Part III: Bruno and Kabbalah

I was brought up to believe that the core of Judaism was Halacha – the laws and commandments of the Torah. Giordano Bruno insisted otherwise, that Torah was a tale of magic and myth, letters and numbers. Bruno is a key figure in Hermetic Kabbalah (Cabala or Qabalah) or Hermeticism, the mystical tradition that developed in the West during and after the Renaissance independently of Jewish Kabbalah. There is also a separate tradition of Christian Kabbalah.

Some argue that he was in his time a Hebrew Kabbalist. After all, as I wrote before, he had denied both the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Further, he was “the only known sixteenth-century philosopher to have been excommunicated from all three major [Christian] confessions: Roman Catholic (Naples, 1576), Calvinist (Geneva, 1579) and Lutheran (Helmstedt, 1589).” Finally, he was stiff-necked and stubborn and lived up to the caricature of the Jew more than almost any Jew one can recall. 

That hypothesis of Bruno as secretly a Jew is perhaps contradicted by Bruno’s end – he willingly went to his death byfire on a wooden pyre. Jews generally sought to avoid such a fate. Bruno, in the end, was a Christian because he virtually deliberately died for what he believed. Most Jews, even if they converted, continued to be Jews and did not need martyrdom to prove it, even as they were often martyred in pogroms and even though a number of Jews were martyred because they refused to be converted. But generally it was not because they went out of their way to confront the Inquisition as Bruno seems to have done. The thesis is also contradicted by his attributions, namely to the vast literature ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, the named author of the Hermetic Corpus, who knit together the beliefs of the Greek and Egyptian mystery religions.

However, Bruno did deny holding the heretical beliefs for which he had been charged. But no sooner did he do so than he then used his formidable intellect to undercut the arguments of his accusers, thereby clearly indicating that he was willing to say anything they demanded, but that he was unwilling to surrender his commitment to his own beliefs.

Bruno was a systems thinker who did not write systematically. But he did combine his cosmology and physics with psychology and ethics into a systematic expression of neo-Platonism that he probably learned from the Florentine Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Ficino’s patron was Cosimo de’ Medici, thereby connecting us back to Machiavelli. Ficino translated all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin by 1469. The neo-Platonism can be traced back to Plotinus, a Greek philosopher who, in his Enneads (CE270), insisted that the world was based on three principles: the One, the intellect and the soul. We find the same neo-Platonic influences in the Jewish Kabbalah tradition, particularly in Hasidism.

In Bruno, the intellect and the soul were the two opposite manifestations of the One, an unequivocal articulation of the Neoplatonist view of the world’s ensoulment. This inheritance suggests that Bruno was as sceptical of the modern notion of progress as he was of the traditional tenets of Christianity. After all, he taught that ideas oscillate between extremes, a belief, common to many. However, thought was in constant internal tension rather than seeking a balance at an inertial natural point. This resulted in dialectic in search of the absolute, but encountering failure at each new level when the contradictions become known and incorporated into self-consciousness at an even newer level.

There were other assertions of Bruno that distinguished him from the Jewish mystical tradition. Sometimes he followed the target of Josephus’ criticism. Bruno attributed the story of Exodus in the Torah to an inversion of an Egyptian narrative. At other times, Bruno called the Torah itself the Kabbalah. This superficial facsimile of a paradox is explained by scholars to be a result of Bruno’s efforts to incorporate Jewish oral lore and to turn the tale of the crucifixion of Christ into a Kabbalistic tragedy. At the same time, he tried to hide his literally “outlandish” theology from the Inquisition. Jewish truths, however, were embedded in universal revelation, some of them directly. An example was Job, for the theme of Job’s seemingly unwarranted suffering, according to Bruno, could be traced back to the Chaldeans. After all, Job had actually lived in the Land of Uz.

As a result, Bruno had no difficulty in justifying to himself his syncretic pattern of incorporating Holy Scripture with Kabbalah and the ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and the ancient Egyptian and Greek mystery religions. In his vision, one of the four principles of corporeality is the Universal Soul.

In the Jewish Kabbalah, the human soul has three elements: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. The nefesh is the given, our DNA, the instincts and appetites we inherit that correspond to that portion of the Universal Matter assigned to each individual. Ru’ach, our ability to distinguish right from wrong, develops based on our education and experience as our DNA interacts with the world around. Neshamah (נשמה) is the higher soul distinctive to humanity and is related to the purest form of the Universal Intellect. That can be directly related to God as present in each of us. 

The Universal Soul is closest to what Christians called the Holy Spirit that gives us our character, both ethical and cognitive. In Christianity, the Holy Spirit, as the only active principle, operates through grace. However, if it is embedded within the material world, as in Bruno and the tradition of the Kabbalah, then the interaction between an individual’s material being and his or her environment enables us to understand human initiative and creativity rather than any reliance on an external agent.  

In Jewish Kabbalah, in addition to nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah, chayyah, the awareness of the divine, is possessed only by a few. Yechida, full union with God, is realized only by the most enlightened. Bruno considered these same “rare few” creative geniuses were both divine and heroic, inspired by “a superior light” or “love” in The Heroic Frenzies. 

As I indicated in my opening and as I will elaborate in my final remarks on his memory palace, this movement upwards can be enhanced by memory to enable the soul to move from multiplicity towards unity, and, not surprisingly, to move back to comprehend multiplicity within an overarching unity. In the Kabbalist tradition, it is this that makes prophecy possible (ru’ach hadkodesh), but is also the source that provides joy on shabbat (neshama yeseira) and on the day of a bar or bat mitzvah (neshama kedosha).

One major difference is that the idea of reincarnation enters into Hasidic Judaism after the Renaissance, but has no parallel track in Bruno. On the other hand, the steps to uniting with the soul of God were similar, including scepticism concerning any objective or scientific conclusions and the belief that faith and revelation are superior to the intellect. In Bruno, this meant rising above subjectus, separation and categorization, into a realm where the effort can be made to reconcile opposites.

On the other hand, astrology, the linkage between the movement of the heavenly bodies that hold sway over an individual’s destiny, is a central element in the Hermetic tradition. In Fisino, “there is absolute continuity between the old magic and the new. Both rest on the same astrological presuppositions; both use in their methods the same groupings of natural substances; both employ talismans and invocations; both are pneumatic magic, believing in the spiritus as the channel of influence from the above to below. Finally, both magic and astrology are integrated into an elaborate philosophical context. The magic of Picatrix [an ancient Arabic magical handbook Ghâyat al-Hakîm presented in a framework of philosophy (and translated into Latin in 1256); and Ficino’s natural magic is fundamentally related to his Neoplatonism.” (Yates 1964, 81) In Israel today, it is estimated that 11% of Jewish Israelis take astrology seriously.

The inheritors of the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition assailed the traditional clergy or Reform, Conservative and even Orthodox rabbis. Bruno even more vigorously criticized the clerical caste and monks imbued with “a foul-smelling melancholy.” Laws and regulations were needed by the masses to assist them because they could not achieve enlightenment, but one did not achieve enlightenment through obedience to laws. This mystical tradition traced its roots to Ezekiel and to the 12th century where illustrious rabbis of mysticism lived in Provence in France (Moses Nahmanides and Rabad of Posquières) and the Zohar that appeared in Spain. By the time of Bruno, the centre of this Jewish mystical tradition had migrated to Safed in Israel and was in the hands of Moses Cordovero (1522-70), Ari Isaac Luria (1534-72) and Chaim Vital (1542-1620). Bruno never traveled to Spain or Palestine and there is no evidence of contact between Bruno and these Jewish mystics.

Yet the two traditions arrived at overlapping positions and conceptions (such as the use of the Heavenly Palace discussed in the next blog) through parallel tracks from a distant vanishing point. The ten divine sefirot or emanations of God imitate those of Plotinus. Meditation, a focus on the various names of God, meditation and visualization (yechidim in Hasidism) are common to both mystical traditions. The goal in Hasidism is purity to enable a return and reunion with God through God’s presence (Shekhinah). Bruno would make his most important contribution via visualization and the art of memory that I will take up in the next blog. 

To be continued.


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