Review Article

Come See! Theosophic Light on the Qabbalah

By Sarah Belle Dougherty
The mystical teachings of the Hebrews bear the insignia of the ancient wisdom-religion, paralleling the inner teachings of the other great world religions . . . This unity of essence should not surprise us when we remember that all the great systems of thought and inquiry spring from an identic source: the brotherhood of spiritually advanced human beings and the inner core of each individual, which is identic with the core of every other being. — pp. 138-9

Who are we? How did the universe emerge? What analogies can help us understand its structure and underlying relationships? What happens to us at death? The esoteric wisdom of the Jews, passed on orally for millennia and for centuries in written form, delves deeply into these questions, presenting distinctive and intriguing answers. In Theosophy in the Qabbalah,* Grace F. Knoche examines some of its major philosophical themes in light of modern theosophy, seeking to "distill from the vast range of Qabbalistic literature those essentials which bear the stamp of the archaic tradition" (p. vii). Her clear, thought-provoking examination reveals timeless insights in an accessible form.

*Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 2006; 187 pages, glossaries, pronunciation and transliteration guide, index, ISBN 978-1-55700-184-9, softcover $11.95; ISBN 978-1-55700-183-2, hardcover $17.95.

A major theme of this book is the coming into being and inner structure of the cosmos, and by analogy of man. Today we explain the birth of the universe by referring to the Big Bang, or perhaps to God or gods forming the cosmos. Qabbalah deals with this question by describing processes of emanation. Its most widely known image is that of a Tree of Life formed of ten sefiroth, meaning "numbers" or "emanations." This "Sefirothal Tree is a symbol of man, atom, star, or any other hierarchy. It depicts the Qabbalistic method of describing the series of emanations that the One or divine monad of any being unfolds from within itself in assuming full imbodiment" (p. 9).

The process of manifestation begins with three subtle veils of nonbeing: (1) "no-thing-ness," which produces (2) the Boundless (’ein sof) or space, their union bringing forth (3) the boundless primal unmanifest light. Because the infinite and formless can only be suggested through analogies, the Zohar gives the Boundless names such as the Ancient of the Ancient One, Hidden of the Hidden Ones, Oldest of the Oldest, and Unknown of all the Unknown Ones.

The Zohar, the primary Qabbalistic text, describes the next stage, saying: "When the Unknown of the Unknown wished to manifest Itself, It began by producing a point; as long as that luminous point had not gone out of Its bosom, the Infinite was still completely unknown and diffused no light" (1:2a). This primordial point is called by several names: Sefirah (primal number or emanation), Kether (Crown), White Head, Ancient of Days, or Macroprosopus ("Great Face," source of all the "Small Faces" or manifested beings).

Having contracted to a singularity, the point swells into the "expanded or smooth point" to produce a tenfold universe formed of nine inferior sefiroth. Qabbalah expresses this process in many ways; for example, that the first sefirah or Kether "expands and makes 'a palace,' i.e., produces from within itself the next sefirah; that second sefirah, while a 'palace' or 'envelope' or garment to the first sefirah, itself becomes the 'inner light' to the succeeding sefirah; . . ." (p. 16). Several chapters describe the characteristics of these sefiroth, their emanation from each other, their interrelationships and groupings into triads, pairs, columns, and two "faces." As with other Qabbalistic doctrines, this emanational scheme is appropriate to any entity: "Because the sefirothal tree applies not only to the cosmos as a whole, but to every living being as well, this pathway is also within each one of us" (p. 47).

Several chapters treat of two other Qabbalistic series of emanations from the Boundless: the four worlds or ‘olamim and the four Adams. ‘Olam means "to conceal or hide," also a "hidden time" or period of existence (the word is often translated as "eternity," though traditionally it meant a long period rather than time without end). In this context an ‘olam is "a world or condition of being in which entities, human or other, pass a certain portion of time, and thus undergo in space a number of experiences." It is similar to the Hindu term loka as used in theosophical literature. The four Adams represent the consciousness-side of manifestation, so that

When viewed from the standpoint of the entities who inhabit and inform these worlds or planes, they are called the Adams; when considered as the worlds on and in which entities evolve, they are called the ‘olamim. Further, each of the Adams has its own sefirothal tree of life in and through which it experiences the tenfold qualities of consciousness. — p. 50

The four ‘olamim are each more material than the next, the first producing the second world as its sheath, the second producing the third world as its sheath, and the fourth (our material world, called the world of rinds or shells) being the carrier or sheath of all the rest. These spheres of being relate to one another as our spiritual, psychological, and astral-vital aspects interpenetrate each other. In fact, "Each of the four ‘olamim is held by the Zohar to have its locus in the individual human being, each corresponding with one of the four basic principles of the human constitution" (p. 53). These human principles are discussed in an excerpt from Theosophy in the Qabbalah in this issue ("The Fourfold Nature of Man").

In each world an unfolded tenfold sefirothal tree represents the kingdoms of lives. Depending on whether we consider the material or the consciousness aspect as dominant, we can view the tree as deriving from a particular ‘olam, or we can consider the ‘olam as reflecting the quality and character of its tree of life, for as Miss Knoche points out, "we may just as accurately say that each of the four sefirothal trees in the last analysis emanates or develops its corresponding ‘olam as its field of action during manifestation" (p. 55).

Another well-known Qabbalistic theme is that of archetypes, which holds that the seeds "of future worlds and humanities are contained within ‘Adam Qadmon [the primordial or Heavenly Adam] not as physical elements, but as spiritual energies" or counterparts (p. 68). As the Zohar says:

When this last work was nigh completion, all the things of this world, all the creatures of the universe, in whatever age they were to exist, before ever they entered into this world, were present before God in their true form. — 3:61b

This ties in with the concept that everything in the physical world has "its higher and supernal counterpart in the celestial spheres" (p. 26), a correlation which is true even of the human body, for according to the Zohar:

As we see in the all-covering firmament stars and planets which form different figures that contain hidden things and profound mysteries, so there are on the skin that covers our body certain figures and lines which are the planets and stars of our body. All these signs have a hidden meaning and attract the attention of the wise who can read the face of man. — 2:76a

The last chapter concerns Qabbalistic teachings on sleep, dreams, afterdeath states, initiation, and the spiritual path. After physical death, which is foretold to the soul thirty days beforehand, the deceased sees a review of his life which is then written down by angels and signed by the deceased. After purification in the Hades-like She’ol and the fiery Gehenna, souls with sufficient merit clothe themselves in garments made from their good thoughts and deeds:

After death our days are counted, and there must be at least a majority of good days in order to ascend into the upper spheres. The vesture in which the soul appears before the Almighty is formed of these days and is glorious or the reverse according to the quality of each day of the life on earth. Those days spoiled by sins are missing and make the vesture defective. If there are many missing, the soul has no clothes in the other world. Further, it is punished in Gehenna many days for each missing day. — p. 126

Once the soul ascends to the Inferior Eden, its spirit or neshamah is purified in a cleansing river of fire before it enters the Upper Eden or Paradise, clothed in garments made of its spiritual devotion and sincerity.

There is no space here to go into other fascinating subjects covered, such as the symbolism of the Heavenly Adam, divided into higher and lower, "whereby the cranium, hair, eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, and beard, as well as the other components of the Ancient of Days, are used to illustrate the coming forth into manifestation of the tenfold powers of a sefirothal tree from the infinitude of ’ein sof" (p. 79).

Long kept hidden for the few, the Jewish mystical tradition has nonetheless exerted a profound effect on European thought, not only through early Christianity itself but also from medieval times. The mid-fifteenth century began 200 years of particularly intense Qabbalistic influence on thinkers such as Pico della Mirándola, Agrippa, Paracelsus, Van Helmont, John Reuchlin, Henry Khunrath, Athanasius Kircher, and Jacob Boehme, followed later by Francis Bacon, Kepler, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton. Today we are fortunate to have ready access to many Qabbalistic texts and schools of interpretation. Theosophy in the Qabbalah offers a perceptive introduction to this important tradition.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

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Is it really too much to ask and hope for a religion whose content is perennial but not archaic, which provides ethical guidance, teaches the lost art of contemplation, and restores contact with the supernatural without requiring reason to abdicate? — Arthur Koestler