The story of the descent of Kabbalism is itself a rather interesting and intriguing account. During the medieval period from the 8th to the 13th centuries of the Christian era, Kabbalism was introduced into Europe, probably from among the Arabs, who developed quite an elaborate system derived for the most part from the older Jewish mystics.
After the Renaissance, the Kabbalist’s became an intellectual group; they had some distinction and were counted as scholars of importance. Their rising sphere of religious influence to the degree that this began to affect the interpretation of the Torah or the law resulted in some mild persecution and considerable ridicule. Both the persecution and the ridicule came principally from Orthodox Jewish people, who felt that heresy was in their midst. In as much as many elements of law and metaphysics came into the Kabbalistic pattern, and might be regarded as producing the same effect then as some pseudo-mystical work might produce in modern Christendom.
By the 15th or 16th centuries, tribalism had really reached its maximum sphere of influence; this time, it had attracted several learned Christians. These scholars became faithful interpreters of the Jewish writings and began to interpret them in terms of Christian religious philosophy. There is no doubt that Kabbalism influenced the principal church theologians of the Renaissance period, and it was even taught in some of the Christian theological seminaries. Men of the caliber of North of Rosenrot devoted their lives to the study, not of the Kabbalah in its transcendental or magical sense, but in its philosophical meaning… sensing that somewhere in this compound was valuable and practical knowledge. With the rise of the modern scientific method in the 17th century, Kabbalism began to decline. Before it passed into comparative obscurity, it mingled its streams with alchemy and measured the 17th-century Rosicrucian mystery.
The Kabbalists also gained a new kind of fame, becoming Faustian types of scholars who were supposed to have pacts with demons and be accompanied by familiar spirits. Many legends and much lore accumulated, and somewhere along the line, the infamous sixth and seventh books of Moses were invented. This invention was comparatively recent.
In Germany, Kabbalistic books were publicly burned, not because of anti-semitism, but because they dealt with subjects of demonology and witchcraft. After this situation, Kabbalism in the non-Jewish world almost completely faded from view.
The remaining Kabbalists were mostly in the ghettos of European cities, especially in Germany and Poland. Most of these Kabbalists were rabbis, but they were not particularly well thought of by their own communities.
They were not the good Orthodox kind of rabbi, but strange wild-eyed scholars dealing in magic and abominable arts. They were feared, and a certain amount of superstition that has always followed in the train of Jewry gave them a vestige of importance. Many regarded themselves as bewitched, many kinds of magic were practiced in a time when these practices were held to be valid, and when some Jewish magician found himself hopelessly involved in either a genuinely magical or a psychologically metaphysical situation from which he could not extricate himself. He would quietly seek out one of these ancient scholars for help and perhaps for delivery from possession by an evil spirit.
This situation continued mildly and faintly up to the 19th century. By this time, the entire subject was more or less considered as extinct. Not much was heard about it; we know there were still scattered scholars, a few enthusiasts struggling to preserve what they held to be an ancient authoritative revelation. But with the rise of modern science, the younger men both among the Jews and the Gentiles found little interest in these abstract theories about creation. They were inclined to follow Darwin and Huxley and Spencer’s ways and explore the new materialistic universe unfolding around man. By the last quarter of the 19th century, certain reasonable doubts had arisen about the completeness and adequacy of the scientific position.
Science was answering many questions, but it was causing more questions than it could answer. And each new scientific discovery opened up a world of mysteries for which no reasonable solution could be immediately found. There was also a gradual sense of fear arising. Men began to wonder if this universe that had been torn away from its divine footings was actually progressing in a positive direction, or whether it was merely falling into a new kind of superstition, the superstition of godlessness. This led to a considerable revival of interest in Kabbalism, mostly among Gentiles. We find that the various metaphysical movements have developed in the United States in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Often included in this subject among matters for further investigation, the 20th century found only a few articulate Kabbalists that wrote on the subject. And their findings were tucked away in library shelves and in old bookstores when only a few found interest in them around 1925 to 30. However, there was a new interest in this subject.
This interest seemingly began to manifest itself simultaneously in two areas. One considerable area in Germany where both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars began to take the Kabbalah very seriously; the second area in Jerusalem. For what we can learn in Israel today, the Kabbalah is no longer regarded as merely a medieval superstition. It has become a legitimate area for research. Perhaps one of the helpful things that happened was its increasing scientific knowledge and ability to cope with world literature on a more intimate basis. This resulted in a new attitude towards Kabbalistic interpretation; it became possible that the Kabbalah would be found scientific material. The doctrine’s structure was highly mathematical; it seemed almost archetypal; it appeared to have been impressed upon the Jewish folk mind as an ordered revelation. To many scholars, it was perhaps the very flowering of the Jewish religion. It certainly represented religion’s motion away from a simple state of faith into an elaborate area of research.
A tremendous effort to rationalize understand and interpret the Jewish people’s religious doctrines, again this might have been helped by an increasing tendency for both Jewish and Christian scholars to question the literal translation or the literal meanings of Bible statements. It became increasingly difficult, for example, to accept the opening chapters of Genesis as a literal account of creation; also, scholarship seeking for a justification of the extraordinary respect in which the Old Testament was held began to experience difficulty in sustaining this respect on the level of the prevailing teachings and opinions. Just as Christian mystics found it necessary to their own inner consolation to seek a mystical meaning to their scriptures and enlarge the area of their spiritual consciousness of religious truths, the same happened among Jewish scholars. To a measure, this was important to Christendom. Also, in as much as the Old Testament is an essential part of the Christian Bible as a result of the Kabbalah, it was possible to reconcile a great deal of the difference between religion and science.
In the Kabbalah, religion revealed certain powerful scientific aspects. It seemed quite conceivable that the Kabbalah could sustain and support not only our more recent opinions about the nature of the universe, time, space, existence, generation, life, and death. But might even reach into the mystery of this electronic age describing and unfolding mysteries long concealed in difficult and archaic words which, when adequately and properly translated and interpreted in the proper context and sense, suddenly become meaningful, become intriguing, and inviting of further thought.
So we now find that most scientific and educational, and cultural groups do not regard the Kabbalah today as an old superstition. I can remember when even progressive thinkers would hardly consider touching this subject because of its magic and sorcery involvement. It belongs in the very outer edge of the lunacy fringe. Still, now this fringe has taken on an orthodoxy, reasonableness, and intelligence. We are beginning to realize that the so-called foibles of one generation become the next’s solid facts. The study of the Kabbalah today is, for the most part, regarded as respectable. There will still be many very Orthodox Jewish people who will view it with fear and consider it part of a divine mystery that should be left alone. But then several Orthodox Christians feel that any effort to question or interpret or penetrate the Christian scriptures’ outer surface should be regarded as little less than heresy.
So we have the jots and tittles followers on both sides of this situation. Still, the more liberal scholar the leader in his field, the influential intellectual is now Kabbalah conscious. I think we will observe very shortly unfoldment of a trend now beginning to be evidence of a large and generous literature appearing upon this subject. Perhaps literature will excel in quantity, at least the material bearing upon the Dead Sea Scrolls now. The Kabbalah is of interest because modern science is still faced with the same problem that has contributed to the suicide of Aristotle. That all of the research that is being accomplished deals with secondary processes in nature essential processes.
The principles of the roots of things are as obscure now as they were 25 centuries ago. Science has many explanations for many things, but it has never touched the problems that are dealt with essentially by the Kabbalah. This does not mean that the Kabbalistic answers must be correct, but they invite a thoughtfulness because no better thought is available. If this is the case, it is quite certain that modern physicists will become more interested in something like this.