The Holy Kabbalah

There is singularly little on Jewish mysticism of any sort to be found in English. Furthermore, most of it is not very rewarding. Much of it is definitely antagonistic. However Routledge published long ago, 1910 in fact, a book, Aspects of the Hebrew Genius, edited by Leon Simon, a collection of essays once given as lectures in the North London Jewish Literary Union. There is a chapter on Jewish mysticism by H. Sperling, and in the very first paragraph he says these tremendous words: “They [the vague mystical yearnings of man] can, however, fitly be compared to that invisible chain that binds husband to wife, parents to children, relation to relation, friend to friend, social unit to social unit. Without these lesser mysticisms society would dissolve into its first atoms; without the larger mysticism man would break away from his Maker and be flung into nothingness.” On these words hang all the Law and the Prophets. This is the essence of Judaism. It is also the essence of Jewish mysticism, whether the speculations of Hellenistic Neo-Platonists, Medieval Kabbalists, Polish or Levantine Hasidim, or the sophisticated and fashionable philosophy of Martin Buber.

Kabbalism and Hasidism seem, to a Christian taught in his own religion to view Gnostic and theosophic tendencies as the source of all heresy, to be a kind of Jewish heterodoxy. They are not. Jewish orthodoxy is not defined by the correctness of the answers it gives to metaphysical and cosmological questions. The Torah, the Rites of Passage, the Ceremonies of the Holidays, the poetic and narrative books of the Bible, philosophy and fantasy, from Maimonides to Isaac Singer — the consensus of faith is never broken. Kabbalism is nothing but a transcendental way of looking at the “purely formal” rites of circumcision, marriage, confirmation. There is no “Kabbalistic Mystery,” however profound, that cannot be found clearly and simply exemplified in the ceremonies of Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles.

Under the influence of millennia of legalistic interpretation of the Law, and guided by the extreme rationalism of Maimonides and other Jewish scholastics, Judaism has come to seem, at least to the outsider, a “religion of the Book” in the most extreme sense, a code, rather than living faith. This is illusory. All the Talmuds in the world cannot make a religion. Religion is what people do — act and contemplation. Whitehead said it was what man does with his aloneness — a very Protestant, in fact, Lutheran statement, and the expression of a theory rather than of actuality. Even the most extreme neo-Lutheran, Kierkegaard, spent much of his time and energy struggling with the community of the Church of Denmark. The casuistry of rabbis, the exhortations of prophets — we must never forget that these take place in the context of a people, held together in a rite. That, after all, is their only significance — to ensure the integrity of the people and the continuity of the rite.

Someone back in the nineteenth century said that religion is what humanity uses to fill in the gap between technology and the physical environment. Historically this was certainly true. But it is a kind of inverse and diminishing definition. Ideally, religion is what would be left after man knew everything. Kabbalism, like all other Gnosticisms, does concern itself very much with knowing, with cosmology and cosmogony, the nature and process of the Universe. “You shall know and the knowledge shall make you free.” Free for what? Today we are inclined to forget how trapped man was by the recalcitrance of his environment, by puzzling vagaries of the universe. Before the universe could be given significance — “valued” as we say nowadays — it had to be given coherence. Gnosticism has been accused by its opponents, from Plotinus to the present, of equating coherence and significance, structure and value. This may be true where Gnostic movements have been heretical — split off and isolated from the main body of religious development. Kabbalism is not heterodox. It is a symbolic and aesthetic elaboration of the actual cult of Israel, with which it never loses contact. The Jewish Prayerbook as we have it today is essentially a Kabbalistic document. (This Prayerbook — Siddur — is not something relegated to Sabbath service in the Synagogue. Both man and woman use it day and night. What the Bible was to the Protestant in the great days of Dissent, this grimoire of Kabbalah is to the orthodox Jew and his wife.) “Credere est orare, orare est cognoscere,” said the great Roman Catholic modernist, Father Tyrrell: “To believe is to pray, to pray is to know.”

When man cannot understand nature, and insofar as he cannot understand it at any point, he is confronted with an actual vacuum, and into this he projects himself. What is sought in Alchemy or the Hermetic Books or the Memphite Theology, or irrational fads like flying saucers, is the basic pattern of the human mind in symbolic garb, as it presents itself in the individual believer, and behind that, in the enduring structures of the human organism itself. As the speculative constructions of religion fall away as explanations of “reality” they assume the character of symbolic masks of states of the soul. If they persist in the practices of a cult, we say they have been etherealized. It is precisely their irrationality which keeps dogma and ritual alive. If they can be reduced to “common-sense” explanations or denials they die away. Only the mysteries survive, because they correspond to the processes of man’s internal life, outward visible signs of inner spiritual realities.

To go back to the beginning, Kabbalism dates back into the most obscure past of Judaism. What are the distinguishing ideas of Kabbalism? It is first of all a theory of emanations (“degenerative monism” it is called philosophically). The inscrutable Godhead fills and contains the universe. To become active and creative, God emanated ten sephiroth or intelligences. A special prominence is given to one of these emanations, who functions as a female principle in the Deity, a demiurge and a term to creation. This is the final emanation, Malkuth the Queen, the physical manifestation of Deity in the universe. She is thought of as a Divine Woman, the Bride of God (like the Shakti of Shiva). Finally, the “innermost secrets” of the Kabbalah are what are “occult” in all occultism, erotic mysticism and a group of practices of the sort we call yoga — autonomic nervous-system gymnastics. For the Kabbalist the ultimate sacrament is the sexual act, carefully organized and sustained as the most perfect mystical trance. Over the marriage bed hovers the Shekinah. Kabbalism also includes, of course, a group of divinatory and magical practices, manipulations of the alphabet and the text of the Pentateuch, magic spells and rites. All of these elements go back to very early days — to the beginnings of Israel in Palestine, and it is these beginnings which shed most light on both scholarly Kabbalism and popular Hasidism, and, in addition, go far to illuminate the real, the abiding spiritual meaning of Judaism in all times and places.

By and large the special details of Kabbalism which distinguish it from the mainstreams of Jewish thought are what is “occult” in occultism everywhere, and most of the world’s religions can be reinterpreted in these terms. They give Kabbalism its fascination but they do not give it its substance. As A.E. Waite so well points out, beneath the glittering and mysterious superstructure of the Kabbalah, which purports to be occult Judaism, lies — Judaism.

Kabbalism is probably the only religious movement of the Gnostic type to come full circle in this fashion, to create mysteries and explain them, to hide secrets and discover them, and come at last back to the greater mystery from which it started, but with deeper insights and wider knowledge. Insight and knowledge of what? In the last analysis of the human soul, of man within himself, united with another in marriage, united with his fellows in love. I suppose certain tendencies and individuals in Catholicism have done the same thing. Bonaventura is a sort of enraptured, orthodox Gnostic. There is the Protestant, Jakob Boehme. In modern times there have been all sorts of rationalizing, philosophizing, psychologizing movements which have in fact accomplished similar ends, from the Theosophists and A.E. Waite himself to Martin Buber and Carl Jung. These are different — either eccentric individuals or modern sophisticated cults. Whoever wrote or gathered and edited the tracts of the Zohar, Kabbalism shows all the signs of being a perfectly natural, Near Eastern Gnostic movement, evolved directly from the local soil, the “clerkly lore” of an “anthropological religion.”

It might be wise to note some of these sources. Emanationism is found in the so-called “Memphite Theology,” a text dating back to the beginnings of Egyptian civilization. Four pairs of gods emanate from Ptah in a hierarchy of power, and the creative process is described in language which still echoes in the Gospel of John. The very word Isis means “throne” and many of her attributes survive in the terms applied to the Shekinah, to Malkuth, to the personified Wisdom of Proverbs and finally, in the titles of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. Pre-Hebraic Palestine is full of Els (Elohim) and Ba’als (Adonai, the Lord) and they all have consorts, at once wives, daughters and mothers — Asherah, Anat, Astarte, Ashteroth. In Egypt they were identified with Isis, with Hathor, and with Sekhet, wife and daughter of Ptah, the ultimate creator. In the fifth century we discover Anat in an Aramaic Elephantine papyrus specifically described as the consort of Yahweh.

Asherah survives in the Scriptures as a term for the phallic pillars, mazzeboth, which stood beside the altars and in the holy places until the fall of the Temple. But she also survives in person and the story of Elijah is the tale of a bitter struggle with Jezebel, a regal priestess of Ba’al-Asherah. Temples of Asherah and Yahweh stood side by side in ninth-century Mizpah. In the seventh century Jeremiah found children in the streets of Jerusalem gathering wood and the fathers kindling the fire and the women kneading the dough to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven. The sacred prostitutes and sodomites of the Goddess appear again and again in the Scriptures. The First Isaiah begets a son with a zonah — called a “prophetess” in the King James Version, Jephthah is the son of a zonah, Hosea’s description of his relations with a sacred prostitute are among the most cryptic in the Bible and as late as the mid-seventh century, under Manasseh, the cult was flourishing. With the Assyrian and later Babylonian and then Persian conquests, Ishtar was substituted for Ashteroth, and, as has been pointed out time and again, the Book of Esther (simply another English transliteration of Ishtar) is an elaborate euhemerization of the spring New Year fertility rites and the hierosgamos, the sacred marriage — as the folk rites of Purim are paralleled all over the world at the season.

The most likely interpretation of the Song of Songs is that it is a collection of songs for group marriage rites, focused in the hierosgamos of priest-king and priestess, which accompanied the opening of the irrigation channels from the main ditches into the dry fields. In fact, a book which casts great light on the Song of Songs is Granet’s Festivals and Songs of Ancient China, an interpretation of the erotic songs of the ancient Chinese collection, the Shi Ching. Do not misunderstand, this parallelism does not “prove” diffusion from some imagined prehistoric religious center. It shows the fundamental identity of man’s response to the great rhythms of life. Nothing is more illuminating than to look up “Shekinah” or “Succoth” or “Wisdom” or “Power” or for that matter any of the other epithets of the Sephiroth in a good Biblical concordance, and ponder on the mysterious sentences. Do they just seem mysterious because our attention, with minds full of presuppositions, has been directed to them? I think not. These words are keys which unlock some of the oldest material in the Scriptures, and they survive because of their traditional sanctity. The post-Esdras editors, working over the old documents, might disguise them, but they did not dare omit them, any more than they dared wipe out the memory of the sacred groves and the pillar circles and the high places. At last the Samaritan Gnostic, Simon Magus, with his consort, the Mystic Helen, a temple prostitute out of Ephesus of the Great Mother, comes to meet and struggle with the earliest Christians.

Now, we must understand that we have come to view “orthodoxy” after millennia of narrowing definition. To some extent the prophets, some of them, were “orthodox” in this way, or at least they were so represented after the Persian period. But the people knew nothing about these questions. Religion for them was the whole body of cult acts, it was what they did. We think of such conflicts in terms of Athanasius vs. Arrius, Dominicans vs. Albigensians, Calvin vs. Servetus, Massachusetts vs. the Quakers and witches, and the deliberations of Senator McCarthy’s Committee. They were nothing of the sort. True, the prophetic movement of Judaism and later the rabbinical schools, represent the slow evolution of such sharpening distinctions and the purging of old practices. But the average inhabitant of Palestine went right on practicing religion as he found it in place — there — in the cult of his ancestors, and even the evolution of Yahvistic monotheism was an enormously drawn-out process. The ancient folkways have never vanished from Judaism, even at its most reformed, and today — the day I am actually writing this: Purim, C.E. 1960 — customs whose broken relics we find at the very bottom of mounds of ruins in the Holy Land linger on in the parlors of the thoroughly assimilated and Americanized “High Society” of San Francisco where I live.

Last night I went to a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of one of the city’s most fashionable Congregations — an oratorio — a PurimspielQueen Esther, given to a packed Opera House, with a very Nordic-looking Esther. At the reception afterward the President of the Congregation said, opening his speech, “This is the happiest day of my life,” and the rabbi interrupted, “How about your marriage?” This was a joke, a wisecrack as American as anything on television — and it brought as much laughter from the audience. But it was something more, and it somehow elicited a slightly different kind of stir — an undercurrent that wouldn’t have been there with a Gentile audience. That spontaneous joke had touched one of the great nerve centers of Jewry, the Sacrament of Israel, watched over by and nourished under the wings of the Shekinah, that gesture, the physical embodiment of the turn in the creative process, the moment at which all being, having reached its last term, begins its long return to an inscrutable and holy center from which it came. On the buffet, along with champagne and caviar, were hamanohren.

A.E. Waite was an odd fish out of an odder barrel. He was not only one of the few persons in modern times, Jew or Gentile, to write a sensible and sound book on Kabbalah. He was a genuine scholar of occultism who himself came out of the welter of occult sects and movements of the end of the last century. He lived in the world of Eliphas Levi, Stanislas de Guaita, “Papus,” Sar Peladan, Mme Blavatsky, A.P. Sinnett, Macgregor Mathers, Wynn Westcott, Annie Besant, and “Archbishop” Leadbeater, and more American oddities and rascals than you could shake a stick at. Some of these people are genuine literary curiosities and still make fascinating reading. Others are unbelievably fraudulent and silly. But, to a man, they are mines of misinformation, rash hypotheses and unsupportable conclusions. They are as far from being scholars as could well be imagined. It is a pity that they all, the whole movement, have never become the subjects of scholarship on a large and really serious scale, because they certainly do represent, like the Marxists or the Neo-Catholics, a significant mass movement of the human mind in its long march out of folly. The subjects they were all interested in are among the most interesting subjects for scholarship that exist, but they produced only two scholars, A.E. Waite and G.R.S. Mead. Mead was a Theosophist, and hence suspect in the halls of scholarship, but his is still the only readable translation of the Hermetic literature in English, he edited a Gnostic tractate, the Pistis Sophia, and he wrote an estimable book on Gnosticism, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. There is nothing specially odd or cultish about any of these books. In contrast, the acceptably academic translation of the Hermetica, by Scott, is the work of a Higher Critic, and is a violent, shameless, distortion of the text.

Waite was odd, cultish and eccentric. He wrote the most dreadful prose conceivable, an awful mixture of Walter Pater, Cardinal Newman, Arthur Machen and plain vulgar pretentiousness. It is the last survival of the last spasms of literary Pre-Raphaelitism. Fortunately, though it was common in its day, there is nothing left around to compare it with except Sebastian Evan’s High History of the Holy Grail, still to be found on shelves of out-of-print Everyman’s Library, and William Morris’s slightly lunatic translation of the Icelandic Sagas into a kind of Pre-Raphaelite studio code, today utterly unreadable. Waite, however, is not unreadable. You have to read between the balderdash, but it is easy to get used to. Soon you no longer notice it, and he does have, almost always, something very interesting to say. At last the absurd rituals he uses to say the simplest things come to endear him to you, like the wen on Grandma’s nose.

In his autobiography Waite gives the impression that his books all came more or less by accident, as assignments from publishers. I rather doubt that, because throughout his life he seems to have followed a definite program. Eventually, and it certainly seems, systematically, he came to cover all the main aspects or traditions or myths of occultism. His works include: The Secret Tradition in Alchemy, The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Raymond Lull, Louis Saint Martin, and careful editions of the works of Eliphas Levi and the greatest of the English mystical alchemists, Thomas Vaughan, whose works are mysteriously missing from the bibliographies of Dr. Jung’s many books on this subject. Besides all this he wrote a lot of dreadful poetry full of Mystic Veils and Clinking Thuribles, and a couple of general statements of his own philosophy — as well as a rather cobwebby autobiography. Self-evidently this is a program, a carefully planned work of a lifetime. The remarkable thing about it is that, although coming as it does from an era of windy nonsense and smoky pretense, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. They are all books of wide, painstaking scholarship. Waite went to all the sources he could find, in itself a Herculean labor, and he exposed all the errors of quotation and interpretation in the secondary sources that he could uncover. He is almost always right. Not only is he right, but he never loses, however dear to his heart may be the misty mid-regions of Weir in which he wanders, the true scientific scholar’s skepticism. In fact, since he was himself the leader of a “Mystic Circle of Seekers for Illumination,” who took his somewhat absurd vows very seriously, he uses this very scholars’ skepticism as a mask and a refuge. On the question of the very existence of “Spiritual Alchemy,” let alone on the sexual yoga, so plainly illustrated in Chinese works on the subject, for which most alchemy is just a kind of double talk, Waite is noncommittal. He leads you to the sources, quotes and analyzes them for you, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions. So likewise with the Grail legend, so with Rosicrucianism, so with occult Freemasonry, so with that I Ching of the Western World, the Tarot cards — he strips away the nonsense, exposes the facts, and leaves you to drew your own conclusions. With charlatans he is merciless. Although he is in a sense a product of the school of Eliphas Levi, he never misses a chance to expose the pretensions of that most fascinating of mountebanks. With St. Martin or Lull he is careful, even reverent, although he does an excellent job of taking apart the complicated Lull legend.

The Holy Kabbalah is his greatest work. Although he was a kind of Christian, even a sort of Liberal Catholic, Kabbalah is, out of all the past, the closest thing to his own philosophy. He wrote three books on the subject, each later one incorporating and correcting its predecessors. He seems to have read everything he could find on the subject in every language he knew, and meditated on it deeply and long. It has been said that he did not read Hebrew, but I doubt this. There is much in The Holy Kabbalah which he could not have found in Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Desnudata, or in the very unsatisfactory French translation of the Zohar, the only comprehensive expositions of the Kabbalah itself available to him in any other language than Hebrew. No other Gentile writer on Kabbalism can even remotely be compared to him, and no modern Jewish writers are any better. We have to go back to the great zaddikim of Hasidism to find such a thorough Kabbalist, and they, alas, present altogether too many problems of their own to be readily assimilated by anyone in the twentieth century. Kabbalism is the great poem of Judaism, a tree of symbolic jewels showing forth the doctrine of the universe as the vesture of Deity, of the community as the embodiment of Deity, and of love as the acting of God in man. Nobody knew this better than A.E. Waite.



This essay was originally published as an introduction to a new edition of A.E. Waite’s The Holy Kabbalah (University Books, 1960) and reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1960. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

See also Rexroth’s essays Gnosticism and The Hasidism of Martin Buber.

Other Rexroth Essays