Masonry and Kabbalah
The Impetus for the Grand Lodge of 1717:
the Anti-Apocalyptic “Masonic University” of Kabbalah
By Peter Paul Fuchs, 32º
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth…. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth and he is to that extent respectful of it. When the honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true, and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable to be false.”
--Harry G. Frankfurt[i]
The reasons behind any great event in history cannot be summed up in scholarly litany, and this seems especially true of the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge in 1717. Recent scholarship has dwelled heavily on the Enlightenment presuppositions of the Lodge, and one would imperil one’s good sense to contradict that. But elements of contemporary culture, some of which touch on the spiritual themes of the Lodge have led current scholarship into what might be called a misunderstanding. This is especially true of the vast subject of Kabbalah and its relationship to the development of Masonic ritual. William Preston was so impressed with Kabbalistic themes that he has been appraised as conceiving the Lodge as a “Masonic University” of the “Cabala.”[ii]. Let us note that this puts the accent on the fact that the Lodge has something teach, and at a level of quite high, refined discernment. When we consider the considerable influence of Kabbalah on the rituals of the Lodge we are forced to look critically as well as appreciatively at Jewish esoteric and mystical praxis. From our vantage point today we quickly see that the matter of pseudoepigraphical construction of most of the sources of Kabbalah is an issue for us now, and would not have been for those founding the Lodge. It is in this simple fact that our investigation must begin.
The fact that many of the chief works of Kabbalah, including the central one the Zohar, were only much later discovered to be medieval creations, changes the whole frame of the inquiry about the influence of it on early founders of the Lodge. We should be careful not to confuse this with whatever pseudoepigraphical trends there were in Freemasonry. It was only in the late Nineteenth Century that Masonry’s Authentic school of scholarship began to take a critical look at its sources. The fact that it shares a pseudoepigraphical ethos to some extent is not necessarily the meeting point between the two phenomena. This is because the reasons behind it are quite different.
The fact that to some extent Deists were involved with the Lodge engendered a great deal of confusion. Critical history shows that the Lodge was never thoroughly Deistic in any way. More to the point, though, it has been suggested that even when Masons proclaimed themselves Christians, they were taking part in a broader trend of Deistic “theological lying.”[iii] We do not need to accept that this was the case, but still we can see a theme developed. If members of the Lodge were sincere both in their personal belief and in their desire to grant the same to others who might believe a different creed, then how would they stay clear of such putative Deistic deception. More to the point, if the phenomenon of Kabbalah inexorably involves a historical layer of deception as to sources, and the possibility of combustion with other uncritical elements, then how did an organization which “acts by the plumb” react to it?
Does this involve Freemasonry in an insoluble contradiction implied by the idea of “theological lying”? Could the legendary textual cunning of Kabbalah be construed as a bad influence? Freemasonry was a phenomenon that admitted Jews, allowed for freedom of thought, and was involved in rituals rumored to be connected to esoteric sources, seemingly outside orthodox parameters. So the question can only be posed in broad intellectual terms. The pseudoepigraphical impulse in the Lodge could be construed historically as a pressure-reliever from the stress of Enlightenment skepticism. In other words, it was a way of protecting the possibility of normative orthodox belief for those who wished it in the Lodge. But this also meant that the Lodge protected a variety of orthodox beliefs that necessitated a de facto freedom of belief. This is a far cry from the skeptical undermining that Anti-Masons assume to be the Lodge’s reason its principled lack of creedal specificity. Of course, Ockham’s Razor suggests another reason for pseudoepigraphy may have been a genuine lack of critical scholarly skills by contemporary standards. But to the extent that creative fantasy was used in reference to Freemasonry’s beginnings, we are justified in connecting some of it with the need in fact to protect the possibility of normal belief in the context of creedal freedom.
This could not contrast more strikingly to the distant pseudoepigraphy of the Kabbalists. As Gershom Scholem has trenchantly asserted, “Kabbalistic thinking went astonishingly far without becoming heretical.”[iv] This statement from Scholem, coming rather late in his own scholarly trajectory, truly is astonishing. It astonishes that such fecund fantasy from long ago could, even in its prolific deceptions, still remained close to normative orthodox belief in intent. By contrast, Freemasonry used, from the start, an idea that by some lights would be considered non-normative and potentially heretical. That is freedom of belief. By our contemporary standards the idea that a society ought to allow freedom of belief and simultaneously room for belief in orthodox doctrines does not seem heretically contradictory. It is the foundation of religious pluralism in modern societies, and much beholden to the Craft for the same. But we miss any insight if we do not notice that in 1717 it would have been considered quite otherwise.
Thus the question on their relation must be posed something like this: How did an orthodox, restrictive pseudoepigraphical discipline come to influence an endeavor like Freemasonry which was dedicated to unrestricted freedom of belief and therefore by contemporaneous standards at least potentially heretical? This comes with the caveat that those in the Lodge had no intrinsic reason to consider themselves heretical. And we should also pose the question with the sure knowledge that the pseudoepigraphy per se was not widely known at the time, but may have been discerned generally by common-sense means. We can also pose this question with historical objectivity with the sure knowledge that early Masons were not necessarily heretics in the terms of their day, unless of course they wanted to be.
I propose that this informed question can be answered by investigating the levels of Kabbalistic thought which bear on a social organization like Freemasonry. In other words, to the extent that Kabbalah represents a theosophical discipline of Jewish religious thought per se it cannot by definition have influenced Freemasonry. Theosophy which treats the inner workings of the Deity cannot have had a real bearing on an activity which takes no position on the Deity except as a “regulative” matter.[v] By contrast those aspects of Kabbalistic thought which were informed by an interaction with contemporaneous religious culture more broadly could conceivably have been influential, and substantially so. Also those aspects of the practice which themselves became symbolized by practitioners are quite probably the royal road for influence, the Sefiroth[vi] chief amongst them.
An interesting place to start this is with an insight from a Masonic Brother, that international polymath of mystery Manly Hall. Hall may not be the most up-to-date or critical source on this matter but he homed in on a crucial point. He notes that the similarity of the first Sefirotic triad was believed to have been too near conceptually to the Christian Trinity, and therefore was altered.[vii] The exact nature of the alteration is not germane to this argument, or whether it ultimately holds in the complexities of exact intellectual evolution. What matters is that Kabbalah is a corpus of thought that is socially or culturally responsive. More specifically, that for posterity the notion of such alteration could provide a moment of interface with the larger Christian culture. By the way, we might note in passing that Gershom Scholem has noted a number of other such incidents of Kabbalists altering matters in connection with Christian concepts, including the development of the notion of Shekinah in response to Marian devotion.[viii] The important point is the obvious one. Though Kabbalistic thought may have been a recondite, esoteric matter it was not utterly so, and thus conceptually capable of connection with other phenomena.
The significance of this for Freemasonry lies in the nature of images and symbols. Arthur Green in his magnificent guide to the chief Kabbalistic work has asserted that “the Zohar may be seen as the greatest work of medieval Jewish iconography…”[ix] This remarkable statement potentially alters our whole frame of reference for this subject. Green does not give examples to demonstrate this contention, perhaps because it is really quite obvious from the text. Indeed, one of the most visual of the Psalms “I lift up my eyes to the mountains” proves Green’s insight well, especially since mountainous elements are one the basic visual symbols of power in many cultures. The mountains are seen in the Zohar as visible symbols of part of the Sefirot, which really makes for a powerful bit of iconography.[x] Unfortunately, Green also connects his insight with the now discredited notion of Jewish aniconic tropes.[xi] But even if we make room for this limited misunderstanding, still the notion holds broadly as an excellent insight, I think. Even though Jewish visual arts are more plentiful and important than previously have been credited, still the Second Commandment had some effect. It pushed at least some of the visual needs to be fulfilled by words, and words in elaborate literary or numerical combinations. Scholem has repeatedly made an analogous point by emphasizing the historical distinction between Kabbalistic thought which is often representational and Jewish philosophy which is rationally discursive or logical. In other words, Kabbalists used words as pictures and made assertions about mysteries of words or numbers the way an artist would. This changes our expectations from this field as a whole and how it might have touched Freemasonry. No one would deny the ability of a visual artist to convey the experience of mystery, and in this same way it should not be denied these serious fantasists of the Talmud.
One hardly needs to say that this is not the only way to look at Kabbalah as a whole. But in terms of Freemasonry it clearly seems to be the most profitable and responsive to close analysis.[xii] While the Sefiroth supplies striking evidence of the connection, as MacNulty brilliantly has made clear, there is perhaps another level which expands on that profound insight. If we consider part of Freemasonry’s desiderata to have been the folding -in of at least some occult notions generally into a stable symbolic framework, then we should have a wider perspective. This wider perspective might be suggested by the broader framework of cultural thought as it is related to changing notions of reality and rationality. In this regard it is important to note that Scholem himself has said, the development of the Sefiroth was beholden to medieval planetary cosmology.[xiii] In addition, a very elegant and dense analyst of changing cosmological notions, historian Remi Brague has connected attempts to magically influence the astronomical heavens with Kabbalah:
“Through influences the world calls on man, as if magnetically, to allow himself to be infused by it. One must still proceed to making a prudent distinction between good influences from on high and supposedly evil influences. In any case, it is the superior that influences the inferior. Man can in no way modify the order of the celestial phenomena. Again in the fifteenth century, for an Aristotelian (and even an Averroist), the claims of the Kabbalists to “repair (tiqqun)” divine realities through practices analogous to magic was scandalous, to the point that he had to reassert that the influence could only be exercised in a single direction….”[xiv]
With the notion that Kabbalistic thought can be seen as iconographic, we can see the historical character of this scandalous tendency in a different light. To say the obvious, the idea that man can heal the Divine in some way would hardly comport with much of developing Protestant notions of human depravity. But if we allow ourselves to consider that the Lodge may have initially been drawn to Kabbalah because of a notion like this we get a different sense of things in relation to its development in starting in 1717 in a Protestant realm. In fact this issue helps us understand a whole welter of thorny issues relating to the initial development of the Lodge and religion.
It has largely been assumed that the criticism leveled at the Lodge that it was a realm of arrogant attempts at human perfectibility had to do with Enlightenment matters. In an orthodox Christian framework the notion that men could morally improve in a secret environment largely seemed to outsiders as a bizarre excrescence of arrogance in line with the atheistic philosophes.
But there is nothing to stop us from turning this around. We can see the well-established idea that Kabbalah did influence the Premiere Grand Lodge in some way as having to do with not just ready-made symbols like the Sefiroth, but with a more profound, if scandalous and potentially heretical, notion like the human healing the Divine (tiqqun). This goes much farther than Enlightenment notions of human perfectibility. And obviously just as it conflicts with Protestant notions of human depravity, it also conflicts with empirical notions of psychological limitations current in the Enlightenment.
So we have to ask, in what form could a group of Christians mostly, and men of the Enlightenment as well –for that was who mostly filled the Lodge – have symbolized such a radical notion in its rituals? To answer this question we have to conceptually grant to Freemasonry what has been tacitly granted all others fields of conceptual analysis. This writer feels very strongly that Freemasonry has been denied the right to have its long-range use of outside ideas seen as precisely that, long-range. Perhaps because the tenets of Anti-Masonry have been accepted, even by some scholars, Freemasonry’s use of ideas has been limited to mostly fairly limited, immediate impacts. This becomes clear if we compare this matter to how the effects of Neo-Platonism on orthodox Christianity have been analyzed. There are many particularities of Neo-Platonic writers that would be an utter scandal in terms of orthodox Christianity. Yet Neo-Platonism has been seen as highly influential on Christianity and mostly rather uncontroversially so, due to a long-range analytical view.
This is because the influence is a broadly fanned matter, both conceptually and in terms of the passage of time. But clearly the conceptual frame is the most critical. So similarly we should appropriate the same right for our analysis. We are not prohibited from addressing the curious equilibrium needed to appropriate Kabbalah’s radicality in a Lodge full of really rather orthodox Christians and men of the Enlightenment in the early Eighteenth Century. Practically this means the following. This Kabbalistic notion that humans can heal the Divine can be conceptually fanned so that it is useful in a different direction.
If we picture the notion, or use it iconographically, we can put it in slow motion in terms of the evolution of image.[xv] Significantly this seems to connect with an important development in art history. In fact, the work of William Hogarth, a famous Freemason of this period, and his elaboration of a “device of pictorial sequence” to comment on virtue and vice is a strong contemporaneous support for this notion. This was a multi-faceted process connected with the “epistemological virtues of images” which means that it treated philosophical and potentially theological conceptions as well as burgeoning notions of science.[xvi] This strong epistemological force used to sequentially convey tales of increasing virtue, or its opposite, can be seen as Hogarth’s very Masonic vision. Hogarth’s sequential device could be a concrete cultural example of how Tiqqun was used in the Lodge as the movement in healing of the Divine by healing a Brother’s virtue, and thereby society as well. This is because virtue in Masonry is not a static or simply metaphysical (ultimately theosophic) matter. It involves, as does Hogarth’s work does, a “kinetic intricacy”. Like Hogarth’s works, Tiqqun in Lodge similarly is meant to be “read kinetically from part to part”[xvii] There is no doubt that such a great artist would be capable of subtle layers of meaning, and he may be taken as representative of an ability more generally amongst the Lodge in its early years. I believe that the foremost scholar of Hogarth’s Masonry, Marie Mulvey-Roberts, utterly confirms this ability when she observes that, “Hogarth was able to communicate with fellow -Masons by incorporating within his art secret codes and signals taken from craft rituals and myth which would be intelligible to the initiated.”[xviii]
The example of Hogarth’s sequential pictorial device for teaching virtue and its Masonic-Kabbalistic connections is important on a number of levels for this period of Masonic history. It affirms that the Lodge had for its members a general functional philosophy that could be useful practically in various directions, as Hogarth put it to use in his art. It also had a particular embodiment in the Lodge’s rituals of course. But for reasons not altogether clear, this intellectual intuition about the Freemasonry’s functional philosophy tends to be given short shrift by way of a number of scholarly presuppositions. Thence it is scattered to the winds of cultural effluvia. I believe that the case of Hogarth shows these to be peremptory and ideological. In terms of Hogarth it is preempted by imputation of anti-semitism[xix], but it could just as well be another admonition. For other figures, or the Lodge generally it is imputed to charges of intemperance or immorality in the Lodge. The cumulative effect of all these putative foibles would seem to cast doubt on this as an unreliable mode of analysis given that common-sense dictates that human faults or peccadilloes are universally recognized to be evenly distributed in the general population in all periods.
The greatness of Hogarth as an artist makes the pettiness of the questions seem all the more clear. In the second section, some of the Masonic caution towards Jewish tropes in the Lodge will be examined in another light. It is not the investigation of personal merits or demerits that is lamentable per se. Rather it is lamentable that the investigation into the general thrust of the philosophy gets preempted by biographical details. To wit, the personal shortcomings of individual Christians from the period hardly get such focused attention. And they certainly do not preempt discussions of Christian philosophy per se generally of the period with regressive personal details. So why should Freemasonry receive this approach? This relates to a far larger issue of purely ideological pre-judgment of Masonry which the Hogarth case makes oddly clear, because he was himself such a vibrant social critic, even of Masonry itself. At this point I want to suggest that modern sensitivities, which may well be justified in some larger sense, also unfortunately serve to preclude some basic sense of kinship which earlier commentators observed in Hogarth,. This makes it clear that we need a wider cultural perspective. It shows that ideological analysis obscures badly obvious and important connections. Nothing shows this better than learned commentary from the past on the subject at hand, compared with more recent ideological digressions. For instance, a very early compendium of Hogarth’s engravings (1809), with commentaries, adjusts our view by its striking insight into the Jewish topic. In his famous engraving “Inhabitants of the Moon, or Royalty, Episcopacy and Law” the ultimate symbol of the Christian Church’s authority, the Bishop, has his head replaced by a Jew’s Harp. Modern commentators are drawn to iconographic minutiae in interpreting this striking image, and thus they diffuse its symbolic power. This also diffuses how it might help us relate this to other symbolic tendencies, Masonic or otherwise. By contrast, the Rev. John Trusler, in this early compendium tells us the following, and we should notice the difference:
“The satire on Episcopacy is still more strongly pointed. The face of the Bishop is formed by a Jew’s harp which may probably allude to his religious tenets having risen out of the doctrines of Judaism.”[xx] [italics added]
The mutuality of images is highly Masonic in its deepest sense and intent. It speaks to the humane view of religion in the Craft. This early compendium, written not long after Hogarth’s death correctly gauges the profound sense of respect to the ideas and culture of Judaism that is central to Masonic history, and so to Hogarth. That it is exists in a body of work that has a variety of images satirizing stereotypes, which of course Hogarth did to Masons as well, should not keep us ideologically from discerning the deeper Masonic point of view.
So Hogarth becomes a lively example of a dynamic, real-world tendency in the Lodge. It then could mean that through the practicing and encouraging of virtue, members of this esoteric world –the Grand Lodge – could cumulatively change themselves, society, and Divine otherness experienced in one’s Brother, by that same improvement of virtue. Put in this larger Masonic framework, a strange mystical notion, tiqqun, becomes quite similar to notions of human improvement current at the time, but in a more radical way. It also leaves open a possibility of greater psychological transformation than would have been possible with purely Enlightenment conceptions. Further, it puts the accent on communal uplift and virtuous conviviality in a way that would not necessarily conflict with notions of human fallenness which might have been maintained by orthodox believers in the Lodge. This is because it is spread out iconographically, and symbolically in the Lodge. Note also that such a special Masonic-Kabbalistic notion would in fact conflict less with such orthodox Christian notions than the strictly Enlightenment notions of perfectibility which were based mostly on empirical systems of thought with strong ties to disbelief. Thus in a sense, Kabbalah can be seen as coming to the rescue for those orthodox believers in the Lodge who still wanted to seek improvement. Even if it was invented by Jews!
This example highlights the fact that there are two difficulties in making this matter clear. First the complex and historically evolved notion of symbolism within Kabbalah. Second, the very specialized notion of symbolism within the Lodge. In terms of their requirements the two could not be more different. On the one hand, “the affinity of Kabbalah to Platonic thought was …recognized by both the medieval and the Renaissance authors interested in Kabbalah or in its critique; modern scholarship has only elaborated, deepened, or explicated their findings”[xxi] In the broad sweep of historical analysis, this puts Kabbalah in a category of pre-Enlightenment thought generally. On the hand, we have Freemasonry with its indubitable Enlightenment cast, whatever its other influences.
We know from the cultural history of the Enlightenment era that a certain amount of exoticism was fashionable. We must have some sense that Freemasonry’s use of Kabbalah was a thoroughgoing matter and not just a fashionable Enlightenment dalliance with the Exotic akin to chinoiserie or Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, lovely as both are, or maybe at least one of them. Thus though the nature of symbolism individually for Kabbalah or the Craft is a vast matter, we must delve into the varying uses or philosophy of symbolism for both to see how they relate.
Kabbalah has a very vexed relationship to symbolism, and Freemasonry much less so because of its Enlightenment origins. In the Enlightenment, generally speaking, the question of meaning was reduced to more empirical considerations, or sentimental literary extrapolations therefrom. Aspects outside this often triggered projections of exoticism during the Enlightenment period. Kabbalah’s unembarrassed symbolic profusion in all directions, from light to dark, represents a pre-Enlightenment mode of expression. In this lies the rub. It is important to see that this does not mean Kabbalah necessarily had mostly regressive tendencies even by Enlightenment standards. In fact Zoharic understanding seemed to include the sense that invocation of the Sefirot per se was an invocation of compassion. This is amenable to more humane Enlightenment conceptualization. “You are my King, O God, -- totality of all rungs as one with another…be from the side of compassion, not from the side of judgment”[xxii] In a preliminary sense this might speak to how the Sefirot – the “rungs -- were useful to a fraternal organization where compassion for one’s Brother was paramount. Thus a metaphysical schema in the Zoharic context had a potentially interpersonal symbolic usefulness. But this required an interpersonal sense, and not a magical one. Moshe Idel has provided an invigorating summary of sorts of the broad issues involved for Kabbalah that might help clarify the matter:
“I should like to propose a tentative explanation for the distribution of the interest in symbolism between the theosophical Kabbalah, on the one hand, and ecstatic Kabbalah….on the other hand. Symbolism becomes prominent whenever an attempt is made to explain external reality: God, evil, the nature of the Torah, of history, or of the cosmos in general. The focus of religious meaning is found in relatively objective entities and processes, and this meaning as such is shared by a certain segment of the religious community. The symbolic recasting of external reality allowed the emergence of …”a transindividual unity of experience”. No wonder the Zohar, the most important source of “objective symbolism” also became a canonical work: it established an additional level of experience, shared by many individuals qua part of a religious community. This is the key for the revitalization of Jewish spirituality achieved by the dissemination of the Zohar in its various interpretations.”[xxiii]
Idel goes on to make clear that the magical-ecstatic form of symbolism in Kabbalah was “more interested in what an individual does with his own solitariness”[xxiv] Idel’s devastatingly clear hermeneutics here shows something incredibly wistful for past and even current scholarship on Freemasonry. All the manifold uses of this magical form of Kabbalah made by scholars by forcing their extended explanations on the Craft have been perhaps beside the point for Freemasonry, even if interesting in themselves. For a Fraternal organization is by definition not interested in “what an individual does with his own solitariness”. This process may have involved a complex interaction with theosophical notions not immediately applicable to Freemasonry, but this was a breach that could be bridged by social symbols and means. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, the misunderstandings others have projected on Albert Pike’s work shows this very clearly as an informative example. As Arturo De Hoyos has written, “Pike wanted to clearly distinguish Freemasonry from common “occult” interests of his day.” [xxv] Certainly some of the Kabbalistic symbols that Pike used were misunderstood in terms of the Craft. Thus, the misunderstanding of Pike’s intent should serve as a cautionary example for our analysis, because few people have been more concerned with the “transindividual unity of experience” than Albert Pike.
Thus to the extent that Kabbalah represents a magical system of symbolic representation–and this is indeed how it was often taken – the very solipsism of the endeavor makes it of little use to Freemasonry. But Idel’s sharp distinction helps us see the direction in which there could have been a profound influence. Having seen the difference between the two, we must ask where they meet. Fortunately Idel provides a tremendous potential insight on this matter in a discussion on “Symbolism and Philosophy” which naturally involves the most famous theorist of Kabbalah:
“Gershom Scholem proposed a Goethean definition of symbolism as an adequate one for Kabbalistic symbols, although as far as I know, this fact was not acknowledged by Scholem himself. The gist of this approach is the drawing of the distinction between symbol and allegory; for Scholem, the former is ‘a form of expression which radically transcends the sphere of allegory.’ As a result the philosopher using allegory and the Kabbalist using symbolic expression can metamorphose the same biblical material in order to point to different levels of reality. Again, according to Scholem, philosophical allegory ‘can be defined as the representation of an expressible something by another expressible something,’ whereas ‘the mystical symbol is an expressible representation of something which lies beyond the sphere of expression and communication.’ This [Goethean] approach presupposes an expressible layer of reality depicted in allegory and another, inexpressible level found in symbolism.”[xxvi]
The fact that Idel goes on to try to show the ultimate limitations of Scholem’s analysis for the vast issue of Kabbalistic interpretation should not concern us. For our specific focus this distinction, in its excellent hermeneutical insight, is very appropriate and holds as historically accurate. We should note that this “Goethean” approach has a strong resemblance to Freemasonry. Thus Kabbalah has an intrinsic element that can connect with Enlightenment thought. When we recall that Goethe was one of the most famous Freemasons of his day, we might also conjecture that this approach came from the influence of Freemasonry on the sage of Weimar. We then have a useful rubric by which to make our way through this complex subject.
The approach of Freemasonry is indeed to create a symbol for a reality that might per se be inexpressible. But his is not a symbol just to be used in “solitariness”, as we have seen before. It is also not a philosophical symbol or argument. It is not involved with the extended allegorization that might take place as a philosopher seeks to make a philosophical term jibe with a text. Freemasonry contains no criticism of these approaches per se since its notion of the Deity is regulative, and not prescriptive. It is simply not concerned with such matters, and has a right not to be. In other words this principled unconcern on these matters has every right to be accepted as a contribution to cultural history as a status of thought. What this means practically is that though these allegorical aspects of Kabbalah are fascinating and may have fascinated individual Freemasons in their own “solitariness”, when it comes to the Craft itself they must be seen as extremely attenuated in their relevance.
There is a potential intersection of ideas here that may help us clarify a very varied panoply of uses. We should keep in mind Arthur Green’s notion that the Zohar can be seen as a great work of Jewish iconography and MacNulty’s insight that the iconography of the Sefiroth is important for the schemata of the rituals of the Lodge. Let us recall further Goethe, the famous Masonic Brother who above all felt more strongly about his theory of colors than anything else[xxvii], and thus we can read Moshe Idel’s words with heightened interest:
“I should like to elaborate here upon a far more complex technique that was part of Kabbalistic prayer ---namely, the enactment of kavanah [devotion] through the visualization of colors as part of traditional prayer…According to R. David, any attempt to visualize the Sefiroth themselves is forbidden; instead, we must visualize their colors. For this reason, the focus of human activity during Kabbalistic prayer was not upon the sefirotic domain but rather upon the realm of colors produced by the creative imagination of the Kabbalists.”[xxviii]
This very curious and, I think, charming technique of prayer should only serve to heighten our sense that great understanding may be gained in viewing the whole matter iconographically. Goethe’s theory of colors may seem a far off, and now discredited theory asserting immediate intuition against Newtonian analysis.[xxix] But Goethe the Freemason I believe had several ideas which he may have gleaned from Masonic theory and praxis . Since the amount of contemporaneous exploration of Masonry’s symbolic theory from that time is not prolific, I think we are justified in looking to somewhat off-center for help from Goethe, as by the way Idel asserts Scholem did. To help us understand this better a recent book crisply titled Goethe Contra Newton makes the point about his theory of the Farbenlehre:
“The poet-artist thinks that ideas must be immediate rather than abstract, and just as a work of art must not be subjected to any rending analysis that destroys, neither should nature be rent by torturing experiment and abstraction. [The color] white is a simple sensation, regardless of what the scientist [Newton] does with his prism, so white cannot possibly be a composite…Goethe the poet par excellence, was unable to grasp precisely that abstract concepts are necessary to all real science.”[xxx]
The final judgment may be correct, and may speak to Goethe’s limitations. But for our purposes his theory represents an occasion to glean some insight about Freemasonry’s use of visual signifiers generally in relation to symbolism. Many aspects of the Lodge embody tropes of the scientific revolution of the Eighteenth Century. But there is another level which has historically been hard to clarify and which accounts for much of the love devoted to the Lodge. It speaks to the sense of immediacy in the symbolic richness of the Lodge ritual that seems to bolster the experience of Brotherhood. We do not need to accept Goethe’s arcane theory if we do accept that the sense of immediacy against torturing abstraction might be a clue to Freemasonry’s approach to things. This especially might be true since he developed the theory not long after the period of our consideration in this paper. Surely, the fact that Goethe thought of it as a scientific theory is also not a small matter. The fact is that because of the secrecy of the Lodge some aspects of contemporaneous theory were not made explicit and may never be known. Thus the archaeology of ideas is important.
Just as the Sefiroth was not to be visualized directly but in its colors, something similar might be at hand in the Lodge’s appropriation of Kabbalah in general. The accent would have been on what might seem at first as a blunt presentation of a rather complex theory. This might be especially true in relation to the Sefiroth. This bluntness comes not from the Lodge as playground for amateurs dabbling in esoteric matters, but from something deeper. It speaks to the notion that Idel noted of “objective symbolism” developed in the Zohar which is surely important for the Lodge as well. It is a symbolism which, whether borrowing its actual content from Jewish Scripture or even Scientific Analysis, used everything in a way that could be externalized and immediate for the initiated. This symbolism does not deny that there may be other levels of such things than those dealt with in the Lodge. But that is not the bailiwick of the Lodge, nor should it be.
Thus the dogged theory of Goethe on colors dovetails with perhaps obscure Kabbalistic notions to suggest some of the ways that early Masons came up with this unique sense of symbolic immediacy that is one of the hallmarks of Masonic philosophy. Of course this way of putting things raises the question of whether Masonry is a philosophy per se. For surely a symbol system is not the same as a philosophical analysis. Yet what is unique about Freemasonry is how this symbolic immediacy is combined with the sense of openness to a variety of philosophical positions. It will be helpful if we could get some clarification on whether this unique balance also is attributable to the influence of Kabbalah or not.
It is striking that the scholarly literature on Kabbalah treats the matter of the relationship with philosophy quite gingerly. Scholem in various writings seems careful to speak of reactions or responses to philosophy as a rational activity in Judaism. One senses that that the tendency to euphemism on this matter has to do with the great honor all Jewish scholars feel towards Maimonides, the paramount figure of Jewish philosophy. Still, even with this, we are left with some lack of clarity.
Fortunately the scholar Pinchas Giller has addressed the matter head on, and has been bold enough to actually speak of Kabbalah’s efforts in “subverting…the philosophers.”[xxxi] This puts the pseudoepigraphy and textual creativity of Kabbalah in a different light as to intention. In fact Giller sees the Kabbalists as in direct conflict with “religious rationalism” itself which of course has a very hallowed past in Judaism, chief amongst them Maimonides. “In this conflict, the rational…mind of the philosopher is often pitted against the symbolic [mind] of the mystic.” This pugilistic-sounding statement is a far cry from the kid-gloves with which Scholem tends to treat the issue.
Indeed, Scholem seems not to want to see the two in agonic relationship but bends it the other way, as if Kabbalah were passive even when reacting. Scholem portrays Kabbalah not as acting –“subverting” -- but being acted upon even in its reactions to philosophy. Indeed on the rare occasion that he does entertain the notion of an engaged conflict between the two tendencies he pushes this sense of passivity even further. His description is noteworthy because it seems at pains to emphasize the intellectual weakness of the Kabbalistic position in relation to the “hegemony of Aristotelian philosophy”. In other words, this would indicate Maimonides in the Jewish context. He sees in their efforts no attempt at subversion but ascribes the matter to poverty of concepts:
“[The Kabbalists] did not have at their disposal a conceptual apparatus capable of formulating their intuitions and visions of God. The only language available was one that opposed everything the Kabbalists wanted to say. Thus they often found themselves helplessly entangled in a net of contradictions between rigid and undialectical concepts which they, as men of their time, had to use, and the images and symbols that lived within them, that they had brought to life but could not adequately express in the terminology imposed upon them by their adversaries.”[xxxii]
We should note that Scholem implicitly portrays the life of the symbols of Kabbalah as quite healthful in this context, and only the conceptual poverty as problematic. At any rate, it is clear that he has struck a strange polemical note here seeing philosophy as hegemonic and Kabbalah as potentially a solely reactive role. The strangeness of Scholem’s view here can be seen in the cumulative effect of his entire oeuvre which would seem to massively argue against any notion of intellectual poverty amongst Kabbalistic thinkers which he is here in the odd position of proffering. This is why Giller’s notion can function as a corrective for a sort of misunderstanding which has in domino- like effect obscured other issues. Giller helps us see that there is more to this story.
one cannot help feeling generally, even if one is not amongst the tiny
minority to have the requisite vastness of understanding to parse this
particular quandary, that Giller is closer to the truth in the main for
this important matter. With this understanding we can immediately see how
different Freemasonry is from Kabbalah in this crucial respect.
Freemasonry represents a singular attempt to avoid conflicts on this
matter of ultimate approaches to the Divine or philosophies thereof.
Whereas Kabbalah’s strategy of creative textual casuistry is a devoted
and brilliant attempt to
subvert or circumscribe viewpoints which do not conform to its worldview,
even Jewish ones. Strictly speaking, on
this matter at least Freemasonry and Kabbalah are conceptually
incompatible. Thus it simply
will not do to see Freemasonry’s position as a lackadaisical
dilettantism in relation to Kabbalah. It is Freemasonry’s
principled stand that is closely related to a philosophical view, even as
it made use of Kabbalistic thought and symbolism to some extent. . What
this means practically is that whatever Freemasonry’s relationship to
Kabbalah is in terms of
contingencies of exact influence, we
can say what it is not.
They may share this tendency to “objective symbolism” in a profound sense. Freemasonry may be seen as indebted to Kabbalah for the externalization of symbol to a dramatic iconographic extent. Kabbalists may have felt that this strategy precluded and preempted the necessity of philosophical discussion. But Freemasonry does not share this conflictual relationship with philosophical positions, or with philosophy per se. Because the Kabbalistic strategy always involved a certain textual freedom in interpretation it could easily be mistaken for a system intrinsically related to an irenic[xxxiii] attitude towards the conflict of philosophies or beliefs. But comparing it closely to Freemasonry in a historical context shows this not to be the case. To a great extent examples from Masonic history bear this out. Albert Pike’s work certainly qualifies as a great example that this principled avoidance of conflict on this matter can be combined with a profound influence of Kabbalah. Pike’s example, both in its elaborate development of this idea and the difficulties it occasioned in interpretations of his works, should make it clearer how it would be unfair in a scholarly sense to expect early Freemasons to have elucidated this emerging philosophical position very well. The opaque quality caused by the pseudoepigraphy of the sources quality may explain Pike’s prickly comments about the ”spectacle of Prestons and Webbs” as “ludicrous.” [xxxiv] It is not impossible that these early Masons, living in a highly cosmopolitan atmosphere, had a greater sense firsthand of some of the odd aspects of this work than Pike could have in Arkansas with his books. Thus some of the qualities Pike saw as tawdry may have had more to do with a knowing caution than Pike understood.
This stance of Freemasonry raises an important question about its reception of Jewish thought in general. There is no doubt that the Lodge welcomed Jewish members to some extent. But even though colorful aspects of Kabbalistic theory would have drawn attention to themselves, there is absolutely no reason to assume that this precluded other aspects of Jewish thought that might have been present. This is so even if “Cabala” might have been a short-hand for Jewish tropes generally, which does seems likely. The fact that early Masons like John Byrom formed something called the “Cabala Club” is telling but not necessarily limited to Kabbalah.
Giller in his historical overview sketches a sort of waxing and waning of the two poles of Jewish thought, Kabbalistic-mystical and Maimonidean-rational throughout Renaissance and modern history.[xxxv] Though, as we have said, Scholem does not see the two in such agonic relationship, he does imply it when he notes that the Kabbalistic thought in the Eighteenth Century represented a conservative, revanchist trend on its own terms. [xxxvi] Thus I think we are simply justified in assuming that Jewish thought in the Lodge, even if called “Cabala” had also Maimonidean- tending elements as well. Indeed, these elements are quite revelatory about the character of early Masonic thought.
From the formation of the Lodge one of the most misunderstood aspects was secrecy. Detractors of course tended to link it with either dangerous obscurantist and potentially criminal tendencies. How such a misconceptions were ever squared with the solid-citizen of society of make-up of the Lodge through all periods is a giant puzzle to anyone who looks at the history. This puzzle is only heightened on considering the elements of aristocratic or even royal orders involvement in Europe which hardly can be seen as antagonistic to existing stratifications in society. Once again the use of the mysterious language of Kabbalah may have not helped matters in this regard, even though there is no reason to blame the language itself for others’ misunderstanding. But the fact that the aspects of Jewish thought in the Maimonidean direction have not been brought into the discussion is odd indeed. For this aspect clarifies secrecy very well.
For Jews, Maimonides’ life as well as his work are important. He is both a symbol and a thinker. Thus it is certainly fair to take an insight from his spiritual biography as exemplary of his thought and the symbolic force for future generations. It concerns the period when his family first arrived in Fez (Morocco) in their travels after having been forced from Spain:
“It was not long, however, before the family realized the Jewish community of the Old City was in disarray. Observing [practicing] Judaism openly was a cause for execution, and many Jews pretending to be Muslims, continued practicing Judaism in secret. But the years of persecution caused not only physical and economic , but psychological hardship as well. The Jews began to doubt their religion, and worry that perhaps Islam represented the true religion after all, with Muhammad replacing the biblical Moses as the true prophet…To make matters worse at such a difficult time, a most unfortunate incident staggered the Jewish community. A famous rabbi, well known for his piety and scholarship , wrote an epistle denouncing any Jew who publicly professed to be a Muslim but practiced Judaism in secret…The epistle thundered and pontificated with an unbelievable degree of intolerance. The rabbi claimed that God did not even listen to the prayers of such sinners, and that their praying was not only futile but a crime against religion.”[xxxvii]
Maimonides and his father Rabbi Maimon were so upset at the harshness and unfairness of this indictment that they both eventually wrote ripostes that have become classics of the Jewish response to such situations. His father’s Letter of Consolation emphasized God’s never-ending covenant of love for his people. He likened God’s law and its requirements to a sort of cable- tow reaching from heaven to earth. Who could blame the drowning man for attaching himself with the cable however he could depending on circumstances? Then Maimonides himself responded by writing a work called The Epistle on Apostasy :
“He composed a rational letter based on the Law, and illustrated it with his own special type of logic. [Maimonides] claimed that the accusation and clinical denouncement by the famous rabbi, who greatly increased the anguish and despondency of the Jews under [Muslim] rule, was a misrepresentation of Judaism. Using Talmudic passages, he proved that it was not a sin to disguise oneself in times of religious persecution to save one’s life”[xxxviii]
The central importance of these famous events in Maimonides’ life and his responses to them cannot be over-emphasized for Jewish identity. Given that this is so, the fact that the Lodge was known to admit Jews and even used Jewish tropes in their rituals must mean something further. It means that this aspect of what we could call law-based Maimonidean secrecy would very likely have had an effect on others in the Lodge. Also given that “Cabala” was known for its hidden meanings and recondite exegesis, this quality could easily have been conflated in the Lodge with strictly Kabbalistic ideas. This is so even if in the exact anatomizing of Jewish thought they represent an opposite poles so to speak.
We now are in a position to ask how this nexus of Jewish trends in thought influenced the Craft? The connection between secrecy and deep fidelity to the law is the probable point of contact here. There is simply no question that the freedom of thought embodied in Freemasonry would have been considered a dangerous mode of thought in itself in many quarters at the time of the formation of the Grand Lodge in 1717. But it has been wrongly assumed that secrecy in this regard was a species of mere deception of certain facts or rituals or ideas. There is no disputing that the Lodge wished for its own privacy on these matters. But we miss the profound reason for it if we leave it at that. Secrecy takes on a very different cast when it is construed in this Maimonidean way as a true fidelity to a more profound understanding of God’s requirements on the believer. This I believe answers how many early Masons who were at once men -of -belief and also men- of- freedom- of- belief, could construe the developing notion of secrecy in the Lodge as a form of deep obedience and not obscurantist libertinism. This has played out precisely in this way in Masonic history in the tendency towards conservatism which surrounds a more liberal view of freedom of thought. In addition, we will miss an important piece of this if we do not completely grasp that all of this might have been assembled under the notions of Kabbalah (“Cabala”) generally even if it was not directly germane to it. This is because even today, with a vast array of scholarship, it is not easy to make distinctions in the complexities of Jewish thought. There is simply no question that early Masons could have easily conflated a number of tendencies under the most catchy name they could find for the field.
“Obviously the Restoration of 1660 restored something, but it is not clear what.”
If the view of the Grand Lodge’s early appropriation of Kabbalah as both an inspiration and method for symbolic immediacy makes sense, then we are forced to ask how such unique cultural movement took place. The second part of the influence on the Lodge, the notion of Maimonidean secrecy as a deeper fidelity to the law could explain a more limited, practical aspect. Namely, how such an odd view could in fact flourish in the context of society at that point. But it does not explain what compelled the development of the view of “objective symbolism” and the freedom of thought which intrinsically attends it. It seems that the scholarly tacks applied to the Lodge’s receptivity wax and wane between two poles. On the one hand, those who put emphasis on the sociology of the Lodge as a phenomenon of conviviality and virtuous Brotherhood originating in that sacred locus of all fellows who are not total bores, the tavern. Thus conviviality and brotherly savvy evinces an openness per se. On the other hand, those who see the Lodge as an epiphenomenon of that endless hermetic search for validation of occult visions by some institution in the real world. The sociologists , so to speak, see the foundation of the Lodge as a serious development involving a broad range of essentially Enlightenment themes in the context of fraternity. The hermeticists de-emphasize fraternity de facto if not de jure by seeing the Lodge as a sort of cover for a variety of occult manifestations which could not have flourished in the open.
Since the Lodge always prized secrecy we may never know ultimately which view jibes with the totality of membership from that period. But I believe that there are solid intellectual reasons to prefer the sociological explanation. This explanation has the advantage of being able to account for a more ample range of influences that make up a truly Masonic vision or philosophy. The sociological explanation does not exclude occult influences, or as we have said above specifically Kabbalistic ones, but it puts them in a different light. It says something that should be obvious. Namely, that conviviality does not preclude having developed something serious and may itself be revelatory on vexed issues that might contradict in other environments. The ethos of the lonely intellectual as developed in Western history makes this notion somewhat counter-intuitive, but there is nothing to rule it out.
By contrast the hermetic explanation runs into a significant obstacle. It is admitted by all scholars who study the Lodge that it contains a variety of influences between hermetic and scientific. But what is often not noticed is that the requirements of either end would have been very different. Many scientific ideas can be simplified into symbols or memes which any relatively bright person could grasp. By contrast, hermetic doctrines involve those who wish to appreciate them in ever more demanding levels of scholarship just to grasp the basic ideas. This would make it unlikely that members of the Lodge would have had the impetus to use and develop notions for which they did not have the intellectual equipment. This does not mean that the attempt cannot be made to force the vast sense of hermetic understanding onto a Procrustean bed, and this might have happened in particular examples. But strangely, it only seems possible by turning to notions of Enlightenment thought which are more amenable to simple absorption. This is because the only other route available to the hermeticist would have been to go down a path wholly inappropriate for an organization that prized freedom of thought on religious matters.. Namely, the attempt at using orthodox religious symbols and giving them an occult meaning. Orthodox symbols may have strong mythic power but they are by their long history poor symbols for freedom of thought which the Lodge prized. In our day both tendencies are still around in the chaotic rhetoric of New Age thinking . This should provide us with a cautionary example of how not to anatomize these notions. Let us give just one concrete example as a warning. To wit: the unlikely, forced conflation of hermetic notions, with Kabbalah inter alia, and Enlightenment philosophical theory. Let us learn how not to interpret Kabbalah in an Enlightenment context by citing a bizarre interpreter who has armed herself with Enlightenment notions, and more literally as well[xl], and lengthy quotes from Scholem to produce this astounding mélange: “Your Right to a Mystical Experience.”
I believe we are justified in proceeding by investigating what the social currents apparent at the time might tell us about the appropriation of Kabblalistic notions in the Lodge. This is preferable to getting mired in hermetic etiologies. The most obvious thing to assert is that at the opening of the Eighteenth Century they were trying to get over the trauma of the Seventeenth. On the continent it was the trauma of the Thirty Years War, the reaction to which is seen by some scholars as the basic impetus for the Enlightenment criticism of religion in the first place. In England it was dealing with the long-term effects of having rejected and then reacquired a monarchical system. The history of the period is so vexed that even the most learned scholars seem flummoxed by some of the events that took place, or even what to call them. It should be small wonder that this period was also marked by a very strong rise in millennial expectations since instability breeds the need for redemption. Many people made calculations for their lives based on Apocalyptic prophecy, seeing the present only as a presage for the “last age.” With systems of government altering and monarchs being deposed, there is small wonder that, “many in the seventeenth century believed the end of the world was imminent”[xli]
That some historians explicitly link the notion of a General Crisis in this period with messianic movements should not keep us from keep us from operating without a particular scholarly heuristic[xlii]. We can make our way through the details to create a line of vision that makes sense for Freemasonry’s peculiar proto-history. For instance, some “hard-headed London Jews” were heightening expectations by literally laying bets (ten-to-one) that a new Jewish king of the world would be accepted by the rulers of the earth.[xliii] Religion and business could mix in strange amalgam, showing that the apocalyptic tendencies of the age reached all types of people. Meanwhile, some Christians were convinced that the Jews would convert en masse at any moment and bring on the end times. But it is important for equitable perspective to see that reasons for occurrences in such a volatile milieu would be hard to ascribe to any definable process. This attraction to apocalyptic thought generally, which of course was not dimmed by the anti-climax of the Messiah not coming in 1666 as so many expected, is closely related to another strange phenomenon. The foremost historian of the period J.P.Kenyon describes this as the collapse of Puritanism which he claims “defies analysis.” [xliv] Kenyon connects Puritanism with an element that could be important in connection with the Lodge:
“As Puritanism fell, so the Church of England rose, but it only rose towards an Indian summer. In common with all the other hierarchical churches, including the Roman Catholic, its power over men’s minds was being eroded. The scientific spirit and rationalist approach were the dragon’s teeth of Puritanism. The nature and extent of Puritanism’s contribution to the new natural science is still fiercely debated. No question but that the Puritan pursuit of natural learning was inchoate, over-confident and intellectually disorderly.”[xlv]
With Kenyon’s help we can get a fuller picture of the intellectual complexities of the decades leading up to the formation of the Premiere Grand Lodge. The efflorescence of the Church of England in response to Puritanism’s demise involved the reassertion of the high-church doctrines of Archbishop Laud. “Laud’s view of liturgy and ceremonial was substantially accepted…”[xlvi] While Puritanism’s falling away is connected thematically with a slew of philosophers who are part of the New Science: Bacon, Locke, and Hobbes who created a theory earlier “based on the unchanging laws of geometry” [xlvii] As in so many other areas of scholarly analysis, the poles between conservative and liberal do not fit. The ambit between science and belief, between ritual and plainness, or between freedom and authority that are so important for Freemasonry is embedded in the contradictions of this era. Only to show that these trends cannot be separated easily let me note a detail, that Hobbes was both critical of foundational notions of Puritanism religiously, and yet adjusted his own views to some of their cultural desiderata.[xlviii] If such a prolific thinker as Hobbes is stretched between two forces, then we should not be surprised that more intellectually average people would also be.
The significance of this for Freemasonry is two-fold. The vintage explanation which takes a sort of default position in presenting Masonic ritual as a compensation for the much reduced character of liturgy under the Protestant Church may need some adjustment. The idea that cultural tropes of the New Science were eventually triumphant in the Enlightenment is called into question by the earlier demise of one of the New Science’s bolsters, Puritanism. We can then see how the apocalyptic character of the age could achieve some prominence by way of filling a vacuum. But for the founders of the Lodge this can hardly have been how they wished their intellectual and religious voids to be filled.
Early Freemasons being both people of belief and freedom of belief would certainly have steered a middle course. They may have hankered for ritual but in what form? And what ritual would express their convictions on freedom of thought? It is not that they could not find ritual in the Church of England. Thus why search for more? How would this connect with those elements of the science that many fancied ? Finally, for people like this surely the apocalyptic rhetoric around them would have rung hollow even if it held others fascinated. It is only commonsense to assume that the reaction to others’ stubborn apocalyptic enthusiasms would be the caution, may I say, due cowens.
It would be unreasonable to assume that what started from the interpersonal fraternal impulse would seriously iron-out all these intellectual and religious tendencies. But curiously this seems to be the de facto assumption of those who see the Lodge as the continuance of some hermetic-occult underground. On this view the Lodge was the latest instantiation of a mystagogic enterprise stretching back to antiquity. This explanation drains away the interesting and fascinating fact that these men did use occult and Kabbalistic notions as a way of practically navigating their own personal search in the ultimate matters in response to Enlightenment cultural exigencies. The mystagogic view sees these elements not as a dynamic response to trends in society but as an unchanging impulse which drones on through history. It leads to emphases being misplaced and history being misread, sometimes even conspiratorially. This attracts some to a faulty connection between Jacobite interests and some supposedly early Masonic factions. The strangeness of this notion is clearly seen in the usual collateral one too. Namely that James II’ s efforts at religious toleration could somehow be ultimately connected with the freedom of thought characteristic of Freemasonry. This seems ridiculous in light of James’ “Catholicism…of the Court”, by definition not a matter where the operating agenda would be one tending towards real freedom. Indeed, his view was “ultramontane” which historically was the agenda of “his spiritual advisors…drawn from the Society of Jesus”[xlix] who invented the explicit strategy of disguising one’s true imperative in casuistical compensatory flourishes. To see in this a connection with a Freemason’s sense of freedom is, to my mind, a perversion of scholarly logic. [l]
By contrast the dynamic view helps us see the deep resonance Kabbalah might have had in terms of ritual for early Freemasons. It also keeps historical realities in their place. It is crucial to see that the Lodge represented a novel appropriation of something very old in such a way that a newer authentic vision could be achieved. Arthur Green gives us an insight from history which could easily connect with this discussion:
“But there may as well be another reason for the Zohar’s fascination with the Temple rites…The elaborate descriptions of the Temple service and the attribution of great mystery to them offer the reader a Jewish alternative, albeit a fantastic one, to the pomp and ceremony of the medieval Catholic Church….[The] great cathedrals of Castile…were vast structures within which , especially as they were filled with solemn music and the aroma of incense, the worshipper was to feel a palpable sense of the sacred presence….The Zohar , anxious to counter whatever attraction Jews might have to the beauty and mystery of those great churches, takes pains to ascribe endless glory to God’s single true dwelling place on earth, the Temple of the great King Solomon.” [li]
With this insight we can see the standard default explanation that the Lodge’s rituals substituted for a lost sense of liturgy in the Christian church in a different light. The Lodge’s rituals, to the extent that they are based on Kabbalah show a relation to the incredibly strong iconographic impulse which Green previously mentioned. In fact, it was so strong that it sought to replace cathedrals with mysterious prose and symbols! It is an externalizing impulse so strong that it could potentially overcome broad societal tendencies, for instance Jews being pulled away from their faith. I believe it is this strong power of these Kabbalistic texts conceived as a healer of rifts and tendencies –tikkun—that was the deepest attraction for early Masons to this field. That it also provided a extremely convenient, almost ready- made symbol system in the Sefiroth was all the better.
Thus Kabbalistic ideas could provide a sense of ritual that would bolster the freedom of thought as well. This may seem odd, because as we have said in this sense Kabbalah and Freemasonry would seem to diverge. But there is an historical contingency which may help explain this and it has to do with those heady apocalyptic days. We can surely assume that early Freemasons thought poorly of these apocalyptic tendencies. First because they tended to be more science -leaning which would call those ideas into question. Second, because the very rituals that they created with Kabbalah’s help embody that symbolic immediacy. Since immediacy logically involves present reality, we can count Scholem’s view of a messianic disjunct as a confirmation of this fact in the context of Jewish thought itself.[lii] It is the nature of apocalyptic thought to defer the meaning of everything including symbols to the apocalypse itself. History shows that people caught in the thrall of this way of thinking see everything, including the requirements of everyday life, as changed in meaning and exigency by the coming of the Messiah on a putative date.
lesser-known facet of intellectual history is that Kabbalah itself became
entangled with this sort of messianism and apocalyptic thought in the
person of Sabbatai Sevi. Sabbatai Sevi was born into a wealthy family in
Smyrna in Greece. As in many aspects of this field the views of Scholem
are important to consider at every point. His massive analytic biography
of Sabbatai Sevi portrays his
early life as being afflicted with strong mental illness. Scholem sees
this as manic-depression, principally it seems because that pathology
allows for a notion of a feeling of illumination in the manic phase.
Others, like Graetz, took a dimmer view of the subject and saw Sevi as
sort of religious con-man preying on the afflictions of the era. This
scholarly polarity is of significance for our argument because we are
especially interested in the social ramifications of Sabbateanism. But let
it be remarked that the
illness in question could easily be ascribed to paranoid delusion, which
Scholem mentions but rejects. It is clear that Scholem wants to leave
conceptual space for Sabbatai’s illumination, and delusion precludes
that in any interesting form.
A lesser-known facet of intellectual history is that Kabbalah itself became entangled with this sort of messianism and apocalyptic thought in the person of Sabbatai Sevi. Sabbatai Sevi was born into a wealthy family in Smyrna in Greece. As in many aspects of this field the views of Scholem are important to consider at every point. His massive analytic biography of Sabbatai Sevi portrays his early life as being afflicted with strong mental illness. Scholem sees this as manic-depression, principally it seems because that pathology allows for a notion of a feeling of illumination in the manic phase. Others, like Graetz, took a dimmer view of the subject and saw Sevi as sort of religious con-man preying on the afflictions of the era. This scholarly polarity is of significance for our argument because we are especially interested in the social ramifications of Sabbateanism. But let it be remarked that the illness in question could easily be ascribed to paranoid delusion, which Scholem mentions but rejects. It is clear that Scholem wants to leave conceptual space for Sabbatai’s illumination, and delusion precludes that in any interesting form.
“Never before had there been a movement that swept the whole
House of Israel.”[liii]
With these words Scholem forces us to confront the massive influence that
the Sabbatean movement has for any
other factor involving Jewish mysticism, and
Kabbalah in particular. The encompassing truth of this is clear
from Scholem’s amazing statement that the roots of Sabbatean
consciousness, “ reached down to the layer of common heritage on which
attitudes of seventeenth century Jewry as a whole were made.”[liv]
Sabbatai’s peculiar trajectory involving hearing putative voices from on
high telling him of his messianic mission are not as important as the
possible social reasons for his eventual acceptance as such.
“Never before had there been a movement that swept the whole House of Israel.”[liii] With these words Scholem forces us to confront the massive influence that the Sabbatean movement has for any other factor involving Jewish mysticism, and Kabbalah in particular. The encompassing truth of this is clear from Scholem’s amazing statement that the roots of Sabbatean consciousness, “ reached down to the layer of common heritage on which attitudes of seventeenth century Jewry as a whole were made.”[liv] Sabbatai’s peculiar trajectory involving hearing putative voices from on high telling him of his messianic mission are not as important as the possible social reasons for his eventual acceptance as such.
Though Sabbatai studied the Kabbalah he seems never to have been a scholar in any sense. His knowledge came from, “the kabbalism of the age… the spiritual heritage common to all Jewish communities.” [lv] Though Sabbatai may have been simply ill, it is not clear that he was a malefactor. “Traditional popular messianism was characterized by catastrophe and utopianism.” [lvi] By contrast what seems to have attracted people to Sabbatai initially was his development of a new understanding of the mystery of the Godhead. This involved a reinterpretation of the Sefiroth to some extent. Scholem is clear that indeed this doctrine is a de facto original philosophical contribution because it has “no analogy in Jewish thought.”[lvii] What matters for us is that there was something to his messianism besides illness or crime and that it involved reinterpreting the Sefiroth. Indeed, Scholem finds it “truly illuminating’ that Sabbatai was described as having “meditated on the plain meaning of words”[lviii] in Scripture to arrive at his understanding. “For a considerable time his language remained that of the Zohar.”[lix] Nevertheless he seems to have had a sincere and simple approach to prayer which would seem to contrast with many Kabbalists and marks him as somewhat original in such a thoroughly Kabbalistic culture.
Sabbatai was eventually expelled from Smyrna and began his wanderings. I feel it is at this point that the Scholem’s central insight on apocalypticism becomes important. Scholem goes out of his way, quite untypically for him it seems, to criticize the shortcomings of other scholars on this matter. Scholem says simply that it is very strange that others have denied or obfuscated “the continuity of Jewish apocalypticism”[lx] throughout the ages. I think there is no other way to read Scholem words except as a damning indictment. For the whole Sabbatean episode has in social terms been seen as an (unfortunate) episode in Jewish history. Scholem sees it on a continuum of fervor. Scholem is so utterly convinced of this that even though “messianic utopia harbored explosive elements,”[lxi] he sees even the greatest Jewish sages as in some sense committed to apocalyptic thought. Thus, he even views Maimonides in this way, and ascribes to him a delicate philosophical juggling act: “…formulating a messianic and thus essentially utopian doctrine while at the same time trying to eliminate the utopian elements.”[lxii] If one of the greatest scholars of Jewish thought sees the matter for all of Jewish history this way, then any consideration of further influences of this thought must be adjusted to consider this fact.
The matter has its specific complexities in the fact that Sabbatai was not initially drawn to the more florid developments of Lurianic Kabbalah which has colorful apocalyptic elements, but was attracted to its ascetic practices. Of course later when he met Nathan of Gaza who became his prophet and his “St. Paul,” as some have said, his whole mission was contextualized in the tropes of Lurianic thought. For our purposes what matters in this is that the Lurianic notion of the tsim-tsum has a potential relevance for the notion of Masonic secrecy which we will discuss later. At any rate, Sabbatai eventually ends up in Turkey and becomes apostate. His conversion to Islam stuns his Jewish followers. From our vantage point, with knowledge of the proclivities of antinomian religious figures, it hardly seems surprising. What is significant was Nathan of Gaza’s chutzpah in spinning out apologetic tracts defending and reinterpreting Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam and thus perpetuating the influence of the whole affair for a long time even after the apostasy. This speaks to the unflagging tendency towards messianic or apocalyptic thought which Scholem notes. Indeed, Nathan’s later trip to Rome and his “circumambulation” of St. Peter’s in a sort of apocalyptic ritual[lxiii], really takes the cake for chutzpah.
For our argument the focus must now shift to England. We know from Scholem and others that the Sabbatean movement affected the whole Jewish Diaspora very profoundly. But England has not received as much focus as other places in this regard. It is for this reason I believe that the profound effect on the formative elements of the Grand Lodge of 1717 has gone unnoticed. The brilliant scholar Michael McKeon has noted the “commotion that Sabbatai has caused in London’s small Jewish community.”[lxiv] Indeed, McKeon’s article on “Sabbatai Sevi in England” is utterly convincing of a simple fact. Those interested in the matter in England could have found ways to keep abreast of the sad tale of Sabbatai by way of tracts and periodicals. McKeon quotes one devastating description from a Gazette of the period, detailing Sabbatai’s meeting with the Sultan in Turkey:
“[W]here being arriv'd, he so wrought upon this Impostor by Threats and Promises, that consulting his own safety, he [i.e., Sabbatai] was content to lay by his Royal Titles with his Religion, and turn Turk, and willing to take a mean servile Employment, as the Visier thinks fit to impose upon him; leaving to the Jews nothing but shame and repentance, that they have suffered themselves to be so easily and long deluded. “[lxv]
It is not hard to read these mocking words and see how the wounds from this deception would be around for a long time. In fact, I think it would be quite impossible to assume that they would not have colored the view of any Jewish element both in terms of gullibility and the potential for deception. That this could easily mix with anti-semitic tropes generally at the period should be obvious. But even amongst those more sympathetic, I believe it would have been odd if this false messianic debacle did not figure in for decades as inspiring a certain caution and skepticism, even amongst those who were friendly to Jews. Though McKeon does not directly make this point I believe it is implicit in the following observation:
“What was the meaning of the Sabbatian movement of 1665 to 1667 for English observers who lived through it? It has been customary for some modern historians to reduce the eschatological factor in seventeenth century English belief to a sharp and ideologically significant disjunction between progressive rationalism and regressive superstition.”[lxvi]
McKeon seems to be trying to relate this matter to the long-range issue of historical interpretation and influence. Of course this necessitates the notion that the polarities between interpretation as “progressive rationalism and regressive superstition” treated an issue that had a perduring character. I think there is every reason that the effects of this messianic inflammation and its aftermath did continue for quite a long time. Also, that McKeon is correct in criticizing those who reduce the varied elements of this matter to such simple antinomies. In our specific case, Freemasonry may represent progressive rationalism but it definitely does not treat religion merely as regressive superstition. Freemasonry only seeks to diminish the fanatical content of religious systems which might inhibit the freedom of religious thought it requires. Thus the memory of the Sabbatean debacle would only have been an important reason for caution because of its fanatical content.
Significantly, this would not necessarily include those Kabbalistic elements it may have contained for the complex reason that they were already imbued with some messianic content. Sabbatean thought only heightened it. It could potentially have been disengaged from this specific context and used. But this would imply that early Masons had a very sophisticated sense of the context of these ideas which has been denied to them in most historiography. The founders of the Lodge would surely have understood that the messianic mindset which imbued Jewish thought stubbornly necessitated that “there was no continuity between the present and the messianic era”[lxvii] This would make them useless in the here and now. By contrast Kabbalistic symbols had by then a long history which could be dealt with. It had the possibility of iconographic treatment as we said, which was not adventitious but deeply related to its intellectual history. Visual symbols force a certain immediacy by their very nature. Visual symbols are also communal, or potentially, fraternal. We might say that paradoxically this involved distinguishing a destructive personality-cult messianism with its propensity for radical disjuncts, and a more gentle sort amenable to communal understanding and common sense. Namely, a type of symbolic messianism which might be read into Kabbalah as having been there all along. But clearly this would involve a serious process of discernment.
It quickly becomes apparent that if this is the case, the historical ambit in which the foundation of the Lodge occurred in 1717 has been artificially restricted. The capacity of early Masons to engage such a serious process has been negated, and they have been seen as mere water-carriers for a clandestine occult tradition. This is connected to a number of factors related to the Sabbatean movement, and the conceptual limitations imposed by historians. It is utterly reasonable to assume that the founders of the Lodge in appropriating Jewish symbols did so with a skepticism towards the potential theoretical weak- points in Jewish theory. As Scholem make clear, it is only modern scholarship that has down-played the apocalyptic character of Jewish thought at all times through history. If there was ever a time that such a reactive atmosphere to messianism existed it would have been in the wake of the Sabbatai Sevi debacle. Thus in fact it would be strange if Freemasons did not have their own unique way of appropriating whatever they used from Jewish sources based on a reaction to messianism . It would have been a thought process consistent with a de facto de-mythologization of the apocalyptic content of Jewish thought with its potential tendency for fanaticism. It would not be reasonable to assume that those bearing the thought itself as their native tradition could have done this on their own. As Scholem tells us, “ the kabbalist had no intention of divesting the traditional image of the messianic world of its utopian truths”[lxviii] Simply put this was the Masonic labor.
This general sense is only bolstered by the specific case of the famous Jacob Judah Leon of Amsterdam who built his famous model of Solomon’s Temple. There has a been plenty of speculation on the great relevance of this famous model for the development of Masonic ideas and rituals. Significantly, A. Lewis Shane in the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, after noting the many articles produced previously by Masonic scholars on this very issue, goes on to note something incredibly pertinent to our discussion:
“Leon’s circle of friends included…distinguished theologians and philosophers…
well known for their philsosemitism and were supporters of the movement
which believed that the Messianic age would shortly arrive, and that it was
necessary to prepare for it. The expectation on the part of the Jews was
ultimately to crystallize in the person of Sabbatai Zevi.”[lxix]
That such a figure as Leon was immersed in this Messianic fervor, and that his artistic creation has been seen as potentially so inspirational for Masonry almost necessitates another subtle interpretative layer. It is possible that elements of messianism per se, treated skeptically and symbolically, could have been selectively appropriated in the Lodge. This does not in any way moot the essentially anti-apocalyptic impetus of the Lodge. Recall that Scholem makes clear that Sabbatai Sevi can be seen as sincere in a way, not merely a con-man. To the extent that Lurianic tendencies as heightened by the Sabbatean movement could be extracted as symbols then some attenuated influence of messianism cannot be ruled out. Something of the same spirit of understanding likely prevailed amongst the founders of the Lodge towards other Jewish tendencies of thought . Some also might have had a Maimonidean valence, in which case their rationality and balance could be appreciated. As we said above, there is no reason to assume that various strands were sharply distinguished, only that they were appropriately filtered so to speak to make the reality of the Lodge practically workable. Thus we have to leave open the possibility that one element of Jewish thought was used to de-mythologize another. For indeed Maimonidean views could potentially blend with Enlightenment concerns and be a useful corrective. As an analyst of Maimonides’ eschatological views closely describes his thought on the future life:
“[T]he overwhelming subjective interest of humanity in it must not delude us into exaggerating its significance per se. It certainly will not bring with itself a cosmic cataclysm, nor will it outmiracle miracles…To be sure, [Maimonides] opposes the prevalent tendency among the masses to accept indiscriminately, at their face value, all the wondrous stories, as if the Bible were an anthology of the weird and uncanny, and not a book with a rational outlook…The uninitiated, carried away by the glamour of the miraculous, mistake form for content, while the discerning student fathoms the intended matter-of-fact meaning.”[lxx]
Therefore, it would seem to be wise and judicious with the facts to consider that early Masons tried to strike a sort of compromise or equitable balance between perhaps competing tendencies. Keep in mind that these aspects often were so entwined in extended cross- influences that even native believers would have parsed them with difficulty. I think this offers an explanation for what might be called the blunt use of Kabbalistic symbolism in early Masonry to create its elegant Enlightenment rituals. It has been assumed that this resulted from casual knowledge, but if we understand the thorniness of the issues, we could see it as the opposite. We could see the bluntness as a response to “not having a dog in that fight”, as it were. Thus a feeling of equipoise was struck with a middle-balance. This becomes especially clear in light of the heightened messianic expectations and the contradictions produced thereby.
If the reader doubts this consider a curious, telling phenomenon described by the excellent Moshe Idel. In a discussion of Abulafia’s views Idel details how the central Maimonidean[lxxi] concept of the Agent Intellect evolved from a philosophical concept to a messianic meme. The “Agent Intellect may therefore be imagined as the savior…of the most important part in man, and as such is prone to be conceived as the Messiah.”[lxxii] Idel notes that in ecstatic Kabbalah the tendency was to identify the Messiah with the Agent Intellect with a very curious final result, relevant to our argument:
“[I]n the ecstatic Kabbalah the view of the Agent Intellect as the Messiah represents the hypostatic attitude found in the preexistence of the messiah; moreover, the extreme transformation of the human into the Divine Intellect opened the way for a much stronger link between God and the Messiah. These bridging of the gaps between the human figure and the divine power culminated in the deification of Sabbatai Tzevi’s persona.”[lxxiii]
In simpler words, the issues involving Jewish messianism are so complex that Maimonides, who Idel describes as “suspicious of messianic activism,”[lxxiv] posthumously had his preeminent notion of Agent Intellect woven into a heady messianic current, which eventually threw off Sabbatai Sevi onto the shore of history. My point is not that to fairly calculate the influence of Kabbalah on Freemasonry one needs to be a member of the small club of scholars expert enough to decide on the labyrinths of Jewish thought like these.[lxxv] But rather that one does need to be convinced that the inherent complexities are so great to see that there was virtually no way early Masons could have avoided Solomonic decisions about how to separate potential options. And all the more so because it all took place relatively recently contemporaneously to the Sabbatatean eruption.
It is reasonable to assume that the early Masons had an understanding of the destructive power of the messianic and apocalyptic tendency as well, combined with the compassion to see that it symbolized something more than desperation. That something more had to do with understanding the whole basis of it in Old Testament prophecy as more than the limited orthodox Christian view of it in terms of the New Testament. For Christian Masons this meant that they truly believed in freedom of belief to the extent that they could allow for an autonomous psychological development in the context of Old Testament belief itself, as opposed to always seeing it in light of the “New Covenant” psychology so prevalent in all Christian “spiritual direction” through the ages . This alone would have been a radical position that required sophisticated philosophical understanding. I believe that Kirk MacNulty has made this exact point perfectly:
“The point is often made that the God of the Old Testament is a God of Vengeance and Destruction, while the God of the New Testament is a God of Love and Forgiveness…but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the God of Vengeance…we are faced with the questions “What does God destroy?”…In the virtual drama of the Third Degree the part played by the Candidate places him…at the building of Solomon’s Temple…After the “death” the posture to which the Candidate is restored suggests a oneness with an elevated consciousness close to the top of the Tree [Sefiroth].”[lxxvi]
With MacNulty’s help we can see that what these early Masons were about was helping to create an “elevated consciousness” and using all religious symbolism as a way of striking an existential chord for the Mason. This involved walking a fine line. In fact that they chose to use Kabbalah with its close connection to the “God of Vengeance and Destruction”, especially in the messianic context, shows how confident they were in their own abilities to do the filtering. The taking of aspects of Jewish thought had its strengths and weaknesses, and we can assume that the founders of the Lodge understood both. In the case of the Jewish community this tendency was intertwined with the iconographic beauty of Kabbalah which made it worth the necessary filtering. Truly we can say that it took Masonic labor to extract what was good, with the skillful, caring hand of the Master Mason to work it on the level.
That such a simple fact has been obscured is not by accident or by lack of acumen on the part of Masonic scholars. Rather, it has to do with the restricted range of interpretation granted to Freemasonry which truly defies analysis at bottom. One wonders how a field of activity which counts many brilliant men in history and founders of republics should be denied the conceptual breadth, and fobbed off with obscurantist left-overs from things like apocalyptic and occult movements . If the reader doubts this, then hearken to this scholarly exemplar. The scholar Matt Goldish in his Sabbatean Prophets devotes a chapter to Nathan of Gaza. At the start he makes a digression on the tendency of the whole era towards imputation of antiquity, and then inexplicably ropes in Freemasonry into the messianic discussion:
“One of the most important criteria for determining the usefulness or truthfulness of anything during most of this period was its antiquity….the Freemasons in the later years illustrate this principle. [They] claimed to be heir to an ancient secret tradition carried on by adepts throughout the generations…. The secrets were scientific and organizational… and…incorporated a messianic valence.”[lxxvii]
This statement, in what is in other ways quite a fine study, remains inexplicable in its “apropos- of- nothing” quality until we home on the central issue here. Freemasonry seems to have become in the minds of many scholars a catch-all symbol for willy-nilly appropriation of occult and other symbols as well. Because the actual quality of Masonic philosophy is barely understood it is almost assumed that the mere date of its founding must mean that it “incorporated a messianic valence.” Thus the scholarly background - assumption proves, at least, part of my contention that the “messianic valence” of the age would have been an issue per se. But with knowledge of the actual tenor of Masonic philosophy we can see the specifics in quite the opposite way . Thus I can posit the reverse for good reasons, based on an unrestricted conceptual ambit for the Lodge . The founding of the Lodge in 1717 was a moment of anti-apocalyptic, anti-messianic clarity. That an organization which works to “act by the plumb” would be anything else is an absurdity. .
So if we construe one pole of the scholarly misunderstanding as a reflexive tendency to see messianism merely in the collusion between dates and events, then we might see the opposite pole of misunderstanding as more philosophical. Sadly, it seems to involve an incredibly famous intellectual who also somewhat sympathetic to the Craft. Jurgen Habermas is well -known for having made the observation, based on Lessing, that Freemasonry is responsible for bourgeois society itself. But this attractive notion is freighted by Habermas with a very considerable philosophical scaffolding, which in the opinion of some is not very solid. Habermas sees Freemasonry as a sort of stage of development of the creation of the “public sphere”. But this comes with the further notion that the secrecy of Freemasonry was just a stage, a way of incubating bourgeois values before they could be released out into the open at a later period.
Once again for truly indefinable reasons Freemasonry is not assumed to be a field of activity with its own tendencies and content. It is assumed to be at best a social epiphenomenon which instantiates one trend or another. On the principle that one cannot disprove something that is essentially a negative, we must simply assert that this is not the case. The many collateral reasons why this is not so are beyond our scope here. It just so happens that our scope of study here does include a fine answer to this however. The concept of Lurianic Kabbalah known as tsim-tsum is a fine exemplar on this matter. Tsim-tsum surely must have been understood in a rudimentary way if the Sefiroth was used to the extent it was in Masonic ritual . It speaks of The Ineffable’s (The Ein-Sof’s) drawing into itself in order to allow existence, or creation to happen. It is not so hard to see how this concept could be important to a notion of Masonic secrecy. Secrecy being more than a pose, but an existential stance in mirroring the Divine, of allowing life to develop without the introduction of information that is not necessary, or would get in the way. This mode of argumentation from the ultimate ontological category of Kabbalah to a particular aspect of Masonry is not to be entertained lightly. However, I believe an Ars Quatuor Coronatorum article from very long ago argues about “Masonic Aphanism” in a similar way towards Ein-Soph, only with a different detail. I feel strongly that it bolsters the thrust of this connection:
“The legend of the three Grand Masters of whom one is lost –becomes removed to the invisible world –is a curious image of the Kabbalists’ first triad of emanations of the unseen, and unknowable Ain Soph….”[lxxviii]
This ontological connection, combined with the notion of Maimonidean secrecy mentioned above provides two striking ways to interpret this element of Masonry without getting caught in a Habermasian thicket. The Habermasian notion when applied to this subject would lead to the conclusion that secrecy was used to hide a secret agenda consistent with messianic tropes which sadly begins to sound conspiratorial. Masonic secrecy has much more profound philosophical roots. Sadly, conspiracy is exactly what we get from Habermas[lxxix] and others.
Thus, having cleared up the tendencies for misunderstanding we are finally in a position to answer the quandary we described earlier. How is it that a field like Freemasonry, which prized freedom of thought, could make use of Kabbalah which seems to have inherent tendencies in the opposite direction? As alluded to earlier, the resolution centers on the historical contingency of the messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi and reactions to it. Further, we are clearer now, with Scholem’s guidance that this messianic tendency was more central to Judaism as a whole and has been systematically de-emphasized by scholars, because of the scandal of the Sabbatean movement. We see now that for the founders of the Grand Lodge in 1717 this messianic tendency of Jewish thought would likely have been respectfully accepted in a sort of “crazy uncle” fashion, if I may also respectfully put it that way. Or perhaps better, this thought was incorporated with brotherly savvy that involves understanding the weakness of a brother, not just his strengths.
In the practicalities of personal belief, it is not clear that all aspects of Jewish thought would have jibed with the mainstream beliefs of the Lodge, even if the symbols were employed. The very principles of the Lodge could be misinterpreted by a, “Jew, faithful to his religion , who hoped that the lodges would draw the proper logical conclusion [!] from their avowed principle and banish all Christian concepts and symbols from their order.”[lxxx] This kind of zealotry and misunderstanding, probably fueled by messianic angst, of the very principles of Freemasonry would certainly count as a reason to be cautious with elements of Jewish symbolism. This was not for any reason of factionalism, far from it. Rather, because Freemasonry even in the contradictions of Enlightenment thought itself leans for its “avowed principle” away from one religious faith overtaking the other, and “very close to the concept of Natural Religion.” [lxxxi] The point is not that the Lodge took a dogmatic philosophical position towards a natural religion which would lead to scientism potentially. The de-mytholigization characteristic of Masonic symbolism was not the same as scientism’s evacuation of any meaning from those symbols. The question was more of a practical nature in keeping a symbol- structure that would balance a diversity of points- of -view. For instance, the continued evolution of Masonic symbolism could potentially come into conflict with learned Kabbalism per se, which we may assume represented the Jewish presence in the Lodge to some extent. A practical example of this would come with the eventual inclusion of some Egyptian symbols in the Lodge which those steeped in the Zohar would have taken as “demonic powers symbolized by Egypt.”[lxxxii] Thus we can see by this example that natural religion was needed more as a regulating tonic, or a balancing corrective than as a dogmatic philosophy. Every Brother and every philosophy would have been freighted somewhat with potential atavisms that would have disturbed the harmony of the Lodge. My point is that this would have been especially acute in the Jewish Kabbalistic-Zoharic direction in the wake of the messianic eruption and that early Masons had the tools, such as natural religion, as men of the Enlightenment to diffuse these regressive tendencies.
That the Lodge early on admitted Jews and based rituals on their thought already speaks to great respect. It is not necessary or advisable to impute to these men a cretinous naïveté or unworldliness which ill comports with the personal biographies of many of Masonry’s central figures. Thus we can discern a candid strategy: Kabbalah was symbolically externalized in the fashion we mentioned earlier, consistent with a developing Masonic philosophy. In this process the messianic qualities, whatever they would be in a variety of apocalyptic interpretations, would be drained away consistent with the fight against fanaticism. This in turn allowed elements of symbolic and textual creativity to be disengaged from their position as blinkers of limitation for narrow belief, and reinterpreted as signals of freedom of profound belief and religious experience. This was not a happenstance, but an intrinsic part of the foundation of the Lodge. There was a certain numinous genius at work in the creation of these rituals in the Enlightenment context. By understanding the dramatic background of this we can appreciate the rich cloth of influences that inspired them.
Perhaps we can consider now that we have come in a Kabbalistic circle to the point where we began this inquiry. We have seen something brilliant in the relationship between Kabbalah and Freemasonry, brilliant like a diamond. Like the brilliant gem it was made by real-world processes and combustible elements. Sadly, you would scarcely guess this from the airless dream -world in which some interpreters of the subject seem to operate. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose words started our query, has a pithy description so relevant for the extruded fringes of this involved topic of ours. Frankfurt parsed the difference between lies and truth, and yet his analysis excreted another category that is not a lie or truth, but a copious indifference to the truth. Surely, neither Freemasonry nor Kabbalah belongs in any way in that realm. Yet so much has been smeared by the mischief and intransigence of florid interpreters and popular-rehashers that they seem to summon Frankfurt’s heuristic of reeking indifference. But the unique symbol-system that resulted from the meeting of Freemasonry with Kabbalah’s pseudoepigraphy and textual creativity have nothing in common with that soft indifference to the truth. Diamonds are hard, and they do the cutting.
Likewise, Freemasonry has been badly misplaced with the putative theological lying of the Deists, if that is even an accurate description of the Deists’ rhetorical activity. Deistic views are thus anatomized –I think anachronistically, by the way --as a form of prejudice, for they see in creedal assertions “that such beliefs rest on the flimsiest of foundations.”[lxxxiii] By strange implication then the Craft is assumed to be involved in this empty business of undermining, and occult animadversions its only leftovers. This study shows the opposite, I hope. What is revelatory about the relationship between Kabbalah and Freemasonry is that an Enlightenment phenomenon was capable of an expressive engagement with faith and freedom of belief at once. It required an autonomous foundation in tandem, faith and freedom of belief, not just a hegemonic skepticism. Significantly, this was a space so adamantine, made impervious by “Cabalistic” quicksilver, that it could welcome the skeptic with his sharp razor, if he could accept the welcome as a Brother.
Thus my point has been that Kabbalah’s deepest philosophy served as part of the way that the Freemasonry accomplished this novel balance to build this unprecedented edifice. The foundation of the premiere Grand Lodge of 1717 was not just an historical oddity, an English Potemkin Village for royal pretensions, or a little hermetic hiding spot. Rather, the Lodge was a search for truth on its own terms of intellectual freedom, which included conviviality for real people. Smart people only enjoy themselves when the festive is bolstered by the serious, thus the “Masonic University” provided something worth learning. Kabbalah, both in its Divine subterfuge and cunning creativity, helps us see how the Lodge was able to make such a humane idea survive. This “Cabalistic” Craft survived in what was still a rather nasty world, with virtues intact.
[i] Harry G. Frankfurt. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p.56.
[ii] Kirk MacNulty. “Kabbalah and Freemasonry,” Heredom, Vol. 7, 1998, p.143. The term “Masonic University” comes from Percy James in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, vol. 85.
[iii] David Berman. “Deism, Immortality, and the Art of Theological Lying” in Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment. Newark: University of Delaware, 1987. Berman’s thesis is that the Deists routinely engaged in deceptive descriptions of their own beliefs to avoid by authorities. Though this essay appears in a volume, a Festschrift, with Masonry in the title, Berman does not mention Freemasonry in particular, though the view he presents is so similar to others on Freemasonry specifically. Tellingly, the over-arching assumptions of the volume are clear from the introduction, which presents the essays thematically, where reference is made to “deism and/or Freemasonry” (p.11) as if they were interchangeable or two sides of a coin. My thesis is that in this and in many other ways Masonry is different from Deistic thought. Compare below with my description of Maimonidean secrecy.
[iv] Gershom Scholem. On the Mystical shape of the Godhead. New York: Schocken Books, 1991, p.84.
[v] Giuliano di Bernardo. Freemasonry and its Image of Man: A Philosophical Investigation. Tunbridge Wells: Freestone, 1989, p.51. Di Bernardo’s notion, which I wholly support, is that Freemasonry desire not to prescribe the content of theism is not a de facto skeptical negation. Rather, it is a social regulative notion with surprising long-term staying power.
[vi] We should be careful to keep our focus throughout on the particular qualities of Freemasonry’s use of Kabbalah or specifically the Sefiroth, not on the labyrinthine subject itself. To say the least, it is a complex and sometimes contradictory matter . Thus our necessary focus away from Theosophy of Kabbalah even has its own contradictions. Moshe Idel treats the work of Abulafia extensively in his study (see his index), and there are many elements that are noteworthy for social elements of Kabbalah generally especially the emphasis on the psychological understanding of the Sefiroth. This is linked with Abulafia’s appropriation of Maimonidean philosophy which seems against the grain for other Kabbalists. However, Idel also makes clear that this was involved with an almost complete effacement of symbolism in his thought. This would disqualify it for consideration for Freemasonry of course. Still the psychological emphasis on the Sefiroth is striking, and perhaps of interest for understanding later Masonic theorists like Pike, but surely beyond the scope of our considerations here as the following discussion makes clear:
“The shift in focus from the theosophical to the human experience, from the Sefiroth as divine to the Sefiroth in man, had important implications for the subsequent evolution of Jewish mysticism. What is novel and important in Abulafia is not his assumption of the existence in the human soul but his understanding of the names of the Sefiroth, according to theosophical nomenclature, as processes taking place within man. This dehypostatization of the theosophical hierarchy was achieved by the emphasis upon the superiority of the human interpretation of the nature of the Sefiroth.”
Moshe Idel. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, p. 149.
[vii]Manly Palmer Hall. The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Enyclopedic Outline Of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophies. Golden Anniversary Edition. Los Angeles: The Philosophical Research Society, Inc. , 1975, p. CXXIV.
[viii] Gershom Scholem. “Shekhinah, The Feminine Element in Divinity” in On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basics Concepts in Kabbalah. New York: Schocken Books, 1991.
[ix]Arthur Green. Guide to the Zohar. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 4.
[x] Daniel C. Matt. The Zohar. Pritzker Edition. Volume II . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, p.57, note 449.
[xi] See Kalman P. Bland. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
[xii] See Kirk W. MacNulty “Kabbalah and Freemasonry,” Heredom, Vol. 7, 1998.
[xiii] Gershom Scholem. “Kabbalah” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, n/d, pp. 490-654.
[xiv] Remi Brague. The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p.98.
[xv] Though cinematographic slow-motion suggests itself in our day and age, we can also imagine visual, iconographic terms that would have made sense in that time period. Paintings were often done in cycles conveying a theme from morality. Engravings came in progressive series, in fact sometimes they were even made to be put together for viewing to create a complete picture. Also, there was the example of illuminated manuscripts from the past as well.
[xvi] Frederic Ogee. “Je Sais Quoi: William Hogarth and the Representations of Forms of Life” in Hogarth: Representing Nature’s Machines. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. p.73.
[xvii] Joseph Burke and Colin Caldwell. Hogarth: The Complete Engravings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1968, p.27.
[xviii] Marie Mulvey-Roberts. British Poets and Secret Societies. Totowa: Barnes and Noble Books, 1986. p.61.
[xix] See Richard S. Levy. Anti-Semitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005. p.100.
[xx] Rev. John Trusler. The Works of William Hogarth. Volume II. London: E.T. Brain and Co., 1809, p.227. Trusler is remarkable for catching a deeper layer philos-semitism in Hogarth generally. For instance in his commentary on “Noon” from “The Times of Day” which displays a scene of provender amidst unsanitary squalor, Trusler catches a de facto commentary on the sanitariness of the Jews.: “Moses would have managed things better”. That Trusler opines thus on the basis of this engraving says something, and shows how differently artistic interpretation was accomplished in the early nineteenth century. Acknowledgment: Thanks to Larissa Watkins for making this rare volume from the Burnsiana Collection of the House of the Temple available for this research.
[xxi] Moshe Idel. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, p. 5.
[xxii] Matt. The Zohar. Pritzker Edition, p.191, note 587. Matt notes that this phrase means “encompasses all ten sefirot.” Thus, invoking God, means invoking the Sefirot with an accent on the Side of Compassion. Even though the Side of Judgment is part of the Sefirotic logic as well. But clearly these passages indicate the further sense that one can invoke God, as the totality of all the Sefirot, and still get mostly compassion, which is a significant accent for the text to make. One can easily see how this would be important for Masonic Symbolism. With due respect for the phenomenal scholarship this translation represents, especially in its annotations, the word “rung” only confuses matters. In no sense do I wish, nor would I be able, to tread on the field of translation per se. But from the point of view of English clarity, “rung” summons an almost capitalistic, meritocratic image which does not fit well with religious concepts like compassion, or really any other.
[xxiii] Idel. Kabbalah: New Perspectives, p.205. Idel credits John E. Smith for the quote Experience and God, Oxford: 1968, p.159. The paradox is that the strong symbolic sense of theosophical Kabbalah is of paramount importance for Freemasonry, while the theosophy itself is not applicable, as we have said. The delicate balance involved in this transformation indicates the high-level of thought at the “Masonic University.” Also, this distinction shows that the idea that the magical type of Kabbalah is involved in Freemasonry is perverse and simply wrong. As Idel also writes of this magical-ecstatic view: “The sefirotic automaton was now efficiently operated by the accomplished technician…Kabbalistic language thus turned into …a magical language of incantation.” Could anything be further from the Enlightenment tenor of Masonic ritual?
[xxiv] Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, p.159.
[xxv] Arturo De Hoyos. “Preface,” Albert Pike, Symbolism of the Blue Degrees of Freemasonry: Albert Pike’s “Esoterika.” (Washington: Scottish Rite Research Society, 2005,) p.xxiv. N.B. This desire to distinguish it could be so even while Pike was at the same time using some of those occult notions.
[xxvi] Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, p.218. The quote is from Scholem, Major Trends, p. 27.
[xxvii] Richard Friedenthal. Goethe His Life and Times. New York: World Publishers, 1965, p.283. Also “Farbenlehre is his chief preoccupation,”( p.377.) Goethe saw himself as a “knight errant” for his color theory (p,402.)
[xxviii] Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, p. 104.
[xxix] Though Goethe’s theory was apparently important for the theory that bolstered the impressionist painters, and deeply inspired a modern artist like Alfred Jensen which is not bad.
[xxx] Donald L. Sepper. Goethe Contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color. West Nyack: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.5.
[xxxi]Pinchas Giller. “Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism: An Overview” in The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, p.64.
[xxxii] Scholem. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead…, p.159.
[xxxiii] That Kabbalistic thinking should not be seen as irenic does not mean that it was out to make trouble historically. Far from it of course. But my point here is that to some extent Kabbalistic thinking might be seen, as Scholem has intimated, as related to the attitude of the Hasidim. Scholem describes the Hasidim as expecting misunderstanding, and setting itself in opposition to the world, and wary if it does not find itself in this position. The point is this mindset is quite different from the tendency towards unification which philosophical reasoning brings, at least initially. It goes without saying that this is different from Freemasonry even though the Craft has always prized its privacy.
[xxxiv] Albert Pike. Morals and Dogma. Washington: Supreme Council, 33◦, SJ, 1972, p.105. Though Pike seems to be hasty in criticism here, we might note that his criticism has some relevance to our argument if considered in the abstract. He focuses on the attempt to “explain” symbols as the problem. This would mean that he had a sense that engaging in philosophical allegorization of symbols created instability in the Masonic edifice. Pike had a very unique and strong sense of symbol, and the genius to back it up in his own rituals. But his own attempt at describing the process involved using terms like “symbol” and “allegory” in a varied fashion and thus do not increase clarity. One cannot help feeling that Pike’s criticism of Preston in particular may have had more to do with his wondering what he would have done for Masonry if he had lived in the Boswellian metropolis of Eighteenth Century London and not Nineteenth Century Arkansas. Given what he managed to produce there, one only can wonder as well.
[xxxv] See Giller.
[xxxvi] Scholem. “Kabbalah” Encyclopaedia Judaica, pp.490-654.
[xxxvii] Ilil Arbel. Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001, p.39.
[xxxviii] Arbel, p. 41.
[xxxix] J. P. Kenyon. Stuart England. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978, p.181.
[xl] See Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Kabbalah: Key to Your Inner Power. Gardiner: Summit University Press, 1997, p.10. To cement a sense of the danger of using this thought recklessly it is worth remembering the following. Elizabeth Clare Prophet is an example of someone who armed herself not only with this language, but with a significant arsenal of weaponry for which she became famous. As proof of the folly of using such a wide hermetic net to analyze Kabbalah in relation to other phenomena, we should keep the another matter in mind. Kabbalah could potentially be used as a front for other agendas. For example, the theory presented in Prophet’s book is almost entirely lifted from the basic theoretical notions of the “I AM” Activity, a depression -era cult with ties to the Silver Shirts fascistic movement in the United States. Kabbalah in Prophet’s theoretical framework is merely additive and grafted on. Thus the book serves as a striking example of the negative possibilities. It seems an unfortunate fact that the nature of Kabbalistic discourse seems to lend itself to being misappropriated in this way. It goes without saying that this cannot in any way be connected with the unique genius of its originators.
[xli] Bryan W. Ball. A Great Expectation: Eschatological Thought in English Protestantism to 1660. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975, p.1.
[xlii] Though certainly beyond the scope of this paper, I want to distance my interpretation of social forces and trends from the tendency that seeks insight in ideologies like Marxism, now very dated of course, on one hand, and, if I can call it this, historical royalism on the other. The latter seems to me to be the tendency to see history as a series of footnotes to royal events and affairs.
[xliii] Geoffrey Parker. “Introduction’ in The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p.17.
[xliv] Kenyon, p.182. Kenyon’s point is that this amazing phenomenon is not explicable simply by royal approval or not.
[xlv] Kenyon, p.182.
[xlvi] Kenyon, p.183.
[xlvii] Kenyon, pp.186-87.
[xlviii] See G. Schulman. “Hobbes, Puritans, and Promethean Politics” Political Theory, Vol. 16, 1988.
[xlix] Kenyon, p.224.
[l] As an example see Martha Keith Schuchard. Restoring the Temple of Vision: Cabalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002, p.6. Schuchard’s statement that “the emergence of freedom of religion as the central creed of Freemasonry was rooted in developments among the Stuart exiles and their Jewish supporters [“Jacobite Jews”]…” is the epitome of her blowsy treatment of the whole subject. This makes little sense with the logic of such freedom as an Enlightenment manifestation; surely the etiology of most Masonic phenomena lies there . This lengthy volume, with a wealth of fascinating detail about hermetic-occult matters from the period seems only adventitiously related to Freemasonry. Her notions of “Cabalistic” and “Freemasonry” are so wide when merged together that you could drive a float from a royal masque through it, which she literally does (p. 406, amongst many). This curious volume should serve as a stricture of how not to interpret the subject.
[li] Arthur Green, p.140.
[lii] Gerhom Scholem. Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676. Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, p.9. Scholem sees an utter denial of the continuity of present reality with the messianic future in Jewish apocalyptic tendencies.
[liii] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.2.
[liv] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p. 3.
[lv] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.8.
[lvi] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.8.
[lvii]Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.122.
[lviii]Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.115.
[lix] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.118.
[lx]Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.9.
[lxi] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.10.
[lxii] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.13.
[lxiii] Moshe Idel. Messianic Mystics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 206.
[lxiv] Michael Mckeon. “Sabbatai Sevi in England” in American Jewish Studies Review. Volume Two. Cambridge University Press, 1977, p.152, footnote 67. McKeon makes this comment citing Cecil Roth.
[lxv] McKeon, p.155.
[lxvi] Mckeon, p.160.
[lxvii] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.9.
[lxviii] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, p.48.
[lxix] Bro. A. Lewis Shane. “Jacob Judah Leon of Amsterdam and His Models of the Temple of Solomon and the Tabernacle” in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Volume 96, 1983, pp. 151 –152.
[lxx] Joshua Finkel. “Maimonides’ Treatise on Resurrection: A Comprehensive Study” in Essays on Maimonides. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, pp. 95-96.
[lxxi] “Abulafia largely followed Maimonides in his emphasis on the absolute unity and intellectual nature of God”, Idel, Messianic Mystics, p.104.
[lxxii] Idel, Messianic Mystics, p.66.
[lxxiii] Idel, Messianic Mystics, p.199.
[lxxiv] Idel, Messianic Mystics, p.18.
[lxxv] Somewhat ironically, Idel is sharply critical of Scholem’s notion mentioned earlier that apocalyptic thought is a constant in Jewish mystical history (see p. 21). I would not dare to engage between these two amazing scholars, but I can only say that Scholem seems more convincing on this point. This is especially so because of the matter that I have discussed here. To put it bluntly, if even a Maimonidean-Aristotelian concept could become grist for the messianic mill, then that would seem to indicate a very pervasive an unassuageable tendency.
[lxxvi] MacNulty, p.177.
[lxxvii]Matt Goldish. The Sabbatean Prophets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 56-57.
[lxxviii] Bro. Dr. William Wynn Westcott, “The Religion of Freemasonry, Illuminated by the Kabbalah,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vol. 1, 1886, p.57.
[lxxix] I have no doubt that Habermas’ attitude was essentially sympathetic to the Craft. But there is also little doubt that he saw all sorts of connections between Freemasonry and something like the French revolution, consistent with a type of anti-Masonic thought. Since he conducted his higher learning under Marxist scholars, perhaps he meant it as a compliment. To wit:
“What fascinates Scholem about this is the dialectical reversal of Messianism into enlightenment, for the utopian energies released heretical Messianism are directed by the French Revolution, towards the political goals of the here and now. The Frankist Moses Dobrushka follows this path in an exemplary way. He became a Catholic [and]…founded an order of Freemasons.” See “Tracing the Other of History in History. The Liberating Power of Symbols: Philosophical Essays. Boston: MIT Press, 2001, p.64.
This quotation is fairly typical of Habermas and leads one to meditate on how he ever became so influential. His essentially easy -going frame of analysis is masked by the context he often used to establish his reputation. That means the context of the survival of decent society past the Nazi hell. Habermas no doubt was a decent man, but the weakness of his whole project, combined with the fact that he actually grew up in a Nazi family, make it doubly unfortunate he has been as influential as he is as a commentator on these issues. He has been accepted as gospel by many left-leaning intellectuals.
[lxxx] Jacob Katz. Jews and Freemasonry in Europe, 1723-1939. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970, p.203. Katz elaborates on this tendency to muddy the unity of the Lodge: “The satisfactory solution for such Jewish Masons as are consistent in their Jewishness was the institution of separate practices when they were involved, at least on the occasion of recitation of prayers, and so forth”
[lxxxi] Jay MacNeal Kinney. “Freemasonry and Religion: Confusions and Contradictions,” The Plumbline. Volume XII, No.4. Washington: Scottish Rite Research Society, 2004, p.4.
[lxxxii] Matt. The Zohar, p. 29, note 205. Matt makes clear that the Zohar interprets the time spent in Egypt as a trial or a refinement by confronting demonic powers. To say the least this type of thinking, quite characteristic of Zoharic thought, would have been destabilizing in the Lodge. (But consistent with the Zohar’s famous endless layers of meaning, it seems Egypt could represent the Garden of Eden as well! (see p.156, note 307.) The practical lesson is the more oblique one for sure, offered in the Zohar and in Jewish wisdom everywhere…you should make sure you marry a scholar’s daughter!)
[lxxxiii] James A. Herrick. The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680-1750. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997, p.67.
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