Although Gnosticism is, on the whole, treated as a phenomenon intimately connected with Christianity, there is evidence that it predates the birth of Jesus in certain heretical Jewish circles. This is unsurprising as Judaism would have been in contact with Babylonian/Persian religious traditions, as well as Hellenic Platonic speculation. Gnosticism certainly gained its first adherents from within the Hellenized Jewish and Jewish-Christian communities, however these would eventually become part of the sphere of Christianity (whether orthodox or heterodox).
Indeed it seems paradoxical, if not downright perverse, to make mention of a Judaic Gnosticism. Gnosticism with its Dualism, distant God in the pleroma, not to mention the Demiurge who creates matter and the habit of turning scripture on its head, seems to be entirely inimical to Judaism with its monotheism and a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent. In many respects it is; yet within the mystical system of the Kabbalah there can be seen an attempt to combine strands of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism with Judaism, albeit with a heavy qualified Dualism.
Theories abound regarding the origins of the Kabbalah. Common to the ancient and medieval world contemporary texts were stated to be of the greatest antiquary, all the better to suggest that it was of divine or prophetic origins. These claims are subject to dispute, though oral transmission undoubtedly has a role to play. Unfortunately such conjecture is unverifiable. What we can be sure of though is that the first great flowering of Kabbalistic literature was in Spain during the 12th Century and 13th Centuries. The political situation of the Iberian peninsula from the time of the Muslim conquest in the 8th Century to the reconquista of 1492 was a time of great flux, however for long period the Jewish population of Spain and Portugal enjoyed prosperity and freedom from persecution by tolerant Muslim and Christian rulers. It was also a time that the Kingdom of Al-Andalus was the centre of the learned world.
The Kabbalah is one of the world’s most complex and richest mystical systems (none-withstanding such recent bastardisations as The Kabbalah Centre) and I couldn’t possibly do its justice in a short post. Instead I will concentrate on a few points that appear to have a significant Gnostic component.
- The two concepts of God: the essence of God is infinite, transcendent, unknowable, known as Ein Sof (No End). In contrast there is God that manifests itself to humanity through a series of emanations.
- The Sephirot-the ten emanations are attributes of God in which he reveals himself and sustains existence (see the header image showing the Sephirot as the Tree of Life).
- Shekhinah-the feminine divine presence, comparable to Sophia in Gnosticism. Often the last of the Sephirot (nearest to matter), referred to as the daughter of God. Shekhinah dwells among the holy but is exiled from her own source. According to the great scholar of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Shekhinah is ‘like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world’.
- Sitra Achra-the Other Side, a demonic world of illusion
- The Qliphot-the impure metaphorical shells surrounding holiness. To be found in the Sitra Achra, the Qliphot can lead to an self-awareness that is entirely illusory.
- The radical notion (but only by some commentators) that evil is the result of an imbalance within the Sephirot.
- The importance placed on the esoteric meaning of scripture as opposed to their overt, exoteric meaning.
Life became increasingly difficult for the large Jewish population in Spain by the mid 14th century and when Ferdinard and Isabella completed the reconquista, they announced the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews. A majority left to Palestine, Italy, Poland and Germany with their books and knowledge. The Kabbalah become known to the learned of Europe who had recently re-discovered Plato and Hermes Tristemegistus (see my post As Above, So Below) and helped advance the Renaissance, though the philosopher-magus interpreted the system in a syncretic fashion, commonly known as Cabala to differentiate it from the Jewish Kabbalah. In Palestine the Kabbalah became of increasing importance within Judaism, but that is beyond the scope of this post.