(This post is a follow-up to my two-part series on “Kabbalah, the Zohar, and the Rose.”)
When you’re looking for enlightenment about Kabbalah, Bertrand Russell isn’t the first person you’d think of turning to.
The British philosopher and activist, whose long life spanned Queen Victoria’s reign at one end and the Vietnam War at the other, was for most of that life an outspoken and passionate opponent of religion. He was technically an agnostic, for all practical purposes an atheist. For the revealed religion of the Bible, Russell had mostly contempt. If he knew anything about Kabbalah, which I very much doubt, he’d have scorned it as obscurantist mumbo-jumbo, hazardous to the mind and heart of anyone taking it seriously. (Which in some measure it is.)
Yet in his chapter on the ancient philosopher Plotinus in A History of Western Philosophy, Russell makes some very thoughtful remarks which I think will apply to Kabbalah.
Before I read the chapter, I expected Russell to hate and mock Plotinus. This 3rd-century Neo-Platonist was the most mystical of philosophers. He perceived all reality as a manifestation of the One God; he sought unity with that One as a supremely religious experience. In his concept of how the multiplicity of existence is “emanated” from that essential divine unity, he sounds very Kabbalistic. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Kabbalah very Plotinus-like.
What could the staunch humanist Russell find to admire in such a thinker?
Plenty, it turns out.
“Like Spinoza, he has a certain kind of moral purity and loftiness, which is very impressive. He is always sincere, never shrill or censorious. … Whatever one may think of him as a theoretical philosopher, it is impossible not to love him as a man.”
“There is in the mysticism of Plotinus nothing morose or hostile to beauty. But he is the last religious teacher, for many centuries, of whom this can be said.”
“Superstition, in him, is as slight as was possible in that age.”
And here’s the passage that speaks to my own conflicted and ambivalent love for the Kabbalah:
“A philosophical system may be judged important for various different kinds of reasons. The first and most obvious is that we think it may be true. Not many students of philosophy at the present time would feel this about Plotinus. … But truth is not the only merit that a metaphysic can possess. It may have beauty, and this is certainly to be found in Plotinus; there are passages that remind one of the later cantos of Dante’s Paradiso, and of almost nothing else in literature. …
“Again, a philosophy may be important because it expresses well what men are prone to believe in certain moods or in certain circumstances. Uncomplicated joy and sorrow is not matter for philosophy, but rather for the simpler kinds of poetry and music. Only joy and sorrow accompanied by reflection on the universe generate metaphysical theories. A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist … Plotinus is an admirable example of the second. In an age such as that in which he lived, unhappiness is immediate and pressing, whereas happiness, if attainable at all, must be sought by reflection upon things that are remote from the impressions of sense. Such happiness has in it always an element of strain; it is very unlike the simple happiness of a child. And since it is not derived form the every-day world, but from thought and imagination, it demands a power of ignoring or despising the life of the senses. It is, therefore, not those who enjoy instinctive happiness who invent the kinds of metaphysical optimism that depend upon belief in the reality of a super-sensible world. Among the men who have been unhappy in a mundane sense, but resolutely determined to find a high happiness in the world of theory, Plotinus holds a very high place.”
As do the author(s) of the Zohar and the other classic texts of Kabbalah.
Which is why, I suppose, I come back to them again and again, my disapproval mixed with unending fascination.
by David Halperin
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