Hermetic Kabbalah

The Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, is a document that describes events in normal time and space. Even where we have good reason to doubt the literal historicity of many sections it is nevertheless constructed in the manner of a history. Not every book in the Bible has the appearance of history - Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs are examples - but the lives of the patriarchs, the history of Moses and the liberation from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, the lives of the kings and prophets, these have the appearance of history. God appears as an actor in the history of the Jewish people. Even the story of creation, Adam and Eve, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden: this has the appearance of actual events.

Kabbalah sets the historical events of the Bible, the legalistic framework of the Talmud, and the rituals and festivals of Jewish life, against a cosmic backdrop that exists outside of normal time and space. To make an analogy: there is the raw text of Hamlet as Shakespeare wrote it, and there is a secondary literature in which every aspect of the play is critiqued, psychoanalysed and parodied. Google finds 23 million references to the word 'Hamlet'. Kabbalah is a secondary literature that provides a vastly expanded context of interpretation and meaning for Judaism.

So in what way does it make sense to talk about "Hermetic Kabbalah"?

It makes sense because the Jews of medieval France and Spain who created the traditions and classical literature of the Kabbalah culminating in the Zohar, borrowed widely from contemporary culture. All three major monotheistic religions around the Mediterranean basin - Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were struggling to merge the 'timeless truths' of philosophy with the historical revelations of their founders. At approximately the same time as Kabbalah emerged, Maimonides published his still-classic A Guide for the Perplexed, which provides an Aristotlean interpretation of the Bible. The essence of a philosophic reading of a text such as the Bible is to interpret stories and events as allegories illustrating philosophical themes. Kabbalah also does this, but mixes medieval philosophical ideas with mythological ideas of startling power and universal appeal.

Many core ideas in Kabbalah, such as the four worlds of reality, the structure of the soul, a hierarchy of divine beings, emanation, a divine pleroma with dynamic processes involving hypostasised entities with names such as "wisdom" or "beauty", the power of names, theurgic ritual, procession and reversion, etc etc - these ideas can be found, in various guises, a thousand years earlier in the world of late antiquity. Many of the mythological ideas found in Kabbalah bear a startling resemblance to the Jewish, pagan, and Christian gnosticism of late antiquity (although no link has been found). There is a natural and often deep connection between many aspects of Kabbalah and the intellectual culture, fringe religions and proto-sciences of late antiquity: Platonist, Hermetic and Stoic philosophy, gnosticism, medicine, chemistry, astrology, divination, magic and theurgy. These are often referred to as "the Hermetic Tradition". It is in this sense that we can talk about "Hermetic Kabbalah".

To talk of Kabbalah without God is largely meaningless. In the case of Judaism there is no issue: Kabbalah provides a super-commentary and an expanded context for Jewish religion. In the case of Christian Kabbalah there is also no issue: Christianity splintered away from Judaism, but it shares the Old Testament and is sufficiently close that Christian Kabbalah is clearly well defined. What is the nature of God in Hermetic Kabbalah? This is often not at all clear. Many popular books on Kabbalah mention God without reference to any religion, or mention Judaism in passing, but without an expectation that the reader understands anything about Judaism ... or needs to understand anything. It is as if God is an abstract ecumenical notion devoid of community, traditions, festivals, rites of transition, ethics, sacred literature or clergy.

To a large extent this has been caused by the destruction of the Hermetic worldview, which in modern times has become a portmanteau term for a wide range of pre-Christian thought, practices and technical arts dating from about 200-400ce. It enjoyed some popularity during the Italian Renaissance,  but was largely destroyed by the highly conservative religious atmosphere of the 17th century. From an intellectual perspective it attains its highest expression as philosophy and religion in the surviving works of the Neoplatonists, especially Plotinus and Iamblichus, and also in isolated individuals at a later date such as Marcilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno.

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