The stakes couldn’t be higher: extraction of light from the container of sound; ascent to the Throne of God and direct vision of His Glory; the eradication of coarseness and the forces of darkness; a path to redemption, sometimes through sin; the achievement of erotic union on high—which is to say, the sacred marriage of feminine and masculine aspects within the Deity. “Great is the power of the poem recited for the sake of heaven,” writes one late-seventeenth-century North African Kabbalist poet. “It unites all the [spiritual] qualities like a sacrificial offering, aligns the [heavenly] channels, and gives rise to effulgence in all worlds—above and below.”
In this Kabbalistic context, poems not only depict a mystical process, they produce it. Seeking a return to the primordial harmony destroyed with the catastrophe of creation and Adam’s transgression in Eden, those who compose and utter the lines of mystical hymns take part in the continual reconfiguration of the cosmos. For the letters of the alphabet, or aleph-bet, are, a medieval Iberian Hebrew text tells us, nothing less than “the powers of God...engraved on the throne.... They are called the angels of the living God.” And according to late-phase Hasidic Kabbalah, the letters of the Torah are each “a palace or chamber inhabited by the divine presence.” Combined in the proper manner, they lead to the revelation of the Infinite’s radiance.
As with the gain, however, so with the potential for debilitating strain in the scheme of this at once conservative and truly experimental poetics, where the level of risk is raised to an almost impossible pitch. The Talmud warns of the threats that await a person who would hazard the halls of the upper palaces—apostasy, insanity, and death (spiritual or actual). Of the famous four sages who entered that place of esoteric interpretation seeking knowledge of this potent sort, only one returned in peace.
Given the danger that attends to Kabbalistic inquiry, why, then, submit oneself to an equivalent peril on the literary plane—the gauntlet of abstractions and the incessant mixing of mythic metaphors that dominate the textual landscapes of Kabbalah? What, apart from a historical and armchair sense of the intense religious experience of spiritual adepts, does Kabbalah—and specifically the poetry of Kabbalah—have to tell us as readers today?
For one, long before Frenchified notions of trace and erasure took hold, a Kabbalistic poetics was drawing attention to aspects of language-in-action that slip readers into (as D.H. Lawrence put it in a wholly different context) a “dawn-kaleidoscopic” world of ramifying meaning where absence and presence evoke one another. Contemporary literary culture tends to doubt the power of poetry and is suspicious of verse that takes as its subject its own medium. But hymns treating the (implicitly parallel) nature of divine and human creation, and the language that leads to that creation, lie at “the heart of the heart” of Kabbalah’s country. No less an authority than Gershom Scholem—the great twentieth-century scholar of Jewish mysticism and a writer of almost clairvoyant powers—identified “the indissoluble link [in Kabbalah] between the idea of the revealed truth and the notion of language,” calling this perhaps the most important legacy that Judaism bequeathed to the history of religions. He writes of the conviction held by many Kabbalists that
the language—the medium—in which the spiritual life of man is accomplished, or consummated, includes an inner property, an aspect which does not altogether merge or disappear in the relationships of communication between men . . . in all such attempts there is something else vibrating.
So it is that Kabbalistic poems in Hebrew and Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish, and Judeo-Arabic have moved generations of readers who may have understood only a small part of that literature’s esoteric import. Working like verbal spirit traps, the poems of the Jewish mystical tradition precipitate a sense of transcendence, which becomes palpable long before it is fathomable.
That core element Scholem discerned, out of which all other qualities of speech and the world are formed, points to the Name of God as the metaphysical origin of language. Hence the Provençal Kabbalist Isaac the Blind’s circa-1200 image of the inverted tree of divine might, whose roots (in heaven) consist of this Name, and the letters of which are branches and leaves that dangle down and appear as flickering flames of words and things. (“The letter,” according to Isaac, “is the element of cosmic writing.”) And so, too, the idea put forth in the thirteenth century by the Kabbalist and visionary poet Avraham Abulafia that letters are “the mystery that lies at the basis of the ‘host’ (of all things)...every letter is a sign (symbol) and indication of creation.” As Abulafia saw it, the mind, hand, pen, ink, and parchment form a continuum analogous to that of the worlds on high and below.
There is, to be sure, more to the poetry of Kabbalah than an embrace of language as a pertinent subject for verse, and the poems in the anthology from which this portfolio is drawn are also highly charged carriers of actual practice—crystallizations of both the simplest and most abstruse notions that have occupied Kabbalistic circles from the early Middle Ages and into the twenty-first century. While the conceptual range of the poetry seems at first glance rarefied (and in need of being “translated” by readers into a form fit for their own use), the questions that the poems engage could not be more substantial. They cover a broad spectrum of timeless concerns, asking, for instance, what it means to maintain a vital connection through speech to the spirit and why consciousness of majesty matters in the world of an ordinary week. From early on, this tradition considers how first things are bound to what comes last, and where the present stands in relation to both. Beginning in the eleventh century—though some would say much earlier—Eros enters the esoteric equation, and the poems take up the question of how that might inform a faithful existence. (In fact, the erotic dimension of Kabbalah becomes so central that coupling, the endlessly complex interplay between masculine and feminine aspects of creation, has been described as being, for Kabbalists, “the secret and foundation of all existence.”) Later, the tradition looks at the ways in which a perception of cosmic exile alters our sense of being in place, and where and how darkness and evil figure in this mix. From the start, however, the hymns of the Jewish mystical tradition demonstrate how song—almost magically, and at times with actual magic—can conduct and preserve transformative knowledge, even for those who don’t quite know what they know. Moreover, they show how a vision of the manifold linkage of all things and all degrees of thought and feeling might be registered in the cadence and weave of a line of verse, a series of wedded sounds in the air.
Poet and translator Peter Cole was born in Paterson, New Jersey. His collections of poetry include Rift (1989), Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008), The Invention of Influence (2014), and Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (2017). With Adina Hoffman, he wrote the nonfiction volume Sacred Trash:...