Thursday, August 23, 2007
ALCHEMY AND KABBALAH
There is an interesting paper online at the New Israeli Jungian Society. The paper is authored by Micha Ankori and was published in the Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, New York, 2005, 1. The title of the paper is "A Mytho-Psychological Study of the Biblical Legacy: Based on Parallels between Jewish Mysticism and Alchemic Art."
The following segment is taken from the paper:
The Holy Union [Ziwuga Kaddisha]
A familiar yet not well-understood characteristic of Kabbalah is the striking frequency of sexual and erotic symbols in its writings. Despite the criticism that has been levelled at the Kabbalah on this count, kabbalists never tried to conceal or minimize the value of this symbol. Against the background of a spiritual and moralistic perception that played down sexual matters and the body in general, kabbalists viewed even the relationship between the human and the divine as erotic. Eroticism, then, touches upon the holiest of experiences. According to the Kabbalah, the entire world is suffused with erotic relationships, and even the dynamics that characterizes godliness as such is the perpetual union between the divine male (the sefirah of tif’eret [beauty]) and the divine female (malkhut). The Kabbalah introduced a blessing to be recited before all positive commandments: “Behold I perform this commandment for the sake of the yihud [unity] between the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah”—every human act serves to advance the communion within the divine.
When we take into account the kabbalists’ psychology, their frequent references to sexual symbols become somewhat clearer. The all-encompassing quality of the kabbalistic conception leads to a discovery of the divinity precisely at the sensual, instinctual levels, in the sense of “but while I am still in my flesh… I would see God” (Job 19:26). No other experience is as total as the sexual experience, involving every human element, as Nietzsche (1973) wrote: “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reaches up into the topmost summit of his spirit.” (p. 75). The kabbalists discovered this much before him and, in our picture, the process is described through the transformation into the winged couple, whose mating brings out the spirituality.
A significant contribution toward our understanding of the Kabbalah’s erotic nature emerges from the parallels with other mystical doctrines. Surprisingly, mystical schools evolving in distant and quite dissimilar symbolic contexts share the very same symbol, and disregard of this finding will preclude understanding of the symbol and its complex meanings. When Jung suggested viewing sexuality as largely a symbol, Freud countered that Jung was repressing his sexuality. This argument, however, could not be raised against the mystics. They viewed sex as an important and multifaceted symbol but, as their paintings show, they were certainly not afraid of contemplating sexuality per se. The paintings we see here are extremely sensual, yet the couple and copulation are clearly symbolic as evident, for instance, in the sun and the moon accompanying the king and queen (in the upper painting), who lie in a womb-like pool.
An additional motif linked to copulation is the motif of death. Expressions such as “kiss of death,” or “death marriage” are well known in all cultures and identify death as union with the source, as a return to the womb, as communion with God.[iv] Intercourse as birth and intercourse as death symbolize the life span and the entire spiritual course. The famous Eleusinian mysteries are tied to the story of Persephone’s descent into Hades and her rebirth. The story of Dionysus (who features in the mysteries as well) is also connected to birth and death. Not fortuitously, the Eleusinian mysteries are also linked to the Moerae, the Fates: Clotho spun the thread, Lachesis measured it, and Atropos cut it. This is the law of the thread of life, which binds even the gods. The mysteries connect the span of life with the symbol of death and renewal.
This association of death with holiness, however, is alien to the biblical spirit. The Bible (Numbers 19:14) indicates that any contact with the dead makes one impure. The biblical text views pure and impure as a dichotomy, and describes a complex procedure enabling release from impurity resulting from contact with the dead and return to a state of purity.[v] This intensifies even further the subversiveness of the mythical elements discussed here ascribing holiness to death, which appear in the Zohar in connection with the story about the death of R. Simeon Bar Yohai.
According to kabbalistic tradition, the Idra Zutta is the climax of the entire book. The Idra is part of the Zohar’s exegesis on the biblical portion of Ha`azinu (Deuteronomy 31-32), where Moses is told: “Go up into this mount Avarim…and die in the mount into which thou goest up, and be gathered to thy people…” (Deuteronomy 32:48-50).
As usual, the Zohar uses the biblical contents symbolically. It devotes scanty attention to Moses’ death, shifting the entire exegesis to the death of R. Simeon Bar Yohai. His death assumes mythical proportions, and includes the rich symbolism of the death motif in ancestral mythologies and in folklore rituals. The Idra Zutta is the encounter (Idra [encounter] Zutta [small]) of a group of disciples, who gathered together to be told hidden secrets before their rabbi’s death.
In the first section of the Idra, R. Simeon Bar Yohai expounds his symbolic approach to the concept of death:
Rabbi Simeon wrapped himself in his cloak and sat down. He began by quoting: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that descend to silence (Dumah)” (Psalm 115:17). “The dead do not praise the Lord.” This is certainly true of those who are called “dead,” for the Holy One, blessed be He, is called “living”; and He dwells among those who are called “living” and not with those who are called “dead.” (Tishby, Y, 1989, p.163).
R. Simeon Bar Yohai draws a distinction here between “dead” and “living” based on a symbolic understanding of the terms: the living are the mystics and the dead are those whose souls are closed to the spiritual message arising from within them. Hence, he only addresses the “living,” who are those worthy of hearing hidden mysteries. The text continues:
And this is the secret: “therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus, 20, 11) for then all is one complete body, for the queen cleaved to the king and they became one body, and that is why the day is blessed. Hence, whoever lives without a male or female is called a half-body, for no blessing descends upon the blemished and flawed, but upon a place that is whole, upon a thing that is whole and not upon a half-body, and a half-body never prevails, and is never blessed.
After the text presented the basic principles of existence and creation and introduced the symbolism of the king and queen, which fits the alchemic symbolism discussed above, it expands upon sexual metaphors based on these principles:
The male’s phallus is the tip of the whole body. And it is called yesod, and it is that which delights the woman. All the man’s desires for the woman are in this yesod, which enters the woman at a place called Zion, for that is the woman’s cover, the place of the woman’s womb…
It is written: “For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation” (Psalms 132:13)—after the mistress departed and joined the king face to face, on the eve of the Sabbath, all became one body.
… no license is given to enter the holy of holies, only to the High Priest who comes from the realm of hesed, since no one is allowed to enter that place on high, but he who is called hesed and enters the holy of holies.
This rich and lush description of intercourse in all its aspects and at all levels, portraying “Zion” as a divine vagina, “the holy of holies,” and the High Priest as the divine phallus, is followed by the description of R Simeon Bar Yohai’s death. This description, the end of the Idra Zutta,[vi] is pervaded by conflicting emotions: mourning for his departure while also celebrating the “hilullah of R. Simeon.” The feast is the wedding, the holy union, the hierosgamos.[vii] In his death he returns to the cave, to the womb of the earth, and reunites with the source of his mystical doctrine that was written while he had been in a cave with his son Elazar.[viii] This suggests that his exit from the cave after a delay (incubation) was his second birth—a motif frequent in the world of mystics.[ix] This is the description of his death at the end of the Idra: “When the bier came out of the house, it went up into the air and fire flared out in front of it. They heard a voice saying: Come and assemble for the feast of Rabbi Simeon: ‘He enters in peace. They rest on their beds’ (Isaiah, 57,2).” (Tishby, Y., 1989, 165).
It was the hieros gamos--the sexual ritual with her father as participant that Sophie stumbled upon--in Dan Brown's book THE DA VINCI CODE.