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Of Divine Sparks

As both scholars and theologians have noted (not least of all - the late, great Gershom Scholem), there are strong parallels between certain Gnostic and Kabbalistic concepts. For instance between the infinite Ain Soph and the intrinsically unknowable Monad, and between the sephiroth with their partzufim and the Gnostic aeons which are at once both ontological divine realms and personifications of such. Even the relationship itself between the Ain Soph/Monad and their emenations in the form of the sephiroth/aeons is somewhat similar, boiling down to the essential fact that in both systems the One is the many, and the many are the One. This kind of Emanationism, beginning with the highest most transcendent level of the divine and successively descending downward toward materiality, is an essential characteristic of both systems (much like Neoplatonism and classical Hermeticism).

Screenshot_2021-05-14 Classical Kabbala and Qliphoth Abstract tree, Life drawing, Tree of
Gnosticism and Kabbalah: About

Another definitively Gnostic characteristic is that of a belief in a 'divine spark' that has fallen into our material world, and its presence within the souls of humankind. Also essential to the Gnostic world-view is the idea of a divine catastrophe or mistake, often associated with the aeon Sophia ('Wisdom', an aspect of the divine feminine) which produced a flawed world.

The theory of the divine spark in man, never specifically formulated in the literature of early Kabbalah, became a central concept in the tradition from the time of the great Isaac Luria (one of the prime originators and formulators of mystical Kabbalah as we know it today, along with Moshe Cordovero) onward. In the Lurianic scheme, the 'sparks' become enmeshed in the lower worlds as a result of the cosmic catastrophe known as the 'Breaking of the Vessels' (Shevirat HaKeilim). This divine catastrophe itself has its analogy in the fall of Sophia, who in classical Gnostic cosmology is generally the outermost aeon or emanation of the transcendent god, or Monad, and who is in many ways analogous to the Kabbalistic concept of the Shekhinah and her presence in the world (Malkuth). Here the commonality should be highlighted that in both Gnosticism and Lurianic Kabbalah, the resolution of the cosmic crisis occurs only with the return of said divine sparks to their rightful place in the divine transcendent world above.

For Kabbalah, which has a considerably less negative view of materiality than most Gnostic traditions, the raising of the sparks is at once a spiritual and ethical event which is deemed to be a joint venture between God and Man. The sparks, according to the Lurianic Kabbalists, will only be raised when humanity reforms its behaviour, when the Jewish exiles are returned to the land of Israel, and when all individuals discover the divine origin of their own souls. For the Gnostics, the process of said redemption may have differed but the rationale was similar and the end goal, for the individual if not the world, essentially the same.

In Gnosticism, the divine spark present in humanity is entrapped in a material realm itself considered an imperfect copy of the true divine realm above and governed by Powers (or 'Archons') that have a close parallel to the Qliphoth of the Kabbalists (the Sitra Achra - or 'Other Side', outside of the divine spheres of the Sephiroth). These sparks, in the guise of individual human beings, are unaware of their true origins, but nevertheless possess an unconscious desire to return to their divine home. The divine spark thereby constitutes an individual's essential but forgotten reality. It is only by acquiring knowledge, or 'gnosis', of this inner self and its true place that the Gnostic devotee can free himself and achieve ultimate spiritual fulfilment. While the Kabbalists held a similar view regarding the trapped divine sparks, their Jewish theological commitment to the world's essential goodness leads to a different view and the belief that the world itself could one day be redeemed.

For the Gnostics, the experiential knowledge of gnosis is not achieved through a purely cognitive procedure. The gnosis of the Gnostics is first and foremost knowledge of the heart, an experience of spiritual revelation and of an immediate and personal step on the road to Salvation. In essence an awakening of a long-dormant inner, divine self and of a realisation of its place in the grand scheme of things. Meditation, dialectic enquiry, and reflection are all useful in preparing the intellect, but the intervention of a divine, salvific power is necessary to awaken the inner spirit (Pneuma) which is consubstantial with the divine world.

All of these ideas are found in relatively unaltered form in Lurianic Kabbalah. The existence of an inner divine self (Tzelem) in the Kabbalah, which acts as a forgotten celestial counterpart to the conscious mind, is common to both of these traditions; as is the idea of the necessary awakening of this inner self and its ultimate reunion with the transcendent divine principle. This awakening occurs, according to the Kabbalists, only through a person's attaining a deep, abiding, emotional and spiritual knowledge of his true self, and is achievable only when an 'arousal from above' compliments man's own 'arousal from below'.

Many of these ideas are also present in the more ascetically inclined Dharmic philosophies of India, which generally regard the empirical ego as an illusion enveloping man's true, divine self or Atman (see our Gnosticism and Buddhism page). What differentiates the Indian tradition from Gnosticism and Kabbalah, however, is that only for the latter two is the journey of the divine spark, or inner self, placed in the context of a cosmic drama of apocalyptic proportions. In both Gnosticism and Kabbalah the redemption of a single soul is ultimately connected to the historical redemption of divinity itself as a whole, and to varying extents the entire world. To the Gnostics and Kabbalists there is a greater sense of urgency than their Hindu or Buddhist counterparts, and as such, their theories often take on a far more dynamic character.

While Kabbalah shares much of the above with Gnosticism, it differs from it with regard to one crucial idea: the value that it places on the fate of humanity within the material world. The Gnostics, in common with many of the Dharmic traditions, were 'anti-cosmic', at least to varying degrees. Indeed, within the Gnostic paradigm the creation of the world is conceived of as resulting from the arrogance and ignorance of a cosmic 'Demiurge' who himself knew little of the ideal world (Pleroma) above him. Needless to say, this is hardly the view of the Lurianic Kabbalists. For them, the extraction (birur) of the sparks (netzotzim) from the Qliphoth results in the elevation and sanctification of this world and not, as to a Gnostic, in freedom from said world and thus its obsolescence. For the Kabbalah, this world is indeed a mixture of good and evil - the evil in this world causes it to sink into the realm of darkness (the Sitra Achra), while the good in it can cause it to rise back into higher more divine realms. The purpose of restoring the individual to his Tzelem or 'Godly self' is not so that he can transcend it, but so that he can perform his role in the world's restoration and repair (Tikkun Olam). This crucial difference between Gnosticism and the Kabbalah, the redeemability of matter, makes for an important difference in their view with respect to this world. If the Gnostic is in a way a Stranger, then the Kabbalist, on the other hand, is merely estranged.

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