Kabbalah with Less Neoplatonism

Yesterday, I had a brief exchange between Ted Hand and Cole Tucker on twitter that warrants a lengthier response for which twitter is not suited. The discussion began with a question from Ted as to whether we should identify the Kabbalistic sefirot with the Neoplatonic henads. He also posted a snippet from a related discussion in which the Porphyrian Tree was used to suggest the common roots of Kabbalah and Neoplatonism (here is a link to Wikipedia where you can see the tree more clearly).

I want to unpack my answer (that the proper units of comparison should be between the henads and the channels of the tree, the henads and the sacred alphabet) because I think that comparison helps to differentiate the Kabbalistic perspective from the Neoplatonic one. The tendency to fuse Kabbalism and Neoplatonism has obscured fundamental differences between them and I want to talk about how my practice has led me to redifferentiate them. This is primarily a conceptual discussion, though, and I touch on practical matters lightly, as illustrative tangents.

The short of it: In Western esoteric circles, the long history of mutual influence between Kabbalism and Neoplatonism has been interpreted one-sidedly, leading to an overly Neoplatonic understanding of the Kabbalistic material. We can do better. So, first i am going to have a little disclaimer about my position vis-a-vis both Kabbalism and Neoplatonism, then I’m diving into the discussion proper. If you don’t care about the disclaimer, just skip ahead past the caveat.

The Caveat
(Skip if all you want is the long version of the tweet)

As always, when I talk about Kabbalism seriously like this, I want to flag my relationship to the material. I am not a proper Kabbalist but am using the material to get at a broader esoteric worldview from which Kabbalism itself developed. I am not Jewish and my incorporation of Kabbalistic material into my practice would be seen as troubling and problematic by more than a few proper Kabbalists.

I probably have more claim to Neoplatonism, having spent time studying the history of philosophy at both an undergraduate and graduate level, but most of what I lay claim to properly operates as a counter-current to the Platonic and Neoplatonic trends in the long tail of Western thought. Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Immanuel Kant, Theodor Adorno, and so on, none of them friends of Platonism.

In other words, to a Kabbalist this is the view of an idolater and to a Neoplatonist this is the view of an apostate. To me? Well, this is the view from the Mother’s corner. In a loose, intuitive, not rigorous way, I tend to divide up the three positions according to the three key actors in the Fall. If the Kabbalah serves the children of Adam, then the Neoplatonic account serves the children of the Serpent. That leaves me with Eve, with Tamar.

I know, it is an odd way to frame the matter, but it shapes what I do and I would rather have it out there than operating under cover of darkness. I suspect most of our thinking is shaped by these sorts of big, grabby intuitions, we just don’t always do a good job of putting them out there. Howdy, partners, care for a dance?

Henad v. Sefirot, Henad v. Channel
(Jump back in here to skip the caveat)

Porphyrian Tree contra the Tree of Life

The similarity between Porphyrian Tree and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life bears witness to a long history of influence between Neoplatonism and Kabbalism, so I’ll use them to set up a frame for this discussion.

As far as I can tell, neither diagram is exactly contemporary with the material it illustrates, so we ought to take the graphical similarity to be aesthetic rather than logical. So, we can talk about an early stage ca. 2nd-4th century CE in which both Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic practitioners were contemporary with each other, likely had diagrams illustrating their ideas, and may have influenced each other, but this common ‘look’ derives from a later stage, perhaps quite recently in medieval to early modern Europe.

They don’t actually illustrate the same sorts of things, though. Take a look at the Porphyrian Tree. What does it model? The differentiation of genera into ever more specific forms. By contrast, what does the Tree of Life model? It models the relationship between the Ten Sefirot of Nothingness with the generative potencies of the sacred letters of creation.

The Porphyrian Tree is bidirectional and categorical. It goes from general to specific and specific to general. We can see the implications for Neoplatonic emanation, too, because this logical differentiation acquires ontological significance, with each step representing a different ‘plane’ of formal beings. The spheres in this tree represent categories that we can differentiate while the lines between them represent the action of specifying the elements that allow us to generate new categories. Each line represents the same sort of action, just occurring at a different level.

The Tree of Life is omni-directional and generative, describing possible movement in space, time, and ethical behavior, through which the generative potencies of the letters can be moved and activated. The spheres here represent the directions into which the concrete and specific letters can be moved and in which they can be related to form words. It also uses the inclination (vertical, horizontal, diagonal) to distinguish relationships between the sacred letters.

We can see pretty quickly how the Neoplatonic presuppositions overwrote the Kabbalistic ones in Western esotericism. Within Western esotericism, the sefirot of the tree are generally treated as if they are categories within which a genera of things can be grouped and differentiated and, often, the sefirot themselves are related to each other in a hierarchical genera/speciation relationship, with each sefirot encompassing another as a sort of logical and ontological precursor. In so doing, it tended to erase the generative nature of the channels, treating them as little more than a description of the relationship between two logical categories.

There are alternative diagrams of the sefirot which express their relationship in terms that better approximate the Neoplatonic terms of emanation. Some of these, no doubt, derive from Kabbalists attempting to incorporate Neoplatonic ideas into their Kabbalistic framework.

However, we shouldn’t overstate that. Most of the more emanation-like accounts of the sefirot producing each other that I have read deploy quite different metaphors for the nature of that process. The way in which one sefirot yields another is compared to the way a seed nourishes the plant within (or of how the pistil and petals of a rose sit atop the sepel), so what we see is the growing complexity of simple being rather than the increasing specification of a generic being that is characteristic of the Neoplatonic model.

(So, it makes a lot of sense to talk about genetics within a Kabbalistic frame, while it makes a good deal less sense to try and talk about genetics in a Neoplatonic sense. It is also why Western esotericism often conceives of its operations as extractive.)

This Neoplatonic reading didn’t erase all of the properly Kabbalistic elements, though. Elements of Kabbalistic thought proper were retained in Western esotericism, most especially the sense of there being other spiritual worlds to which Kabbalistic exercises could provide access. However, those worlds were also inscribed into the sefirot rather than understood to be accessed through the activation of the holy letters within the sefirot.

Sacred Letters as proper comparison to henad

I’m hoping by this point that the reader can connect the dots as to why I think the henads should be properly compared (and subsequently firmly distinguished from) the sacred letters of the Kabbalists. In case it isn’t clear, though, let me connect some of those dots here.

What henads and the sacred letters have in common is that they are both the generative elements of their respective systems. The henads, the first and most primal differentiations from the one, have a holographic relationship to each other and this holographic relationship manifests at every level of the Neoplatonic cosmos through their emanation of subsequent beings.  The sacred letters, the first and most primal forces that God creates, generate other beings by interacting (through permutation) with each other to constitute more complex and manifest beings. Even the highest angels are anchored in material bodies within Kabbalism.

The sefirot cannot be equated with the henads because they represent what is most incidental to the Neoplatonic account, namely, embodied existence. Neoplatonism’s henads generate the world holographically, so in many ways materiality often amounts to an accident or epiphenomenon of emanation. It is why, too, that Neoplatonism often fosters a withdrawal from the world of specifics. They are the least vital specific things in a chain leading upward toward the most vital One (cf. Plato’s praise of homosexual male love over and above heterosexual and procreative love).

However, the sefirot are the fundamental dimensions of materiality itself, including its extension in space and time. The Zohar talks about the letters being crowned by God and he does this my moving the letters through the sefirot, through the directions. The sefirot pre-exist the letters and through interaction with the letters excrete substance and solidity to God’s words. It is to this action that the Kabbalist adds their voice. They work in cooperation with God to continue the development of creation (up to, and including, having children as a spiritual commitment to the future of embodied creation).

Consider, too, the structural role played by sacrifice in the respective practices. Kabbalism favors a model of atonement in which twin sacrifices in which troublesome portions of the activated and vital created world are excluded to allow other, positive, aspects to manifest more prominently. Those troublesome aspects are understood to be quite real, the goal is just to make sure they are quite real somewhere else (at least until it’s closing time and God incinerates the trash).

Neoplatonism tends to think of sacrifice as an admixture of symbol (thereby treating the sacrifice as a code) and intermediary (treating the subtle effluvia released in sacrifice as more suitable to receiving and transmitting messages to higher, less material levels of being). Debates within the movement tend to emphasize one aspect or another, but their isn’t much room for atonement within its cosmology.


6 thoughts on “Kabbalah with Less Neoplatonism

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