THE ANTIQUITY OF THE KABBALAH
From ” Kabbalah or, The Religious Philosophy of the Hebrews ” by Adolph Franck, 1926
Enthusiastic partisans of the Kabbalah declare it to have been brought down by angels from heaven to teach the first man, after his disobedience, the way to recover his primal nobility and bliss. Others supposed that the lawgiver of the Hebrews, during his forty days’ stay on Mount Sinai, received it directly from God, that He transmitted it to seventy old men who partook with Him of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that these passed it on by word of mouth until the time when Ezra was given the order to transcribe it together with the Law. But, no matter how carefully we may read all the books of the Old Testament, we shall fail to find a single word which refers to secret teachings or to a doctrine more profound and more pure, reserved solely for a small number of the elect.
Since its origin, until its return from the Babylonian captivity, the Hebrew people, like all nations in their infancy, knew no other organs of truth, no other ministers to the mind, save the prophet, the priest and the poet; and in spite of the obvious difference among them, the latter is often confounded with the previous ones. Instruction was not the province of the priest, he simply attracted the eye by the pomp of religious ceremonies. And as to the teachers, those, indeed, who raise the religion to the rank of Science and who replace the inspirational language with a dogmatic strain, in short, as to the theologians, there is no mention of either their name or their existence during that entire period.
It is only at the beginning of the third century before the Christian era that we first see them appear under the general name of Tannaim, which means teachers of the tradition; for it is in the name of this new power that everything, not clearly expressed in the Scriptures, was taught. The Tannaim, the oldest and most respected of all teachers in Israel, formed, as it were, a long chain, the last link of which is Judah the Pious, editor of the Mishnah, who collected and transmitted to posterity all that has been uttered by his predecessors. Among these are the supposed authors of the oldest monuments of the Kabbalah, R. Akkiba and Simeon ben Yohai, with his son and his friends.
Immediately after the death of Judah, towards the close of the second century of the Christian era, a new generation of teachers starts who are called Amaraim (םיארמא ), because, not constituting any longer an authority in themselves, they only repeated and better explained all they learned from the previous ones, making known those of their words which have as yet not been published. These commentaries and new traditions, which multiplied prodigiously for more than three hundred years, were finally united under the name of Gemara ארמג , i.e. termination and completion of the tradition. It is, therefore, in these two collections, religiously preserved since their formation until this day and united under the name of Talmud, that we must, above all, search, if not for the very ideas which form the foundation of the Kabbalistic system, at least, for some data on the origin and epoch of their birth.
In the Mishnah (Haggigah, Sec. II) we find this remarkable passage: “The story of the Creation (Genesis) is not to be explained to two, the story of the Merkaba (Heavenly Chariot) not even to one, unless he be wise and can deduce wisdom of his own accord. ןישרוד ןיא יבמו םכח ןכ סא אלא דיחיב הבכרמב אלי םינשב תישארב השעמב אלותעדמן . The Talmud (Haggigah, 13a) cites a Beraitha (a Mishnah not included in the collection of R. Judah), where R. Hiya adds: “When the summaries of the chapters may be transmitted to him.” םיקרפ ישאר ול םירסומ . A rabbi of the Talmud, R. Zerah (ibid) is still more severe, for he adds that even the summaries of the chapters may be divulged only to men clothed with high dignity, or known by their extreme prudence; or, to translate literally the original expression, “who carry within them a heart full of solicitude.” ימ לכלו ןיד תיב באל אלא םיקרפ ישאר םירסומ ןיא וברקב גאוד ובלש
Evidently this can not refer to the text of Genesis or to that of Ezekiel wherein the prophet tells of his vision on the banks of the river Hebar. The entire Scriptures were, so to speak, in the mouth of everybody; from time immemorial, the most scrupulous observers of all the traditions have made it their duty to read them through in their temples at least once during the year. Moses himself incessantly advised the study of the Law, by which the Pentateuch is universally understood. After the return from the Babylonian captivity, Ezra read it aloud before the assembled people (Ezra, II, 8). It is just as impossible that the words quoted express the interdiction to give any interpretation to the story of the creation and to that of Ezekiel for the purpose of making them comprehensible to oneself or to others; the question here is that of an interpretation, or rather of a doctrine, which, although known, was taught under the seal of mystery; of a science furnished with a fixed form as well as fixed principles, since we know the manner of its division and since it is shown to us divided into several chapters each one of which is headed by a summary.
For it is to be noted, that Ezekiel’s vision has nothing in common with all this, because it fills not several chapters, but only one, and precisely the one which is first in the works attributed to this prophet. Moreover, we see that this secret doctrine comprised two parts which have not been accorded equal importance; for the one part could not be taught to two persons, while the other could not be divulged at all, not even to one person, although he satisfied the severest conditions imposed upon him. If we are to believe Maimonides–who, although a stranger to the Kabbalah, could not deny its existence–the first half, entitled “The Story of Genesis or of the Creation” (תישארב השעמ) taught the science of Nature, the second half called “The Story of the Chariot” (הבכרמ השעמ) contained a treatise on theology. This opinion was also accepted by all the Kabbalists. Here is another passage wherein the same fact is presented to us in a no less evident manner. “One day R. Johanan said to R. Eliezer: ‘Come, I will teach thee the story of the Merkaba.’ The latter replied: ‘I am not old enough for that.’ When he became old, R. Johanan died, and some time later R. Assi came to him and said: ‘Come, I will teach thee the story of the Merkaba.’ R. Eliezer answered: ‘Had I considered myself worthy, I would have learned it from R. Johanan, thy Master'” (Haggiga, 12a). ‘We see by these words that, in order to be initiated into this mysterious and sacred science, it was not sufficient to be distinguished by intelligence and by eminent position, one had to attain also an advanced age; and even when all these conditions, equally observed by modern Kabbalists, were fulfilled, one was not always so sure of his intelligence or moral force to accept the burden of these formidable secrets, which were not absolutely without danger to the positive belief and to the other observance of religious law.
Here is a curious example told by the Talmud itself, in an allegorical language which it afterwards explains:
“The teachers taught: Four (persons) entered the garden of delight, namely: ben Azai, ben Zomah, Aher and R. Akkiba. Ben Azai looked around and died. To him may be applied the verse of the Scriptures: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ (Psalm CXVI, 15). Ben Zoma also looked around and lost his reason. The Scriptures say of (such as) him: ‘Hast thou found honey, eat so much as is sufficient for thee; lest thou be filled therewith and vomit it’ (Prov. XXV, 16). Ahermade ravages in the plantations. Akkiba entered in peace and came out in peace.”
This passage can not possibly be taken literally, in the sense that it refers to a material vision of the splendors of another life; for, above all, the Talmud never uses the purely mystical terms of the text quoted when speaking of Paradise. For, how can we admit that a man could lose either faith or reason, as it happened to two of this legend, if, while still on earth, he had become aware of the heavenly powers awaiting the elect? We must, therefore, agree with the best reputed authorities of the Synagogue, that the Garden of Delight entered by the four doctors, is nothing else but the mysterious science spoken of before; a science dangerous to weak intelligences, because it may lead them either to insanity or to errors more fatal than impiety. It is this last result that the Gemara wishes to indicate when it says in speaking of Aher, that he made ravages in the plantations. It tells us that this person, so famous in Talmudic narrations, was before this one of the wisest teachers in Israel; his real name was Elishah ben Abuah, which was substituted by Aher to indicate the change in him. And, in fact, when he issued from the allegorical garden into which his fatal curiosity had led him, he became an open infidel. He abandoned himself, says the text, to the generation of evil he lacked morals, betrayed his faith, led a scandalous life, and some people even accused him of the murder of a child. Where, really, is his first error to be found? Whither have his researches into the most important secrets of religion led him? The Jerusalem Talmud plainly states that he recognized two supreme principles, and the Babylonian Talmud, from which we have taken the whole of this story, gives us to understand the same thing. It informs us that when Aher saw in the heavens the power of Metatron, the angel next to God, he exclaimed: “Perhaps there are, far be it, two supreme powers.”
We need not dwell too long upon this portion of our subject, for we must cite other, more significant facts; yet, we can not refrain from remarking that the angel, or rather the hypostasis called Metatron, plays a very great part in the Kabbalistic system. It is he, properly speaking, who governs this visible world; he reigns over all the spheres swinging in space, over all the planets and celestial bodies, as well as over all the angels who conduct them; for above him is nothing but the intelligible forms of the divine essence, and spirits, so pure, that they can not exercise any immediate action over material things. It has also been found that his name, interpreted in numbers (אירטמיג ) is no less than the synonym of the All-Mighty.
The Kabbalah is undoubtedly, as we shall soon prove, much further removed from dualism than from that which is nowadays called in a neighboring country, the doctrine of absolute identity; yet, is not the allegorical way in which it separates the intelligible essence of God and the ruling power of the world able to explain to us the error indicated by the Gemara? Our last citation, drawn from the same source, and accompanied by Maimonides’ reflections, will, I hope, complete the demonstration of this capital point, that a certain philosophy, a religious metaphysics was, so to speak, orally taught among some of theTannaim, or the most ancient theologians of Judaism. The Talmud informs us that in earlier days three names were known as the expressions of the idea of God, namely, the famous tetragrammaton, or the name of four letters, and two names foreign to the Bible. One of these two names was composed of twelve letters, the other of forty-two. The first, though forbidden to the majority, circulated freely enough inside the schools. “The wise men,” the text says, “taught it once a week to their sons and to their disciples.”
The twelve-lettered name was originally still more widely known. “It was imparted to everybody. But when the number of the impious multiplied, it was entrusted to the most reticent among the priests, and these tried to make it inaudible by the singing of their brethren, the priests.” Finally, the name composed of forty-two letters was looked upon as the most holy of the mysteries. “It was taught only to the one who was discreet, of ripe age, neither high-tempered, nor immoderate, nor stubborn, and who was gentle in his associations.” “He who has been instructed in this secret,” adds the Talmud, “and guards it with vigilance and a pure heart, may count on the love of God and on the favor of men; his name inspires respect, his knowledge is protected against oblivion, and he finds himself heir to two worlds, the world we now live in and the world to come.” Maimonides very ingeniously remarks that there is no name composed of forty-two letters in any language, and that this would be still more impossible in the Hebrew language where the vowels are not part of the alphabet. He, therefore, thought himself justified in concluding that the forty-two letters formed several words, each one of which
expressed a definite idea or a fundamental attribute of the Supreme Being, and when taken all together, they formed the true definition of the divine essence. The statement, continues the same author, that the name just spoken of embraced a study in itself, and that the knowledge thereof was entrusted to the wisest only, undoubtedly means that, in order to define the essence of God, the peculiarity of God and of things in general would either have to be better elucidated or further developed.
This is surely also the case with the four-lettered name; for, how is it possible to suppose that a name so frequently met with in the Bible, and to which the Bible itself gives the sublime definition of “ego sum qui sum” was kept a secret which was imparted once a week by the wise men into the ears of a few chosen disciples? That which the Talmud calls the knowledge of the names of God, concludes Maimonides, is, therefore, nothing but a small part of theology or metaphysics (תיהלא המכח תצק ) and it is for this reason that it has been said to be proof against oblivion; for oblivion is not possible to ideas which have their seat in active intelligence, that is, in reason. It would be difficult not to yield to these reflections, recommended no less by the common sense of the free-thinker, as well as by profound science and the generally recognized authority of the Talmudists.
We shall add here one more observation, undoubtedly of very questionable importance in the eyes of common sense, but which is not valueless to the order of ideas which these researches bear, and which we shall be obliged to accept as an historical fact: By counting all the letters that compose the Hebrew names, the sacred, essential names of the ten Sefiroth of the Kabbalah, and by prefixing to the last name of the Sefiroth the conjunctive particle “v” (ו )–as it is done in all enumerations and in all languages–we obtain exactly the number 42. Is it not, therefore, possible to think that this is the thrice holy name which even to the elite of the wise men was tremblingly confided? We would also find therein the full justification for all the remarks made by Maimonides.
For, first of all, these forty-two letters do not really form one name, as usually accepted, but several words. Then again, each one of these words expresses, in the opinion of the Kabbalists at least, an essential attribute of the divinity, or, what is the same thing to them, one of the necessary forms of existence. Finally, all together represent, according to the Kabbalistic science, according to the Zohar and all its commentators, the most exact definition of the supreme principle of all things that our minds are capable of conceiving. As such a concept of God is separated by an abyss from common belief, all precautions taken to prevent it from leaving the circle of initiates is very well understood.
We certainly shall not insist upon this point, the importance of which, to say it again, we in no way exaggerate; we are satisfied for the moment to have shown, even to the evidence, the general result of the passages quoted.
At the time, then, when the Mishnah was edited, there existed a secret doctrine on the Creation and the Divine Nature. The manner of its study and division was agreed upon, and its name excited a kind of religious terror even among those who could not have known it. But, for how long had it existed? And if we can not determine with precision the date of its birth, is there any way of telling when the deep shadows formed that shrouded its origin? It is this question which we shall now attempt to answer. In the opinion of the historians most worthy of our confidence, the editing of the Mishnah came to an end no later than the year 3949 of the creation, 189 years after the birth of Christ.
We must also bear in mind that Judah the Holy did but collect the precepts and traditions transmitted to him by the Tannaim, his predecessors; the words cited at first by us, and which forbid the imprudent delivery of the secrets of the Creation and of the Merkaba, are, consequently, older than the book that contains them. True, we do not know the author of these words, but this in itself is further proof in favor of their antiquity; for, had they expressed the opinion of one man only, they would not have been clothed with legislative power, and, as is usually done under such circumstances, the name of the person responsible for them would have been mentioned. Besides, the doctrine itself necessarily precedes the law that interdicts its disclosure. It must have been known and must have acquired already a certain authority before the danger of its dissemination, not to say among the people, but among the doctors and masters in Israel was recognized. So, without undue boldness, we may date it, at least, from the end of the first century of the Christian era. This is precisely the time when Akkiba and Simeon ben Yohai lived, to whom the Kabbalists attribute the composition of their most important and most celebrated works. In this generation must also be included R. Jose of Zippora (רופצד יסוי ׳ר ) whom the Idra Rabba–one of the most ancient and most remarkable fragments of the Zohar–counts among the intimate friends and most fervent disciples of Simeon ben Yohai. It is evidently to him that the talmudic treatise, from which we have drawn the majority of our citations, attributes a knowledge of the holy Merkaba.
Among the number of authorities who testify to the antiquity, if not of the books, at least of the Kabbalistic ideas, we do not hesitate to count the Chaldaic translation of the Five Books of Moses by Onkelos. This famous translation was looked upon with such great respect, that it was regarded as a divine revelation. The Babylonian Talmud (Tract. Kidushin, 49a) supposes that Moses received it on Mount Sinai at the same time when he received the written and oral law, that it came down to the time of the Tannaim by tradition, and that Onkelos received but the glory for transcribing it. A great many of the modern theologians have believed they have found in it the foundation of Christianity. They maintained particularly that they had recognized the second divine person in the word Memra (ארמימ ), which really signifies the “word,” or the “thought,” and which the translator has placed everywhere for the name of Jehovah. This much is certain, that there rules in this translation a spirit opposed to that of the Mishnah, of the Talmud, of common Judaism, and even of the Pentateuch; in short, the traces of mysticism are not rare there. Whenever it is only possible or of particular importance, an idea is substituted for a fact or an image, the literal meaning is sacrificed to the spiritual meaning, and anthropomorphism destroyed in order to show the divine attributes in their nakedness.
At a time when the worship of the dead letter degenerated into idolatry; at a time when men passed their lives in counting the verses, the words and the letters of the Law; at a time when the official preceptors, the legitimate representatives of religion, saw nothing better to do than to crush the intellect as well as the will under an always increasing mass of external practices, that aversion for everything material and positive, and the habit of often sacrificing grammar and history to the interest of an exalted idealism, infallibly reveal to us the existence of a secret doctrine which has all the characteristics and all the pretensions of mysticism, and which, undoubtedly, does not date from the day it dared to speak in a clear language. Finally, without attaching too much importance to it, we can not refrain from laying stress upon the following: We have already remarked, that in order to attain their aims and to introduce, in some manner, their own ideas into the very terms of the revelation, the Kabbalists resorted at times to more or less irrational means. One of these means, which consisted in forming a new alphabet by changing the value of the letters, or better, by substituting one for the other according to a definite order, is frequently employed in the Talmud, and made use of in a translation older than the one just spoken of, namely, the Aramaic paraphrase of Jonathan ben Uzziel, contemporary and disciple of Hillel the Aged (ןקזח ללה ), who taught with great authority during the first years of the reign of Herod.
To be sure, such procedures may serve equivocally the most diverse ideas; but men do not invent an artificial language, the key to which is intentionally hidden, unless they have resolved to hide their thoughts, if not from all, at least, from the mass of the people. Furthermore, although the Talmud makes frequent use of similar methods, yet, the one we describe and which we believe to be the oldest, is entirely strange to it. Taken alone, this last fact would undoubtedly be of small demonstrative power, but added to those which already occupied our attention, it ought not to be disregarded. If we take the mall together and compare them with one another, we are justified in stating, that there spread among the Jews, before the end of the first century of the Christian era, a profoundly venerated science, distinct from the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Sacred Books,–a mystic doctrine engendered evidently by the need of reflection and of independence, and I would even say, by the need of philosophy; and which, nevertheless, invoked in its favor the united authority of tradition and Scriptures.
The guardians of this doctrine, whom, from now on, we do not fear to designate by the name of “Kabbalists,” should not and can not be confounded with the Essenes, whose name was already known at a much earlier epoch, but who still preserved their customs and beliefs until some time under the reign of Justinian. In fact, if we refer to Josephus, (De Bello Jud., 8, I), and Philo, (De vita contemplativa, in his collected works), the only ones deserving confidence on this point, the aim of this famous sect was essentially a moral and practical one; it endeavored to make dominant among men the kind of equality and brotherly love which was later on taught with such glitter by the founder and apostles of Christianity. The Kabbalah, on the other hand, was, according to the oldest testimonies brought by us, entirely a speculative science, which claimed to unveil the secrets of the Creation and of the Divine Nature.
The Essenes formed an organized society, very similar to the religious communities of the Middle Ages. Their outer life reflected their feelings and their ideas, and, besides, they admitted into their midst all those who distinguished themselves by a pure life, not excepting even women and children. The Kabbalists have always shrouded themselves in mysterious darkness, from the time of their first appearance to the time when the press betrayed their secret. At rare intervals, and with the greatest precaution, they opened their portals half-way for some new adept who was always chosen only from among the select minds, and whose advanced age warranted his discretion and wisdom. Finally, in spite of the all too pharasaical rigidity of their observance of the sabbath, the Essenes were certainly not afraid to reject publicly the traditions, to give Morality a very conspicuous preference over Cult, and even to retain in the latter neither the sacrifice nor the ceremonies commanded by the Pentateuch.
Like the greater number of Christian mystics, and like the Karmathians among the followers of Islam, the adepts of the Kabbalah followed all the external practices; they were generally careful not to attack the tradition which they themselves invoked in their favor.; and, as we have already noted, several of them were counted among the most revered doctors of the Mishnah. We may also add that later on they were seldom found to be untrue to these habits of prudence.
Download the PDF Ebook Here : https://www.theeternalcircle.net/ebooks/kabbalah-religious-philosophy-ebook/