What Does Kabbalah Have to Do With Masonry?
by Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D.
Robert L. Uzzel, Ph.D. Éliphas Lévi and Kabbalah: The Masonic and French Connection of the American Mystery Tradition. (Cornerstone, 2006). 208 pages.
Éliphas Lévi (1810-1975) is probably not a name familiar to most Masons. He was, in his time, quite famous in France and abroad among those students of ancient mysteries who have come to be labeled "occultists." This is partly because Éliphas Lévi himself is credited with coining the term "occultism" for the study of hidden or secret wisdom. Lévi was a Catholic monk who became disenchanted with holy orders but not with the Catholic Church. He found himself in trouble with the French government during the Nineteenth Century less because of his interest in mysteries than because of his socialist leanings. In his writings, Éliphas Lévi defended working people and gave women an exalted role in his religious thinking.
He was a Freemason briefly, but withdrew from lodge life when his orations on spiritual topics were met with a lack of interest, if not actual hostility. He was one of the first to publish on a hidden Christian mystery tradition which he connected to the Hebrew Kabbalah. In his book The History of Magic, he traced the ideas of the Astral Light and the vessels of manifestation found in Kabbalistic thought from Egypt and Chaldea, through the Jewish rabbis, Jesus and the Gnostics to the Knights Templar and hence to the occult schools of his day. Bro. Lévi considered the outrageous behavior of the Gnostics to bear the blame for the Church's rejection of their teachings, at which point Catholicism was severed from the mysteries taught by Jesus to St. John. Lévi believed that this "Johannine Christianity" included an appreciation of the Divine Feminine as the Dark (not to say evil) side balancing the Light of the Savior. The idea of a balance between Dark and Light is alluded to in the checkered pavement of the lodge, but is not associated by most Masons with a balance between masculine and feminine forces.
Once the mystery of the Astral Light went underground after the suppression of the Gnostics, it was continued, so Lévi thought, by the Knights Templar. He considered that the strange hermaphroditic goat-headed being that the Templars were accused of worshipping was not, in fact, the Christian Devil but rather an emblem of the union of male and female, human and beast that was entirely symbolic of these polarities. Modern scholars of the Templars have questioned whether the whole Baphomet story was not fabricated by the persecutors of the Order, but Lévi accepted the idea and interpreted it in his own way, at the same time seeking to explain that strange goat-god worship that was attributed to the witches of the seventeenth century. Even though many of the bizarre accounts of witches' sabbats recorded by the Inquisitors have been called into question by recent scholars of the witch hunts, in Lévi's time they were taken at face value and occult philosophers sought to find in them a symbolic meaning that the Inquisition missed. A meaning, moreover, that could be reconciled with the Rosicrucian tradition that had emerged in the 18th century. Lévi actually thought that the Templars made their big mistake when Jacques De Molay ordered the founding of Masonic lodges to propagate the secrets of his order before his execution. Lévi considered this decison a mistake as it made the secrets too public, a conclusion that must hint at his disappointment in his Masonic contemporaries.
Bro. Lévi believed that the Revelation of St. John and the Book of Ezekiel could only be understood by those initiated into the symbolism of the Kabbalah. He is further credited as the first to promote the idea that the cards of the Tarot form a book which may be understood symbolically by the Kabbalist, and which forms a complete course of initiation. This idea was to be taken up by several esoteric leaders in Britain and the United States. Brother Arthur Edward Waite, one of the most prolific of Masonic writers wrote on the Tarot, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a spin-off of Freemasonry, developed a series of degrees that included in the work serious study of the Kabbalah and Tarot. Éliphas Lévi noted that the 22 Tarot trumps could be fitted into a correspondence with the 22 paths that connect the ten sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Tree of Life, is a diagram of the cosmos that represents God, unknowable and ineffable at the top and his creative power flowing downwards filling ten vessels in turn, one overflowing into the next. Each of these vessels, called sephiroth (plural of sephira), had a symbolic name such as The Crown, Wisdom, Beauty, Strength, Mercy, and so forth, down to the bottom which was called Malkuth, "The Kingdom" and represented the material world of our ordinary senses. Each sephiroth was understood by the Kabbalists as a distinct "world" or aspect of the cosmos that could be found in all things, but which were also aspects of the Divine. The paths connecting the sephiroth to form the Tree diagram, were thought of as paths that could be followed spiritually to gain understanding of the quality symbolized by each of the sephiroth.
Such ideas were not immediately attractive to Freemasons and brother Éliphas's mixing of Hebrew mysticism and Catholicism undoubtedly seemed strange to many of his fellow Masons, as it did to most people outside of occultist circles. However, his fundamental idea that the pursuit of Wisdom involved the cultivation in oneself of the Astral Light, was something quite close to the symbolism of Light in Masonry. Moreover, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life with its three pillars could be easily adapted to an understanding of the pillars of the lodge, in which the Man stand as the Middle Pillar between the pillars of Strength and Mercy, that is, if we can translate "establishment" in our rituals as an act of compassion or creation and understand this as to do with the Kabbalistic Pillar called Mercy. It is also not as far-fetched as it sounds to call upon Hebrew mysticism and the methods of the Kabbalists in their word-play and numerology to understand the story of Solomon and his temple.
It was upon institutions such as the Theosophical Society, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and various Rosicrucian orders, that Éliphas Lévi had the most influence. Within Freemasonry, his main significance comes through Bro. Albert Pike, the man who served not only as Supreme Grand Commander of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, but who also re-wrote all of the Scottish Rite's rituals during the Nineteenth Century. The fact that "Scottish" Freemasonry was a product of France rather than Scotland, suggests the close connection that must have pertained between Masons and other non-masonic spiritual thinkers of France in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Albert Pike's famous book Morals and Dogma of the Scottish Rite echoes in its title Éliphas Lévi's book Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. Both writers called attention to their use of "dogma" in its original Latin sense of "teachings" not in its negative sense of "dogmatic." Dogma is related to the same Latin root as the word doctor, which also means "teacher" at its root. A doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) is a teacher of philosophy. In this sense, then, Pike's voluminous collection of ideas built around the Scottish Rite degrees represents only the teachings of one teacher, not the pronouncements of an authoritarian theocrat. Morals and Dogma, is not, in other words intended to be The morals and dogma of the Scottish Rite, and the author makes this quite plain in his introduction.
Dr. Uzzel, in his study of the influence of Éliphas Lévi, devotes a long chapter to Albert Pike because, as it emerges, there are many passages from Lévi's works quoted verbatim or taken in part in the composition of Morals and Dogma. Although Pike never mentions Éliphas Lévi by name, he is clearly one of the many sources he used since large chunks of Lévi's work was reproduced verbatim. While scholars and copyright lawyers of today would consider such unacknowledged quotation as plagiarism, the literary world of the Nineteenth Century had very different ideas about quotation and compilations from other writers – particularly other writers who wrote in a foreign language. Bro. Pike is very careful in his introduction to Morals and Dogma to say that the ideas in the book are not all his ideas, or even his words. Dr. Uzzel points out many passages as proof of Lévi's influence on Pike but he does not perform what would be a more interesting exercize: to examine which passages Pike chose to include and which he chose to omit, or how he modified the ideas of Éliphas Lévi when incorporating them into his own ideas about Masonry and the ancient mysteries. Moreover, it seems likely that a full study identifying all of the sources used in Morals and Dogma would be fruitful, and shed more light on the process of its composition.
Such textual study of the book is, however, of interest only to scholars and would be tedious to the average Mason. The salient points to be taken away from Dr. Uzzel's book are, first, that the Kabalistic and cosmological ideas of Albert Pike were shaped by Éliphas Lévi, and, second, that this fact places Scottish Rite Masonry in a larger family of people in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries who were seeking after Light through the pursuit of degrees of wisdom. The training programs of hermetic or Rosicrucian orders, or such organizations as the Builders of the Adytum, founded by Bro. Paul Foster Case, are cousins of Freemasonry. While we find some people that might be considered eccentric by many brothers, we also find many famous names such as Rudolf Steiner, Max Heindel, H. Spencer Lewis, Paul Foster Case and Manly P. Hall, whose works continue to be inspiring to many brothers.
For my part, while I found the book a little dry in its style, I think that it is worth reading in order to gain a deeper appreciation of how Masonic ideas grew side-by-side with other schools of symbolic thinking, how the Craft is related to Kabbalah, and how many of our wisest brothers have sought as did Éliphas Lévi to discover the Universal Spiritual Wisdom that is shared by all world religions. It may not be true that all religion can be understood Kabbalistically, and it is certainly not the case that all religions were historically connected to the Hebrew tradition, as Lévi thought, but the system of Kabbalah can be a very useful tool for the understanding of mystical spirituality, including that aspect of Freemasonry. It would be very interesting to see a full-scale study of how the Scottish Rite degrees relate to Kabbalah, and possibly even to the imagery of the Tarot.
About the Author
Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D. holds a doctorate in English literature and language from the University of Minnesota. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Bro. James is lodge education officer at Lake Harriet Lodge No. 277 A. F. & A. M. in Minneapolis, Minnesota.