The isles of science and philosophy are everywhere washed by mystic seas. Intellect narrows hope, and only the fortunate can bear it gladly. The medieval Jews, like the Moslems and the Christians, covered reality with a thousand superstitions, dramatized history with miracles and portents, crowded the air with angels and demons, practiced magical incantations and charms, frightened their children and themselves with talk of witches and ghouls, lightened the mystery of sleep with interpretations of dreams, and read esoteric secrets into ancient tomes.
Jewish mysticism is as old as the Jews. It received influences from the Zoroastrian dualism of darkness and light, from the Neoplatonist substitution of emanations for creation, from the Neopythagorean mysticism of number, from Gnostic theosophies of Syria and Egypt, from the apocrypha of early Christianity, from the poets and mystics of India, Islam, and the medieval Church. But its basic sources were in the Jewish mentality and tradition themselves. Even before Christ there had circulated among the Jews secret interpretations of the creation story in Genesis and of Chapters I and X of Ezekiel; in the Mishna it was forbidden to expound these mysteries except privately to a single and trustworthy scholar. Imagination was free to conceive accounts of what had preceded the creation or Adam, or what would follow the destruction of the world. Philo’s theory of the Logos or Divine Wisdom as the creative agency of God was a lofty sample of these speculations. The Essenes had secret writings which were zealously guarded from disclosure, and Hebrew apocrypha like the Book of Jubilees expounded a mystic cosmogony. A mystery was made of the Ineffable Name of Yahveh: its four letters—the “Tetragrammaton”—were whispered to hold a hidden meaning and miraculous efficacy, to be transmitted only to the mature and discreet. Akiba suggested that God’s instrument in creating the world was the Torah or Pentateuch, and that every word or letter of these holy books had an occult significance and power. Some Babylonian Geonim ascribed such occult powers to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and to the names of the angels; he who knew those names could control all the forces of nature. Learned men played with white or black magic—marvelous capacities obtainable through alliance of the soul with angels or demons. Necromancy, bibliomancy, exorcism, amulets, incantations, divination, and casting of lots played their part in Jewish as in Christian life. All the wonders of astrology were included; the stars were letters, a mysterious sky-writing that only the initiate could read.81
Sometime in the first century A.D. there appeared in Babylonia an esoteric book called Sefer Yezira—The Book of Creation. Mystic devotees, including Jehuda Halevi, attributed its composition to Abraham and God. Creation, it taught, had been effected through the mediation of ten sefiroth— numbers or principles: the spirit of God, three emanations therefrom—air, water, and fire, three spatial dimensions to the left, and three dimensions to the right. These principles determined the content, while the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet determined the forms through which creation could be understood by the human mind. The book elicited learned commentaries, from Saadia to the nineteenth century.
About 840 a Babylonian rabbi brought these mystic doctrines to the Jews of Italy, whence they spread to Germany, Provence, and Spain. Ibn Gabirol was probably influenced by them in his theory of the intermediate beings between God and the world. Abraham ben David of Posquières used the “secret tradition” as a means of drawing Jews away from the rationalism of Maimonides. His son Isaac the Blind and his pupil Azriel were probably the authors (c. 1190) of the Sefer-ha-Bahir, or Book of Light, a mystical commentary on the first chapter of Genesis; here the demiurgic emanations of the Sefer Yezira were changed into Light, Wisdom, and Reason; and this triplication of the Logos was offered as a Jewish Trinity.82 Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238) and Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-91) offered the Secret Doctrine as a more profound and rewarding study than the Talmud. Like Islamic and German mystics, they applied the sensuous language of love and marriage to the relation between the soul and God.
By the thirteenth century the word qabala, tradition, had come into general use to describe the Secret Doctrine in all its phases and products. About 1295 Moses ben Shem Tob of Leon published the third Cabalistic classic, the Sefer ha-Zohar, or Book of Splendor. He ascribed its composition to Simon ben Yohai, a tanna of the second century; Simon, said Moses, had been inspired by the angels and the ten sefiroth to reveal to his esoteric readers secrets formerly reserved for the days of the coming Messiah. All the elements of the Cabala were brought together in the Zohar: the all-inclusiveness of a God knowable only through love, the Tetragrammaton, the creative demiurges and emanations, the Platonic analogy of macrocosm and microcosm, the date and mode of the Messiah’s coming, the pre-existence and transmigration of the soul, the mystical meaning of ritual acts, numbers, letters, points, and strokes, the use of ciphers, acrostics, and the backward reading of words, the symbolical interpretation of Biblical texts, and the conception of woman as sin and yet as also the embodiment of the mystery of creation. Moses of Leon marred his performance by making Simon ben Yohai refer to an eclipse of 1264 in Rome, and use several ideas apparently unknown before the thirteenth century. He deceived many, but not his wife; she confessed that her Moses thought Simon an excellent financial device.83 The success of the book inspired similiar forgeries, and some later Cabalists paid Moses in his own counterfeit by publishing their speculations under his name.
The influence of the Cabala was far-reaching. For a time the Zohar rivaled the Talmud as the favorite study of the Jews; some Cabalists attacked the Talmud as antiquated, literalistic logic-chopping; and some Talmudists, including the learned Nachmanides, were strongly influenced by the Cabalistic school. Belief in the authenticity and divine inspiration of the Cabala was widespread among European Jews.84 Their work in science and philosophy suffered correspondingly, and the Golden Age of Maimonides ended in the brilliant nonsense of the Zohar. Even upon Christian thinkers the Cabala exercised some fascination. Raymond Lully (1235?—1315) adapted from it the number and letter mysticism of his Ars magna; Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) thought that he had found in the Cabala final proofs for the divinity of Christ.85 Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Fludd, Henry More, and other Christian mystics fed on its speculations; Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) confessed to poaching upon the Cabala for his theology; and perhaps Cabalistic ideas infected Jakob Böhme (1575-1624). If a greater proportion of Jews than of Moslems or Christians sought consolation in mystic revelations, it was because this world turned its worst face to them, and forced them, for life’s sake, to cloak reality in a web of imagination and desire. It is the unfortunate who must believe that God has chosen them for His own.