Sefer Yetzirah in History, Practice, and Experience

[Another page fed back into the blog. Like the previous page to post, this one also has relevance to the upcoming series.]

I haven’t spent much time talking about what I imagine the lifeworld of these ritual practices to have been, what sort of events and intentions animated their organization as well as their dispersal and divergence. I want to correct that a little, starting with the Sefer Yetzirah (SY). This is speculative, driven by imagination and informed by historical and spiritual study. The image of the past derived from it serves a spiritual purpose, though, as something with which I can dialogue as I develop a framework of meaning that supports my work.

I want to start with some broad historical context and then proceed to the speculation.

The SY has its roots in the Middle East. It was likely composed somewhere between 400 and 600 ᴄᴇ. This places it later than the Chaldean Oracles (100 to 200 ᴄᴇ) and the Christian gnostic ferment, but it is unclear whether the text has a direct relationship to either. On the side of the Chaldean Oracles, it shares a a relationship to Babylonian mystical traditions, traditions that speak to even more archaic Sumerian practices, which in turn look back to older and older layers of tradition. On the side of Christian gnosticism, it shares common roots in a rich Judaic culture that precede both. That Judaic culture, in turn, entangled with the deep roots that nourish both Babylon and Sumeria, either by way of direct inheritance or as a cousin from a common ancestor.

The centrality of trees and the cultivation of orchards seems to be a basic element of the deep layers in which Kabbalism is entangled (including the interaction of trees and serpents), but the tree imagery does not play a prominent role in the SY. So, while I think there is an interesting line of questioning to be had around the role played by tree spirits in this deep layer, this does not help us understand the SY.  What we do find in the SY are clear ties to the practice of haruspicy as it was understood in Sumer and Babylon.

Haruspicy forms a basic component of Sumerian and Babylonian ritual techniques and these techniques posited a secret relationship between the heavens and the body, most especially in the relationship of the inner organs to the movements of the heavens. Such a practice lays the groundwork for understanding how the SY relates the witness of the heavens and the witness of the body. It is also, I suspect, why the kiva, hemsess, and korkeban (usually associated with ruminant anatomy rather than human anatomy) make their appearance in the SY—they highlight the text’s now obscured roots in Babylonian sacrifice and haruspicy.

The presence of ritual sacrifice also clarifies other correspondences, too. The way in which days and months intersected provided a model for ritual action, a model through which the action of the heavens embodied in the movement of the constellations and planets could be accessed by creating constellations of bodies according to rituals timed according to the intersections of days and months. In other words, you could summon forth the power of the Sun in Leo through ritual actions involving the right nostril and kidney (not necessarily your own) during a Tuesday in the month of Av.

While Christian Gnosticism, Kabbalism, and the School of the Seven Rays are quite distinct, each with their own lines of transmission that wind through specific places, trade routes, religious practices, and languages, they are developing in relationship to each other as well as in response to the material that constitutes their common roots. They gather together in cosmopolitan centers of antiquity (e.g., Alexandria, Basra, Baghdad, and Rome). Their common roots facilitate this interaction, but what is even more important is that they share a common set of practical concerns, no matter how disparate their theological interpretations of those concerns.

Each of these traditions is rooted in cultivating an experience of, and relationship with, specific forms of creative and generative spiritual force, forms which, in turn, have sympathies with each other (i.e., Saturn has a special sympathy with Saturday). This creates a shared sensibility between them, even when their conceptual models diverge from each other.

The SY develops this relationship to the generative forces alongside an aniconic monotheismThe divine becomes an anchor and source for the sympathies. In turn, the sympathies between existing things provides a means for deepening our understanding of the invisible divine. The way in which this common invisible force is represented in the SY by letters is doubly inspired, reflecting the way in which the generative forces relate to each other dynamically like the elements of a language and the way in which a language simultaneously seems to be both what is said and what could be said.

The SY takes a novel position within the debates around correspondences. These traditions with which the SY developed did not have a shared account of which planets went with which parts of the face or which planet went with which day of the week. In attending to the underlying generative force found in all of the correspondences, the SY posited a pure creative pattern which could be realized diversely, so long as the pattern of relationships could be properly maintained (no small challenge that!).

The SY makes it possible to interact directly with the generative power of the right nostril on its own terms, as something other than just the manifestation of the Sun. It also allows for those generative powers to be manipulated and connected to manifestations in creations traditionally joined to other powers. The mouth may speak with the Sun. This is harder work, because the generative powers are invisible, are disembodied, and we have to come to them first according to a set of correspondences through which we can stabilize our frame of reference. We need to approach the generative power of the Sun as the Sun contra all the other planets in order that we may know what generative capacity it is we are transmitting to the mouth.

This places each practitioner in the position of having to learn the dispositions for themselves and likely tweak their core set of correspondences according to the way in which certain powers manifest most readily for them. It fosters a practice that will multiply rather than narrow the number of correspondence lists which a new student must sort through as they proceed through the work. But it also provides that student with a clear model for not getting lost in the correspondences, a model that encourages them to return again and again to their personal experiences of the powers beyond their manifestations and to use that as a guide.

All of this, of course, positions the SY within its original milieu, but this milieu is not the one through which we have received it. The first texts we can date have their origins in the tenth century, not fifth that I am positing. There is actually quite a bit of debate around when the SY was written and in suggesting the date I have here, I am extrapolating from two things. First, I am following what I take to be the most believable scholarly accounts, summarized here:

“The content of the early commentaries [in which we find the SY] is important. It is well known that Saadya’s commentary is polemical; it intervened in a preexisting dispute about the meaning and the function of the SY…. Dunash’s commentary is polemical as well. For example, he argues that the text has been corrupted….This means that the SY existed, first, before Saadya encountered it, and second, long enough for it to accrue three different recensions, as well as an interpretive tradition disputed by two different commentators…. Considering these two factors together, it seems reasonable to take more seriously earlier attributions, even if the sources upon which they rely quote the work imprecisely.”—Marla Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah: The texts, Commentaries, and Diagrams of the Sefer Yetsirah (27)

Second, I am observing the way in which the SY seems to share a common horizon of meaning with the fifth century world as I understand it, one in which the lived experience of mystical traditions embodied in texts like the Biblical Revelation are still vibrant, though increasingly being marginalized by more literal-minded traditions. However, I am also looking at it as a text that begins to take shape in the tenth century, as a text through which the mystical presences of the fifth century are reorganizing itself/itselves through those debates to prepare itself for the world that is coming to be.

That preparation includes its engagement with famed ‘rationalists’ like Saadia. The assertion of a rational pattern affirmed what was most basic to the SY in the first place—its discovery of a patterning force animating the differentiation of the different witnesses to it. While he may very well have been attempting to give it a more philosophical rather than magical end, what he was chosen to do was give the magical forces of it a more plastic philosophical body through which it could insert itself more readily into the changing world.

It is also what the powers are doing in each of the lives of those who are now working with it. It is reorganizing itself for a certain place and time in preparation for a place and time yet to come.

Further Reading

Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation: In Theory and Practice. Red Wheel/Weiser: 1997.

Lapinkivi, Pirjo. The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence. Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project: Helsinki, 2004.

Lenzi, Alan. Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel. Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project: Helsinki, 2008.

Segol, Marla. Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah: The Texts, Commentaries, and Diagrams of the Sefer Yetsirah. Palgrave MacMillan: New York City, 2012.

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