Recently I read something by a well-known magician and occultist. It is from a course of magical training that this person has written. The writer is someone I respect hugely, and is, I believe, one of the foremost magicians in Britain at the moment. For this reason it is not easy for me to disagree with the writer; but I regret to say that I have to. This piece touched on kabbalah. The writer said:
“This course will have no kabbalah in it…[kabbalah] is not necessary for a full magical education.”
Obviously, kabbalah is not compulsory in a magical course. You can be a perfectly competent magician without incorporating kabbalah into your system. But, I wondered to myself, why wouldn’t you?
For at least the last five centuries, kabbalah has been deeply imbedded in all western European magical systems; and the Golden Dawn, whose approach is the basis of most current magical systems (including Wicca, in spite of their wish to deny it) was based on kabbalah. Unless you want to be a Druid or an Odinist, kabbalah will have influenced your thinking and practice to a great extent. Given that I have seen Yggdrasil shown with Norse sefirot, even the Odinists are not always immune to kabbalah’s influence. Let us have a look at a few things which are a major part of modern western magic and are derived from or influenced by kabbalah:
The four directions and the four elements
The four alchemical symbols of the elements
The four creatures – lion, eagle, bull and man
The four archangels
The twin pillars of the temple
The pentagram and its banishing and invoking rituals
The middle pillar ritual
The kabbalistic cross
This is not to mention the more obvious material, such as the sefirot, the Tree and the four worlds. So I have to repeat, why would you ignore kabbalah in a course on western magic?
The writer gives a number of reasons for this:
“The magician translates Hebrew words into English…and all you get is the outer meaning of the word. No power, no interface, no conductivity…all that happens is that…any engagement with that power is simply a psychological engagement with the self…this is not a magical use per se.”
This raises a number of questions for me. Firstly, I don’t know any magicians or magical systems who translate Hebrew terms into English. Obviously we do want to know the meaning of the words; but I have never seen any ritual using English words for kabbalistic terms. No-one I know says ‘crown’ instead of ‘keter’, or ‘glory’ instead of ‘tiferet’.
Secondly, is it correct to say that a psychological engagement with the self is not magic? Certainly it is not all that magic is; but psychological change, like any other change, is a vital part of magic, and a necessary part of any magical training or development. If the major magical and spiritual systems had had more psychological work embedded into them, they might not have so spectacularly failed in the ways they all did.
The writer says that kabbalah “…helps the kabbalist to engage with the power of [the sefirah] Netzach to learn how to endure, to be victorious, and consequently become strong and knowledgeable by overcoming adversity’. Fine aims, but aren’t they all psychological processes? I would say that internal psychological change is a crucial aspect of magic and needs to be integral to any magical training. I note that the writer does not say that engaging with the power of the sefirah helps the kabbalist to defeat enemies by purely magical means, such as sending the demon of the sefirah to terrify them. This goes against the writer’s previous assertion that ‘psychological engagement with the self…is not a magical use per se’.
Thirdly, do we have to use Hebrew to have effective magic? Let me park that very important question until later.
The writer goes on to say: “These sacred languages…you cannot change them, co-opt them or dabble with them.”
The fact is that throughout history we have been changing, co-opting and dabbling with words, ideas and practices. This is not wrong: on the contrary, it is absolutely necessary. All creative change comes from this process, and there are no magical, spiritual and religious systems which have not been subjected to these changes. That’s how we got Judaism, Christianity, Islam, as well as Buddhism, Gnosticism, magic, Wicca and all the major spiritualities, past and present. Kabbalah itself has changed massively over the last three thousand years of its mythical history.
We always need to update systems to keep them relevant, and unless we live on a desert island we will be affected by the belief systems of other peoples and cultures. And that’s just great!
“When used magically by a Jewish kabbalist…[this] ability comes from a deep understanding and knowledge of Torah.”
Let me get this straight: are we saying that to do kabbalah we need to be Jewish, and have a background in traditional Jewish religion? I would very emphatically say no to that, on many levels and for the following reasons:
I am Jewish and spent many years learning and teaching traditional Judaism. My partner was born and brought up until age forty in the ultra-orthodox Chassidic community. We searched for a long time, over the world, including in the kabbalistic town of Sefat in Israel, for true kabbalah and true spirituality – and we did not find it. The reality is that no orthodox religion contains magical truth and practice, only the sad fragments of real spiritual connection; and Judaism is no exception.
Actually, a background in Judaism does not help in understanding kabbalah or making a connection with its real energies – in fact it is a hindrance. Like all occultism, kabbalah hides in plain sight by using terms to mean something very different from its mundane or religious counterpart. The meaning of Jewish religious terms have to unlearned by the traditional Jew before kabbalah can become meaningful; and this is nowhere truer than with native Hebrew speakers in Israel, who have huge disadvantages in learning Kabbalah because of their fluency with Hebrew.
In fact the most effective magicians of Western Europe, since the Renaissance, who have used kabbalah, have not been Jewish. And this is because:
Kabbalah in its magical sense is not exclusively Jewish at all. It was created in the Renaissance by scholars who were mainly Christian and who did not need to get their kabbalah from Jewish Rabbis. Undoubtedly there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas as society became freer, but the Jewish kabbalists who conversed with Christian scholars were certainly no more orthodox than their Christian counterparts. Hebrew language, theology and mysticism has been part of Christianity since the time of Jesus, and has had a parallel development to that of traditional Judaism.
Kabbalah is a mixture of Jewish terminology, Christian mysticism, alchemy and Gnosticism (and much more) which created something distinct from Judaism or Christianity.
Look at this example: Christianity has always used the Hebrew bible and Hebrew words in its worship and theology. Does that make it a branch of Judaism? No. does that mean that you have to have a background in Jewish religion to be an effective Christian? No. And so neither does being an effective kabbalistic magician mean that you need a background in traditional Judaism.
The writer goes on to say that:
“Kabbalah is a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity…it does not find parking spaces for you.”
I know that this is a joke, of sorts. I’m not sure that magicians carry out ritual magic to find parking spaces – certainly I don’t. But let’s take it that this means ‘any low-level material benefit’.
Although all the systems we use are on their highest level ‘a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity’, where they translate into practical magic they certainly are about material benefits. That’s the difference between magic and mysticism. We are using spiritual and psychic forces to bring about changes, hopefully for the better, by our Will. This may be to create ‘a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity’; or it may be to help us to become more developed people, or to get a better job, or to help pay the rent. All of these are legitimate goals for the magician and the kabbalist.
The writer seems to have a very elevated view of Jewish kabbalists; wise sages with long beards who, in between learning Talmud create ‘a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity’. As I said, in twenty years of seeking in the byways of Sefat and Meah Shearim, I never found any. But what I did find, in great quantity, were men (never women!) who did low magic. They wrote amulets, they created blessings and curses, they sold good-luck charms and they peddled strings and holy water. Now I’m not saying this wasn’t legitimate magic; just that it certainly wasn’t ‘a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity’.
Perhaps you think that the kabbalists have gone down in the world from their original high-minded mysticism? So let me remind you that the most famous kabbalistic magical act was that of Rabbi Arieh Loew of Prague, who created a Golem to terrify local anti-Semites. A worthy act, to be sure, but not specifically ‘a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity’.
My partner has inherited a hand-written book of kabbalistic magic, handed down through the family, which claims to be around three hundred years old (although it may be a nineteenth century copy) and to contain the kabbalistic magic of a holy Jewish kabbalist. It does not contain any spells to get a parking space, obviously, but it is all about similar low-level material benefits – how to avoid being bitten by a dog, how to get your enemy to leave town (or die a horrible death), for a pain-free childbirth, how to make sure you have a son, how to cure illnesses, etc. in fact it is very similar to a traditional western Witchcraft book. Useful stuff, if it works (we haven’t tried) but certainly not ‘a deep, powerful and mystical interface with Divinity’.
So let me put my view: kabbalistic magic is not, historically or currently, exclusively Jewish. In the west it has predominately been used by non-Jewish magicians over the last five hundred years and as such it has formed the basis of the most important magical systems of recent centuries. It can be used effectively by anyone, without any Jewish or Biblical background; and it can be helpful even on a superficial level. I do not understand the writer’s prejudice against using kabbalah, and I do not accept that a course on western magic should exclude kabbalah.
Earlier on I asked: do we have to use Hebrew to have effective magic? Is Hebrew an especially sacred language whose very sounds and letters have an intrinsic magical power that other languages do not?
Orthodox Judaism would certainly say yes. Hebrew was the language that God used to create the world, and saying ‘Aur’ made light come into being. The very shapes of the letters have a mystical power to them. But is this true?
Hebrew and its alphabet are not unique. For example, Norse and Anglo-Saxon runes are similarly little pictures of things and they too have magical powers if used correctly. But I would suggest that all languages, spoken and written, have a magical power to create out of nothing, because they are vehicles of the human creative Will. Hebrew certainly sounds exotic and ‘authentic’; but so does Latin and Greek, both languages popularly used by magicians in the past. Ancient Egyptian is even more so. But whilst there is a numinous quality about using ancient languages, as well as a snob-value, there is actually nothing that cannot, if need be, be said in English; and English has just as much magical power as any of the rest – provided we believe that it has. The language, whichever one we choose to use, is merely a vehicle for stating the Will of the magician, and it is this Will that brings about change.
Of course one could certainly create a system of magic devoid of kabbalah. And one could always re-invent the wheel.