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Gnosticism and the Kabbalah

Gnosticism refers to a group of second century self-defined Christian sects that were regarded as heretical by the early church. Scholars have differed regarding the identity and defining characteristics of Gnosticism. Some point, for example, to its dualism of good and evil, others to its theories regarding the aeons, and the demiurge, etc. However, a congress of such scholars, organized in 1966, to consider the origins of Gnosticism (the Congress of Messina) distinguished between "gnosis" in general as "knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite" and "Gnosticism" proper which is characterized by the notion that a divine spark has fallen into our world, is entrapped in the soul of man, and must be awakened by a divine aspect or counterpart of the self so that it can be raised and reintegrated with the divine sphere. Also essential to the Gnostic world-view is the idea that the peripheral aspects of the divine, often called Sophia (feminine Wisdom) enter into a crisis which produced a debased world.

It is of note that the theory of the divine spark in man, which is never explicitly formulated in the literature of the early Kabbalah, becomes a central concept in the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria. In the Lurianic scheme the spark or "sparks" become enmeshed in the lower worlds as a result of the cosmic catastrophe known as the "breaking of the vessels." This catastrophe itself has its analogy in the Crisis of Sophia, which in Gnostic theosophy is the outermost aeon or emanation of the infinite God. Here, however, we should note that both in Gnosticism and Lurianic Kabbalah the resolution of the cosmic crisis only occurs with the return of the "sparks" to the infinite God.

For the Kabbalah, which is considerably less alienated from this world than Gnosticism, the raising of the sparks is at once an ethical, political and psychological event which is deemed to be a joint venture between God and Man. The sparks, according to the Lurianists will only be raised when humanity conforms its behavior to the divine commandments, when the Jewish exiles are returned to the land of Israel, and when individual's discover the "roots" of their own souls. For Gnosticism, such redemption is almost wholly an inner, psychological process. This psychologization of the world's redemption, was adopted, but only in part, by the Lurianic Kabbalah and the Hasidim, and can shed important light on the Kabbalistic/Hasidic theory of the soul.

For the Gnostics, the divine spark present in man is entrapped in an evil realm of shadows, which is a close parallel to the Kabbalist's Sitra Achra (the "Other Side"). This spark, in the guise of individual men, is unaware of its true origins, but nevertheless possesses an unconscious desire to return to its divine home. The divine spark thereby constitutes the individual's essential but forgotten reality

The Gnostics held that the material, empirical, human being is essentially an illusion that envelops, indeed imprisons, the inner, true self. It is only by acquiring knowledge or "memory" (in the Platonic sense of anamnesis) of this inner self that the Gnostic devotee can free himself from this hostile world and achieve ultimate spiritual fulfillment. While the Kabbalists held a similar view regarding the "sparks," their Jewish commitment to the world's essential goofness led them to transform the sparks doctrine into a vehicle for world-redemption.

For the Gnostics, knowledge (gnosos) is not achieved through a purely cognitive procedure. Gnostic knowledge is first and foremost knowledge of the heart; it is an experience of spiritual regeneration, of immediate salvation. It is in essence, the awakening of the long-dormant inner, divine self. Meditation, dialectic, and reflection are all useful in preparing the intellect, but the intervention of a divine luminous power creating a profound emotional experience is necessary to create the image of the "essential man" which is consubstantial with the divine world. Filoramo, in noting the emotional component of this gnosos, tells us that Gnostic knowledge is erotic knowledge that somehow rises above itself, a characterization that brings Gnosos very close to contemporary psychoanalysis.

All of these ideas are found in relatively unaltered form in the Lurianic Kabbalah and in the writings of the Hasidim that are based on Luria's ideas. The existence of an inner divine self (Tzelem, image, or "Godly soul") in the Kabbalah, which acts as a forgotten "celestial counterpart" to a man's empirical ego, is common to both of these traditions, as is the idea of the necessary awakening of this inner self and its ultimate reunion with the infinite divine principle. This awakening occurs, according to the Kabbalists, only through a person's attaining a deep, abiding, emotional/spiritual knowledge of his true self, and is achievable only when an "arousal from above" compliments man's own "arousal from below."

Many of these ideas are also present in the philosophies of India, which generally regard the empirical ego as an illusion enveloping man's true, divine self (Atman). What differentiates the Indian tradition, from Gnosticism and Kabbalah, however, is that only for the latter two is the journey of the divine spark, or inner self, placed in the context of a historical drama of apocalyptic proportions. In India, a particular Hindu or Jainist achieves enlightenment or he does not; either his Atman has finished with its series of Karmic reincarnations or its travels continue. For Gnosos and the Kabbalah the redemption of a single soul is ultimately connected to the historical redemption of the Godhead and the entire world. The Gnostics and Kabbalists, we might say, are much more in a hurry than their Hindu or Buddhist counterparts, and as such, their theories take on a far more dynamic character than those of India. The Hindus narrate no cosmic drama of the fall of a divine spark into the world of men and have little to say about the need to redeem Brahmam itself through the acts of mankind.

While Kabbalah shares with Gnosticism a dramatic, historical point of view, it differs from it with regard to one crucial idea: the value that it places on the world of human fate and endeavor. The Gnostics, in common with most (but not all) of the traditions of India were decidedly anti-cosmic. This world, they held, was a horrific realm of shadow and evil, which at all costs must be escaped. Indeed the creation of the world is conceived in Gnosticism as resulting from the arrogance of an ignorant demiurge who himself is regarded as evil. Needless to say, this is hardly the view of the Lurianic Kabbalists. For them, the extraction (birur) of the sparks (netzotzim) from the husks (Kelippot) results in the elevation and sanctification of this world and not, as in Gnosis, in its abandonment. For the Kabbalah, this world is indeed a mixture of good and evil. The evil in this world causes it to sink into the realmof darkness (the Sitra Achra) and the good in it can cause it to rise back into higher more divine realms. The purpose of restoring the individual to his Tzelem or Godly self is not so that he can escape a vale of tears, but so that he can perform his role in the world's restoration and repair (Tikkun Haolam). This crucial difference between Gnosticism and the Kabbalah makes for an important difference in their view of humanity; with respect to this world , the Gnostic is completely hostile and alienated, a true stranger; the Kabbalist, on the other hand, is merely estranged; for him a rapprochement is both possible and desirable.

The difference between Gnosticism and the Lurianic Kabbalah is crucial for a proper understanding of Carl Jung's relationship to both of these traditions. Jung has frequently been called a Gnostic, but insofar as Gnosticism is hostile to this world as well as to the human ego, Jungian psychology is actually more Kabbalistic than Gnostic. (see Jung and the Kabbalah ). The Kabbalah and Gnosticism is the subject of Chapter 5 of Kabbalistic Metaphors, pp. 152-184, and is treated in connection with C. G. Jung in Chapter 8, pp. 294-6 and 298-99. The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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All material on New Kabbalah website (c) Sanford L. Drob, 2001.

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