The Influence of Platonism on Jewish Philosophy: The Development of The Kabbalah from Greek Thought

The Influence of Platonism on Jewish Philosophy

The Development of The Kabbalah from Greek Thought

The subject I am presenting to you is one that is very important to me; it is an issue that I feel must be addressed in a formal manner. I have touched on this subject in the past but feel that I have not done it justice enough. The subject of this article is in regards to the development of The Kabbalah a Jewish Mysticism/Philosophy from the philosophical traditions of the Greeks, specifically Platonic philosophy. Why is there an issue between these two traditions? There is an issue because I have seen a blatant campaign of misinformation and distortion of philosophical and religious history by the Kabbalists on the origins of Kabbalah.

 

This is not an attack on Kabbalah, I myself enjoy reading about Kabbalah, the goal of this article however is to set the story straight with what I see as misrepresentation and the bending of facts with regards to which tradition influenced who first.

 

According the Kabbalist, Kabbalah is very ancient with claims that it was around since the beginning of time, but the first written record of it was with The Book of Formation around 4,000 years ago. The main body of Kabbalah was written 2,000 years ago in a work called The Book of Splendor (The Zohar).[1] Since Kabbalah is so ancient it there for influenced other philosophies and religions around the world. This came up while I was reading “The Power of Kabbalah” by Yehuda Berg published by Kabbalah Publishing (the official publisher of the Kabbalah Centre) that claimed that Greek philosophers like Plato studied Kabbalah and that Kabbalah influenced Greek Philosophy. When I read this statement I smelled something fishy in the air. I am someone who is very interested in philosophy and religion so it was time I did some investigating. In this article I will present how it was really Greek philosophy (specifically Neo-Platonism) that impacted the development of Kabbalah.

 

To understand Kabbalah we need to understand the history of Jewish Mysticism. Kabbalah was not perfectly formed as it is presented today. It developed over time. We can see this because of changes in the religion throughout history. The thing is that Jewish Mysticism has different groups or stages and what I think the Kabbalist is doing is claiming everything that came before it to be Kabbalah after Kabbalah came on the scene. Which is the wrong thing to do. Kabbalah arrived in Judaism at a certain point, anything before that was not the Kabbalah as presented today, even though the Kabbalist would clam it to be.

 

Firstly I want to point out the misleading dating of two documents The Book of Formation and the Book of Splendor (Zohar).  The Book of Formation was actually composed sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. The Zohar which is said to have been formed some 2,000 years ago written by Shimon bar Yochai, a rabbi of the 2nd century CE was in fact produced in 13th century Spain by a fellowship of mystics associated with Moses de Leon[2]. The word Kabbalah did not even exist until the Middle Ages. However Kabbalistis reject this scholarship, stating that the Zohar must have come from someone with a higher spiritual status like Shimon bar Yochai[3]. Which is lazy reasoning and disregard of facts.  According to the facts these two key books to Kabbalah were created after the works of Greek philosophy.

 

The earliest texts from any Jewish Mysticism that we have a written record of are called Merkabah mystics. Merkabah mysticism centers around the vision that the prophet Ezekiel had about the Chariot of God. Merkabah is the Hebrew word for chariot, this tradition is also known as “Throne Mysticism”. These mystics flourished in Palestine and Babylon in the first few centuries of the Common Era.  The main corpus of the Merkabah literature was composed in Israel in the period 200–700CE. An interesting thing to note about the Merkabah mysticism is that it developed from what Gershon Scholem calls Jewish gnostic attempts to ascend through the seven heavens of the heavnly realm to see the throne of God. Gnosticism itself is early Christianity influenced directly from Neo-Platonism. It appears that Merkabah mysticism is reflecting neo-platonism, because  according to Plato, the soul originates from a heavenly realm. The soul desires to return to that realm and we must ascend to it.

 

Jewish mysticism is something that develops in the first few centuries of the Common Era when notably the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed in 70 CE. It was during this time that Jews became persecuted; they wanted to escape this world where they suffered. Jewish mysticism was an immediate answer to help the Jews return to the One. Rabbinic Judaism did not like this form of mysticism, however Merkabah Mysticism flourished alongside rabbinic academies until it was finally incorporated into Kabbalah, during the 12th and 13th centuries[4].

 

Kabbalah can be described as a Midrash (a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings). Midrash started after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, it was at this point that all focus went from the Temple to the synagogue with then Rabbis start writing rabbinic literature.[5] Again the time frame for this has us in the first century CE.

 

Kabbalah is said to be the oral tradition of Judaism. That when God gave Moses the Torah He did not just give him the text, he also gave him the explanation orally. This was preserved by the Jews orally.  However the truth is Kabbalah was the not the true source of the oral tradition. The Mishnah is the first time we see the composition of the oral tradition in wirrten form. This happened in the 2nd Century CE. Later in the 5th Century the Gemara was wirrten, the Gemara is the analysis of and commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah and Gemara are together combined and called the Talmud. I would agree and say there was an oral tradition inside Judaism, however what that oral tradition was comprised is not identical with what we have in the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah as we have it now is the child of the older tradition found in the Talmud fused with Greek philosophy. What is presented in Kabbalah is not completely founded in the Talmud, for example the Sefirot and En-Sof is strictly Kabbalah, and not mentioned outside of the Kabbalistic texts. The ideas regarding the soul found in the Zohar comes from two sources, the Talmus and Neo-Platonism. Neoplatonism gave to the Zohar the idea of the soul as an emanation from the ‘Overmind’ of the universe. There was originally one ‘Universal Soul,’ or ‘Over-soul,’ which, as it were, broke itself up and encased itself in individual bodies. All individual souls are, hence, fragments of the ‘Oversoul,’ so that although they are distinct from one another they are, in reality, all one.

 

So now we have ourselves situated with Jewish Mysticism with time frames. Lets now head into the Greek section.

 

Greek philosophy is very rich and has a long history, starting some point in the 6th centaury BCE. Our concerns are with the classical Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. The philosophy of Plato is called “Platonism”.  At the core of Platonism is the distinction between reality that can perceived but not intelligible and reality which is intelligible but not perceivable. This is expressed in Plato’s theory of the forms (Ideas). The Theory of the Forms states that the non-physical abstract forms or ideas and not the material world of change is the true reality. Forms are like the blueprints for all things in the material world. The world is constructed by way of the Forms. So there is a Form of a horse, of a chair, a tree and so on. Above all the Forms is the Form of the Good, which everything else that can be known derives it’s being. The Form of the Good is the First Principle, which gives intelligibility to the whole world.

 

Sometime in the 3rd century AD Neo-Platonism took form with a man named Plotinus as one of the founders. Neo-Platonism is seen as the perfection of Platonism in a pure pagan form, with no outside non-pagan influence. Plotinus systemizes Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies together.  With Plotinus, The idea of The Form of the Good becomes “The One” or “The Good” however it is not a Form. The One or the Good is above being and essence, which makes it above the Forms. The One is above understanding, definition, all structure and limitations. Our human minds can never understand The One, for it is beyond our minds. Plotinus says The One is infinite and simple. Simple being that it has no parts and infinite being no limitations.

 

We can see certain concepts of Platonism appearing inside the Kabbalah which has its developments in Spain in the 12th and 13th century. Spain at this time was Muslim controlled; The Muslims had carried over with them the Greek philosophies, preserving them. But we can go back earlier in history to see the Greek/Jewish combination of philosophy and religion with Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE).  Philo was a Hellenistic Jewish (Neo-Platonist) who fused Greek philosophy with Judaism. Philo read the Bible as allegorical, for it was through allegorical interpretation you would gain the true knowledge. This is the case with the later development of Kabbalah that the symbolic and not the literal meaning of the bible is where the real meaning is found.

 

Now that we see that Greek philosophy predates Jewish mysticism, where do we find the influence in Kabbalah? We can see a strong influence of Neo-Platonism with the Divine Attributes (Sefirot) and the Ein-Sof. Ein-Sof is the divine as infinite, undifferentiated and unknowable. The Ein-Sof corresponds to if you remember, what Plotinus calls The One or The Good. It is limitless, simple and infinite. You cannot define it or understand it. The Sefirot are the attributes like Hokhmah (Wisdom) or Binah (Thought). They are the attributions and activities, which reveal the divine. This corresponds with the Neo-Platonic divine attributions like the Nous (Divine Mind), which is lower than The One. Creation occurs with Ein-Sof emanating downward through each Sefirot until it reaches the material world. This creation through successive emanations is a clear neo-platonic idea from Plotinus in his work the Enneads.

 

The Tree of Life pictures as a diagram, is a Greek concept. It emerges from geometry, which is a Greek mathematical discipline. Both Pythagoras and Plato used geometry to teach their more abstract material. It is contrary to Orthodox Judaism because it portrays images of God. This is blasphemous to Orthodox Jews.[6]

 

There are other doctrines in Kabbalah that I have seen which are also taken from Greek philosophy. I mentioned earlier the creation of Midrash by the Rabbis. Midrash is an interpretation of the biblical stories. There are instances where we can see Platonic ideas popping into Midrash. Remember Plato’s Forms are like the blueprints for creation. Everything has a Form from which it is created. This notion is borrowed in Midrash Genesis Rabbah 1:1 which tells the parable of how an architect does not build a building without a blueprint, so did God, who used the Torah as His blueprint for the World[7]. The Torah has become the Jewish version of the Forms.

 

Regarding the Soul In Kabbalah there are three parts of the soul Nefesh(lower self/animal nature), Ruach (middle soul, spirit, contains morals) and Neshamah (super-soul, holds intellect). This notion comes from Plato once again who said that the soul had three parts. Eros (cravings and desires), Themos (spiritedness, emotion) and Logos (reason and intellect, highest self). The Jewish understanding of the soul having three parts comes not from Kabbalah, but for the Talmud. In the Zohar, there is the addition of two more levels of the soul. This is evidence of philosophical evolution. For if the Zohar was as old as the Kabbalisits say, then these two additions would have appears earlier inside the Talmud. 

 

In Kabbalah it is believed that all souls existed prior to the creation of the world. This notion comes to from Plato, who said that the Soul is immortal, that our Souls originate in the world of the Forms.

 

With regards to free will, Kabbalah says that humans have free will on a mundane level but not on a higher spiritual level. This notion comes from Greek thought not specifically Platonism but from Sophocles play Oedipus Rex, which expresses Greek philosophy regarding free will. Oedipus is fated to kill is father and marry his mother. The path he chooses is his own but the end result is the same. He cannot escape the end fate but freely chooses events that occur before that fate. So we have the notion of free will on the mundane level, but not on the higher spiritual level.

 

Reincarnation appears in Kabbalah, but yet again reincarnation appears before Kabbalah with Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) in Greece, which is called Metempsychosis.

 

In Kabbalah the Hebrew alphabet is also used for numbers, words in the bible are converted into numbers and vice versa is known as geometria, the same is true with the Greek alphabet. Geomatria was passed on to the Jews by the Greeks. In his Dialogues, Plato hints at gematria as a means of direct knowledge of Reality.

 

We see a lot of what my high school history teacher would call “cultural diffusion” which is the spreading of cultural traits. It would make perfect sense for Greek philosophy to have an impact on Jewish thought since there was a very close relationship between the Greeks and the Jews after the conquest of Palestine and Egypt by Alexander the Great. This relationship lasted from approximately 332 BCE until at least the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. That is nearly 400 years of Greek influence on Judaism.

 

So what’s with the misrepresentation? It is my belief that there is a deliberate misleading of facts by Kabbalists who want to give the appearance that Kabbalah is older than Greek philosophy and all other philosophies to be exact. This would make Kabbalah appear to the originator and source of all religious wisdom around the world. This would be the goal for financial reasons, Kabbalah has become a product that is sold and for marketing reasons doesn’t it sound better to be selling “original” ancient wisdom rather than a middle-age mysticism that was influenced by Neo-Platonism?

 

 

Footnotes

[1] http://www.kabbalah.com/about/what-is-kabbalah

[2] Unterman, Alan. The Kabbalistic Tradition: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism. London: Penguin, 2008. Print

[3] Berg, Rav. Kabbalah for the Layman. N.p.: Research Centre of Kabbalah, 2012. Print.

[4] Armstrong, Karen. “Chapter 7 – The God of the Mystics.” A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judasim, Christianity and Islam. N.p.: Ballantine, 1993. N. pag. Print.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbinical_literature

[6] http://www.crcsite.org/jewishgreek.htm

7] Unterman, Alan. “Torah Is The Map of The World.” The Kabbalistic Tradition: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism. London: Penguin, 2008. 57. Print.

 

 

         

AngeloNasios

AngeloNasios

The recipient of Tarosophist of the Year 2011, Angelo Nasios is a rising voice in the tarot community. Angelo is known for his popular YouTube channel in which he produces educational tarot videos. Tarot: Unlocking the Arcana, Angelo’s first book will be released by Schiffer Publishing.

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