Point, Pillar and Manifestation:
Parallels That Never Met? Kabbalah and the Bábí-Bahá'í Faiths
First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #28
London School of Economics: London, England
July 14–16, 2000
(see list of papers from #28)
Kabbalah (Qabbalah, Cabbalah), the systematic mystical thought in Medieval Judaism, has very ancient roots in Biblical as well as in early post-Biblical sources. However, when it burst as a daring doctrine in Provence and Spain early in the thirteenth century into Jewish religious life, it came as a reaction to philosophy that attempted to empty the Divine Being from his personal nature, and turn him into a pure transcendental being, which has practically nothing to do with creation. It came also as a reaction to strict Rabbinical Judaism, which though maintaining the idea of a personal God ruling over and directing His Creation through the holy law, avoided any discussion of the essence of God Himself, and had no reference to the actual process of revelation.
The Kabbalah does exactly this; it deals with the Divine Being Himself and explains the meaning of the revealed God and his action in the world of reality.
In other words the hero of the Kabbalah is God, He is also the object of its investigation. Fascinated by creation and by its perpetual renewal, by the dichotomy of good and evil, and by the special relations of love and estrangement between God (the bridegroom) and Israel (the bride) Kabbalah offers itsown mystical explanation to all these phenomena. It gives a systematic explanation to the occurrence and renewal of creation, as a manifestation of the active major creative powers of a dynamic male-female God revealing himself in a hierarchy of emanated forces in the form of the Sefirot.
There are many parts in the Kabbalistic presentation of God and his relation to creation, and in the methods of this presentation which remind us of Sufi, Shaykhí, Bábí and Bahá'í theories. Consider, for example, the issue of "the point of creation," described as a point of light, the purest concept of the revealed creative Divine Will that emanates from the ever-concealed unknowable Divine Essence (the ein sof, to become the source of the revealed Divine Being, ultimately leading to the formation of the world of physical reality.
Zohar is one of the main Hebrew words used to describe this hidden light concentrated in the Point. Light as the substance associated with the divine is the most common idea in religious (not necessarily mystical) thought, and Zohar is just a Hebrew word for Arabic Bahá. In both cases the word is regarded as the greatest attribute, or Name, of God, and in both systems the point of light was identified as the point of the letter Beth (or the letter bá' in Arabic), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which begins the Book of Genesis, the book of creation, and thus the Torah and the whole Bible. It is the letter with which the creation came into being. Letters and numbers are used in Kabbalah in much the same manner as we later find in the Bábí-Bahá'í system. Thus the point of the letter bá' is regarded in the system as the point of creation and the point of light. Is it just a coincidence?
There is textual evidence that Kabbalistic material reached Iran in the late Middle Ages, and there are strong indications for Kabbalistic material flowing from Safed, the center of Kabbalistic activity in the sixteenth century to Iran. This flow of material was concurrent with the evolvement of the Kabbalah of Safed around the ARI and his group of disciples in that century.
Neither the Báb nor Bahá'u'lláh were as daring as the Kabbalists, but the idea of the necessary presence of a certain figure who serves as a channel of grace from God to the world of creation is present in the Kabbalah and it shows similarities to the shaykhí-Bábí-Bahá'í doctrines. In Kabbalah, the figure of the Tzadiq serves as the center of the world, or better, the central pillar of the creation, just as we have this idea of the nuqtah in Bábí thought or al-insán al-kámil in the Shaykhi system. The difference is, however, that in the Bábí-Bahá'í theory the central pillar is a channel of Divine Grace and a manifestation of God Himself, whereas in Kabbalah He is a part of the revealed God, identical with the sefirah of Yesod, representing, so to speak. the male organ of the revealed divine being (hence pictured as a pillar, a pipe, or a channel), the organ through which flows the Divine male seed to Its female counterpart (shekhinah), thus enabling the process of perpetual creation. The more this Tzadik is strengthened by righteous people endeavoring to comprehend the reality of the divine, the more he is erect and able to function as the channel of the flowing of the divine creative matter. Creation is badly effected if this pillar collapses when due to the scarcity, or lack, of righteous men in the world it does not receive the needed support.
In spite of the similarities, neither the Báb nor Bahá'u'lláh were so daring as to go so far.
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