View Full Version : Chapter VI. Some General Features of the 'Zohar' Mysticism

June 22nd, 2008, 01:37 AM


THE Zohar (lit. = 'Shining' or 'Brightness' from the word in Daniel, xii. 3--"And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament") is, par excellence, the textbook of Jewish mediŠval mysticism. Its language is partly Aramaic and partly Hebrew. While purporting to be but a commentary on the Pentateuch, it is, in reality, quite an independent compendium of Kabbalistic theosophy. Its style, its subject-matter, its spirit lead the reader into realms which bear hardly any conceivable resemblance to the manner and substance of the Pentateuch.

The Zohar compares well with the Talmud in one respect. They are both painfully unsystematic in the handling of their subject-matter. Both present us with a bizarre medley of ideas and facts, an ill-assorted conglomeration of history and fable, truth and fiction, serious comment which has a value for all time and observations which the march of time asks us to dismiss as outworn and valueless. Both works, too, cover a long stretch of time.

The Zohar is a pseudepigraphic work. It is impossible, in the present book, to give the reader even the faintest outlines of the literature written by Jews of many countries and many centuries, on the vexed question of the authorship of the Zohar. It pretends to be the record of a direct Divine revelation to Rabbi Simeon ben Yoḥai (born in Galilee 2nd century A.D.); and it is mainly written in the form of a series of utterances from the mouth of Simeon to his disciples, who believed him to be conveying to them the truths which he had received first-hand from Heaven. Criticism has long ago demonstrated the utter untenability of this view. The Zohar made its first appearance in Spain in the 13th century, and its contents show incontestably that not alone must the work, as a whole, be considerably later than the 2nd century (although many an idea and doctrine certainly does go as far back as that, and further too), but that it could not possibly be the production of a single author or a single period of history. It is, like the Yetsirah book, a syncretism. Many civilisations, many faiths, and many philosophies went to the making of it. All these were, in some instances, taken in their original state and incorporated in the work, while, in other instances, they found room in it only after they had passed through the crucible of the Jewish mind and had thus become 'judaised' in the process. But that a goodly proportion of it is the development of many a doctrine embodied in the Talmud and Midrashim, there cannot be the least doubt. To ask whether this or that doctrine of Talmudic literature is indigenous to the Talmud or has its source elsewhere, is, of course, quite another matter. But that it reached the Zohar from the Talmud and Midrashim and their progeny, directly, is certain.

Where the foreign elements are drawn from is a fruitful subject of speculation amongst scholars. There is general admission, however, that Neoplatonism and Gnosticism are responsible for much.

And to this must be added a newer theory, which finds echoes of Persian Sūfism in the Zohar. The sūfi mystics were very numerous in Persia from the 8th century onwards, and it is maintained that the Jews of Persia, influenced by Sūfism, transmitted to the Jews of Spain (who were very numerous, very influential, and very distinguished in learning from the 10th to the 15th century) many mystical interpretations of esoteric tenets which in various shapes found an entrance into the Zohar.

Be this as it may, we must be on our guard against following the mistaken opinion of a certain set of Jewish theologians who would have us regard the whole of the mediŠval Kabbalah (of which the Zohar is a conspicuous and representative part) as a sudden and strange importation from without. It is really a continuation of the old stream of Talmudic and Midrashic thought with the admixture of extraneous elements picked up, as was inevitable, by the stream's course through many lands--elements the commingling of which must have, in many ways, transformed the original colour and nature of the stream.

The Zohar, as was said above, purports to be but a commentary on the Pentateuch. It is self-explanatory on this point. The following is a. direct quotation:

"Woe unto the man," says Simeon ben Yoḥai," who sees in the Torah nought but simple narratives and ordinary words. For if, in truth, it contained only that, we should have been able, even to-day, also to compose a Torah which would be, in very much another way, worthy of regard. In order to find only simple statements we should only have to betake ourselves to the ordinary legislators, among whom we could find valuable words in even greater quantity. It would suffice us to imitate them and to make a Law after their words and example. But it is not thus. Every word of the Torah contains an elevated sense and a sublime mystery."

Here is a direct intimation of the Zohar's emphasis upon the existence of higher truths in the Bible. It continues:

"The narratives (or words) of the Law are the garment of the Law. Woe unto him who takes this garment for the Law itself! It is in this sense that David spake, saying, 'Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy Law' (Psalm, cxix. 18). David wished to speak of that which is hidden beneath the garment of the Law. There are fools who, seeing a man covered with a beautiful garment, look no further than that; and yet that which gives a worth to the garment is his body, and what is even more precious than that, his soul. The Law, too, has its body. There are precepts which one might call the body of the Law. The ordinary narratives which are intermingled are the garments with which the body is covered. Simpletons have regard only to the garments or narratives of the Law. . . . The better instructed pay no regard to the garment, but to the body which it encloses. Finally, the wise, the servants of the supreme King, they who inhabit the heights of Sinai, are concerned only with the soul which is the foundation of all else, which is the real Law. And in the time to come they will be prepared to gaze at the soul of that soul. which breathes through the Law."

The mystical sense of the Law, then, is its highest and truest sense. What edifice of thought does the Zohar erect on this foundation? It posits the cardinal principle that there is an esoteric as well as an exoteric reality in the phenomena of the world. The world is a series of emanations from the Divine. To quote the original:

"He is the beginning as well as the end of all stages (dargin); upon Him are stamped (etrashim) all the stages. But He can only be called One, in order to show that although He possesses many forms, He is nothing other than ONE" (i. fol. 21).

Or, to give a fuller and more striking version of the same thought:

"Before the Holy One (blessed be He) created this world, He went on creating worlds and destroying them. Whatsoever exists in this world, everything that has been in existence throughout all generations, was in existence in His presence (kāmÚ) in all their manifold forms" (iii. fol. 61).

In other words, the universe is the outward expression of the inner Divine thought. Everything germinated from the eternal archetypal Divine idea. Or as it is put in another way:

"He made this world of below to correspond with the world of above. Everything which is above has its pattern here below and all constitutes a unity" (ii. fol. 20).

What the Zohar thus aims at teaching us is, that man, having the privilege to behold everywhere the Divine image--the world being an embodiment of God--can, if he will, make his way to the Invisible Author of all; can have union with the Unseen. "Whatsoever belongs to the domain [literally 'side,' sitrā] of the Spirit, thrusts itself forward and is visible" (ii. fol. 20). The universe is Divine Spirit materialised, and it is given to man to have contact with it. The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrashim had an idea of a sort of image of God which is immanent in the universe. Thus, a passage in the Tanḥuma (on Genesis, xxiii.) says: "If a mortal king engraves his image upon a tablet, the tablet is greater than the image. But God is great, and yet His image is greater than the whole world."

But it is only fair to add--and it bears out the remark already made about the curious mixture of ingredients which make up the Zohar--that in conjunction with this high note of thought there is another note which strikes the modern reader as being of a pitifully inferior nature. The juxtaposition is deplorable. We are presented with an almost unintelligible mass of mediŠval astrology. Thus: "In the firmament above which covers all things, signs are engraven in which are fixed hidden things and secrets. These marks are those of the constellations and the planets" (ii. fol. 74). Here is a tiny quotation representative of a huge quantity of the Zohar's material. "He who has to set out on a journey in the morning must rise at the break of day and must look towards the east. He will behold letters moving in the heavens, one ascending and another descending. These brilliant forms are those of the letters with which God created the heaven and the earth. They form His mysterious and holy Name" (Ibid. 76). This looks very much like a mixture of Pythagorean theories of letters with mediŠval astrological notions. "When the spirits and the souls come out of Eden [the Zohar, like all the Kabbalah, abundantly teaches the pre-existence of souls] they all possess a certain appearance which, later on, is reflected in the face" (Ibid. 73). From this, all sorts of the strangest facts of physiognomy are seriously deduced.

In a work which professes to draw its substance from the secret and esoteric aspect of the Old Testament, and which, as we have said, makes the seen world so much akin to the unseen, it is only to be expected that angelology should fill an important place. The impetus to much of it is directly given by a saying of the Talmud, to the effect that "the righteous are greater than the ministering angels" (T.B. Sanhedrin, 93a). This idea is just of a piece with the general drift of the Zohar. For, by its theories of emanation, and by its insistence on the idea of the macrocosm or of the world as being an evolution of the image of God and of man as a small copy of the world, a microcosm, it cannot but make man as the centre, the crown and consummation of all creation. Hence man must rank above the angels.

It is important to observe the framework of thought into which the Zohar fits its ideas on the relative positions of angels and men in the microcosm. The world as a manifestation of the Divine, as the materialised expression of God's immanent activity, is really made up of four component parts (or 'worlds,' as the Kabbalah always styles them). These are: (a) the world of Azilut or emanation; (b) the world of Beriah, i.e. creative ideas; (c) the world of Yetsirah or creative formations; (d) the world of ‘Asiyah or creative matter.

The first term, Azilut, is based on the Hebrew verb azal in Numbers, xi. 17 ("And I will take of the spirit which is upon thee and will put it upon them"). The second, third, and fourth terms are derived from the three Hebrew verbs in Isaiah, xliii. 7, 'I have created,' 'I have formed,' 'I have made.' The world of Azilut constitutes the domain of the Ten Sefirot--which will be considered in our next chapter. The world of Beriah holds the Divine throne which emanates from the light of the Sefirot, also the souls of the pious. The world of Yetsirah is the scene of the 'divine halls' (hekalot)--the seven heavenly halls guarded by angels, into which the ecstatic seekers for the Merkabah (Chariot) strive to gain admission. The angels have their abode there, presided over by Metatron; and there also are the souls of ordinary men (as distinguished from the pious). In the world of ‘Asiyah are the lower order of angels--the Ophanim, whose business it is to combat evil and to receive the prayers of men. Thus, seeing that the hierarchy of angels only begins with the 'third world,' whereas the souls of the pious belong to the 'second world,' the position of man in the Divine evolution is superior to that of the angel.

The idea of the active part thus played by angels in the emanation-worlds of Jewish mediŠval mysticism is primarily derived from such Old Testament verses as "he maketh his angels winds [A.V. spirits]; his ministers a flaming fire" (Psalm, civ. 4), which has already been quoted in a similar connection before. But suppose we attempt to rationalise the old-world allegorical language, what constructions would we place upon these angelic activities in the scheme of man and the universe? Much light is shed on the subject by the fact of the decisive names which are accorded to the angels--names which denote missions. Thus Raḥmiel is the angel of mercy, Tahariel is the angel of purity, Pedāel is the angel of deliverance, Tsadkiel is the angel of justice, Raziel is the angel who guards the Divine secrets. Metatron is the master of all these, and it has been shown in a previous chapter how closely Metatron is allied to the Deity, playing in the world a r˘le akin to that of the Deity. The inference from all these statements is that every particle of the natural world, every shred of man's organism, is saturated with some manifestation or other of the Divine Will--the Divine Will which is goodness and truth and love and justice made manifest and real. It is this impregnable Force underlying all phenomena that preserves the world in its course and that makes its manifold and variegated parts work in harmonious relations.

But what about the existence of sin and evil? How can their existence be justified in a world such as the Zoharic mysticism implies--a world which is a series of emanations from the Divine, a world wherein God is eternally and intimately present in its every part, because the whole is but a manifestation of Himself? If all things, i.e. everything good and everything evil, are similarly and equally phases of the same Divine Life, then the distinction between good and evil becomes meaningless. But to affirm this, is to deny the first principles of both religion and morality. It is the quagmire of pantheism. Does the Zohar lead to any pantheistic conclusion? If not, how does it evade the difficulty?

The reply to these queries is that the Zohar steers clear of the dangers of pantheism, and that it solves the problem of evil in a way which, while appearing highly unsatisfactory to the modern scientific Western mind, is quite in keeping with the intellectual level of the times in which its writers lived. Evil, sin, and their personifications, the demons, are termed kÚlīfoth, i.e. the coverings, wrappings, externals of all existing things. Just as the covering (or husk) of anything is not the real thing and far inferior to it, so sin and evil are, as it were, the gross, inferior, imperfect aspects of creation. And as the world is an emanation of the Divine, it follows that whatsoever in the world is evil, and not of the Divine, cannot be real. Hence evil is that which has no being; it is a sort of illusion; it is a state of absence, negation; it is a thing which merely appears to be but is not. It is symbolised, according to the Zohar, by the condition of the primŠval chaos as described in Genesis, i. 2, viz. 'without form,' 'void,' 'darkness,' i.e. the absence of all visible form, order, life. By means of the creation of the world (which is an emanation of the Divine) the Infinite became, as it were, 'contracted' (Tsimtsum) and took on certain attributes of the finite. To this finite belongs the 'darkness' of the first chaos or, in other words, evil. Hence the finite stands at the uttermost extremity of the Divine emanation, i.e. the world. And as it is man's duty to strive after union with the Infinite, his pursuit of the finite leads him to that which lies at the extremity of the Divine nature rather than that which lies at the heart of it. This constitutes evil. It is a state of absence, a negation, because man who, like the universe, is but one of the manifestations of the Divine, can only attain the real when he seeks the Real who is his fount, his home.

It is of interest--and vital to an understanding of all Kabbalistic literature--to note some of the favourite technical terms employed, in addition to those already here mentioned in passing. A ubiquitous term is En-Sof, applied to the Deity. These words mean literally 'No End.' The Deity is boundless, endless. The Zohar was not the first mystical work to use the words. The underlying idea was probably supplied by the idea underlying the description of the Godhead in the philosophy of Ibn Gabirol, the Spanish-Hebrew poet and mystic philosopher of the eleventh century. He describes the Deity as the 'shě-ěn to tiklah,' i.e. the one who has no bounds or ends. Ibn Gabirol was a Neoplatonist, and much of his philosophy shows the influence upon him of Plotinus. But he forsakes his master and follows strictly in the line of Jewish tradition in one respect, viz. that in order, as he thought, to safeguard the Jewish doctrine of monotheism, the Deity must be freed from the ascription to Him of all attributes. Hence God can only be properly described by a title which emphasises the negation of all attributes. The En-Sof of the Zohar and its predecessors is probably an echo of this ultra-negative characterisation of the Deity. Let us quote the Zohar:

"Before having created any shape in the world, before having produced any form, He was alone, without form, resembling nothing. Who could comprehend Him as He then was, before creation, since He had no form? It is forbidden to picture Him by any form or under any shape whatsoever, not even by His holy name, nor by a letter [of the alphabet] nor by a point [the Yod, which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, is usually designated as a point]. Such is the sense of the words, 'For ye saw no manner of similitude on the day when the Lord spake unto you in Horeb, out of the midst of the fire' (Deut. iv. 15). This means that you saw no other thing which you might possibly represent by a form or shape. But after He had created the form of the Heavenly Man (Adam ‘Ilā-ā) He used him as a chariot (Merkābāh) on which to descend. He wished to be called by the form which consists of the holy name of Jahveh. He wished to make Himself known by His attributes, by each attribute separately. So He let Himself be styled as the God of pardon, the God of justice, the God omnipotent, the God of hosts and He who is (Jahveh). His object was to make thus intelligible what are His qualities and how His justice and His compassion extend over the world as well as over the works of men. For, had He not shed His brightness over all His creatures, how would we get to know Him? How would it be true to say that the world is filled with His glory? Woe unto the man who would dare to compare Him to even one of His own attributes! Yet still less ought He to be likened unto the man who came from the earth and who is destined for death! It is necessary to conceive of Him as above all creatures and all attributes. And then when these things have been removed, there is left neither attribute, nor shape, nor form" (ii. fol. 42).

From this characteristic extract, the following deductions are possible:

(a) God as the En-Sof and as a Being utterly divested of attributes is an idea that can only be postulated negatively. You cannot tell what God is; you can only tell what He is not. But if this be so, and if, as is axiomatic to the Zohar and all the Kabbalah, the world is contained in God just as a small vessel is contained in a larger, and nothing exists outside of God, how can creation be explained, whence and how arose the universe? The universe is imperfect and finite, and its creation must have involved, therefore, some change in the character of God who ex hypothesi is perfect, free from all attributes, and therefore free from all possibility of change. How could this be? The answer is contained in the Zohar's teaching on the Ten Sefirot, which will be considered in our coming chapter.

(b) The idea of God using the Heavenly Man (Adam ‘Ilā-ā) as a chariot on which to descend indicates a noteworthy identity of teaching in the Zohar and Plotinus. For both systems imply that there is a sort of double movement in the universe, 'a way down and a way up.' There is a process of Divine emanation, i.e. an outgoing of God, a self-descent from His transcendent height towards the lowly abodes of man. And correspondingly there is an ascent, a way up, on the man's part. For, just as to Plotinus, the final stage of the soul's return journey to its home in God, consists in its highest experience (brought about by a withdrawal from desires and from objects of sense) of contact and union with God, so also, according to the Zohar, the three elements of which the soul is composed, viz. the rational (neshāmāh), the moral (ruaḥ), and the vital (nefesh), are each of them, not only emanations from the Sefirot, but also have the potency of uniting him again with the Sefirot, and, in the case of the pious man, of uniting him with the highest of the Sefirot, the Crown or Supreme Intelligence.

(c) The idea of the Heavenly Man, or Adam Kadmon ('First' or 'Original' Man), or Shechinta Tā-tā-ā ('Lower' or 'Terrestrial' Shechinah), is vital to an understanding of the Zohar and of all Kabbalistic literature. It has resemblances to the Philonic exegesis on the distinction between "the heavenly man born in the image of God," and therefore having "no participation in any corruptible or earthlike essence," and "the earthly man," who was made "of loose material, called a lump of clay" (On the Allegories of the Sacred Laws, i. 12). One thinks also in this connection of Paul's views on the First Adam who was flesh and blood, a 'living soul,' and the Second Adam whom he describes as a 'quickening spirit' (1 Cor. xv. 45-49). There is, too, a Rabbinic dictum about a "spirit of Adam" which "moved upon the face of the waters" (as did the Ruaḥ in Genesis, i. 2)--a pre-existent First Man.

The Zohar is possibly indebted for its treatment of the Heavenly Man to some one or, perhaps, all of these sources. It says as follows: "The Heavenly Man after he had manifested himself from out of the midst of the upper-world primitive obscurity, created the earthly man" (ii. 70 fol.). This means that the creation of man was the work, not of God, but of His supreme manifestation, His first emanation. This manifestation or emanation is the first of the Ten Sefirot (the Crown), which, as will be shown later, is the primal will of God which contained within itself the plan of the universe in its entire infinity of time and space. To say that the plan of the world in its entirety is contained in one of the emanations of God, is tantamount to saying that man (who is part of the world) is the product of an immanent Divine activity in the world. This immanent Divine activity is denoted by the term 'Heavenly Man,' as also by the term 'First of the Sefirot,' and, in varying senses, by all the Ten Sefirot.

But why, after all, such a title as 'Heavenly Man'? It is because, according to the Zohar, man is a copy of the universe below as well as or the universe above. Hence God in His creative capacity chose also the form of man. The Zohar puts it thus:

"Believe not that man consists solely of flesh, skin, bones, and veins. The real part of man is his soul, and the things just mentioned, the skin, flesh, bones, and veins, are only an outward covering, a veil, but are not the man. When man departs he divests himself of all the veils which cover him. And these different parts of our body correspond to the secrets of the Divine wisdom. The skin typifies the heavens which extend everywhere and cover everything like a garment. The flesh puts us in mind of the evil side of the universe. The bones and the veins symbolise the Divine chariot, the inner powers of man which are the servants of God. But they are all but an outer covering. For, inside man, there is the secret of the Heavenly Man. . . . Everything below takes place in the same manner as everything above. This is the meaning of the remark that God created man in His own image. But just as in the heavens, which cover the whole universe, we behold different shapes brought about by the stars and the planets to teach us concerning hidden things and deep secrets, so upon the skin which covers our body there are shapes and forms which are like planets and stars to our bodies. All these shapes have a hidden meaning, and are observed by the sages who are able to read the face of man" (ii. 76a).