Posts Tagged ‘kabbalah


An Elemental Tree of Life

Gershon Winkler’s ‘Daily Kabbalah: wisdom from the tree of life’ (2004) collects together ‘user friendly renditions’ of teachings from various Aramaic and Hebraic sources. Winkler has written on ‘Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism’ and his selection reflects that focus,  with aphorisms about talking trees, singing stars and the four kinds of beings dwelt in by ‘the Divine Presence’: Still Beings (stones, planets),  Sprouting Beings (trees, grasses, plants), Living Beings (animals, fish, birds, insects) and Talking  Beings(humans) – the latter categorisation attributed to Rabbi Yisro’el Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-1760).

Winkler attributes an Element to each of the Sephirot, deriving this schema from relevant passages in the Sefer Yetzirah, which he summarises as follows: ‘In the beginning there was Breath of God. From Breath of God came Wind. From Wind came Water. From Water came Fire. From Fire came Sky. From Sky came Earth. From Earth came North Wind. From North Wind came South Wind. From South Wind came East Wind. From East Wind came West Wind’.

It all started therefore with the ‘Breath of God and Keh’ter… symbolic of the No-Thing place from where everything originates’. Next  ‘Breath of Light became Wind and hollowed out a space in No-Thing in which there now arose the possibility of Some-Thing’.  From the wind’s vapor came Water (Chokmah), and then ‘As the moisture of the primeval Breath created water, so did the warmth of the primeval breath create Fire’ (Chesed). Fire and Water in balance gave rise to Sky at G’vurah – ‘Sky in Hebrew reads as ‘sh’mayyim’, literally ‘Fire Water’, for it is where two dwell together in balance a la sun and rain’.  Next at Tif’eret Earth is ‘brought to her fruition by virtue of sky, by the hamonization of fire and water and balanced directing of their flows’.  The final four Sephirot are associated with the Four Winds (I will return to the significance of the winds in another post).

I have placed these attributions on a ‘tree of life’ diagram as follows.



Merkaba – Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer‘s recent exhibition at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey included plenty of Kabbalist content, such as his piece ‘Merkaba’.

His bicycle might not be quite the vision of the throne-chariot of G_d described by Ezekiel – but it has the wheels, and the pewter bowls suspended from the bike frame more than hint at alchemy (they contain salt, sulphur and mercury).

4: And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
5: Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
6: And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
7: And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
8: And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
9: Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
10: As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
11: Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
12: And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
13: As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
14: And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
15: Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
16: The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
17: When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
18: As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.
19: And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
20: Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
21: When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

(Ezekiel, Chapter I, King James Bible)


The Three Triangles

In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant wrote ‘Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”.

This encapsulates the fundamental levels of human existence which any belief system has to wrestle with – the cosmic (‘the starry heavens’, our place in the universe, why are we here? How did we come to be?); the social (Kant’s ‘moral law’, the question of how humans relate to each other) and the individual (‘the mind’, the thinking, feeling subject).

In Kabbalist terms these can be related to the ‘Three Triangles’ of the Tree of Life.  Kether (the Crown), Chockmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Understanding) constitute the Supernal or Archetypal  Triangle – which corresponds to the cosmic.

Geburah (Severity), Chesed (Mercy) and Tiphareth (Beauty) constitute the Ethical or Moral Triangle, which corresponds to the social.

Hod (Glory), Netzach (Victory) and Yesod (Foundation) constitute the Astral or Psychological Triangle, which can be equated to the individual and his/her inner life. In a more psychological  take on Kabbalah, like Ozaniec’s, Hod is associated with reason/rational thought, Netzach with the emotions and Yesod with the unconscious.

Malkuth stands outside the Triangles as the starting point for the journey through the Tree – in this schema the ground of being, the physical fact of existence that is the basis of our individual, social and cosmic life.

In daily life, most of act most of the time as if our selves are the centre, extending our awareness to friends and family, then the wider social world, then sometimes to the cosmic. Undertaken consciously, this is an aspect of the journey up the Tree. But at a deeper level, the cosmic precedes the human, just as society precedes the individual. Or put another way the social is an emanation of the cosmic, just as the individual is a an emanation of the social.

(image sourced from the Servants of the Light site)


Zizek – relating to our neighbours

‘The Jewish commandment which prohibits images of God is the obverse of the statement that relating to one’s neighbour is the only terrain of religious practice, of where the divine dimension is present in our lives – the prohibtion ‘no images of God’ does not point towards a Gnostic experience of the divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image; on the contrary, it designates a kind of ethical hic Rhodus, hic salta: you want to be religious? OK, prove it,  here, in ‘works of love’, in the way you relate to your neighbours’ (Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: the borrowed kettle, Verso, 2005).

Zizek is only partly right here – the Kabbalist notion of ‘Ein-sof’ refers precisely to the ‘divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image’. But it is also true that even the most esoteric of Jewish mystics have generally been concerned with the life of the community rather than with  mere self-development.

That is partly the explanation for the somewhat perplexing link between some currents of Jewish mysticism and ultra-orthodox interpretations of the Law.  How people behave with their friends and neighbours – down to the minutest details of dietary regulations –  is seen as being critical to the possibility of redemption, and the advent of the Messiah.

From my perspective, the subordination of 21st century human relations to the regulations of ancient times is not only alienating but reinforces ancient prejudices and oppressions. But at the same time there is, as Zizek observes, an acknowledgement that ‘relating to one’s neighbour’ is the key ‘terrain of religious practice’ (if not the only one), and therefore an ethic of caring for others and the value of human species life.

This is something that is lost in much ‘new age’ mysticism, where the focus is often much more of the search for individual self-enlightenment than on the needs of others, let alone on how we can collectively create the conditions where basic human needs for food, clean water, shelter, health care etc. are met for all.


Adorno and the standpoint of redemption

For the critical thoughtist, Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969) is a guiding light. A secular Jewish marxist of the Frankfurt School, he proposed a negative critique of exisiting social conditions that must avoid the affirmative illusions of the present. Interesting then that in one of his key works,   ‘Minima moralia: reflections on a damaged life’ he concluded in a tone clearly influenced – like his late friend Walter Benjamin – by Jewish religious conceptions, possibly even the notion of Tiqqun as the redemption of the broken world associated with Lurianic Kabbalah:

‘The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from self contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible, but beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.’


32nd Path: The Well of Memory

As part of exploring the 32nd path (from Malkuth to Yesod), Ozaniec proposes an exercise called the Well of Memory. It basically involves visualising lowering a bucket into a deep well, retrieving it, and drinking the water from a silver goblet… then seeing what memories surface.

It worked for me, immediately triggering a memory of drinking the spa water at Bath on a school trip more than 30 years ago. Not only could I recall the warm, mineral taste of the water, but I also remember other aspects of the trip that I’d forgotten about- visiting a park, staying in a youth hostel, and walking to a folly on a hill overlooking Bath (which thanks to Google I now know to be Sham Castle, built in 1762). I also remember being infatuated with a girl called Sally and doing nothing about it.

So when I sometimes ask myself ‘why bother will all this esoteric stuff’, the answer is because at some level it works, making things happen in/to my mind that wouldn’t otherwise happen.


Four Worlds

The Kabbalist image of the Four Worlds, or planes of existence, can be conceived of as a representation of the process of creation and evolution.

It starts with Atziluth, the Archetypal World associated with Kether – closest to the unknowable godhead (in religious terms), or perhaps the inconceivable state of being beyond and before time and space prior to the Big Bang.

It unfolds at the moment of Creation itself, the explosion of matter and energy in the first moments of the universe. This is the Creative World of Briah.

Then follows the Formative World of Yetzirah, with the formation, of stars, planets, solar systems and galaxies.

Finally on our planet and presumably on others there is the evolution of life in all its myriad forms – the Active World of Assiah.