Moses De Leon

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Behold, I shall reveal to you a very deep mystery of sublime greatness. Man who is in this world is here only by the association of the three elements which are one. They are: the rational soul, the Vital soul and the sensitive soul. It is only by union of these three forces that man is made perfect. It is thanks to this mysterious unity manifested in him that he becomes the reflection of that which is above, that is: the real image of God.

Shekel ha-Kodesh MOSES de LEON

After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in AD. 69, the Jews of the Diaspora became the custodians of the wisdom of Israel even as Palestine reverted to a shadowy if troublesome backwater. The luminous mystical insight that had irradiated the yoredei merkaba – those who enter the chariot (of Ezekiel) – and sustained the Essenes, passed on to those who could perceive its concordance with the sublimest philosophy of diverse traditions. Despite a continuance of the Mysteries in Christendom, Christian intolerance and the comparative benignity of Muslim attitudes encouraged the Jews to pursue and preserve their profoundest spirituality in the Islamic Mediterranean. The hokhinah nistarah, secret wisdom, was given new life in the philosophical climate of Islamic mysticism, especially amongst Sufis, and the Kabbalah flourished from Egypt to the Iberian peninsula.

From the eleventh to the fifteenth century, Kabbalistic and similar movements achieved a fervour and intensity that affected the lives not just of scholars and ascetics but also of common folk. Until the rationalistic reaction of the seventeenth century, this upsurge of thought and feeling radically redefined Judaism and provided the fertile soil in which arose some of the most remarkable thinkers of the millennium. Amongst these powerful minds, Moses de Leon was both foremost and most hidden, an enigma in his own time and an impenetrable puzzle to history.

Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon was born in Leon near Castile around AD. 1240 or 1250. Whilst nothing is known of his parents, teachers or circumstances, the pattern of his life suggests that he was studious and of modest means. In 1264 he commissioned a copy of the Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed) by Moses Maimonides. Since there were no printing presses in Europe at the time, the only way to acquire a book for extensive personal study was to have it copied, an expensive choice indicating the intensity of interest Moses de Leon had in the Guide. Sephardic Spain was quickened by the powerful currents of Islamic philosophy and mysticism. The Mu'tazilites, seeking to ensure the rational foundations of Muslim revelation, left a strong impact on Europe. Just as al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes influenced Christian philosophical theology long after Islam turned in other directions, they equally affected Jewish thought. Maimonides (1135-1204) steeped himself in this rationalistic tradition and in the Talmud, and his Guide became the great work of Judaic rationalism. Like Maimonides, Moses de Leon searched for that heart of Judaic tradition which is at once the essence and the purity of the spiritual stream. Like Ibn al-'Arabi, he eventually rejected attempts to preserve this heart through reason alone and sought direct mystic insight.

Historians can only speculate about Moses de Leon's development. Throughout his life he maintained close contacts with prominent gnostics and Kabbalists who affirmed the reality and continuity of a secret tradition which had its origins in the time of Moses – or, according to some legends, in the discourse of angels with Adam. Though his own views display an originality suggestive of deep meditation, he was profoundly influenced by Todros Abulafia, who provided a gnostic synthesis for a variety of Kabbalistic perspectives. Isaac of Acre suggested a remarkable experience in the life of Moses de Leon. Before the Muslims conquered Acre in 1291, Isaac had been a disciple of Moses Nahmanides, who wrote Kabbalistic interpretations of the Torah, calling them "the true way". After the conquest, Isaac journeyed to Italy, where he heard that his teacher had possessed the Sepher ha-Zohar, the Book of Splendour. Nahmanides sent it by ship to his son in Catalonia, but a storm drove the ship to Alicante, where the Zohar came into the hands of Moses de Leon. Whether the story is true or apocryphal, the Zohar became the central focus and inspiration of Moses de Leon's life.

The mystery of the Zohar and of Moses de Leon's relationship to it sparked controversy as soon as he began to circulate portions of it. Some Kabbalists thought that Moses de Leon had edited ancient materials, parts of which were written by Simeon ben Jochai, one of the Tannaim of the second century. Others believed that the Zohar was almost wholly the creation of Moses de Leon himself, but they agreed about its gnostic authenticity and used it in the formulation and elaboration of their thought. The Zohar nourished the entire Jewish community for centuries, becoming the only book to rank in religious authority with the Torah and Talmud. With the advent of the Enlightenment, the reaffirmation of the use of reason in strict logical modes brought new respect for the Guide of Maimonides. In a sense, the Zohar and the Guide are the golden pans in the scale of Judaic thought: where they have been revered, Keneset Yisrael – the community of Israel – has flourished, and where they have been ignored, the community has drifted into secular materialism and lost its spiritual inspiration. Though the debate continues to this day along modified lines and amongst scholars often lacking in feeling for either text, in the nineteenth century H.P. Blavatsky stated that Moses de Leon had older materials that he edited and synthesized into the work known to history as the Zohar. Like the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the text which survives in public history can be dated, but the materials from which it was drawn cannot. H.P. Blavatsky added that the expression given to the Zohar by Moses de Leon allowed for the emergence of the "Christian Kabbalah", a Christian interpretation of the Kabbalah which eventually degenerated into attempts to use the Kabbalah to support Christian dogma.

Whilst Moses de Leon basked in the sunlight of the Zohar even while editing it for publication, he resided in Guadalajara. There he copied sections of the Zohar for serious students of the Kabbalah, and they began to make use of it. Isaac ibn Abu Sahulah quoted it first in his writings in 1281. As if the phase of preparation for making the Zohar publicly accessible was finished, Moses de Leon began to wander amid mystic circles in 1292 and issued writings over his own name. All or part of fourteen of his twenty-four treatises survive, though only two have ever been printed. The first, Shushan Eduth (Rose of Testimony), was followed by Sepher ha-Rimmon (Book of the Pomegranate), which draws from the same part of the Zohar used by Abu Sahulah. Todros Abulafia began to use the Book of Splendour, and soon Moses de Leon dedicated his own writings to Abulafia. Eventually Moses de Leon settled in Avila, where he lived out his last years with his wife and daughter in relative poverty. In 1305 he journeyed to Valladolid, seat of the royal court, and whilst there Isaac of Acre sought him out. When Isaac recounted the stories he had heard in Italy and expressed some doubt that Nahmanides could have transmitted an ancient text that Isaac, his own disciple, knew nothing of, Moses de Leon not only confirmed the tale but promised to show Isaac the original manuscript in Avila, an offer made to no other friend or associate. Unfortunately, as Moses de Leon travelled towards Avila, he fell ill in Arévalo and died. When Isaac reached Avila, both the widow and daughter of Moses de Leon denied the existence of the manuscript. The offer and the denial constituted the basis for most subsequent arguments over the authorship of the Zohar.

Within the Kabbalah, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are alive with mystical significance. Combined in various ways, they contain the dynamics and architectonics of macrocosm and microcosm. By correlation, words embody forces, and the names of Deity are the secret powers of Nature. The Sage who knows these names in their true form has control of these forces, and, when they are mastered on the level of carefully prepared consciousness, they are channels for the profoundest penetration of the mystery of divine emanation. Moses de Leon came to be known amongst people as 'the Man of the Name' because, they believed, he could work wonders through the use of divine Names. He set forth the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the ten sephiroth, as the hierarchical structure of manifest existence, the stages of mental unfoldment and spiritual awakening, and the keys to understanding the inner meaning of sacred writing. Though recognizing in him a great spiritual philosopher, many companions were puzzled by his willingness to reveal the Zohar, even if in veiled form, and he felt a need to make his purpose clear. In 1293 he wrote the Mishkan ha-Eduth:

You will now see that I am revealing deep and secret mysteries which the holy sages regarded as sacred and hidden, profound matters which properly speaking are not fit for revelation so that they may not become a target for the wit of every idle person. These holy men of old have pondered all their lives over these things and have hidden them, and did not reveal them to everyone, and now I have come to reveal them. Therefore keep them to yourself. . . .
One generation passes away and another generation comes, but the errors and falsehoods abide forever. And no one sees and no one hears and no one awakens, for they are all asleep, for a deep sleep from God has fallen upon them, so that they do not question and do not read and do not search out. And when I saw all this I found myself constrained to write and to conceal and to ponder, in order to reveal it to all thinking men, and to make known all these things with which the holy sages of old concerned themselves all their lives. . . .
They saw that the time had not come to reveal and publish them. Even as the wise king has said to Us: "Speak not in the ears of a fool." Yet I have come to recognize that it would be a meritorious deed to bring to light what was in the dark and to make known the secret matters which they have hidden.

Moses de Leon committed himself to making the mystical perspective accessible, but he did not pretend to set it out as a common doctrine. Even while rejecting dogmatic and ritualistic orthodoxy, he was disturbed by Kabbalistic schools that pursued the significance of the sephiroth intellectually without seeing the implications for consciousness and correlative modes of living. Whilst the manuscripts that bear his name, written in Hebrew, differ significantly in content from the Zohar, composed in Aramaic mixed with Hebrew, they illuminate one another on many subjects. Moses de Leon says little about, but clearly implies, the centrality of the sephiroth to understanding the hidden causal dimension of Nature. According to the Zohar and to Maimonides, Absolute Deity is utterly Transcendent, Unknowable and Unthinkable to minds made finite through embodiment in manifest existence. Called Am Soph in the Kabbalah, It is perpetually veiled by shekhinah, the curtain of relative existence that both hides and intimates the Absolute, the Voice of Deity, the light that rises in Darkness without comprehending It, the congeries of shadows that obscure unlimited Light.

Shekhinah is the divine presence which is existence, the body of the Most High, the bride of the Divine. This screen of potentiality is made potent through the manifestation of the sephiroth. In ontological order, kether the crown is first, containing like a seed all that follows. So transcendent is this centre of light that Kabbalists argued whether it can be equated with Am Soph, roughly analogous to the Buddhist debate over the equation Nirvana = Samsara. At the second level, kether manifests its latent polarity as hokhmah (wisdom) and binah (intelligence), these three constituting the highest Triad of manifestation. Complete in themselves, they are sometimes seen as synthesized or reflected at the level of universals in da'ath (knowledge), the parameters of practical omniscience.

The emergence of particulars (objects and their qualities) requires further differentiation of the primal potential, and this is accomplished in the dissolution of da'ath into seven further sephiroth. The second triad consists of chesed (love), geburah (power) and tiphereth (harmonic beauty and divine proportionality). This triad is itself reflected as a third triad in netzah (victory), hod (splendour) and yezod (foundation), all of which are once again brought together in the world of the senses, malkuth or the kingdom. These ten centres, which are really one – the Point in the Circle of infinite existence, unfolded, so to speak, as the moving image of the Eternal – can be arranged in a Tree of Lights. The upper triad points upward to that which is beyond perception, conception and experience as an individuated consciousness. The second and third triads point downward in descending order, and malkuth is the base towards which they point. Just as sunlight flows down a tree only to be transmuted in the roots to life-giving sap which rises again to the foliaceous heights, so shekhinah emanates in and from kether to malkuth, and men may rise along the paths of the sephiroth to join in spiritual awareness with kether on the threshold of the Mystery of which no one dare speak.

The Sephirothal Tree has as its trunk kether, which exhibits itself in tiphereth, the harmonic heart of the tree, which is refracted as the foundation (yezod) of the whole kingdom (malkuth). On the right side of the tree, wisdom (hokhmah) awakens in compassionate love, chesed, true charity, which is the basis of netzah, the power to overcome limiting conditions. This side is the pillar of mercy, the capacity for freedom within the world of relativity. On the left side of the tree, intelligence (binah) manifests as power (geburah), which is the basis of splendour (hod) in the shifting shapes of the world. This side is the pillar of justice, the ability to become responsible within law-governed cycles of necessity. The Tree of Life is the key to understanding Nature, but for Moses de Leon and the Zohar it is much more. As the structure and energy of the cosmos, it is also the root configuration of consciousness and the path of the soul to full development as a centre of omniscience. When the soul is wholly awakened, shekhinah has focussed in it, and the being who has attained this exalted state is a direct reflection of Deity on earth.

In deciding to make the Zohar accessible to humanity, though in an edited and probably veiled form that still protects those innermost secrets which connect the Zohar with the Chaldean Book of Numbers, Moses de Leon affirmed the spiritual equality of all human beings. Nevertheless, he recognized with the Zohar that there are vast differences between individuals in respect to mental capacities, perceptions, tendencies and abilities. Given the equality of all beings by virtue of each being in the Sephirothal Tree just as the Tree is in each one, these differences are ultimately explicable only in terms of reincarnation. Gilgul, literally, 'rolling', came to mean 'reincarnation' amongst the Kabbalists. Hinted at in the Talmud, gilgul was first set forth in the Sefer ha-Bahir, the earliest purely Kabbalistic work, though it had been openly taught by Anan ben David and the ascetic Karaites centuries earlier. Gilgul explains the nature of suffering and why individuals seem to receive unmerited blessings or troubles. Whilst metaphysically the doctrine might be considered neutral, many Kabbalists saw it as punishment from an ethical point of view. Whereas the perfected human being, truly righteous in the deepest spiritual sense, need not incarnate again, even the greatest sinner who, strictly speaking, merits extinction is given a chance for repentance through gilgul. Although gilgul is a kind of self-imposed punishment, it is also the mercy of the Divine, "from whom no one is cast off forever". The righteous human being, zaddik, freed from involuntary reincarnation, nevertheless does not abandon humanity: he willingly takes birth again and again for the benefit of the cosmos and every creature within it. When the world grows dark with ignorance, the zaddikim incarnate to serve as witnesses to the truth through righteous living and discourse. Later Kabbalists sometimes thought that human souls could reincarnate in animal forms, sometimes equating hell with such incarnation, but Moses de Leon and the Zohar taught that once a soul had attained the human state, it could only incarnate in human forms.

If the Tree of Life is the structure of relative reality and the path to divine consciousness, it is also the root of good and evil. Being light, it casts shadows, and this derivative darkness constitutes a kind of inverted black tree. Just as souls must make their way along the razor-edged paths between sephiroth, they can get caught in the tangled branches of the dark tree. One who dies after an unrepentant life of perverse wrongdoing risks reincarnating as a dibbuk, an evil spirit that can enter human forms and work evil. At its worst, such a being becomes a black magician, the counterfeit of the zaddik, the perfected man of righteousness. The term 'soul' should not be concretized, for the mystery of individuality is as great as the Sephirothal Tree, and just as visible nature hides the myriad forces of cosmic Nature, so physical bodies are vehicles for complex psycho-spiritual realities. Thus, it might happen that an individual came close to perfection but was unable to fulfil some aspect of righteousness in a particular incarnation. If sufficiently developed, that individual might overbrood another being who is fulfilling it. By extension, the doctrines of spiritual learning, of Teacher and disciple, and of transmission of wisdom involve processes on many invisible levels that cannot be recognized or conveyed merely in terms of empirical observation. For Moses de Leon, gilgul is the justification for Law (Torah). Since human beings cannot discriminate on the basis of externals, they gain knowledge through the performance of duty, known from application of universal principles. Moses de Leon saw in the Tree of Life and in the interpretive modes of the Zohar a complete and all-encompassing way of life, spiritual, mental and ethical.

History is replete with ironies. Amongst them is the strange fact that whilst the Zohar became the most venerated book outside of the Torah and Talmud, affecting the whole of subsequent Judaism, and opened the door of the Kabbalah to Christian thinkers from the Renaissance to the present, almost nothing is known of Moses de Leon who offered it to humanity. Like rare Teachers throughout history, he walked with steps so sure that the landscape of human consciousness is permanently altered, yet he left almost no tracks. Such individuals bring the fresh perspectives of meditative insight to time-honoured traditions (Kabbalah means 'tradition') because they serve as instruments of the Invisible. Perhaps Moses de Leon would allow the Zohar to stand as his spiritual biography, and perhaps its comprehensive standpoint gives the best clues to his real thoughts and intentions:

All that which is found upon the earth has its spiritual counterpart on High, and there does not exist the smallest thing in the world which is not itself attached to something on High and is not found in dependence on it. . . . All that which is contained in the Lower World is also found in the Upper. The Lower and the Upper reciprocally act upon each other.
Spiritual Man is both the import and the highest degree of creation. . . . As soon as Man was created, everything was complete, including the Upper and Lower worlds, for everything is comprised in Man. He unites in Himself all the forms.

I am the fresh taste of the water; I
The silver of the moon, the gold o' the sun,
The word of worship in the Veds, the thrill
That passeth in the ether, and the strength
Of man's shed seed. Jam the good sweet smell
Of the moistened earth, Jam the fire's red light,
The vital air moving in all which moves,
The holiness of hallowed souls, the root
Undying, whence hath sprung whatever is.