Magical History

Very early on in her book on medieval Kabbalism, Marla Segol raises her concerns regarding ‘popular Kabbalism’ in a footnote (the first, in fact). She addresses two prominent and popular figures in specific, the Bergs who run the Kabbalah Centre and Aryeh Kaplan. Her concerns are the concerns of a historian, but they raise an important question for spiritual-magical practitioners who are trying to remain historically informed.

More pointedly, it raises an important question for this practitioner, whose work has crisscrossed both the work of the Kabbalah Centre and of Aryeh Kaplan (much more the latter than the former, but I won’t deny either influence). I don’t take that influence to amount to an uncritical endorsement of either, but the way in which Segol attempts to exclude both from the outset troubles me.

At what points do historical and magical study converge and at what points do they diverge? How do we make use of historical information to inform our personal and communal practices?

Segol’s concerns are useful because they are exemplary of the type. They reflect a general trend within the academic study of religion and magic to insulate themselves from the individuals who participate in the practices they discuss, even when those practitioners are themselves historically informed. Addressing Segol, I am thinking more broadly about how to address scholarship more generally. This discussion opens into a broader one with import for all manner of magically-minded folk.

The heart of Segol’s concern is two-fold. First, she asserts the historical insensitivity of the practitioners of Kabbalism, and, second, she roots that insensitivity in their belief in the ahistorical nature of divine revelation. Yet, neither the Bergs nor Kaplan are asserting historical claims based strictly on faith. Rather, they are making historical claims from within their religious-magical practices. In cutting them out from her historical discussion she denies both their reflective historical connection to the material.

It’s not always easy to have these conversations with the practitioners and I don’t think it’s necessary that she engage them directly for a scholarly piece, but her explicit exclusion of them reproduces and bolsters the alienation that leaves people outside of the academic mainstream alienated from the opportunity to critically reflect upon their practices. It also displaces the practitioners from having a voice in the representation of their own history. It moves history firmly into the imperial mode.

By grouping her concerns about them in this way (ahistorical, faith-based), she also erases the concrete historical self-consciosness of the authors whose material she utilizes. The authors of her Kabbalistic texts thus become as ahistorical and faith-based as she imagines the ‘popular’ Kabbalists to be. The first step in undoing that mistake and moving toward a proper magical history requires we revisit her casual dismissal of the Bergs and Kaplan.

I want to turn to the specific elements Segol cites in her footnote as evidence for these practices being ahistorical and return to each their historical horizon. Then, I want to think about the ways in which these should be understood from a practitioner’s perspective. The issue she has with the Bergs and the issue she has with Kaplan aren’t actually identical and it is in their difference that we (practitioners) can start to think about the relationship between these sorts of historical work and our practices.

Again, I am doing this to encourage all of us to develop a critical sense of our histories without losing touch with the practical realities of our magical-spiritual work.

In the case of the Bergs, Segol is concerned with their assertion that the Zohar is a second-century text when close textual studies have shown portions of its language are of much later provenance. Scholarly consensus is shifting to the notion that the work is a medieval composition that models itself on an archaic style. In asserting the medieval dating of the Zohar, Segol is placing it as a contemporary to much of the rest of the material she studies. This roots much of contemporary Kabbalism more firmly in Europe, which obviously runs counter to the romanticism which animates much of the Kabbalah Centre’s self-image and marketing.

The Kabbalah Centre operates under what I tend to think of as a “New Age” model. I know the New Age is a loaded term, so please try to bracket knee-jerk responses to the phrase. It serves a useful, descriptive role for me. What I call ‘New Age’ movements tend to be structured by two simulataneous assertions:

  1. that there is some form of ‘indigenous,’ place-based form of spiritual practice which offers privileged access to mystical understanding and/or magical efficacy, and
  2. that this privileged form of access is rooted in science-like rules and practices which can be extracted and shared with everyone, regardless of their present relationship to the people, place, or histories of these scientific spiritual practices.

The simultaneous conjoining of exclusivity and universality is what makes New Age practices especially effective in operating within a capitalist mode and I might go so far as to say that this way of thinking is facilitated by living within a heavily capitalized society. The exclusivity makes the knowledge into a product and creates a sense of scarcity, which makes it easier to place price tag on the material. Since that sense of the exclusivity relies on social trends, it can easily get caught up in boom and bust cycles related to its public image.

The universality also allows New Age material to become quite eclectic, identifying other practices as having some insight into the scientific reality which underpins the spiritual practice that animates their work. In general, though, the appearance of eclecticism undercuts the sense of exclusivity that motivates many to seek after New Age wisdom. The more eclectic a practice appears, the less it seems to be specifically rooted in an exclusive wisdom.

The Kabbalah Centre’s claims about the dating of the Zohar serve as something of a bulwark against this accusation of eclecticism. If, as I tend to suspect along with Segol, the Zohar is actually a medieval work, then what we find within it reflects the eclecticism of the European Jewish communities, rather than an exclusive indigenous universality held by Jewish Kabbalists of antiquity.

Now, rather than debate the claim about the dating, I think it more productive to address whether the dating actually allows the Kabbalah Centre access to the romantic purity it seeks. If we more carefully examine the historical moment of the Bergs’ historical Zohar, we discover that it provides no more ground for purity than does the European case. It is no less cosmpolitan, it just draws together different polises. Regardless of when it was written, the Zohar remains cosmopolitan.

The purity of the deeper past only seems more pure because it is more distant, the archive scantier, and the public awareness of that archive even scantier. That said, the meaning of the text shifts according to that dating, acquires emphases and obscurities thereby. From a historical perspective, those shifts are the substance of the interpretation, but if you are a magician or a Kabbalist proper? If you already realize that there is something a little off about the linear picture of time that animates the historical story?

When that happens, the two rival dates become amplifying forms of inspiration. What happens when you read the Zohar as if it were written in the second century? What happens when you read it as if it were written in the twelfth century? At the very least, it transforms your self-perception in relationship to time, at the furthest out, it suggests an avenue for contemplating the interpenetration of past, present, and future.

Let’s put this in bold, though: the historical claims do not justify the practical efficacy of the practices; the practical efficacy of the practices are self-justifying. In other words, the practices are justified by the results they achieve or undermined by their inadequacy. The claim of their origin is less important than the experiences they facilitate. Sometimes, the false historical claims are themselves constitutive of the practice’s efficacy, in much the same way that some healers note that cultivated charlatanism forms part of their magical repertoire. See here the discussions of healers in books as disparate as Beyer’s Singing to the Plants and Lindquist’s Conjuring Hope.

Considered in these terms, there is a lot of New Age-ism going around and that isn’t necessarily an unmitigated bad thing. There are qualified goods that emerge from it, not the least of which is that as knowledge and magic tend toward commodity, they also circulates more rapidly. There is more opportunity for encounter. The problem lies in their appearance under the auspices of a commodity, even if the commodification is concealed under a layer of romantic authenticity. It becomes increasingly something to be acquired rather than achieved. Traditions become increasingly technical and sanctification blurs into certification.

Pansophic approaches provide a healthful and qualifying influence on these trends, ideas that preserve the notion that wisdom is local but that local wisdom necessarily has a claim upon others beyond its locality and that the interaction of magical traditions enriches all of them when those dialogues are undertaken rigorously. The restraint of dialogue inhibits the commodification of capital but preserves the sense that the magical work has bearing on the ‘real’ world, and can often expand our sense of what that real world is.

Okay, before I get too far along this discussion of practice, let’s turn to Segol’s account of Aryeh Kaplan. Kaplan takes us deeper into the nature of practice and its relationship to history.

In the case of Kaplan, Segol is especially concerned with his Sefer Yetzirah in Theory and Practice for its inclusion of the diagrammatic material uncritically alongside the text of the Sefer Yetzirah. She takes this inclusion to misrepresent the diagrams as having the same historical antiquity as the text. Even more so than the inclusion of the Zohar in the canon medieval Kabbalism, this is of immediate relevance to her own work since she is precisely concerned with the transmission and development of the diagrammatic representations of the tree of life.

Segol persuasively argues that the diagrams are likely much more recent than the text and that they became common features of the materials because the diagrammatic interpellations become basic features of the medieval corpus. Her concern with Kaplan is that he does not focus on this historical contingency and so, to her mind, tacitly gives the tree of life diagram an ahistorical character.

This is a bit unfair to Kaplan on more than one count. Historically, it undervalues the way Kaplan provides his readers with numerous variations of the tree of life diagram. While he may not date them as assiduously as Segol or include as many variations as are available, he is aware of historical variations and makes his readers aware of them, too. Moreover, his concern in his book is practical more than historical. The variations are provided as exemplars for the practitioner, evidence that there are variations in the diagrammatic tradition and that the practitioner will have to figure out how those variations come into play within their own work.

The kinds of variations that Segol tallies in the manuscripts are of the same nature as the variations the Kaplan provides his readers. They are tools for using the Sefer Yetzirah. Their historical origins are useful to consider, instructive for conceiving the transformations that practices can undergo based on innovations like diagramming, but in the final analysis their historical origin is less important than their actual utility at present. As with much of the historical archive, especially regarding magical materials, the ways in which these writings and diagrams are known only through a glass darkly, so that informed historical speculation can only be the ancilla of ritual use, not its guide.

As practitioners, historical study serves best when it instructs us in the different ways magical practices have been put to use and how they have undergone transformations accordingly. Studied in this way, history becomes a vehicle for inspiration and elaboration, rather than a straitjacket with which we imprison ourselves. This isn’t to say that history justifies or permits all things, but that in studying history we glimpse the flexibility of our practices and a sense of how to use them more flexibly. That sense needs to be joined to the realities and limits of actual practice, but it also expands and stretches those realities and limits.

Also, encountered in history, we are able to see more clearly the genealogical connections between practices. These form the foundation for comparison and dialogue which in turn open doors to the communication and mutual transformation of unrelated practices. Those connections need to develop practically but when those connections are informed by historical study, they tend to occur more frequently and more robustly.

One of the most obvious points of contact for me at present lies between the grimoire materials and Kabbalism. It’s hard not to look at the examples of lamens in Peterson’s edition of Grimorium Verum and not notice the prominent outline at the center which resembles the diamond-shaped tree of life, or the ten seals arranged around it suggesting some family tie to the sefirot. It makes no sense to reduce one to the other, but to look at the two forms as developing in dialogue with each other, with the interchanges between practitioners in Europe? That strikes me as useful even if the historical realities end up being dead ends; the practical possibilities might be lively.

Historical study provides amplification for our magical sensibility, giving it a frame of concepts and structures upon which it can rely to appreciate connections developing within our practice. It works best when it operates indirectly, like a lantern or light through a window.


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