Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kabbalah for Magicians: Quick Start Guide

I wrote this a long time ago for something else.  I'm putting it here as a placeholder.  I'll come back and edit it soon. 

Kabbalah for Magicians

Kabbalah is an important tool in the arsenal of modern magic, and one that is incontrovertibly Jewish.  We’ll being by discussing mysticism in general, how it differs from magic, and how to two relate.  I’ll offer some brief teaching on Kabbalah.  I am not way claiming that this is a thorough overview; these are simply the pieces I think of as being “prerequisites” for the stuff I'm going to teach you next.
Doubtless, you’ve already worked in a kabbalistic framework.  The YHVH meditation in my last post was explicitly kabbalistic, and so is the song Licha Dodi.  Kabbalah isn’t some sort of secret backdoor Judaism, its just a different way of talking about the same things.  Aristotle teaches that there are three ways to come to knowledge.  
You can know something through faith (pistis).  “Faith” is a heavily charged word in our world, but, in this case, we don’t really mean religious faith.  Quick:  What’s the capitol of Pennsylvania?  How do you know?  Probably, you know that it's Harrisburg because someone told you that it was, and you believed them.  That’s what pistis is.  It's knowledge you believe based on the authority of the source.
The second kind of knowledge is called gnosis.  What color is a lemon?  How do you know?  You have direct, personal experience of it’s yellow-ness.   In modern English, the word “gnosis” is used to indicate a certain kind of religious knowledge; direct personal “revealed” knowledge.  When someone has a mystic vision (or a powerful dream) that tells them something about their life, whatever they learned from it was “gnosis”.  When people say that Jesus is their “personal” savior, I assume that’s what they’re talking about.   The word kabbalah is usually translated as “receiving” or “reception”, but I think “gnosis” is a good translation for it.
The third kind of knowledge is called diagnosis.; as should be clear, the word is closely related to our word for puzzle solving.  Diagnosis is knowledge gained by pure reason.  Mathematical knowledge is a good example of diagnosis.  
For each of us, there is a hierarchy of “truthiness” between the three roads to knowledge.  For the religiously orthodoxly, pistic belief is the most unshakable.  When the scripture appears to be in conflict with reason or experience, it indicates that reason and experience are flawed.  
Most people think that they value most highly value experiential knowledge; “I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Is good evidence for a thing.  Except, we all discount our sense information much of the time.  It seems to me that when I close my eyes, the whole world disappears, but I know that isn’t true.  
For me (and remember, I’m hardly normal, so feel free to disagree), reason is the real road to truth.  Count three apples in one pile, and then count four into another pile.  Put the two piles together, and you count six.  Wait, what?  Count them again.  Still six.  Split them into piles, and you get one pile of three and one pile of four.  Put them back together and you get six.   No matter how many times you repeat this experiment, you will never convince yourself that 3+4=6.  You may suspect you are going mad.  You may invent some wild hypotheses about disappearing apples, but you will NEVER determine that 3+4=6.  That’s because diagnosis, the fruits of reason, are incorrigible.  They withstand all experimental evidence.


Now, I personally have a weird religious relationship with mathematical knowledge. However, for the remainder of this lesson, we’re going to talk about gnosis; and a particularly Jewish kind of gnosis called kabbalah.  If you read this lesson, and just accept what I’m telling you, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Everything I’m about to tell you is just pistis; a bunch of crazy hokum that some loony magical teacher from the internet told you.  Its only when you start to investigate it, to work with it, to experience it for yourself that you should even consider starting to believe any of it.  
You can choose to think about kabbalah as a deep, mystical way to interpret scripture.  You can think of it as a blueprint of the act of creation.  You can think of it as a roadmap to the divine.  The sephiroth we’re about to learn about are rest-stops on the highway of creation; they're where the energy of creation pooled and coalesced on its way, settling into the different forms.
One traditional metaphor is to view them as clay vessels that collect and condense the divine will, eventually cracking under the strain of Being and radiating the energy further along its manifestation. Chayyim Vital (a student of Luria's) relates these vessels to wombs, and explains their breakage as a combination of orgasm and childbirth.  However, for the magician, kabbalah is mostly useful as a set of egregores (symbol-spirits) that we can climb like a ladder.  
Let me tell you a story, a creation myth.  Once, long ago, before there was such a thing as time or space or being, God (Ha Makom) was everywhere, always, everything.  He breathed in, contracting himself to a tiny point (tzimtzum), and made a place for the world to be.  

Once that had happened, there was emptiness, without form and void (tohu wa bohu) as they say.  In order to give it form, God created 10 (maybe 11, depends how you count) vessels into which to pour His essence.  Then, He began pouring.  What did He pour?  God contracted Himself all up into a tiny moment, a singularity of Being.  But, even as He became small in space-time (which, as you recall, doesn’t even really exist yet), his Being still took up the whole universe.  From here, where we live in dimensions, looking backwards, it looks like this:  when God shrank himself all up, he became a singularity in 4 dimension space-time, but He still went deep, deep, deep along other dimensions, an infinite vibrating string of Being linking all things (which don’t even exist yet) together.  And, so, God breathed in, creating the Void, and into the void he breathed out this extra-dimensionality, the No-thing-ness (Ain).
From where we live, here in the world of ten thousand things, it seems like Creation brings Something out of Nothing.  But from the inside, looking out, where God is breathing (still, momently, always), Creation also makes Nothing out of Something.
God took another breath, breathing in the Ain, and out he breathed Infinity, Limitlessness, Being coexistent with the universe (which, recall, Dear Reader, wasn’t really there yet).  We call that Ein Soph, Unlimitedness.  
Breathing in the Infinite Being, God breathed out that first Thing-Which-Was-To-Be, and we call that thing Light, Light Without Limit, Ein Soph Aur.  The light expanded, filling up all the Empty with space-time, spilling into the vessels He previously created.  Here are the names of the vessels:
The first sephira (ordinal number), which isn’t really a sephira at all, is called Keter, which means “Crown”.  A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the first sephira is the King, but that’s absurd.  A crown is a thing the king wears, a signifier of office, they symbol of authority.
The next two sephiroth hang in balance with each other.  They are called Chokmah and Binah, Wisdom and Understanding.  They are the kinds of knowing we talked about earlier.  Chockmah is revelation and faith.  Binah is deduction.
Chokmah is the spark of insight before the idea is fully formed.  Some people will tell you that Chokmah is male, because it is called the Father, but that’s ridiculous.  Chokmah is female.  In gnosticsm she’s called Ennoia, the First Thought, the essence of Woman, Rumi’s Beloved, Simon Zealot’s love.  In Proverbs (8:22-31) Chokmah says:

“The ONE brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.  When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth.  I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.  Then I was constantly at his side.  I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”

Binah means Understanding.  It is the womb of Being, where ideas take shape.  This is the Word, the Idea at the beginning.  As Chockma is called Father, Binah is called Mother, and is deeply associated with the Four Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekkah, Leah, and Rachel).  All that being said, for those of us who grew up in American pop culture, Binah seems male.  Binah is the power of discernment, of discrimination, analysis.  Binah is like a disco ball, reflecting the light of creation in all directions.
There is a “secret” sephira next.  It is secret only in the same way keter was.  People who count Keter as a “real” sephira see this one “Daat” (Knowledge) as “hidden”.  It forms the “triad of intellect” along with Chokmah and Binah.  Proverbs 24 says: “By chokmah a house is built, and through binah it is established; through da'at its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.”  Daat is the center of the Tree, where all things are unified.  I think of it as a complete prototype universe, where everything is decided, and named, but not yet come into being.  If you’ve ever read the short story “Murder Mysteries” by Neil Gaiman (and you should), it’s sort of like the prototype universe the angels are working on.  
Below Daat are another matched pair of spheres, Chesed and Gevorah.  Chesed is often translated as “loving kindness”, but I like to translate it as “compassion”.  When the Talmud says that the Torah “begins and ends in Chesed,” I take it to mean that Compassion is the highest Teaching, and, moreover, that the highest form of Compassion is Teaching.  Torah (teaching) is a gift form the Divine, given out of Great Compassion.  This sphere is also called Gedulah, Glory or Greatness.  Chesed is the right hand of God, with which He gives.  Many people associate it with Jupiter, the greater benefic.
Gevorah (Severity) is the left hand, with which God contains.  It is the Letter of the Law, Justice.  If chesed is the sense of ultimate unity of Being, Gevorah is our sense of separation from the world, our Power to act.  Sometimes, people make it seem like gevorah is “bad”, a thing to overcome, but that’s silly.  Gevroah is our ability to overcome things.  In Chesed moments, we feel the call of creation as a perfect unified whole, but in Gevorah, we feel all the work that is left for us to do.  Gevorah is the lust for Chesed.
The next vessel is called Tiphereth, which means Adornment (in the sense of jewelry), although it is often said to mean Beauty.  Tipheret is closely associated with the Sun.  The Sun shines down on everything, making no distinctions, warming everything it comes into contact with.  It is the source of all life, and the mother of the plants.  The experience of Tipherth is overwhelmingly ecstatic.  When God said, “Let there be light,” the light there was is Tiphereth.  Christians see Tipheret as Christ, which makes perfect sense.  
From Keter to Tiphereth, divinity descends into Being. Tipheret is all sarim, all gods, the glowing throne-room of the Elohim.  It is the linchpin that unites above with below.  Tiphereth isn’t the center of the universe, but it is the radiating point around which our world revolves.
The next sephiroth pair is Netzach (Victory) and Hod (Brilliance).  Tiphereth crowns these two in the same way that Keter crowns Chokmah and Binah and Daat crowns Chesed and Gevorah.  Netzach is the victory of patience and long hard work.  Netzach is the work of  creation, netzach is love as patience and forgiveness.  Netzach is where Things take their Form.  For reasons that I do not entirely understand, Netzach has come to be equated with Venus. My boyfriend says I'm "afraid of commitment", so that's probably why I don't get it. ;)
Hod is the match for Netzach.  It means “brilliance” or “splendor”.  In Hebrew, like in English, the word brilliance conveys a sense of dazzling light and well as dazzling intellect.  Abraham Heshel says the experience of hod is that of Radical Amazement.  Hod is associated with Mercury, the quicksilver king.  I have a special relationship with Hod; it’s my favorite sephira, and so its hard for me to be unbiased about it.    Hod the sephira where magic is born, and the place where language begins.  While all living things partake of Malkuth and Yesod, it is our possession of the qualities of Hod that distinguishes humans from other creatures.
Many orthodox religious teachers will tell you that our culture in full of Hod with too little Netzach.  I could not possibly disagree more.  Niether is more valuable than the other, and both loose value with the loss of the other.  Netzach is an elderly couple holding hands, drawing their last breath together.  Hod is the moment before a first kiss, when everything is alive with possibility.  Real love keeps the two in constant tension.
The ninth sphere is called Yesod.  Yesod is related to the moon, because it reflects the light of tipheret (the sun) onto malkuth (the earth).  Yesod means “foundation” and it links and combines the energies of netzach and hod, giving shape to being.  This sort of creative union is (obviously) deeply sexual, and Yesod is associated with the genitals.  I hear tell that in Christian kabbalah, Yesod is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  Yesod is most accessible Friday nights at midnight.  While the language I’ve been using is very heteronormative, please don’t take that in a judgemental way.  I can only convey these things the way I experience them.  You’ll see that heterosexual male kabbalistic (which is almost all of them) explain their sexual metaphors, and I imagine gay men and women will tell this story their own way. This is just the way I know to tell it.
At the bottom of the tree, the most manifest world, the crust of the Earth, is Malkuth, which means “kingdom” or “rulership”.  It is also called Shekhina, the Sabbath Bride, the Presence of the ONE.  Unlike the other sephiroth, which are direct emanations of Ein Soph, Malkuth is the light of the Divine reflected back from Creation.  Shekhina is the voice of prophecy and the inspiration of psalms.   There is a hand position associated with Shekhinah.  Hold your hands out, palms down or out, thumb tips and index finger tips touching.  Separate your middle and ring fingers on each hand.  This is called the gesture of “Priestly Benediction”.  Your hand should form a pointy pear-shaped hole between finger and thumb.  To me, it quite markedly looks like female genitalia.  The W shape formed by the eight fingers calls to mind the letter shin, which means fire.
Traditionally, this gesture is used by kohanim (a fathers-side hereditary priesthood descended of Aaron) to bless people with the so-called Priestly Benediction.  “May the ONE bless you and keep you.  My the ONE make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.  May the ONE lift up His face to you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26).  Personally, I’m not a kohen (in fact, my father’s not even Jewish), but I’ve had good results with this blessing.  Try it yourself, or find a kohen to do it for you.  You should remove your shoes and wash your hands before making the blessing.

So, now you’ve got some idea of what the sephiroth are, but what are they for?  How do you use them to do magic?  
When I was about 6 or 7, my parents opened a new office for their business.  At the party, there was a champagne fountain, which I thought was the coolest thing I had ever seen.  I was very excited by it, and probably got lots of adults drunk by pushing them to drink the many glasses of champagne I fetched.  Many years later, I realized that Codovera had the same vision  In Pardes Rimmonim, he writes of the sephiroth this way:
To help you conceive this, imagine water flowing through vessels of different colors: white, red, green and so forth. As the water spreads through those vessels, it appears to change into the colors of the vessels, although the water is devoid of all color. The change in color does not affect the water itself, just our perception of the water. So it is with the sefirot. They are vessels, known, for example, as Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet, each colored according to its function, white, red, and green, respectively, while the light of the emanator — their essence — is in the water, having no color at all. This essence does not change; it only appears to change as it flows through the vessels.
Better yet, imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot — the variegated stained glass — judgment or compassion prevails.

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