On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead – Basic concepts in the Kabbalah (1991)

ARE YOU INTERESTED in learning more about Jewish mysticism? In that case I got some academic books on the subject I wish to recommend. I wrote about Daniel C. Matt’s translation and commentary on The Zoharthe most famous book (12 volumes…) within Jewish mysticism; in a previous post. In this post I want to introduce you to Prof. Gerschom Scholem’s books. Mr. Scholem was the first pioneer within in the field work concerning literature related to mysticism in Judaism. He liked to describe himself as a historian of religious ideas. Scholem was also a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem until his death in the early 1980s.

On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead : Basic Concepts of the Kabbalah (1991) is one of the titles I recommend. THIS BOOK presents the core teachings within the kabbalistic tradition. I will touch briefly on reincarnation within the Kabbalah. The chapters are as follows:

  • Sch’ur Komah : The Mystical Shape of the Godhead
  • Sitra Achra : Good and Evil
  • Tsaddik : The righteous
  • Schekhinah : The feminine structures in the divine
  • Gilgul : The transmigration of souls
  • Tselem : The Concept of The Astral Body

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Modern Orthodox usually rejects the theory of gilgul (reincarnation), or transmigration (metempsychosis, is the term used by Scholem) of the soul. The concept varies a bit from the hindu theology about reincarnation, but there are similarities. There’s a strong connection between the idea of transmigration connected to punishment or reward. The soul, or various parts of the human soul transmigrates according to the Kabbalah in order to fulfill all the mitzvot (“commandments”) of the Torah.

While Ultra-orthodox, haredi Jews accept gilgul as “truth” Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism usually let the individual decide on these matters for themselves; although I must say there are little focus on these matters in theological point of view. When Conservative and Reform Judaism developed into separate movements they usually looked down on teachings associated with Kabbalah because illiterate and uneducated Jews accepted them. So, how can we trace this unusual idea within Jewish mysticism? Scholem gives several explanations on why and how it got incorporated into kabbalistic teachings. Let’s mention some of it. The medieval text Sefer ha-Bahir is the oldest book in existence dealing with the concept of gilgul within the Kabbalah. It was redacted in South of France around 1180. This geographical area was inhabited by the Catharism movement which later was becoming wiped out by the Church. They also believed in reincarnation. Not surprisingly the majority of Jewish scholars immediately rejected the doctrine. As did the majority of scholars within Christianity and Islam around the same time. They had to deal with similar religious sects holding different beliefs. Let’s see how it may have influenced Jewish mysticism. In the sixth century the Church was very much afflicted by the teachings of Origen. Ōrigénēs Adamántios; 184/185 – 253/254 was a scholar and an ascetic who believed in reincarnation. He was one of the church fathers but never reached canonization because of several heretical beliefs. His thoughts on reincarnation likely came from Gnostic Christian sects. The Gnostics became heavily persecuted and finally crushed. Their beliefs likely sprung from several Oriental traditions such as the Orphic and Platonic thoughts on the transmigration of souls. A similar process arose within Shiite Islam were the Imams supposedly reincarnated and the belief spread into  Ishmaelite Gnostics and Sufis sects; while orthodox Sunnis rejected it completely. There are also evidence some Jews believed in reincarnation from non-jewish sources. In a work on Muslim sects and schism Ibn Mansour al-Bahgdadi (died 1037) mention some Jews held this belief based on the Book of Daniel, third Chapter. In the third chapter king Nebuchadnezzar’s vision indicates he was transformed in seven different kinds of beasts, birds as to punish his wickedness. God later restored Nebuchadnezzar and sent him again to the world as a true believer in Monotheism.

STAY TUNED for more posts on Scholem’s work .

Resources

 

Review: ‘The Zohar -Pritzker ed. vol I.’

THE ZOHAR is the most prominent work of Rabbinic literature within the kabbalistic tradition. The title “Splendor/Radiance”relates to several verses in Ezekiel 1:28; :2 and Daniel 2:31; 12:3 (Those who manifest wisdom will shine like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars for ever and ever – Dan. 12:3). It follows the path of classical Midrash and is indeed a commentary on the Chumash (5 books of Moses).

THE ZOHAR deals with the mystical theories concerning creation, cosmogony and psychology of man in relation to the divine in this world and the coming world. There are many themes and endless discussions and homily on various topics such as the nature of G-d, creation, what the souls is and the cause and consequences of man’s actions (ethics). It contains numerous volumes and is written in an obscure Aramaic. The Ortodox or religious view of authorship states that Shimon bar Yohai (2nd century sage) was the true author while modern scholarship claims it has a much later autorship. Gerschom Scholem’s research proves that the Zohar was compiled and written down by a man called Moses De Leon in 1270.

THE ZOHAR – PRITZKER EDITION is a work of modern scholarship and pays attention to scientific methods concerning its history, origins and translation. The first volume was released in 2003. The final volume n:o 12 was released in 2017 so now you know how vast the entire text of the Zohar is in reality. Daniel C. Matt, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Jewish mysticism, has done the translation and commentary on the text. I only own the First volume which is enough for me since Genesis is sort of my favourite book when it comes to religious literature. Now we have a complete translation of all volumes available to anyone who which to learn more about the core text of Jewish mysticism. So how did it happen?

BACK IN 1995 Daniel C. Matt was contacted by Margot Pritzker who previously had studied the Zohar with her rabbi. She used a translation from the 1930’s and there was  a desatisfaction with the many available, but rather outdated, translations. Thoughts of a new translation of Zohar into English emerged. Matt warned it would take about 12-15 years to complete the task. But he agreed to carry out the project with the help of the Pritzker family who funded the entire project. Each volume was printed by the Stanford University Press.

THE FIRST VOLUME contains Margot Pritzker’s short foreword followed by translator’s introduction by Matt; acknowledgements, a foreword by Arthur Green on the contents of Zohar, theology of Zohar (10 sefiroth and so forth) and Zohar as text. The ingress consist of a longer text Haqadamat Sefer ha-Zohar. First lines: Rabbi Hizkiyah opened, “Like a rose among thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens (Song of Songs 2:2) Who is a rose? Assembly of Israel. For there is a rose, and then there is a rose! Just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white, so Assembly of Israel  includes judgement and compassion (Matt 2004, p. 1). To understand the context of these lines one needs to be familiar with the ten sefiroth, the divine emanations which connects the divine world with the earthly. These are core values within the Kabbalah and shows how G-d works within the divine and earthly worlds. In Kabbalah the functional structure of the sephirot in channeling Divine creative life force, and revealing the unknowable Divine essence to Creation is described. From the top of the Tree of Life resides keter (“crown”) which is the most divine, remote sefirah and it’s too difficult for any human to grasp. Only through kavannah, intense prayer a connection with the divine source can be established. The first sephirah describes the Divine Will above intellect.

img_0802The next sephirot describe conscious Divine Intellect, and the latter sephirot describe the primary and secondary conscious Divine Emotions. Two sephirot (Binah and Malchut) are feminine, as the female principle in Kabbalah describes a vessel that receives the outward male light, then inwardly nurtures and gives birth to lower sephirot. Corresponding to this is the Female Divine Presence, שְׁכִינָה‎‎, Shekhinah. Kabbalah sees the human soul as mirroring the Divine (after Genesis 1:27, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them”), and more widely, all creations as reflections of their life source in the sephirah. Every sefirah belongs to either a masculine or feminine quality. Duality in the verse above is clearly visible through the words judgement and compassion. The sefirah din (“judgement”) is associated with the feminine while rahamin (“compassion”) is a masculine quality. The verse which is about the Assembly of Israel, i.e the Jewish people, but also represent the shekinah, the tenth and final sefirah. The ingress is followed by Parashat Be-Reshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and Parashat Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:32).

The Zohar is not easy as a text. It’s full of symbolism, metaphors and allusions. Therefore, the commentary with explanations is greatly appreciated. And believe me, one needs them. Curious about the translator? Read more about Daniel C. Matt here (Questions & Answers).

Sources:

Matt, Daniel C. 2004. The Zohar Vol. 1. Vol. 1. The Zohar. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zohar, Cover Comp