(This is a continuation of last week’s post.)
How many petals has a rose?
Thirteen, according to the Zohar, the great Kabbalistic classic of the Middle Ages. The number isn’t fortuitous, either. It’s part of a vast symbolic web that ties together the human body, the world of nature, the sacred words of Scripture and the equally sacred acts of Jewish ritual–all of them interlocking reflections of the hidden divine processes that underlie all reality.
The rose’s 13 petals correlate with the 13 words that intervene between the first and second occurrences of the divine name Elohim (“God”) in the Book of Genesis, both of these “13”s being visible representations of the “thirteen measures of mercy” surrounding the divine Feminine.
But … what if roses don’t have 13 petals?
Not to worry, says the 16th-century North African scholar Shimon Lavi, in his important Zohar commentary Ketem Paz:
“Pay no attention to those other roses that have more or less than this number … for the earth has gone whoring, defiled under its inhabitants who practice alien operations, grafting and combining the powers through their actions, combining and grafting one tree with another of a different species, and similarly with the vegetation of the earth, to the point that many of their fruits have gone whoring on account of the graftings and combinations that people have done. … And so nowadays there are roses that have many petals, without any fixed number. But our ancient sages [that is, the rabbis of the Zohar] knew the essence of the rose of which Solomon spoke [in the Song of Songs], which did not play the whore with her husband and which has 13 petals corresponding to the 13 measures of mercy … that are represented in this true rose.”
In other words, the “true rose”–the essential rose, the real rose–is the scholastic rose, the rose described in the holy books. The rose in your garden is an irrelevancy.
Worse than an irrelevancy. Your rose is a perversion, a “defilement,” nature corrupted by sinful human agency. (Lavi’s overheated language is taken from Biblical passages like Hosea 1:2, Jeremiah 3:1-2, and especially Isaiah 24:5: “The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof, because they have transgressed the laws, violated the statute, broken the everlasting covenant.”)
Lavi has a point. The roses that we know are the products of generations of cultivation and cross-breeding. The “natural” rose, the wild rose, has 5 petals, except for one species that has 4. Natural mutations, seized upon by gardeners, produced our stunning array of “semi-double” roses (9-16 petals), “double” roses (17-25), “full” roses (26-40), and “very full” roses (41+). (This information from the website of the Marin Rose Society.) So if you look hard enough, you’re bound to find a 13-petalled rose. Nothing special about it; nothing “essential”; nothing “truer” than any other rose.
So what? Who cares?
So plenty. We need to care. Because the Kabbalistic discounting of empirical reality, so brilliantly exemplified in Lavi’s comment on the “rose” passage with which the Zohar opens, makes scientific thought impossible. The Zohar’s “rose” is so gorgeously evocative that we’re inclined to give it a free pass on its flawed botany. But we can only do that as long as we know it’s not to be taken seriously as a description of the way the universe works. Move from aesthetic appreciation of the Kabbalah to trust in its truth claims, and there’s trouble ahead.
The Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment Solomon Maimon (1753-1800) learned this the hard way in his more or less innocent youth:
“I took home one book after another, and studied them till I believed that I had mastered the whole of the Kabbalah. … The preacher [a junior rabbi who was Maimon’s mentor in Kabbalistic studies] boasted, not publicly indeed, but freely in private, that he was … able to make himself invisible.
“For this trick I was especially eager, so that I might play practical jokes on my comrades with impunity. … I begged the preacher to impart the secret to me. I pretended that my object was merely to do good and guard against evil. The preacher consented, but at the same time said that certain preparations on my part were required. Three days in succession I was to fast, and each day to recite sundry Yihudim. These are Kabbalistic forms of prayer, whose occult meaning aims at producing in the intellectual world sexual unions by means of which certain results are to be brought about in the physical.
“I performed the prescriptions cheerfully, made the conjuration which the preacher had taught me, and believed with all confidence that I was now invisible. At once I hurried to the Bet Hamidrash, the Jewish academy, went up to one of my comrades, and gave him a vigorous box on the ear. He was not indolent, and returned the blow with interest. I started back in astonishment; I could not understand how he had been able to discover me, as I had observed the instructions of the preacher with the utmost accuracy. …
“Thereupon I went to the preacher, and informed him of my want of success. Unblushing he replied quite boldly: ‘If you have observed all my instructions I cannot explain this otherwise than by supposing that you are unfit for being thus divested of the visibility of your body.’ Sorrowfully I was obliged to give up entirely the hope of making myself invisible.” (From Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography.)
The rose has more or fewer than 13 petals–blame it on the sinfulness of the rose. The invisibility experiment fails–blame it on the unworthiness of the experimenter.
If Western civilization had lived by such principles, I’d be writing these words with a quill pen by the light of a tallow candle.
(On the other hand, there wouldn’t be any global warming, nuclear weapons would be unheard of, and ISIS would have to spread its messages without the help of the social media. There’s always an “other hand.”)
The Kabbalah’s wrongheaded ontology and epistemology have had vastly graver consequences than Solomon Maimon’s bruised ears. For example:
The subordination of women. It’s one of Kabbalah’s beauties that it finds a place for the Female within the Divinity–as in the “rose” passage. Trouble is, that place is firmly subordinated to that of the Male. All the traditional devaluing of women that’s plagued Judaism since antiquity is thereby made fixed, unchangeable. After all, it’s rooted in the nature of reality.
The demonization of the outsider–namely, everyone and everything that isn’t Jewish. The realm of the Demonic (Sitra Ahra, literally, “the Other Side”) is a prominent feature of the Kabbalah. A lot of what the Zohar says about the Sitra Ahra makes shuddery good reading, especially around Halloween time. But that’s provided it’s not taken seriously. Really believe it, and you’ll find yourself doing what the Kabbalah does: rooting the sphere of Judaism in the Divine, everything outside it in the Demonic. Which is not exactly good for human relationships.
The sacralization of sex. This is a bad thing? It’s quite lovely, how the Zohar’s author(s) intuited that sexual ecstasy is the closest most of us get to transcendence. The sexual act becomes something divine, a replication of the sacred orgasms by which the cosmos is sustained.
But when an ordinary human act is sacralized in this way, there’s a consequence. “Proper” sex–a man ejaculating his sperm into a woman–nourishes the cosmic spheres, brings the divine Male and Female into harmony. The “wasteful emission of semen” does the exact opposite, invites the Sitra Ahra in where the divine should be. Masturbation thus becomes a crime against the universe, a sin worse than murder, “the only sin in the world for which there is no repentance.” (Quoted in Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 3, p. 1366.)
Which is, to put it bluntly, nuts. And not an amusing kind of nuttiness.
So in what way can we appreciate Kabbalah, even learn from it, without allowing ourselves to be damaged by it?
I’ve come across some enlightenment on this issue from an unexpected source–Bertrand Russell. I’ll talk about it next week.
[P.S. Rod Borghese, to whom I owe the rose photos that appear with this post, played a central role in the creation of the “daily page of the Zohar” Facebook study group, which I didn’t realize when I wrote last week’s post. I’ve updated the post accordingly.]
by David Halperin
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