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Gershom Scholem – On the Kabbalah and its symbolism - Trees of Life and Knowledge



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Gershom Scholem – On the Kabbalah and its symbolism

The Tree of Life was identified (even before the Zohar) with the written Torah, while the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil was identified with the oral Torah. In this connection the written Torah, it goes without saying, is considered as an absolute, while the oral Torah deals with the modalities of the Torah's application in the earthly world. This conception is not as paradoxical as it may seem at first sight.

For the Kabbalists, the written Torah was indeed an absolute, which as such cannot be fully and directly apprehended by the human mind. It is the tradition which first makes the Torah accessible to the human understanding, by showing the ways and means by which it can be applied to Jewish life. For an orthodox Jew-and we must not forget that in their own minds the Kabbalists were orthodox Jews-the written Torah alone, without the tradition, which is the oral Torah, would be open to all sorts of heretical misinterpretation. It is the oral Torah that determines a Jew's actual conduct. It is easy to see how the oral Torah came to be identified- as it was by all the early Kabbalists-with the new mystical conception of the Shekhtinah, which was regarded as the divine potency that governs the Congregation of Israel and is manifested in it.

The author of the Ra’ya Mehemna and the Tikkunim, however, gave this symbolism a new turn that was fraught with consequences. For him the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil came to symbolize that part of the Torah which distinguished good and evil, clean and unclean, etc. But at the same time this tree suggested to him the power that evil can gain over good in times of sin and especially in times of exile. Thus the Tree of Knowledge became the tree of restrictions, prohibitions, and delimitations, whereas the Tree of Life was the tree of freedom, symbolic of an age when the dualism of good and evil was not yet (or no longer) conceivable, and everything bore witness to the unity of divine life, as yet untouched by any restrictions, by the power of death, or any of the other negative aspects of life, which made their appearance only after the fall of man. These restrictive, limitative aspects of the Torah are perfectly legitimate in the world of sin, in the unredeemed world, and in such a world the Torah could not have assumed any other form. Only after the fall and its far-reaching consequences did the Torah take on the material and limited aspect in which it appears to us today. It is quite in keeping with this view that the Tree of Life should have come to represent the utopian aspect of the Torah.  From this standpoint it was perfectly plausible to identify the Torah as Tree of Life with the mystical Torah and the Torah as Tree of Knowledge of good and evil with the historical Torah. Here, of course, we have a striking example of the typological exegesis to which the author of the Ra’ya Mehemna and the Tikkunim was so given.

But we must go one step further. The author connects this dualism of the trees with the two different sets of tablets that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. According to an old Talmudic tradition, the venom of the serpent which had corrupted Eve and through her all mankind, lost its strength through the Revelation on Mount Sinai, but regained it when Israel began to worship the golden calf. The Kabbalistic author interprets this in his own way.

The first tablets, which had been given before Israel sinned with the golden calf but which apart from Moses no one had read, came from the Tree of Life. The second tablets, which were given after the first had been broken, came from the Tree of Knowledge.

The meaning is clear: the first tablets contained a revelation of the Torah in keeping with the original state of man, when he was governed by the principle embodied in the Tree of Life. This was a truly spiritual Torah, bestowed upon a world in which Revelation and Redemption coincided, in which everything was holy and there was no need to hold the powers of uncleanness and death in check by prohibitions and restrictions. In this Torah the mystery was fully revealed. But the utopian moment soon vanished.  Then the first tablets were broken, 'the letters engraved on them flew away,' that is, the purely spiritual element receded; since then it has been visible only to mystics, who can perceive it even beneath the new outer garments in which it appeared on the second tablets.

The source of the experience

Judaism and Kabbalah

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