Today’s notebook post is brought to you by a pair of quotes from my ongoing Kabbalah-appreciation reading cycle. Today’s theme is reflecting on the generative power of spiritual work and the consequences that has for identifying ‘authentic’ traditions.
The first comes from some commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah and the challenges of determining which manuscript to follow.
“If all the variants found in manuscripts are counted, there are literally dozens of different variants in the text of Sefer Yetzirah. No other Judaic text exists in so many versions. Some of these might have come from different schools, who, because these teachings were secret, did not communicate with each other….
Besides this, there is another possibility….The leaders of these schools may have deliberately released spurious versions, so as to confuse those who would be tempted to penetrate their mysteries….
Since the Gra Version was considered the most authentic by Kabbalists, this is the one that we have chosen for the initial translation and commentary.”—Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah in Theory and Practice (xxiv–xxvi)
It’s the last possibility that interests me most, because it is through that it becomes possible to dismiss one version of the SY in favor of another. However, in imagining that the Kabbalists produced false versions of the text, we have to reckon with this bit from the Zohar:
“Now if you say that the word of any ignorant person has the same effect, come and see: One who is unaccustomed to the mysteries of Torah and innovates words he does not fully understand—when that word ascends, a man of perversity, tongue of falsehood (Proverbs 16: 28; 6:17) bursts forth from the chasm of the immense abyss, leaping 500 parasangs to obtain that word. Grabbing her, he takes the word back to his chasm and transmogrifies her into a distorted heaven called ‘chaos’….From there she sets out, killing thousands, myriads. For as long as she endures in that heaven, she is empowered to swoop through the entire world in a single moment….
Rabbi Shim’on said to the Companions, “I beg of you not to utter a word of the Torah that you do not know…lest you enable sin to slay multitudes without cause.'”—Zohar, trans. by Daniel Matt (28–29)
The two read read side-by-side are rather dizzying, aren’t they? If there were Kabbalists who circulated false versions of the SY, then they may have ‘protected’ one text at the cost of generating demonic ones capable of reproducing genuine, but corrupt, spiritual worlds within this one.
Or, if you are of a certain gnostic bent, you might claim that the world in which we now live is precisely one of those demonic realms and that the true claimants are either absent or struggling to gain purchase. This seems to be the sort of mindset that animates Revelation and its talk of the ‘synagogues of Satan.’
Similarly, if such corrupt texts were circulated, it becomes difficult to ascertain which is the true one, because all of them would be efficacious, at least in the sense that they would produce spiritual effects. We enter into the realm of the simulacrum described by Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard, where the ‘truth’ becomes indistinguishable from a set of real but supposedly ‘false’ claimants. The sort of Kabbalism that inspired Borges, no doubt, and whose work helped inspire both Deleuze and Baudrillard.
There is something a little bit nightmarish about that, but it also gives added force to the Lurianic project of restoration. If such demonic powers are multiplying, then so, too, must the efforts to bring them back into order, to restore them. While they are disorderly, their kernel is sacred and holy. It suggests that there is work to be done in the depths, as well as work to be done in the heavens.
Which, to be fair, isn’t so unlike the human condition.
(This song’s possible ties to the practical matter of black slaves escaping along the river by the guidance of the stars doesn’t undermine its esoteric significance. If true, it only enhances it. ‘Starry crowns’ seems to well-capture the aim of Revelation, doesn’t it?)