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.

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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?

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[NB] Planets, Doubles, and the Doctrine of Signatures

I have discovered there is a rhythm that works fairly well for me as I work my way deeper into the Sefer Yetzirah. I take a set of lines and begin working through them as a structure, contemplating them as they are represented on the diagram with which I focus my work alongside their witnesses. After a lot of that, I find myself drawn toward the letters proper, which is usually when things get more intense. After I have spent some time with the letters, the next structural unit starts to come to the fore, although with each step the previous letters remain present and active.

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Dirt, Klippot, What is Being Worked

Segol talks for some time aboue the golem operation which is almost always closely related to the Sefer Yetzirah in the manuscripts she studies. As she talks about the gathering of dirt, I am thinking over the long relationship my practice has had with dirt, beginning almost a decade ago when a spirit suggested that I might find the ‘church of dirt’ more suited to my work and disposition, a church that my spirits have repeatedly rooted in an ambiguously Levantine antiquity. It seems like just one more way in which the SY work seems to be one of the capstones of the practice that I already have.

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Moses Redux

Let’s get ready to ramble, shall we? This is one of those throat-clearing posts that tend to show up in the middle. I keep coming back to something Simon said in response to my last post on Moses in the medieval Jewish Kabbalistic material:

“SY is considered a text of the school of ma’aseh bereishit (work of creation), a complementary but separate school to ma’aseh merkavah (work of the chariot). The former is a school focusing on the metaphysics of creation as outlined in chapter 1 of Genesis and the latter school is based on visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah involving heavenly ascent. I would place the experience of Moses receiving the law as related to ma’aseh bereishit and the splitting of the sea of reeds as related to the school of ma’aseh bereishit.”

It was useful to have it said in these terms contrasted in just this way because it reopens a series of distinctions that has long animated my thinking (wizard/witch; the sumerian diasporas; though the diasporas posts are basically a pitch to break it out into wizard/sorcerer/witch). So, when we are talking about the early medieval fusion of the SY with an account of an ascent to heaven by Moses, we are looking at an interesting case where the two modalities have crisscrossed each other.

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[NB] The Figure of Moses

I have been a bit under the weather for a few days, so please pardon me if this post meanders more so than usual. Between some illness-inflected dreams and what little headway I have made in Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah over the last few days, I have Moses on my mind and I thought it might make sense to talk a little about why.

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Running and Returning

The Sefer Yetzirah enjoins us to both run and return and Ari Kaplan rephrases that in a useful fashion, pointing out that to run is to swing into the mystical and visionary state while to return is to come back to our critical and analytical framework and to subject what we experienced in the visionary state to disciplined contemplation. What we extract from that disciplined contemplation is what we will use to run forth again, to push more deeply into the mystical and visionary.

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[NB] Elementals: War in Heaven

So, Mothers, Doubles, Elementals. 3, 7, 12. When the SY starts to talk about the Elementals, it does so through an illuminating recuperation of the Mothers and the Doubles, emphasizing in each case the way in which the Mothers and Doubles each manifest with an intermediary force.

The Mothers have a pan of liability (Shin) and a pan of merit (Mem), with the tongue of decree (Alef). The Doubles are three against three, with a mediator (I think the three-three-one pattern can manifest in a few ways, so let’s save that for another discussion). But the Elementals? They are at war (three lifegivers, three killers, three allies, three enemies).

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[NB] Crossroads

Sefirah should really not be conflated with sphere as it resembles more of a point, or vertex where the lines meet, a crossroads if you will.

I’m tickled to see Blogos bringing this up because I just came to this realization as I was starting to explore the diagonals of the tree of life diagram, sketching them out by themselves before reintegrating them into the tree. Drawing the sefirot as spheres serves a useful purpose in emphasizing their importance to the work of consciousness, but it distorts their place in the functioning of creation and requires the diagram to employ some awkward geometry; the tree with spheres is the Mercator projection of tree of life diagrams.

One of the things that I find interesting about the tree with sefirot as points is that it allows us to see the diagonals clearly arranged as three diamonds, setting off a crossing of horizontal and vertical lines. At the highest diamond, I suspect this crossing to be none other than Da’at, which makes the crossing in the lower diamonds to be something similar, an echo of Da’at at each level rather than as an exceptional feature of the highest elements; that has some intriguing implications.

There is also the implied four which manifests at every level except as regards the three mothers. I keep thinking about that because it suggests a way to think through what might be going on with geomancy’s relationship to the tree. If the mothers are what animates the tree, they may do so through an encounter with another structuring four that the tree itself manifests.

The sefirot as points also carries out the sefirot as time consciousness, if we understand consciousness to be a peculiar thing that relates to the underlying intellective structure of creation through an action of praise giving. The points aren’t separate from the channels that compose creation at all, they are just the points where those lines of creation are drawn together in a most dynamic fashion.