Kabbalah and the Hermetic Tradition

The history of Kabbalah is filled with many personalities and events that have shaped not only the development of Kabbalah over the centuries, but Hermeticism as well. While often lost to antiquity, or only remembered by the disciples of their particular schools, it is important to look at some of these illustrious and influential individuals and their contributions to esoteric thought if we are to have a broader and more complete picture of Europe’s spiritual development.

Kabbalah, as most readers know, comes from Hebrew and is generally translated as “tradition” or “received oral tradition”. It is the unwritten mystical and magical aspects of Judaism that run parallel to the written rules, laws, and rituals of exoteric Jewish thought and philosophy.

What is not generally know however, is that although it existed prior, the word “kabbalah” didn’t come into use until the 12th or 13th century to designate the esoteric and mystical thoughts and practices of Jewish philosophy. It was about this time, that Kabbalah, as we understand it, with the Tree of Life and all the sepheroth, also came into being. Like the word that denotes these studies, the Tree of Life also has roots in older traditions and practices. While many schools of kabbalah were, and some still are, exclusively Jewish in orientation, as time went on many were adapted to the Christian world as well as influenced by other schools of mystical and esoteric activity.

Isaac the Blind, a pivotal figure in the study of early 13th century kabbalistic philosophy and ritual studied not only Jewish, but also early Greek, and Christian Gnostic writings, as well as the writing of a Sufi sect at Basra, the Brethren of Sincerity. Isaac the Blind was the leader of the influential Provencal schools of his day. Another key figure in early kabbalistic development was the 14th century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia of Saragossa. Said to have been of messianic proportions, Abulafia traveled the Middle East and North Africa and returned with certain yogic techniques of posture, breathing, and rhythmic prayer, and introduced them to his disciples in a new kabbalistic structure.

It is important to note that some of the most profound leaps in human consciousness took place during this period when Europe was in the last death throws of the Dark Ages. Yet despite the ignorance and intolerance that existed in Europe north of the Pyrenees Mountains, in Spain a mystical revival was taking place in a period of Arab ecumenical tolerance. While Christians and Muslims were fighting wars for the political and spiritual control of the Middle East and Spain, Jewish intellectuals rose to positions of power and influence in the Arab empire.

This “Golden Age” of Medieval Judaism peaked in Arab occupied Spain and contributed some of the most profound Jewish mystical philosophers since the period of the Prophets in the Old Testament. Moses ben Maimon, the preeminent commentator on classical Jewish writings, Solomon ben-Gabirol, and Moses of Cordoba, the author, or more likely editor of the Sepher Zohar come from this period. The Zohar, or Book of Illumination, along with the Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Formation), forms the basis for all kabbalistic speculation, meditation, and ritual. Its commentaries on Biblical lore are a never ending storehouse of wisdom for students of Western mysticism. It is because of these activities in Spain, in the region of Catalonia in particular, and Provencal in Southern France, that Kabbalah grew into one of the most powerful and influential mystical philosophies in Western history.

This is also important to mystical students because it is from Arab Spain that the West gets much of its knowledge of Alchemy, and Ritual Magic, the sisters of Kabbalah. Together, these three schools formed the basis for Hermetic philosophy and practices as mentioned in the early Rosicrucian manifestoes: the Fama Fraternitatis, the Confessio Fraternitatis, and The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz. For many students of mysticism, the pilgrimage to these schools was as great and as dangerous as their forbearers had made to the temples of Egypt and Persia. Raymond Lull, Arnold of Villanova, and the famed French mystic, alchemist, and Rosicrucian Nicolas Flamel, bookseller turned patron of cathedrals, all received their initiations into the Hermetic sciences, of which Kabbalah is a part, in Spain and brought it to the rest of Europe.

Thus, the idea of a pure unchanging stream of kabbalistic thought and technique having been handed down to Adam and existing to this day, as perpetuated by some Jewish and Hermetic schools, is mythology or foolishness. It is even suggested by some scholars that while Kabbalah has its roots in earlier Jewish mystical practices, particularly Mercavah, or Chariot mysticism, its ideas were entirely novel to the period of the 12th and 13th centuries. All things in nature change and adapt, kabbalah is one of these changing and evolving creations.

A perfect example of this change is the Christianization of kabbalistic ideas by mystics who sought to preserve the early Jewish writings when they were in danger of being destroyed by the Inquisition, as well as find practical uses for what was contained within them. For this reason a kind of Christian Kabbalah (often spelled cabala) developed in the 15th century. It had as its goal the harmonization of Kabbalah with Christian doctrines, and found ripe justification for the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity in the Kabbalah’s first three sepheroth, or “Holy Upper Trinity”.

The two primary sources for “Christianized Cabala” were the writings of ‘conversio’ Jews in Spain (sometimes called “crypto-jews”), or Jews who converted to Catholicism, and the Platonic Academy, supported by the Medicis, in Florence.

Those writing from Jewish converts in Spain that most effected Kabbalah’s development began at the end of the 13th century and lasted until the Jewish “Diaspora” from Spain in 1492. Writers such as Abner of Burgos and, Paul de Heredia secretly wrote several Christian Cabalistic works in the name of Judah ha-Nasi and other famous mystical authors. Two of their most famous texts are, Iggeret ha-Sodot and Galei Rezaya. Other works were put out in Spain until the end of the 15th century by Jewish converts, often imitating the styles of other well known and respected works, such as the Zohar. However, such imitation was common and accepted in that period, and in itself is not enough to doubt the integrity of the author involved.

The Florentine schools had a greater impact than the writings of Jewish writers in Spain. While the Spanish texts were often translated and to a greater or lesser degree available, they won few if any converts from Judaism to Christianity, or from Christianity to the effectiveness of the Kabbalah. The Florentine school developed the belief that an indisputable source for the validation of Christianity, and neo-Platonic, Pythagorean, and Orphic thought was discovered in Kabbalah. Also, they believed that in Kabbalah, the long, lost secrets of the Catholic, and possibly original Christian faith, had been rediscovered. The principle founder of this Christian Cabalistic school was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94). This young genius began his kabbalistic studies in 1486 at the age of 23, and had a large selection of kabbalistic material translated into Latin by Samuel ben Nissim who was himself a convert to Catholicism. Pico later had Raymond Moncada, known as Flavius Mithridates, translate for him as well. Among his 900 theses that he publicly displayed for debate in Rome included the statement, “no science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the Kabbalah,” thus bringing the Kabbalah to many in the Christian world for the first time.

The Church’s reaction was one of fierce opposition and rejection to this and other propositions made by Pico. The public debate Pico wanted was guaranteed. Kabbalah now became the principle discussion in the Christian intellectual world, as it was seen as an otherwise unknown Jewish esoteric doctrine that had been overlooked or lost completely. Christian Platonists in Germany, Italy, and France quickly attached themselves to Pico’s school of thought. Pico’s works also caused Johannes Reuchlin, the famed Christian Hebrew scholar, to undertake kabbalistic studies, publishing two books on it as a result - De Verbo Mirifico (On the Miracle-Working Name, 1494) and De Arte Cabalistica (on the Science of the Kabbalah, 1517).

Between the publishing of Reuchlin’s Verbo and Arte, a number of works appeared from the pen of Paul Ricius. Ricius was himself a convert to Catholicism, as well as the physician to Emperor Maximilian, and had a reputation for being erudite. Ricius took the ideas of Pico and Reuchlin and added to them his own conclusions based upon kabbalistic and Christian sources, forming a doctrine of the “Divine Name” and its relationship to world history.

According to Ricius, all of world history could be divided into three stages based upon the names of God found in the Bible. The first period was the natural period where God reveals himself through the three lettered Divine Name Shaddai (The Strong). The second phase is the Torah period, were God reveals to Moses the Divine Name of four letters, the Tetragrammaton, or YHVH. The final period, or period of grace and redemption, God reveals the Tetragrammaton plus the fifth letter shin, or the letter of the Logos (Christ), spelling Yehoshua or the Cabalistic rendition of Jesus, name. Thus, the name of Jesus, or the Miraculous Name, became the pronounceable name of the previously unpronounceable YHVH. To support his argument, Ricius used medieval manuscripts in which Jesus’ name was abbreviated JHS, the Jewish-kabbalistic doctrine of three world ages (Chaos, Torah, Messiah), and the similar doctrine of Joachiam of Fiore, who proposed a reign, or age, of the Father, Son, and finally, the Holy Spirit. Many of these concepts, particularly the significance of shin in the Divine Name, and the Reign of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) would play a significant part in the development of 19th and early 20th century French (Levi and his successors) occult schools and their philosophies.

What makes the writings of Pico and Reuchlin significant, is that they placed for the first time the kabbalah in the broader cultural and theological context of Christian (principally Catholic) Europe and its intelligentsia. Their focus on “Divine Names,” practical or magical kabbalah, and the synthesis of Christian doctrine with kabalistic philosophy and speculation, became the zeitgeist of the era.

During this period, the most influential of all magical-mystical kabbalistic texts that came from the newly formed Christo-centric cabalistic tradition that was forming, was Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim’s De Occulta Philosophia (1531) in four volumes. This series of works on practical kabbalah was an encyclopedia of all the known occult and magical lore of the day. It is from these works, that much of the Christian world received its information regarding magical and numerological associations with kabbalah.

Other Christian thinkers sought to reconcile this lack of mastery of principle kabbalistic source materials during the 16th century by returning to the Hebrew and Latin originals. While the primary goal was to further prove the connection between Christianity and mystical Judaism, the end result was a broader intellectual understanding of Hebraic studies. Two of the most prominent figures in this movement were Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo (1465-1532) who was heavily influenced by the Zohar and Sefer ha-Temunah in his writings Scechina and “On the Hebrew Letters”, and Francesco Giogio of Venice, (1460-1541) a Franciscan, the author of two large volumes on kabbalah that were read extensively at their time, De Harmonia Mundi (1525) and Problemata (1536). In both works the kabbalah was central to the themes developed, and the Zohar, for the first time, was used en masse in a work of Christian origin. Giogio’s writings also elaborated extensively on Pico’s theses.

Among all of these scholars, the most influential, remembered, and closest to the original Hebrew sources was Guillaume Postel (1510-1581). Postel, a French mystic, translated into Latin the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah before they were publicly printed in Hebrew. His translations included mystical annotations of his own theosophic philosophy as applied to kabbalah. His publications also include a Latin commentary (1548) on the mystical symbolism of the menorah, and eventually a Hebrew edition.

Throughout the 16th century Christian cabala focused its own internal theosophical development, and not upon evangelizing among the Jewish populations of Europe. However, such a cause could be justification enough for studies that might otherwise get one arrested or killed. With the development of these increasingly Christ-centric theosophical speculations, less and less time was spent with original Hebrew sources or their Latin translations. One of the few exceptions to this was Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter (1560-1557) who amassed a large collection of kabbalistic source materials for his studies.

With the writings of Jacob Boehme and Knorr von Rosenroth in 17th century Germany, Christian Cabala took a definite turn away from Hebrew source material, a turn that would last for some time to come. While Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Denudata (1677-84) made much of the Zohar available to Christian readers for the first time, his essay on the Adam Kadom and its relationship to the ‘primordial man Jesus’ in Christian theology seemed to upstage the Zohar in many respects. The essay appearing at the end of Denudata by the Dutch theosophical speculator, Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, is particularly strong on this point. The essay is entitled “Adumbratio Kabbalae Christinae” and is anonymously authored.

In England the ‘Cambridge Platonists,’ led by Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, to made use of kabbalah for their own speculations, and found a link in van Helmont for further Christianization of cabalistic philosophy. In Germany, and later elsewhere, kabbalah had taken on a strongly ‘Boehmian’ character as it found a strong similarity between Jacob Boehme’s writings and those of the various schools of kabbalah. While there is no historical connection between the writings (and visions) of Boehme, this definite link would only further remove Christian Cabala from its earlier tenuous connections with Jewish kabbalah. Boehme’s impact would extend into the writings of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, just prior to the French Revolution, thus helping to change the face of Continental mysticism and the later “French Occult Revival”.

Christian Cabala almost from the start developed into what we now call the Hermetic, or Alchemical Kabbalah, for lack of better terms, which sprang out of the Hermetic schools in the Renaissance period. The goals of Hermetic philosophy were to synthesize all of humanity’s previous learning, particularly the wisdom or sophia of the ancients, and present it in a single universal philosophy (pansophia).

This philosophy was the synthesis of four major stands of thought and practice under the general heading of a form of mystical Christianity. These four schools were Jewish Kabbalah, Hermetic literature, neo-Platonic (Pythagorean) philosophy, and Gnosticism. In fact, the addition of alchemical symbols and motifs to Christian Cabala began as early as the 16th century. Among the chief exponents of this movement in Elizabethan England were Sir Francis Bacon, Elias Ashmole, Thomas Vaughan (1622-1666) and the Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). On the continent, Blaise de Vigenere, Traite du Feu (1617), Heinrich Khunrath, Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (1609) typified this kind of permanent departure from traditional Jewish literature and the formation of a completely separate system of theosophy. By the mid-18th century, this departure would be complete with the writings of F.C. Oetinger (1702-1782), the Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum (1735) by Georg von Welling, and the virtual explosion of Masonic, and pseudo-masonic, grades, degrees, rites, and orders.

The creation of Masonic and masonic-style systems was nowhere more virulent than in 18th century France. Here, like in Germany, the nobility had an almost insatiable appetite and gullibility for things mysterious and magico-mystical. While many of the rites created were for the purpose of perpetuating the true and authentic mysteries of hermeticism, either on their own or as an addition to Freemasonry through the ‘High Grades’ system, many were also created to simply fill the pockets of their self-appointed Hierophant or Grand Master. The majority of these systems had little known lasting influence outside of the period, or even the rooms where their ‘initiations’ and ‘conventicles’ were held. However, one of these systems, that of Don Martinez Pasquales, was different, and its impact on Western mysticism would be felt for centuries to come.

The appearance of Martinez Pasquales upon the scene of French “Initiation” was like that of many of his contemporaries: mysterious, of unknown origin, filled with claims of supernatural contacts, and filled with Cabalistic signs and symbols. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Pasquales’ influence would be a lasting one, and his system of magic, restoration, and angelic communications was unique. Nothing of its kind had been revealed to the world since the writings of Dr. Dee and Edward Kelly, and while definitively Christian-Cabalistic in nature, nothing equal to it has been delivered since. This is not to say that all other systems are inferior to Pasquales (or even Dee), only that such uniqueness in thought and form comes around only rarely.

Born in Grenoble, of Spanish descent, Martines Pasquales received his authority to transmit the ancient teachings from his father, who was granted a Masonic charter from Charles Stuart, “King of Scotland, Ireland, and England,” dated May, 20, 1738. The power and authority of this charter was transmissible upon death of the holder. As a result, Martines created a movement of distinct masonic character, open only to Master Masons, and named it: Order of Knight Mason, Elect Priests of the Universe, or Elus Cohen (Elect Priests).

While Pasquales’ spiritual mission’ officially began around 1758, he did create a masonic chapter in Montpellier four years earlier. It was a year later, in 1755, that the Elect Priests were officially founded in Bordeaux. Paris was the site of the ventual Sovereign Tribunal in 1766, which had among its members several prominent masons of the period. Avignon, Montpellier, Metz, La Rochelle, Versailles, and Lyon were all sites of future Lodges of the Order of Elus Cohen.

What made the Elus Cohen distinct from the masonic organizations it drew its membership from, was it emphasis on ceremonial magic, or theurqy, for the ‘Reintegration’ of humanity. The Martinist doctrine of Pasquales focused around the ‘Fall of Man’ and its rectification. It’s fundamental tenants were:

  1. Archetypal Man, or Adam Kadom, was emanated from God, and originally dwelt on a high spiritual plane.
  2. Through abuse of his ‘free will’ Adam Kadom ‘fell’.
  3. This originally unified being shattered into the many individual souls that now exist.
  4. The goal of humanity is to reintegrate itself with the original archetype, thus achieving unity.

The Order of Elect Priests was divided into three principle parts, completed by the secret grade of “Reau+Croix”. The first group was composed of those who went through the first three degrees of Craft Masonry, with a complementary degree following; the second group contained the ‘Porch Degrees’ of Cohen-Apprentice, Fellow-Cohen, and Master Cohen; the third group was the Temple Degrees of: Grand Master Elect Cohen, Grand Architect of Chevalier (Knight) d’Orient, and Grand Elu de Zorobabel.

Through rituals, often lasting up to six or more hours in length, in individual and group work, each member of the Order was given the opportunity to communicate with angelic beings, overcome demonic forces in the universe, manifest the power of God, and “Reintegrate himself with the original Primordial Adam.” The Ladder of Spiritual Entities that each member had to contact and become initiated into began with the Minor in Privation (worldly man), Reconciled Minor (one who has begun the spiritual path), the Regenerated Minor, a transition phase existant with the Elect Minor, and followed by the Superior and Major Spirits of the Celestial Hierarchy, ending with God.

While the rites and rituals of the Elus Cohen are still practiced much as they were two-hundred years ago (a lodge is still active in Paris) it was through two of his disciples, who would take radically different paths, that the legacy of Pasquales would be perpetuated. Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin and Jean-Baptiste Willermoz.

Saint-Martin received his initiation into the Elus Cohen in 1786 while serving as an officer in the French garrison at Bordeaux. He was 25 at the time, and would later write, “It is to Martines Pasquales that I owe my introduction to higher truths.” His appreciation of his earlier Master would serve him well, for unlike many who break from the tradition that gave them spiritual birth, Saint-Martin was entirely grateful to Pasquales despite his later philosophical disagreements.

After leaving the army in 1770 to devote himself to his esoteric research, Saint-Martin became Pasquales’ personal secretary. By 1777, however, three years after the death of his Master, Saint-Martin moved away from the theurgic practices of the Elus Cohen, claiming personal lack of ‘talent’ for the operations, and entered into the realm of pure, abstract mysticism.

Soon afterwards, he became connected with the ‘Order of Unknown Philosophers’ and quickly became a teaching force within its ranks, traveling often to establish contacts, study groups, and convey initiations throughout Europe. Claiming connection with an ancient Order, dating back to 1643 of a ‘Rosicrucian character’ and having Heinrich Khunrath, Alexander Sethon, Sendivogius, and Boehme among its ranks, the Society of Unknown Philosophers also linked itself to “Les Freres d’Orient” created in Constantinople in 1090. The teachings of this society were conveyed from teacher to disciple and their principle unifying form was the distinction of receiving “The Initiation” which gave them the right to be known as “Unknown Superiors” or “Superieurs Inconnus” or S.I. as it is written. Saint-Martin’s writings, under the pseudonym “The Unknown Philosopher,” made him quite in demand among European aristocracy. Being of aristocratic blood himself, it is often considered a miracle that he not only kept his head during the ‘Reign of Terror’ but also managed to continue his work relatively unimpeded.

Jean-Baptiste Willermoz however continued the teachings of the Elus Cohen, and even took them into the masonic Order of Strict Observance, an order claiming direct Knights Templar descendency. It was through these two principle forces, the teachings of Willermoz through the Strict Observance, and Saint-Martin through his ‘free Initiation’ that French esotericism in particular, and European esotericism in general, continued until the period known as the “European Occult Revival”.

While the “European Occult Revival” has its origins in France with the writings of Eliphas Levi, it is not until the 1880’s that it becomes a full fledged social force, similar to today’s “New Age Movement” complete with celebrities, art galleries, mystical compositions of all sorts, the usual ego’s, personality failings, and just plain old gossip.

The principle character in all of this was a young medical student by the name of Gerard Encausse, better known by his pseudonym, “Papus” after the Egyptian genii of the healing arts. With Augustine Chaboseau, Stanislas de Guaita, Sedir (Yvon Leloup), Charles Bartlet, Josepin Peladan, and virtually all of the moving forces in French occultism, the Martinist Order was founded, by Papus, to perpetuate the ideas and teachings of Saint-Martin and Martinez Pasquales, in a new kabbalistic framework, complete with seven degrees, which were later reduced to three. Soon afterwards the “Kabbalistic Order of the Rosy+Cross” was created, and after several years, and a few ‘spitting matches’, schisms among the founding members created about a dozen off-shoots, most of which continue to this day in some form.

Yet, by 1914, what petty rivalry, egotism, and one-upmanship had failed to do to European mysticism and magical movements, world war would accomplish. The world wide networks of initiates and lodges that were created out of this period, along with similar movements in England (the Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn, and the Societas Rosicruciana in particular), Russia, and Germany (as well as the United States) were virtually eliminated by two world wars and the totalitarian governments that controlled most of Europe by the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Unfortunately, not all of the ‘hermetic’ ‘kabbalistic or ‘occult’ movements that were born at the turn of the century gave fruit to humanitarian offspring. In Germany and Austria the Ariosophist movements gave not only ‘spiritual’ inspiration, but also men and material support to what became the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), or the Nazi movement. The Germanen Ordnung (Order), the Thule Society, and other less well known groups, gave ideological justification for the racist, militant, and nationalistic beliefs of the German Right Wing. In 1934 Hitler declared, “We shall form an Order, the Brotherhood of the Templars around the Holy Grail of pure blood.” The Grand Master of this Order was Heinrich Himmler, its knights the Officer Corps of the SS, and the Castle at Wewelsburg, with its Round Table, its spiritual center.

While promoting its own form of occult madness, the Nazis systematically shut down all forms of occult and esoteric activity. Psychics, astrologers, faith healers, writers, publishers, and simply well known individuals in the field, were rounded up under Berlin’s “Witchcraft Laws” of 1934, all in a single night. Publishing houses were shut down, books burned or carted off to Ahnenerbe (Racial Ancestry Department) research libraries, people imprisoned or forced into ‘domestic exile’, and that was just the beginning. Several waves of round ups would continue throughout the war, particularly as the tide turned against German victory.

Viewed as part of the “Jewish Conspiracy” Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Martinism, and other kabalistic-hermetic or esoteric organizations were the special target of these crackdowns, led by “Einsatzgruppen Rosenburg” and the Ahnenerbe. Not since the Inquisition had Western esoteric, initiatic, and cabalistic-hermetic groups especially, been so violently suppressed with such singleness of purpose. The role call of martyrs included many of the leaders of the most prominent magical and mystical movements of the period. The egotistical rivalries that separated them and kept the Light from unifying, was skillfully and brutally used against them by Darkness. The faggots burned again in Europe, this time with smoke stacks.

Despite its opponents, and in spite of some of its most ardent supporters. kabbalah and hermeticism, the life blood of Western esotericism, continues to survive and thrive. Never before has so much material, books, publications, organizations, and students existed so openly and freely. As we head toward the millennium, and pray for the “Reign of the Paraclete,” let’s look back on history and learn its lessons. With Europe and Asia looking more like 1914 than 1994, let our hearts unite in active prayer and meditation to turn the world toward the Source of Light we all so earnestly seek when we pray “Thy Kingdom come …” after all, that is what kabbalah is all about.


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