Kabbalah for Gentiles: The Wider Influence of Jewish Mysticism

WHEN Moses de León (1240-1305) was said to have produced the Sefer ha-Zohar at the end of the thirteenth century, with much of the text bearing the scholarly hallmarks of Simeon bar Yochai (d. 160), it was inevitable that news of this hugely important Kabbalistic work would extend far beyond the borders of the Crown of Castile. More unexpected, however, was the fact that its secrets would fall into non-Jewish hands. Adolphe Franck notes that the

rabbinate has for a long time perceived this danger; many rabbis have evinced their hostility to the study of the Kabbalah, while others protect it even today as the holy ark, as the entrance to the Holy of Holies, to keep the profane away. [1]

Given the immense influence of Greek Neoplatonism on Jewish mysticism, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jews themselves would inadvertently reciprocate by sending their own spiritual and philosophical ideas back in the opposite direction. The first of the Gentiles to recognise the great value of the Kabbalah was Ramon Llull (1232-1315), a Franciscan monk from the Kingdom of Majorca. Despite having no Kabbalistic pretensions of his own, Llull used its ideas as a means of converting Jews to Catholicism by engaging them in debate and thus seeking to play them at their own game. Given the rising hostility that Spanish Jews were beginning to face at the time, something that would eventually develop into full-blown religious and ethnic persecution, Llull hoped to convince some of the more influential Jewish scholars to embrace a more rational and considered form of Christianity.

Ironically, once Llull had used Kabbalah in his efforts to seduce Jews into the Church a number of Judeo-Spanish conversos tried to contribute to this process in the period between Llull’s own century and the 1492 Expulsion. Rather than risk upsetting the authorities by returning to Judaism, they hoped to retain some of their former beliefs by promoting a Christian Kabbalah.

One Spanish converso, Abner of Burgos (1270-1347), who was inspired to join the Church after experiencing a vision in which crosses began appearing on his clothes, used Kabbalah as a means of undermining those who continued to follow the Jewish faith. At first, Abner tried to entice those who had recently become disillusioned after a failed attempt to form a messianic movement in Avila and this was followed by a series of polemical works in which scores of Talmudic and Midrashic sources were used to demonstrate the truth of the Christian message. His Moreh Zedek (‘Teacher of Righteousness’) remains one of the most out-and-out assaults on Judaism that was produced during the Early Medieval period. The fact that it contains so much detailed information about the various Jewish sects and their theological differences – including discussions on Kabbalah – meant that this sensitive information was now beginning to enter into the Gentile domain.

By the the fifteenth century, Renaissance figures such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) were beginning to familiarise themselves with Jewish mystical teachings. Between 1480 and 1482, when Pico was studying at the University of Padua, he had the chance to study both Hebrew and Aramaic with a Jewish manuscript specialist called Elia del Medigo (1458-1493) and this stood him in good stead for his later work. After a stay in Florence, Pico decided to travel to Rome and was almost killed when he tried to run off with the wife of someone in the notorious Medici family. Nursing his injuries in the Perugian municipality of Fratta Todina, Pico was overjoyed when a collection of rare texts fell into his hands. Many were Chaldean oracles, but others concerned the Kabbalah and he discusses these in depth in the controversial ‘900 Theses’ that were published in December 1486 as Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae. Such is the heretical nature of these documents, that the following year Pico’s exploits upset Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492) and a total of thirteen theses were officially condemned by the Church. Nonetheless, both as a result of his breathtaking research and his attempt to forge a profound religious syncretism based on Platonism, Neo-platonism, Aristotelianism, Hermeticism and Kabbalah, Pico is today viewed as the first Christian Kabbalist. As we shall see, in the seventeenth century his ideas were adopted by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who discussed Kabbalah in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652).

Another of Pico’s posthumous disciples was Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522). Born in the Black Forest city of Pforzheim, Reuchlin’s father had been an official at a Dominican monastery and thus he had become familiar with modes of deep religiosity at a very young age. Proficient in Latin and Aristotelian philosophy, Reuchlin became a keen student of Hebrew and used it to further his knowledge of ancient Christian literature. Despite his own regular use of Latin, he believed that the Hebrew Bible was fundamentally superior to that of the Latin Vulgate and it was this higher degree of scriptural reliability that interested him most. For a more concise understanding of Christianity, therefore, it was necessary to study the Jewish texts.

Examining the work of the medieval rabbi, David Kimhi (1160-1235), in 1506 Reuchlin produced a grammar and lexicon called De Rudimentis Hebraicis. Before long, he had immersed himself in some of the later Kabbalistic teachings and realised that Pico had actually been on to something. However, when a famous Catholic theologican called Johannes Pfefferkorn (1469-1523) tried to drum up support for his plan to destroy all Jewish books on the basis that they not only defamed Christ but were preventing Jews in Germany from converting to Christianity, Reuchlin decided to intervene. Although, in 1510, Pfefferkorn had obtained permission for this act of religious suppression from Maximilian I (1459-1519), Holy Roman Emperor, Reuchlin launched an appeal and demonstrated to a tribunal that hardly any books were attacking Christian teachings and that the few that did were very obscure and had fallen into disuse. His solution, as a humanist, was that Jews begin submitting their own texts to German universities. In the wake of this proposal Pfefferkorn began accusing Reuchlin of ‘heresy’ and it was not until July 1516, six years later, that Reuchlin managed to clear his name at some considerable expense. In the meantime, he has left us with two crucial works on Kabbalah: De Verbo Mirifico (1514) and De Arte Cabbalistica (1517).

Like Pico, Francesco Giorgi Veneto (1466-1540) was of Italian stock. A Franciscan friar based in Venice, he produced both De harmonia mundi totius (1525) and Scripturam Sacram Problemata (1536), believing – like Abner of Burgos before him – that engaging with Jewish texts could ultimately assist in the conversion of the Jews themselves. Given that knowledge is power, he possibly harboured the notion that to know is to surpass. Notwithstanding Veneto’s desire to turn Jewish mysticism into a weapon for the harvesting of souls, his work also discussed Platonic philosophy.

A further personage in the field of Christian Kabbalah is Paolo Riccio (1506-1541), who was quite open about his attempts to create a theological synthesis between Jewish teachings and those of non-Jews such as Pico and Reuchlin. Riccio himself was a German Jew and physician to Maximilan I, so more than aware of the religious antagonism between Pfefferkorn and Reuchlin. In fact it might even be argued that Riccio was well-placed to have a positive influence on the Emperor and it was the latter who asked him to produce a Latin translation of the Talmud. A professor of philosophy, Paolo Riccio was also extremely knowledgeable in matters relating to Kabbalah and astrology, using his wisdom to persuade Jews that their future lay in Catholicism. His De Porta Lucis R. Josephi Gecatilia (1516) is a translation of the Kabbalistic teachings that appeared in Joseph Gikatilla’s thirteenth-century Sha’are Orah. He also wrote the four-part De Cælesti Agricultura (1541), which examines the 613 commandments that comprise the number of mitzvot in the Torah. The work continues by introducing the tenets of the Kabbalah and making a further appeal to the Jews to convert to Christianity.

Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a Silesian by the name of Balthasar Walther (1558-1631) who had trained to be a physician at the University of Frankfurt subsequently travelled throughout the Holy Roman Empire and became familiar with magic, Alchemy and Kabbalah. As a great collector of manuscripts, he also went to Palestine and North Africa, where he met the earliest Kabbalists of Safed and had the chance to learn about the mystical practices of both Jews and Arabs. A friend of the great German philosopher, Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Walther did not write anything on Kabbalah himself but went on to spread his compatriot’s mystical ideas far and wide. Böhme, of course, had a deep interest in Alchemy, Kabbalah and Neoplatonism.

Another German, Athanasius Kircher, was a Jesuit scholar who wrote a total of forty books on spirituality, medicine and geology. Kircher is also considered to be the founder of Egyptology, but his importance with regard to Jewish mysticism lay in the fact that his studies inevitably led him to examine many of the ancient texts. Between 1652 and 1654, Kircher used his Oedipus Aegyptiacus to discuss a unique syncretism of Orphism and Egyptian mythology, but more interestingly he included an illustration of the Tree of Life. With its complexity of geomantic figures, including the incorporation of the Law of Moses and both the 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments of Maimonides, Kircher’s graphic construction has since become one of the most commonly used features of Western Kabbalah.

Like Balthasar Walther, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a philosopher-physician and student of Kabbalah. Living in England at a time when Renaissance science was beginning to assert its dominance over the outgoing Catholic theology of the Medieval period, Browne was a devout Christian who used his interest in esoterica to further strengthen his existing religious beliefs. In 1711, when his famous library was sold at auction, it was found to contain scores of esoteric works and nestled among the alchemical tracts and books of Hermetic magic was Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Lucis (1646), Obeliscus Pamphilius (1650), Oedipus Aegyptiacus, Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica (1654) and two-volume Mundus Subterraneus (1665). Elsewhere, there was a copy of Raymund Llull’s Vademecum, quo sontes Alchemica Art (1572) and Francesco Giorgio Veneto’s De harmonia mundi totius. Browne also mentioned Kabbalah in his 1658 work, The Garden of Cyrus, which looks at Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean influences within the spheres of art and nature. Browne’s 1646 encyclopaedia, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, also mentions Kabbalah.

Some of Browne’s work was translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689), who is perhaps the most famous of all Western Kabbalists. Indeed, as a student of Hebrew he went on to diligently translate a large number of Jewish mystical texts into his native German and these have furnished the non-Jewish understanding of Kabbalah considerably. Whilst Knorr was the son of a Protestant minister, his enquiring mind drew him to seek out both Christian and Jewish sources alike and he eventually struck up a relationship with Meir Stern (d. 1680) of Amsterdam. Prior to his appointment in the Netherlands, Rabbi Stern had been driven out of the German city of Fulda when the local Jewish community was expelled. Knowing that he was an expert on Kabbalah, Christian Knorr became his student and thus learnt its secrets first-hand. He even managed to obtain rare Lurianic manuscripts. Once he had done so, and this is perhaps something of a disservice to his Jewish mentor, Knorr knitted these Kabbalistic teachings into his own eclectic formula. These ideas were modified, however, and the primordial figure of Adam Kadmon was transformed into that of Jesus. Knorr’s main work is the 2,600-page Kabbala Denudata, sive Doctrina Hebræorum Transcendentalis et Metaphysica Atque Theologia (1677–1678) which, issued as two volumes, contains rare sefirotic diagrams and a wealth of esoteric knowledge. As Scholem explains:

In his translations Knorr aimed at precision, sometimes to the extent that the meaning is obscure to those not familiar with the original. Although the book contains many errors and mistranslations, particularly of difficult Zoharic passages, there is no justification for the contemporary Jewish claims that the author misrepresented the Kabbalah. [2]

The work, on the whole, is pretty comprehensive and not only explains the significance of Kabbalistic symbolism in all its graphic finery, but draws upon the writings of Isaac Luria, Joseph Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah – as Riccio had done before him – and Moses ben Jacob Cordovero’s Pardes Rimmonim. It also contains Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s (1570-1635) Sha’a ha-Shamayim and Beit Elohim, Hayyim Vital’s Sefer ha-Gilgulim, Issachar Berman ben Naphtali ha-Kohen’s (c. sixteenth-century) Mareh Kohen and, needless to say, translations from the Sefer ha-Zohar.

Some of the commentary in Knorr’s Kabbala Denudata was provided by his English contemporary, Henry More (1614-1687), who was connected to the Cambridge Platonists. More went on to create his own brand of philosophy that was inspired by Neoplatonism and the Rationalism of René Descartes (1596-1650). His objective was to prove the existence of spirit, but when he met the Flemish alchemist, Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614–1698), More was soon introduced to the ideas of his friend, Christian Knorr. This introduction to Kabbalah by way of its chief Western exponent led More to write his Conjectura Cabbalistica: Or, A Conjectural Essay of Interpreting the Minde of Moses According to a Threefold Cabbala (1653). The three ways in which More sought to discuss Jewish mystical ideas were based upon what he termed (i) The Literal Cabbala, (ii) The Philosophick Cabbala, and (ii) The Moral Cabbala. On account of the jumble of ideas contained in this work More has since been accused of scriptural reinterpretation, although to his credit he soon realised his error once Knorr’s Kabbala Denudata had introduced him to the work of Isaac Luria. Nonetheless, a scandal ensued and More lost a large number of friends in the Christian Quaker movement of which he had been part.

Johan Christian Jacob Kemper (1670-1716), formerly known as Moshe ben Aharon of Kraków, was a Polish Sabbatean who moved to the Swedish town of Uppsala before converting to Lutheran Christianity. Kemper’s 1711 work, Matteh Mosche (‘The Staff of Moses’), was an attempt to convince Jews that the Sefer ha-Zohar contained the intrinsic teachings of the Christian trinity. He also translated the Gospel of Matthew into Hebrew in a further effort to create a Christian-Kabbalistic text and convert Jews to Protestantism. It is also thought that Kemper taught Hebrew to the famous Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

There was even a little-known Christian Kabbalist in Eastern Europe. Adorján Czipleá (1639-1664), a Hungarian mystic, wrote a controversial book called De ente et malo (‘On Being and Evil’) and it soon attracted the interest of the aforementioned Henry More and Francis Mercury van Helmont. Unfortunately, the work was considered to be heretical and has since been lost. Fortunately, we know something of its character from a September 1670 letter that was sent by the classical Anglo-French scholar, Méric Casaubon (1599-1671), to the English theologian Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699):

One such queer scholar was Mr. Adorján Czipleá, who held that the fallen angels did nevertheless not fall from Being since they possesse the attribute of intelligence which is, according to Plato, equivalente to that of existence. From this he deriv’d the preposterous idea that the first emanation, or Intelligence, or Being, is compromis’d withe the fallen ones: esse (sive intellectus) est diabolus. Being is thus always torn, in perpetual strife, between Satan and the Lord’s angels. The Kabbalah, the Magyar claim’d, is the only one capable of discerning the two sides, and therefore delivering us from the grasp of Being towards Union to the One and Only God, for it alone can accesse His angels through His Word and climbe to the mystical Presence of God. [3]

In fact More’s Conjectura Cabbalistica owes a good deal to Czipleá’s De ente et malo.

Throughout this period, Western Europe’s growing interest in Alchemy meant that once Böhme’s work became more readily available other writers also began to fuse it with aspects of Jewish Kabbalah. Those who used Alchemy for this purpose included Jean Thenaud (d. 1542), Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), Blaise de Vigenère (1523-1596), Abraham von Franckenberg (1593-1652), Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666), Georg von Welling (1655-1727), Martinez de Pasqually (1727-1774), Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803) and Franz Joseph Molitor (1779-1860). In the view of G. Mallary Masters, an expert on the Platonic-Hermetic tradition:

Clearly a major aspect of Renaissance thought, Kabbalah contributed significantly to the renewal of spiritual awareness on the part of Renaissance humanists. They placed the work of the kabbalists either in line with the other sciences they viewed in the tradition of prisca theologia or, like Thenaud, they viewed Kabbalah as prefigural, much as the early fathers had treated the Old Testament. [4]

* * *

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after the so-called Enlightenment had ended, the Western interpretation of Kabbalah that had first appeared under the guidance of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and other Hermetic syncretists enjoyed something of a revival. Figures such as Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), Dion Fortune (1890-1946) and Israel Regardie (1907-1985) formed part of an occult tradition that reinterpreted the teachings of Jewish mysticism in evermore unique and controversial ways. All three magicians came from England and it was there that non-Jewish forms of Kabbalah took on a life of their own. Interesting, the idiosyncratic formulae developed by Crowley, Regardie, Fortune and others was often dramatically repackaged as ‘Hermetic’ Kabbalah.

As the name suggests, it was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which first tried to continue the syncretic phenomenon of the Medieval era by blending Kabbalistic mysticism with some of the Greek and Egyptian gods. Inspired by the hierarchical structure of both Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, the Golden Dawn built upon Levi’s early attempts to create a link between Western magic and Jewish esotericism by developing a system based on ‘orders of angels’. Believing that ten archangels control ten different angelic choirs, each corresponding to one of the ten Kabbalistic sefirot, they concluded that it was possible to list these heavenly beings in the following ‘Choir / Archangel / Sefirah’ rankings:

1. Hayot Ha Kodesh (Holy Living Ones) / Metatron / Keter

2. Ophanim (Wheels) / Raziel / Chokmah

3. Erelim (Brave Ones / Tzaphkiel / Binah

4, Hashmallim (Glowing Ones) / Tzadkiel / Chesed

5. Seraphim (Burning Ones) / Khamael / Gevurah

6. Malakim (Messengers) / Raphael / Tipheret

7. Elohim (Godly Beings) / Haniel / Netzach

8. Bene Elohim (Sons of Elohim) / Michael / Hod

9. Cherubim (Unspecified) / Gabriel / Yesod

10. Ishim (Men) / Sandalphon / Malkuth

One of the main sources for the Golden Dawn’s brand of magic appears in Crowley’s Liber 777 (1909), a collection of papers relating to the organisation’s more dogmatic approach towards Kabbalah. Crowley spends a good deal of time discussing his own system of gematria, or numerology, before addressing the idea of a descending lightning-flash that corresponds to three diminishing number 7s and their relation to what he calculates as the 191 columns and 35 rows of the Tree of Life. This, he claims, is a previously unexplored area of Hermetic magic. Further links are made between the Kabbalistic sefirot and astrology. Again, there is a decidedly syncretic perspective to Liber 777‘s methodology in the way that Greek deities are linked to each individual sefirah. When Crowley left the Golden Dawn and formed the Astrum Argentum (A∴A∴), the group’s official symbol – the Sigillum Sanctum Fraturnitatus, or Holy Seal of the Brotherhood of the Silver Star – used Babylonian imagery that Crowley associated with Binah. Crowley was later involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), which had been formed by Carl Kellner (1851-1905) and Theodor Reuss (1855-1923), and retained his interest in Jewish mysticism by fusing it with other forms of spirituality to form part of his own ‘Thelemic’ religion. The Egyptian deities Nuit and Hadith, for example, were not only melded into the Tao and Teh of Taoism and the Shakti and Shiva of Hinduism, but mixed with the Ain Soph and Kether of the Tree of Life.

Dion Fortune, meanwhile, in the wake of the Golden Dawn’s gradual demise, joined the Alpha et Omega group that had been founded by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) and went on to produce The Mystical Qabalah. Published in 1935, it is a concise explanation of the philosophical structure of the Hermetic Kabbalah and probably the best introduction for those readers wishing to find out more about the reconfiguration of Jewish mysticism within the overall tradition of Western magic. Others who have contributed to the growing body of literature pertaining to Western Kabbalistic thought include Gérard Encausse (1865-1916), who also wrote under the name ‘Papus’; Paul Foster Case (1884-1954) of the American occult group, Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A); and Samael Aun Weor (1917-1977), a Mexican-Colombian esotericist who wrote several books on both Kabbalah and Hermetic themes.

* * *

The Hermetic Kabbalah that was revived and expanded by the Golden Dawn and those who went on to form their own magical fraternities, often takes another form. Known as English Qabalah, this hugely modified variant claims to represent an esoteric system of its own and despite the name does not confine its interests to Jewish mysticism alone. Indeed, whilst the Kabbalah of the Sefer ha-Zohar and Isaac Luria often involves the mathematical significance of Hebrew lettering, its English counterpart has a system which seeks to apply the use of Roman script and Arabic Numerals. English Qabalists were not the first to use this form of gematria and the magical significance of the English alphabet was first discovered in 1532 by a German monk called Michael Stifel (1487-1567). Other individuals who used English as a means of numerology include John Shelton (1463-1529), an accomplished poet and tutor of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), and the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who used it in his 1867 War and Peace to make a connection between Napoleon and the coming Beast of Revelations.

It was Crowley who first laid the foundations for the idea of English Qabalah in his Liber AL vel legis (1904), or The Book of the Law, which he claimed was revealed to him by the voice of a mystical entity known as Aiwass. In Verse 2:55, for example, one finds:

Thou shalt obtain the order & value of the English Alphabet, thou shalt find new symbols to attribute them unto. [5]

Crowley subsequently carried out this mysterious instruction in his Liber Trigrammaton Sub Figura XXVII: Being the Book of the Trigrams of the Mutations of the Tao with the Yin and the Yang (1907), at least in part, when he formed a correspondence between the twenty-six letters of the Roman script and the diagrammatic lines of the I Ching. This, however, is as far as Crowley got and he never went on to use the English alphabet to develop a larger system of any kind.

In the wake of Crowley’s discovery, there have been a number of self-styled English Qabalists who have sought to expand upon this basic idea and yet their findings are often decidedly laboured and, on the whole, quite unremarkable.


1. Frank, Adolphe; The Kabbalah: The Religious Philosophy of the Hebrews (Carol Publishing Group, 1995), p.193.

2. Scholem, Gershom; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism, p.416.

3. Casaubon, Méric; Letter to Edward Stillingfleet, September 1670.

4. Masters, G. Mallory; “Renaissance Kabbalah” in Antoine Faivre (Ed.) & Jacob Needleman (Ed.), Modern Esoteric Spirituality (SCM Press, 1992), p.148.

5. Crowley, Aleister; The Book of the Law (Samuel Weiser, 1976), p.35.

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