THE CATHARS AND THE KABALA
The distinctive forms of medieval kabbalism can with a great deal of certainty be said to have had its birth or rather rebirth in the area of the Languedoc. Many sources place the root of this revival in Spain, however it was not until the early thirteenth century that it was transplanted to places such as Aragon and Castille from the Languedoc.
The time period of this development in Southern France would be between the years 1150-1220. This appears to be a very magical period for intellectual as well as for theological and theosophical speculation. We also received some of the most impressive and enlightened Grail literature from this period.
The area of Languedoc would have been an idea place for Jewish culture to flourish during the 12th and 13th centuries. Catholic Christianity had lost its reign and the much more tolerant Cathars had become the prominent Christian culture of the region. The Cathars detested the corruption of the catholic clergy, and sought to practice a form of Christianity more identical with Primitive Christianity, claiming their own apostolic lineage.
So in effect arose a very unique opportunity for religious expression in a time when this attitude of tolerance was becoming a rare phenomenon in the world at large. The most interesting aspect of this situation however was that of the co-existence and close proximity of Jewish and Christian Gnostic schools. In fact this became fertile soil where the Judeo-Christian esoteric traditions produced several hybrid strains that continue to enlighten and influence us to this day.
The Bahir, one of the older and most profound of all Kabbalistic texts was well received on many fronts in the Languedoc. The cosmology of the Bahir appears only a slightly modified form of that of the Christian Gnostics. One of the more important Gnostic ideas found in the Bahir is in the Hebrew word 'ha=male'; the full or the fullness having the same meaning as the Gnostic Pleroma. In the Bahir we find:
What is the meaning of the verse (Deut.33: 23): "And full of the Lord's blessing, take possession of the west and south." That means: In every place the letter Beth (with which the Torah and also the word berakhah begin), is blessed because it is the fullness. This verse may thus be understood: And the "fullness" id the blessing of God. And it is He who gives drink to the needy and with it counsel was taken at the very beginning.
Here the word 'ha-male' does not simply mean the world of angels as it does in other literature, rather it refers to the highest reality in which the 'fullness' of God's blessing is contained. It may also be interpreted as a pool of dammed up waters from which God gives drink to those who thirst.
Another word representing this fullness is 'ALL'. In the Gospel of Truth we find:
They found...the perfect Father who generated the ALL, in the midst of which is the ALL and of which the ALL has need...for what did the ALL need if not the Gnosis concerning the Father.
Compare it to the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said: I am ALL and the ALL proceeds from me.
The most common attribute of the Gnostic Pleroma to be found in the Bahir is in the form of the 'cosmic tree'. The mythical cosmic tree has its roots above and grows downward, an image that is known to have numerous parallels in many different cultures, including the Gnostic Bogomils of the Balkans. Concerning the cosmic tree the Bahir says:
It is I who planted this 'tree' that the whole world may delight in it and with it I have spanned the ALL, called it ALL, for on it depends the ALL, and from it emanates the ALL; all things need it and look upon it and yearn for it, and it is from it that all souls fly forth. I was alone when I made it and no angel can raise himself above it and say: I was there before Thee, for when I spanned my earth, when I planted and rooted this tree and caused them to take delight in each other (the tree and the earth) and myself delighted in them -- who was there with me to whom I would have confided this secret?
Here we find that the tree is not only the origin of souls but that God had planted it before anything else in His "earth". From this we may conclude that the tree may be thought of as a primordial tree of souls.
The Bahir further elaborates on the tree:
And what is this tree of which you have spoken? He said to him: all powers of God are disposed in layers, and they are like a tree: just as the tree produces its fruit through water, so God through water increases the powers of the tree. And what is God's water? It is Sophia, Hokhmah, and the fruit of the tree is the soul of the righteous men who fly from the "source" to the great canal and the fruit rises up and clings to the tree. And by virtue of what does it flower? By virtue of Israel: when they are good, righteous, the Shekinah dwells among them, and by their works they dwell in the bosom of God, and He lets them be fruitful and multiply.
The Bahir thus tells us that the totality of God's powers constitutes not only a tree of souls from which the souls of the righteous fly out and to which they apparently return, but a tree that also depends upon the deeds of the elect of Israel (or the Pneumatics of the Gnostics). The remark in the above passage "he makes them become fruitful and multiply" should be obvious in its inner meaning. The trunk of the tree corresponds to the spinal cord in man, and if his deeds are righteous there will be an ascension within the trunk (which is also known as the great channel). In similar fashion in the East we have the doctrine of the rising of the kundalini through the channels of Shushumna.
Another matter of considerable interest is the specific symbolism and localization of the aeons. Since Sophia (or Hokhmah) is the source that waters the tree then the root is the third Sefirah (Binah), or the Mother in the terminology of the Bahir, and the tree itself represents the totality of the seven other powers that are active in the creative work of the seven days.
The potency of the one is also in the other, although there are twelve in each of the three they all adhere to each other and all thirty-six potencies are already found in the first, which is the teli...and they all return cyclically one into the other, and the potency of each one is found in the other...and they are all perfect in the heart.
The number thirty-six would correspond to the astrological decans of that number, and the number twelve to that of the zodiacal signs. Of course, these numbers are not particular to the Bahir, but can be found profusely throughout a great deal of kabbalistic literature, especially in the texts of the Sefer Yetzirah.
Examples of similar astrological and numerical references from Gnostic texts are far too numerous to list; however an example worthy to note is here given:
And when I bring you into the height, you shall see the glory of them in the height; and ye shall be in most mighty wonderment. And when I bring you into the regions of the rulers of fate, Ye shall see the glory in which they are, and compared with their greatly superior glory, Ye will regard this world as the darkness of darkness, and when Ye gaze down on the whole world of men, it will be as a speck of dust for you, because of the enormous distance by which the fate-sphere will be distant from it, and because of the enormous superiority of its quality over it. And when I shall have brought you into the twelve aeons, Ye shall see the glory in which they are; and compared with their greatly superior glory, the region of the rulers of the fate will appear to you as the darkness of darkness, and will become as a speck of dust for you, because of the enormous distance from you, and because of the enormous superiority of the quality of the aeons over it, as I have already said unto you on another occasion.
Opponents to the theory of a solid connection of the Kabbalists and Cathars in twelfth century France might say that there is a lack of hard evidence for making such conclusions, however if one uses a fine tooth comb and searches meticulously, there will be little doubt that there was a meeting of the mystic minds, the only question being of what degree.
The most common similarity of both groups is the notion regarding the reality of a separate higher world belonging entirely to God Himself and in which there occur certain dramatic events that have their counterpart in the lower world. This supreme world of the unknown God may correspond, in the case of the Kabbalists, to the Gnostic pleroma. The Cathars recognize four elements as composing that supreme world just as did the circle of Isaac the Blind. The creator God or Demiurge of the Cathars is identical with Satan, has a form and figure in which he appears to the prophets; while on other hand, the true and good God imperceptible to the eye and for all practical purposes is unknowable to the hylic mortals. The Cathar idea of Satan also holds a resemblance in the Bahir of the prince of Tohu, who was the creator of the material world.
The system of syzygies or the coupling of masculine and feminine potencies in the upper world, and its reflection in the lower world can be found in the doctrines of the Spanish Kabbalists as well as the Cathars. This connection, however seems not to be from the immediate influences but rather from a common source within the ancient Gnosis. This may be further deducted by the fact that the idea of the syzygy may be found universally, especially in the east in such rich esoteric traditions as Taoism.
Lastly, the one major issue that our two groups have most in common is that of the transmigration of souls, although the details vary to some degree. The Cathars regarded the higher souls as those of fallen angels that must continue to wander until they attain the body of a Cathar Perfecti did. Similarly, when a student engaged himself to a Kabalistic school, one of the first things taught to the novice was that he probably would not complete his work in the present lifetime (assuming that the present lifetime was the first one to partake of this spiritual path). In fact, the idea of transmigration of souls can be traced back among both traditions to a much older time frame. The earliest Christian Gnostic embraced this idea, as did the Jewish mystics of the same period.
Perhaps the similarities of the Cathars and Kabbalists may be attributed to other factors than direct contact. The mystical concepts accepted by these traditions can also be found in numerous other esoteric lineages, east and west. Due to the geographical barriers between these groups there appears to be ample evidence that these people were drawing from the same archetypal well of wisdom, and with this in mind, we need only lower our pail into the same well of the collective unconscious.