Friday, August 7, 2015

1. Introduction: Sources, mainly in Latin

Author's note: This blog was initially"finished" in 2009. Then I revised it in September 2012, then again (affecting discussion of the Sefer Yetzirah) in June 2015. In July I added more material, from Flavius Mithridates' 1486 Latin translations for Pico della Mirandola, as well as Arthur Lesley's 1976 translation of Yohannan Alemanno's c. 1494 Song of Solomon's Ascents. In August I created new posts from the old ones, so that all the different sections would appear together in one list on the side, as a kind of table of contents. I also added material on Paul Foster Case, the American occultist. On September 17, 2015, I gave a talk to the Hermetic Society of Portland based on this material, after which I made more revisions, finishing them on Sept. 26, 2015. 

Then in November 2015 I added more material, mostly to chapter 5, this time on Oswald Wirth, who wrote on the same subject. So now this blog does two things, focusing on the Kabbalist doctrine of the sefiroth and the tarot trumps or "major arcana": it interprets the actual tarot, of late 15th and early 16th century Italy and 17th century France, in terms of the actual Jewish Kabbalah as it was known to Gentiles at that time; and it situates in that context what Wirth and Case wrote regarding Kabbalah and the tarot in the early 20th century.

The blog is meant to be read from top down. When you get to the bottom, click on "older post" for the continuation.

I begin with the Renaissance. How would the ten sefirot, or spheres, on the Tree of Life have been understood by Christians interested in both Kabbalah and Tarot during the late 15th-early 17th centuries, the time of the early tarot?  More particularly, can any non-arbitrary correlations be made between sefiroth as then understood and the tarot sequence, based on information generally available at that time period? This blog is devoted to pursuing these questions.

I enter this discussion not simply for mental entertainment, but because the sefirotic system that evolved is an important one for the living of life. It was designed as a way to think about how God judges and thinks about us, about what God expects from us and what we can expect from God, as part of a covenant between Him and his people, the Jews. But it can also serve as a framework for thinking about, making judgments, and acting in relation to other people and ourselves. This is a perspective that pertains also to the tarot, and is valuable not only for the suit cards, in various areas of life, but for the trumps (major arcana) as well. With the suit cards, we can contemplate how the messages of the sefiroth apply to the particular areas of life symbolized by the suit objects in a particular system of cartomancy. With the trumps, we can contemplate how these messages apply to the particular images that we see on the individual trumps, and not so much in particular aspects of life but in our lives as a whole, as subjects for meditation as much as in divination..

One starting point for such an investigation might be with the texts, notably, the Jewish Kabbalist texts known to both Christians and Jews during the Renaissance, as well as their Christian counterparts, i.e. those books on Kabbalah written by Christians.

The most famous medieval Jewish Kabbalist text, the Zohar, of Castile in Spain, would not have been accessible as such to non-Jews during this period. For one thing, it was in Aramaic; even Christians who knew Hebrew would have had a hard time with that language. It was not until the mid-16th century that it was published (in Hebrew), and soon after parts of it into Latin. Second, the Zohar was very long and unsystematic. Third, its main body doesn't even use the term "sefira," so it is not easy to figure out when one is being described.

However some of what it had to say would have been known by other means, namely, the extensive quotes from the Zohar, with commentary, in other works, notably those of the 14th century Italian Kabbalist  Menahem Recanati. At least two of his works were available to Pico della Mirandola in 1486, translated by the Jewish convert to Christianity Flavius Mithridates; the most important of these passed among Christian circles until in 17th century Paris it was lost, after it left the hands of Jacques Gafferel. (However the Hebrew original is extant; passages relevant to Pico have been translated by Wirszubski and will be quoted here.) Many other Jewish Kabbalist works were collected by Pico and translated by Mithridates. After Pico's death the translations went to the Vatican, where access was possible to those with the right credentials. The Jewish manuscripts went to a monastery, which parted with some of them for undisclosed sums to a German banking family.

Here the central figure is the "phoenix of the age", Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who in his short life more than anyone else introduced Christian Europe to the Kabbalah. He was by no means the first Christian in the West not born Jewish to have an acquaintance with Hebrew. Medieval debates between Christian and Jews took the form of contrasting interpretations of Jewish texts: Christians were concerned to refute Judaism on its own ground, i.e. the Hebrew Bible and other sacred Hebrew texts. For that they had to know some Hebrew, guided by Jewish converts to Christianity. Toward that purpose, the Universities of Paris and Oxford established professorships in Hebrew, set up  in the early 14th century upon direction of the Church, to aid in the conversion of Jews. These posts were held by Jews who had converted to Christianity, and surely they taught somebody something. Italian universities did not have such official posts (despite the Pope's order that Bologna have one), but there were teachers of Hebrew available in leading centers to perform this function, most notably in Padua, where in the beginning of the 15th century Jewish students were allowed to receive degrees in medicine. There were also, in some parts of Italy, whole Jewish communities to learn from if anyone cared to.


Lodovico Lazzarelli is an example of someone probably as proficient in Hebrew as Pico but 20 years earlier, but much less wealthy. Wouter Hanegraaff, in his book Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): the Hermetic writings and related documents, notes that Lancillotti, in a 19th century biography, wrote that Lazzarelli learned Hebrew while in Teramo, a city in central Italy, 1464 to 1466. It may have been even earlier, because he grew up in a town with a sizable Jewish community. There is also the testimony of Filippo Lazzarelli, Lodovico's brother (Hanegraaff p. 78):
Filippo writes that he himself was present at the occasion when, in Teramo, Lazarrelli engaged in a private debate with a learned Jewish astrologer and physician: a certain Vitale, about whom nothing more is known. Sacci reasonably suggests that this event must have taken place in the period 1464-1466; since we know that Lazzarrelli was living in Teramo at the time and that Filippo was present as well.
Lazzarelli is said to have confronted the rabbi with a quotation, repeated in his later Crater Hermetis, supposedly from the midrash Bereshit Rabba of Moses Adersan. Hanegraaff adds:
The importance of the Vitale debate is that if it indeed took between 1464 and 1466, and if Lazzarelli was quoting first hand from Kabbalist sources, this would make him a pioneer of Christian kabbalah who precedes Pico della Mirandola's kabbalistic theses of 1486 by twenty years.
Hanegraaff doubts that Lazzarelli's quote comes from an authentic Hebrew source. It cannot be found in the extant manuscript of Bereshit Rabba nor any source that quotes from it (p. 85). It speaks of God the Father and God the Son as being one, conveniently close to Christian doctrine, but unthinkable in a Jewish one, Hanegraaff says (p. 86). Hanegraaff notes that there were many forgeries of Hebrew works at that time.

Pico was also not the first to commission the translation of Jewish Kabbalist texts. Moshe Idel in Kabbalah in Italy cites an instance in Toledo, Spain, of the 13th century when this was already done. Idel, writes that Alfonso Sabio's nephew, Juan Manuel, testified about his famous uncle (p. 228):
Furthermore, he ordered translated the whole law of the Jews, and even their Talmud, and other knowledge, which is called qabbalah and which the Jews keep closely secret. And he did this so it might be manifest through their own law that it is a [mere] presentation of that law which we Christians have; and that they, like the Moors, are in grave error and in peril of losing their souls. 7
7. Libra de !a caza, ed. J. Gutierrez de la Vega, in Biblioteca uenatoria, 5 vols. (M. Tello, Madrid, 1877-99), 3:4; and Norman Roth, "Jewish Collaborators in Alfonso's Scientific Work," in Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth-Century Renaissance, ed. Robert I. Burns, S.J. (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 60, n. 7.
That was also Pico's expressed purpose: to confute Judaism using its own texts. This surely was not a unique example.

Nor, probably, was Pico  the first in Florence to be sympathetically interested in the Jewish Kabbalah. In the 1460s, according to some authorities (see Edouardo Lebano's notes to the Tusiani translation of Pulci's Morgante), the humanist poet and educator Luigi Pulci dabbled in Kabbalist magical lore and even stopped going to Mass. Although, under pressure, he returned to the rituals of the Church, when he died he nonetheless was refused burial in consecrated ground. Besides writing a book, Morgante, with a sympathetic demon, he also enjoyed playing a game he called, in a letter, "minchiate" with Lorenzo de' Medici. Minchiate is otherwise known as a game that appeared later in Florence as an expanded tarot deck, with 40 instead of 22 trumps.


What can be said of Pico, however, is that it was he who first spread knowledge of Kabbalah to a wide Christian audience, by means of his famous 900 Conclusiones and his even more popular Oration. When a pope orders all copies of a book, one sent free of charge to most of learned Europe, seized, burned, and not to be read, that is news. When the next pope allows the same book to be distributed freely, one can be sure that some will take advantage of the opportunity.

Although Pico's professed aim was the conventional one of converting the Jews, there was also the converse: one could be a Kabbalist and still be a Christian. So Kabbalah was not merely a way of turning Judaism against itself, but a framework for understanding Christianity in broader terms. Thus the "Christian Kabbalah" was born, which claimed to understand Kabbalah better than its Jewish proponents and to see Christianity itself in its terms.

Pico also did the world an immense service by commissioning the translations into Latin of numerous Kabbalist texts, most of them done by Mithridates. These translations have the merit of being done by someone schooled in the living Kabbalah of the time in Italy. He has been accused by some of giving his translations a Christian slant. But in fact in the case of the three that have been published that I have seen, the modern editors have compared his work to the extant Hebrew manuscripts and not found that to be true. It is true that the Hebrew word "Messiah" is translated as "Christus"; but that was already done in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek done in Hellenistic Egypt.


I have seen the English versions of five Kabbalist texts done for Pico by Mithridates, which have recently been published in his Latin, an English version of it, and a critical edition of the Hebrew. Of these three are of considerable interest: (a) the Bahir (Torino 2005), the classic work of 12th century Provence; (b) The Great Parchment (Torino 2004), a short work of  early 14th century Italy; and (c) The Gate of Heaven (Torino 1012), a longer work of late 14th century Italy. Two other such works have also been published, for which see the bibliography.

With these works, along with Moshe Idel's 2011 book Kabbalah in Italy,  Italian Kabbalah is finally getting the attention it deserves. In the 14th century, it carried on the synthesis that had been attained by Abraham Abulafia of the two previous achievements of European Jewish mysticism, namely, the "theosophical" Kabbalah of Provence and Spain, and that of the so called "Hassedei Ashkenazi", or "piestistic Germans". Abulafia had been first schooled in the Spanish school, which had developed a rich theosophy of the sefiroth, the palaces of the hekilot, and the Hebrew letters. Then he came upon the work of the Hassedei, in particular Eleazar of Worms' Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah. The Hassedei method of linguistic manipulations for ecstatic ends gave Abulafia (as I understand it) a means by which, he taught, one could in this life ascend and experience the palaces and sefirot and even attain the power of prophesy. Because of his claims of prophesy, with messianic overtones, his works were banned by the rabbinical councils in Spain. But his influence continued to be felt in Italy, along with that of his student Joseph Gikatilla, whose early works followed Abulafia's perspective. In Italy it and the German works were combined with the teachings of the Zohar by Menahem Recanati and others in Italy of the 14th century. It is these works that Pico mainly received. In addition, valuable as an indication of how Kabbalah was understood by Italian Jews in Pico's time, there is the book The Song of Solomon's Ascents, written in Hebrew 1488-1494 by Pico's friend and colleague Yohannan Alemanmo. Parts of it were translated into English as part of a 1976 Ph.D. dissertation by Arthur Lesley.

After Pico came Johann Reuchlin, who knew Pico and published a work developing further one of Pico's themes, that of the role of the Hebrew letter shin in completing the Tetragrammaton. Then in 1516 Gikatilla's Gates of Light was published in Augsburg, in an abridged translation by another of the Jewish converts who worked for Pico, Paolo Ricci. Ricci's translation influenced Reuchlin's second book, On the Art of Kabbalah. After him--although begun earlier--came Cornelius Agrippa, who included the Jewish magical tradition in his Three Books on Occult Philosophy, published 1530. After that I lose the thread, at least among Christian publications on Kabbalah, until Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptus in 1650-1652.

In Hebrew, of the works of importance here, the Zohar in Hebrew translation (from Aramaic) was printed in 1558 Mantua and Cremona (source: WorldCat). The Sefer Yetzirah was printed in two versions, the Short and the Long, plus commentaries, in 1562 Mantua. Other versions of the Sefer Yetzirah weren't published until 1680, according to its English translator Ariyeh Kaplan. The Bahir, according to Kaplan, had its first printed edition in 1650 Amsterdam. However WorldCat online shows a "Bahir" with the Zohar in Cremona, 1558 and a Latin translation, with a selection of the Zohar, by Guillaume Postel (the whole book amounts to 56 pages) as early as 1548 Venice. Moses Cordovero's Kabbalist works, written in Egypt or the land of Israel in the mid-16th century, were published in 1587 and 1597 Venice. Of these latter works, the one published in 1587 has been translated into English: the Or Ne'erav, meaning "The Pleasant Light" (in Ira Robinson, Moses Codovero's Introduction to Kabbalah: An Annotated Translation of His Or Ne'erav, 1994).

In this blog I will mostly be dealing with the works so far published that Pico, Reuchlin, or Agrippa knew. I will discuss Cordovero only once, in relation to "paths" between sefirot, so as to suggest a tradition that might also have been known to them but not articulated in the works so far translated. For the most part writers before Cordovero, as we shall see, were rather vague about where the paths were or even how many there were. The emphasis was on the sefiroth themselves, as will be mine.

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