I have great antipathy for The Kabbalah Centre and its commercial exploitation of Jewish mysticism. I have great antipathy for the New Age/Wellness Industry as a whole. But the founder of the Kabbalah Centre, Philip S. Berg, was a Jewish scholar and rabbi albeit now a very controversial one. At least one of his books, Kabbalah For The Layman Volume I used to be in my collection and I’m sure I read others. I would say that the Kabbalah Centre, while not culturally appropriative (since the Bergs are Jewish), it isn’t very respectful towards conventional Jewish mysticism.
Jack Chanek (@jack_of_wands) tweeted the other day that he is taking a lot of community backlash over the title and premise of his debut book with the working title of Qabalah For Wiccans. I immediately watched in YouTube video on Qabalah, Wicca, and Appropriation. My empathy for him immediately switched on. I’m not going to cover the same ground as he does but I do not put his book in the same category as merchandise from the Kabbalah Centre. Not at all. Watch that 16 minute video and then read my thoughts about the topics it raises below. In no way do I view Jack’s future book as belonging in the same category as the Kabbalah Centre. It is something that definitely should be published and read by those interested in Qabalah, Wicca, or both.
Because of the easy confusion in topics, I specifically use Kabbalah to mean the closed Jewish mystical tradition, Cabala to mean the pre-Lévi closed Christian mystical tradition, and Qabalah to mean what started in the Lévi/Golden Dawn era and evolved from there into the open esoteric philosophical system it is now. I’m going to toss in a lot of links so anyone unfamiliar with certain names can get some quick reference.
Should non-Jewish occultists use the Hebrew alphabet in their occultism?
I have put a lot of thought into this since returning from my last hiatus. I recently, synchronistically, made the decision that in my personal magickal practice I would no longer use Hebrew alphabetic script (any of them) while drawing glyphs, sigils, or anything ceremonial and evocative. If I make my own tarot deck, Hebrew letters won’t be included there. I don’t chant in Hebrew and I refrain from uttering the Tetragrammaton by its actual Hebrew pronunciation out of respect to the belief it is too sacred to be uttered except under very specific religious situations.
Can I continue to be a Qabalist with these changes where respectfully retreat from Hebrew as a tool from my non-Judaic magickal/spiritual practices? Absolutely and easily. Qabalism is an underlying philosophy and cosmological/psychological paradigm, it isn’t the practice of ceremonial magick itself. You don’t have to be a ceremonial magician to be a Qabalist; you don’t have to have a Qabalistic worldview to be a ceremonial magician.
Should Gentiles Read Books of Jewish Mysticism?
I don’t consider it disrespectful to simply read and contemplate published works. My feeling is that once a sacred text has been published for public consumption, the reading of it doesn’t interlope on a closed practice. I think all non-hate-based sacred texts should be respected and appreciated for what they provide people of faith, even when it’s not your faith. Reading books written by mystics won’t by themselves provide you with your own mystical experience, however. At best, they might give you some insight into how to dedicate your life to having one. Reading comes from a place of Air/Swords/Intellect; Faith comes from a place of Fire/Wands/Belief.
What I can tell you from my long personal experience in reading sacred texts, including Kabbalistic ones? Reading the Zohar, the Bahir, the Sefer Yetzirah, or any text of Jewish mysticism without coming at it from decades of cultural and academic study within Judaism isn’t going to give you the right context to appreciate their nuances. Also? They’re really hard to read and understand. Books of Christian mysticism like those of John Scotus Eriugena and Hildegard of Bingen are just as hard. So is Aggripa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. To read texts these old and truly appreciate them, you need to know a lot of things about the authors and their life and times.
Do you need to read these sorts of texts to learn Qabalism or Qabalistic tarot? No. Absolutely not. As a beginner, you will want the kind of book that Jack has written. I’m out of the loop of what is currently in print and an ideal place to start.
Is Qabalah An Example Of Cultural Appropriation?
So, after doing a lot of research on what this term means to different people who are using it, I have decided to personally use the definition for cultural appropriation covered at VeryWellMind. I have a lot of respect for VeryWellMind as a website.
Therefore, in my current lexicon? “Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.”
Therefore no, the philosophy of Qabalism in Western Occultism is not cultural appropriation. It is really important as a modern person to realize that while Qabalism is about 150 years if we date it beginning as a philosophy with Éliphas Lévi and the publication of Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1864 and 1856, what he based his system off of wasn’t directly the works of, for example, Saadia Gaon, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman and Isaac Luria. In my opinion, what Levi began to publish and bring into public view was Christian Cabala. He didn’t create Christian cabala, he just created his own magickal system and philosophy that introduced tarot as a definitive magickal tool. Then he published his work and it went viral. Tarot was transformed into something new as part of that.
Cabala originated hundreds of years before during the Renaissance. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is attributed with being the founder of Christian Cabalistic philosophy. Mirandola appears to have respected the Kabbalists whose work he studied- among the copious other things he studied-, gave credit to his sources and did not reinforce Jewish stereotypes or encourage/contribute to their oppression to the best of my knowledge.
I am very sure that a better historian than myself can articulate the multiple ways that the Jewish and Islamic peoples of Europe were victims of systemic racism in the late 1400s and 1500s by the White Christians of Europe. But my personal research spanning from the life of Mirandola to Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784) suggests that cabalists were typically more inclusive, open-minded, and devoted to hate-free spiritualism than less esoteric Christians in the same era.
What About The Tree of Life glyph?
So. The Tree of Life as a concept was borrowed by early Judaism from Assyrian mythology; a lot of things were. Judaic law, philosophy, tradition, ritual, myth, and literature evolved and included a lot of cultural assimilation and also a lot of diversity of religious practices between sects. Very few people of the Jewish faith traditions were ever exposed to esoteric Judaism until recently. Kabbalah is actually only one flavor of Jewish mysticism but it is the best recognized by name just as the Tree of Life is so widely presented now its almost mainstream.
Esoteric Judaism played around with all kinds of Tree of Life diagrams and how to apply the concepts of the Sefer Yetrizah and other Kabbalistic writings to them. Different Kabbalists presented it all in different formats. They played with it as a conceptual framework.
The specific Tree of Life glyph that is now the convention for all forms of QBL? That is not Kabbalistic in origin. It is Cabalistic in origin. It is now generally attributed to German-born Catholic humanist Johann Reuchlin for the Latin translation of the Sha’are Orah (The Gates of Light) in 1516 and then borrowed and expanded upon much later by the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher as an engraving in Oedipus Aegyptiacus in 1652.
So you are not stealing directly from Kabbalah to use it. If using Hebrew letters for pathworking feels appropriative? Don’t use them. Substitute something like the Major Arcana or the astrological planets, signs, and modalities instead and don’t do it in a way that links to the Hebrew alphabet at all.
How Could Qabalah Be Useful To Wiccans?
Qabalah is a philosophical framework that can be integrated into any spiritual or magickal practice. The modern authors of the Qabalah (most of the books on that table are from modern Qabalistic authors) have made that extremely clear. It is inclusive, it has no inherent racism, bigotry, sexism (even if there were/are plenty of racist, bigoted, sexist occultists). There are plenty of authors and books on the Qabalah that I disagree with; I’ve shaped my own Qabalistic paradigm but I had to spend a lot of time in contemplation about other people’s personal truths in order to develop my own.
I self-initiated into Wicca at age 14 (back in 1983, three years before Wicca was recognized as a religion in the United States) and was a voracious reader of Wicca, historical witchcraft, and folklore from 1983 to 1990. Trying to read tarot books during those years by folks like A.E Waite and Aleister Crowley failed miserably because I didn’t have the context for what they were talking about. That came in 1990-2000, post-Wicca.
Wicca taught me to love myself, humanity, the living planet and deities plural. It taught me how to be a magickal girl and then a magickal woman, unashamed of her sexuality and beliefs in spirits great and small. It didn’t provide me the appreciation for the psychology of spirituality and magic that I picked up from the places that Golden Dawn-style occultism took me next. It didn’t introduce me to the metaphors of alchemy, the power of the laws written into the Kybalion or the powerful message of tikkun olam as a metaphorical mandate for all human beings to take personal responsibility for making the world better by being better.
If you like what Isaac Bonewits had to say in Real Magic? You will like Qabalah as a philosophical system. And if you haven’t ever read Real Magic? Go do that. Isaac Bonewits was not only brilliant but he had the same eclectic background like mine in all flavors of occultism and neo-paganism and brought the wisdom of the many paths into one in a very understandable way.
So in closing, I hope this was a helpful and interesting read. I truly think adopting at least some Qabalistic principles into a Wicca-based practice could bring a lot of insight and some new tools for self-empowerment and emotional resilience. I would say the same about Qabalah and any faith tradition.
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