notice that the translation of many works from the Judaic religion is clearly associated with those of the Hellenistic tradition. They constituted the extraordinary source which all the later followers of this tradition would use.
We also must remember the essential work of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth - Kabbala Denudata - a very important compilation of Kabbalistic texts.
We will not list here all the Kabbalist writers and all the works they translated or published. Historians have brilliantly accomplished this important work and continue to do so. Our purpose here is to help you understand the sources of this tradition, to see its real value and to understand who the heirs are. Sometimes historians are relatively objective for old history but have difficulty understanding the modern organizations. It is not always easy to see that one of the characteristics of a traditional, spiritual and initiatic tradition is associating practice with theoretical study. We realize that the latter is fundamental, but it must not replace a practical approach that is the only one capable of guiding someone to the spiritual light. Without this, teachings could remain a pure abstraction disconnected from the sacred world. Let us not forget that the goal of the practitioner is to rise to the divine, or in more contemporary language, to reach levels of consciousness capable of revealing the divine in us. Let us not forget that even for Christianity, God made humans in his image. Certainly, we could discuss the term “image.” However, we prefer to follow the ancient Platonic authors who recognized in human beings the presence of the divine. This concealment of the soul by the body justifies spiritual practices and initiations capable of gradually liberating it. Let us not forget that it is the Platonic Academy of Florence under the aegis and impulse of Ficino and Pico who created the tradition of which we speak.
Finally, let us remember that the current heirs of the Christian Kabbalists of the Renaissance, whether occultists or hermetists, must be proud of this heritage. They must always focus towards the ideal that their former masters manifested, bringing together the knowledge of texts and languages, associated with a constant inner practice.
Excerpt from « ABC of Christian Kabbalah », Editions Grancher, Jean-Louis de Biasi.