Rethinking Astrological Priority in the Sefer Yetzirah

I’ve been going through the thirty-one drafts that I had accumulated for this blog. I went through them ruthlessly and was left with nine posts that I can’t quite let go. They were composed at various points over the last few years, some reference discussions on blogs that don’t exist, and they are united in not quite fitting in with whatever I was working on at the time, oftentimes picking up a thread from an earlier post that I had left behind.

I want to shut this blog down cleanly, so before I get to the summation I am going to clear them out. That means some rewriting and, so far, that process has already resulted in one of those posts being binned, happily. Others of the nine will surely follow it into the bin, but I will probably end up posting at least a few of them. Those that do will be posted because (1) I like them, flaws and all, (2) they might be useful to someone else thinking about these things, even if only to disagree with, and (3) they are linked to some discussion that has gone on here, even if it is a very old discussion.

This is the first of those. I have done very little to modify it from its original form, but it does form the tail end of my thoughts on Marla Segol‘s (very good) book on medieval Kabbalism. It also provides another point that links my Kabbalistic work and my work with the book of Revelation.

(  *  )

I wrote this as I was nearly finished Marla Segol’s Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalism. While I don’t have the scholarly context to judge the book on its own terms, it has been useful from a practical perspective. It isn’t so much that she provides a great deal of information that I can put into practice (though she does provide some), but she provides good context. A practitioner coming at this from a traditional Jewish background might already have that context, but maybe not. Her work dating the diagram traditions and sharing images of the tools (like handmade volvelles) used by practical Kabbalists is quite good.

That said, I don’t particularly agree with her interpretation of the Sefer Yetzirah. She gives the astrological material a priority which is unwarranted, relying heavily on an interpretation of this verse:

“The Teli in the Universe is like a king on his throne; the Cycle in the Year is like a king in the province; the Heart in the soul is like a king in battle.”

that favors a causal relationship between the levels which I don’t think the SY supports. To quote her:

“The letterform links the three cosmological levels of the SY, the universe, the year, and the soul, and on another level it links these three aspects…to the creator. At the same time, the power of the letters is embedded in astrological forces….the text supplies a theoretical framework for an astrological view of causality….[in several accounts] the ritual of letter combination moves stars….the letters act like tiny handles for big machines, so that in moving them it is possible to move those forces and entities in which they are embedded.”—Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah (102–3; emphasis mine)

I won’t directly contest whether the authors of the manuscripts she is working with believed what she suggests they believe, so I may be criticizing Segol’s interpretation or the interpretation of a whole bunch of medieval Kabbalists. Regardless, as the interpretation matters practically, it is the interpretation rather than the interpreter upon which I am focusing (which, I know, is not the perspective from which Segol wrote her book).

Let me step back and get into the details, where the devils dwell and where we, folks who might actually use the SY, can have a discussion about practice. Segol’s work is exciting because it highlights how central the work with the stars are to the SY workings of medieval Kabbalists. That fits into the reading I have of the grimoire materials (and of their connections to Kabbalism) and some of the spirits attached to it. It also has more direct personal ramifications. The SY came into my work alongside an intensifying relationship between myself and the stars and this leads me to believe that part of the reason for that was precisely to help clarify the relationship of these spirits to the stars.

Segol rests much of her discussion of the astrological model of Shabbetai Donnolo, upon which “many of the Askenazi commentaries” rely (102). Here, Kimah (the Pleides) and Kesel (either Orion or Ursa Major) form key elements in the workings, serving as the motor that animates the Teli and so turns the cosmos. She notes that there are accounts which root the passage of time in the movement of Kesel after Kimah in the heavens, with that movement turning the Teli upon which heavens are anchored.

Those accounts, in turn, rest on the account of the flood in the Babylonian Talmud:

“In these narratives the great flood of Genesis was caused by the removal of two stars from the Pleiades (Kimah), so that the heavens could open and release the rains….When he wanted to stop the flood…he removed two stars from Kesil to replace them. Kesil refers to either Ursa Major or Orion, but here it more likely indicates Ursa Major, as the missing stars are described as the ‘sons’ of the Great Bear. They were placed among the sisters of the Pleiades, so that the Great Bear constantly pursues…while the Pleiades seeks their missing sister, both causing the movement of the heavens.” (102)

The SY properly used is seen to restore these stars in the heavens, stalling the motion of the heavens and thus time, making a space for the influx of the messianic world, an influx which can be put to the creative purpose of ensouling the golem.

Segol’s linking of the golem, messianic time, and the resurrection of the dead seems to the right track, but the way in which she has anchored it in an account of the SY that favors the priority of the astrological world gives the whole interpretation a superstitious rather than magical cast. The equation of heavenly movements with time itself seem crude and uncritical, both to my contemporary mind and to the structure of the SY. It introduces, too, some problems with reading the antediluvian narratives. If time begins with the flood, how are we to make sense of the wicked world that made the flood necessary?

I favor Orion over Ursa as the candidate for Kesel, because in my personal work it is Orion that sings most clearly to me. Still, my personal sympathy with Orion doesn’t undermine Segol’s hypothesis and, moreover, it would line up nicely with the magical significance of Ursa Major in some of the Taoist materials, establishing a potential deeper root beneath both traditions.

Accepting the messianic dimensions of the golem ritual, there are other ways to make sense of these connections between the soul, the heavens, and the dead. If the Kabbalists are reporting the cessation of time, this does not have to equate with the physical cessation of the movement of the heavens. It relates to a transformation of their relationship to time itself, which allows them to spring through time, under the influence of the stars, into the invisible world from which the letters derive their magical force. That spring into the invisible is what allows them to engage in the golem ritual and to bring back from the invisible world a soul that can be joined to the material object that is the golem’s body.

We can even assert, with Segol, the importance of the description in the SY about the king on the throne, in the province, and at war. Rather than focus, though, like she does on the way that the “king holds less power as he moves further from his home territory” (98), we can ask more carefully after who the king(s) is/are and after the nature of their kingship in each of the spheres described. For ease of reference, here is that description again:

“The Teli in the Universe is like a king on his throne; the Cycle in the Year is like a king in the province; the Heart in the soul is like a king in battle.”

The quote undermines the notion that the king under discussion here are astrological powers. In the SY (and much other Kabbalistic literature), the primary entities that receive crowns are the letters, not the elements of creation (like planets and stars) that the letters create. What this verse should be taken to describe is the character of the letterform in each of these witnesses.

So, in the universe, the letters are enthroned, in time the letters are in movement and visiting their subjects, and in the soul they are struggling with their rivals. In each of these domains, then, we can expect to experience the letters displaying a different face to us. In the heavens, they are regal and majestic, and work done through them will have the character of a decree, clear and strong. In the course of time, we are able to present our circumstances to the letters, allow them to take it into consideration, and to grant dispensations according to their judgment of it. In our soul, though, the letters are capable of dramatic action, but they are also capable of being transformed more directly.

This allows us, too, to appreciate the distinct possibilities for ritual action each witness makes possible. Time and the heavens, for example, provide us with only a modest latitude for action. Time and the human soul, however, provide us much more latitude for ritual work. The king in the heaven can’t be moved overmuch, but the king in our heart is another matter entirely and provides us with the means to access and transform the invisible world. Seen in this light, the question of virtue in Kabbalism, too, retains its piquancy, as the means through which we are able to influence the king at war.

Embodiment is an opportunity as much as a limitation, a vehicle through which intense spiritual transformations can occur. That gets us into a discussion of what it is that a golem does. If it is the manifestation of an ethical achievement, of a covenant, then the golem is a means to bring that covenant to bear within the world, to transform and be transformed. In other words, the king cannot be changed in the heavens, on the throne, so the change must be made in the soul (of the person and of the golem), where there is a ‘war’ which can be influenced.

To the extent that the stars are called into the working, they are called to transmit their essence, their lettered potency, into the war that is the work. When there are stars, like those of Kesel, which are joined to the corruption of creation involved, this work surely takes on a dynamic and dangerous cast, one that can further redemption, undo through struggle what was lost through weakness, but also one that can compound the damage done.

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