Jul 16, 2014

A Jewish Esoteric School

The Quiet Presence of Theosophy, or 
Universal Wisdom, in the Hebrew Tradition

Carlos Cardoso Aveline

Moses Maimonides, Helena Blavatsky and a recent edition of “The Guide for the Perplexed”

For almost 2,000 years, anti-Semitism has been a self-inflicted wound and a disgrace in human civilization.

Through the systematic persecution of Jewish nation and tradition, Western Culture has deprived itself of some of its greatest treasures, in ethics, in wisdom, humanism, and spirituality.

For dozens of centuries, generation upon generation of Jewish citizens have been slandered, humiliated, put in prisons, tortured, assassinated, or forced into accepting Christianity as a practical means to avoid being killed.  

Operating under the discreet blessings of the Vatican priests in the first half of 20th century, Nazi-Fascism was an especially intense stage in such a process of fratricide. Even in the 21st century, anti-Semitism is popular in more than one country. And this, one must confess, is due in part to the significant limitations of the modern theosophical effort.  

In spite of many obstacles, however, students of esoteric philosophy have been slowly helping to build the foundations of a civilization which will live in harmony with the law of universal brotherhood. Theosophy has decisive things to say about the Jewish culture. That includes discussing its failures, its strength, and its essential unity with the eternal wisdom of all nations. In that which matters most, Theosophy is a natural ally to the Jewish tradition. Esoteric philosophy defends humanistic values, proclaims the right to religious diversity and advocates liberty of thought. It also condemns religious movements which persecute, kill, or make wars in the name of any god.  

Regarding the negative aspects of the Jewish religion, there are criticisms in the books of Helena Blavatsky.  Frank debate and self-criticism are essential features of the Jewish tradition, and the Jews share this habit with the Russian culture where Blavatsky was born.

While Theosophy sees limitations in the conventional Judaism as a religion, its views regarding Islam and Christianity are much more severe. One reason for this is in the accumulated Karma of these two domineering and violent religions. In “Isis Unveiled” and other writings, Blavatsky strongly attacks the main long-term sources of persecution against the Jewish people: the dogmatic aspect of Christianity and the theological policies of the Vatican. She writes:  

“However superhuman the efforts of the early Christian fathers to obliterate the Secret Doctrine from the very memory of man, they all failed.”

And a few lines later she adds: 

“Verily, the fiendish spirits of fanaticism, of early and mediaeval Christianity and of Islam, have from the first loved to dwell in darkness and ignorance; and both have made

…………… the sun like blood, the earth a tomb,
The tomb a hell, and hell itself a murkier gloom!”

Blavatsky proceeds:

“Both creeds have won their proselytes at the point of the sword; both have built their churches on heaven-kissing hecatombs of human victims.”[1]

And these victims were often Jewish.

The Theosophy of Judaism

The Jewish “Seal of Solomon”, above, is also an
ancient sacred symbol  in Eastern philosophies and religions

The presence of universal wisdom in the Hebrew tradition is mentioned - and quoted from - throughout the classical theosophical literature. The numberless evidences of the common ground between Judaism and Theosophy start with the very seal of Solomon, which is an ancient sacred symbol in Eastern philosophies and religions.

In his well-known book “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) discusses what he himself calls the theosophical principles of the Jewish Mercabah. Then the Chapter six in the same work is entitled “Zohar: Its Theosophical Doctrine”. This 1941 book describes nooks and corners of the immense area of knowledge shared by Theosophy and Judaism.

In the present phase of human karma and evolution, such a common ground is necessary not only to these two fields of knowledge, but to others as well.  A lasting peace and reconciliation among different cultures can only emerge from a correct vision of the broader context, historical, philosophical and religious. This means that both Islam and Christianity must gradually identify, acknowledge and undergo a reconciliation with their main common source, which is, of course, the Jewish religion. On the other hand, Judaism has its own sources to acknowledge and reconcile with, which are ultimately Eastern traditions. For Oriental wisdom is older than Western religions.    

One can read in “The Secret Doctrine” that the Siphrah Dzeniouta is “the most ancient Hebrew document on occult learning”. A few lines below there is a reference to an ancient volume which constitutes the source of the Eastern esoteric “book of Kiu-ti” and of other philosophical works of great antiquity.   It says:

“The ‘very old Book’ is the original work from which the many volumes of Kiu-ti were compiled. Not only this latter and the Siphrah Dzeniouta but even the Sepher Jezirah, the work attributed by the Hebrew Kabalists to their Patriarch Abraham (!), the book of Shu-king, China’s primitive Bible, the sacred volumes of the Egyptian Thoth-Hermes, the Puranas in India, and the Chaldean Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch itself, are all derived from that one small parent volume. Tradition says, that it was taken down in Senzar, the secret sacerdotal tongue, from the words of the Divine Beings, who dictated it to the sons of Light, in Central Asia…” [2]

According to Theosophy, there are esoteric schools of universal wisdom based in the Himalayas whose ramifications are present in different continents.[3] Jewish culture is not entirely separate from this long-term common effort to protect human evolution. It is only natural therefore that H. P. Blavatsky gives evidence in “Isis Unveiled” of an active esoteric school, or occult tradition, among the Hebrew.

She writes:

“The Old Testament was compiled and arranged from oral tradition; the masses never knew its real meaning, for Moses was ordered to impart the ‘hidden truths’ but to his seventy elders on whom the ‘Lord’ put of the spirit which was upon the legislator. Maimonides, whose authority and whose knowledge of the sacred history can hardly be rejected, says: ‘Whoever shall find out the true sense of the book of Genesis ought to take care not to divulge it. . . . .  If a person should discover the true meaning of it by himself, or by the aid of another, then he ought to be silent; or, if he speaks of it, he ought to speak of it but obscurely and in an enigmatical manner’.” [4]

Blavatsky shows then the importance of such words by Maimonides:  

“This confession, that what is written in the Holy Writ is but an allegory, was made by other Jewish authorities besides Maimonides; for we find Josephus stating that Moses ‘philosophized’ (spoke riddles in figurative allegory), when writing the book of Genesis. Therefore modern science, by neglecting to unriddle the true sense of the Bible, and by allowing the whole of Christendom to go on believing in the dead letter of the Jewish theology, tacitly constitutes herself the confederate of the fanatical clergy. She has no right to ridicule the records of a people who never wrote them with the idea that they would receive such a strange interpretation at the hands of an inimical religion. That their holiest texts should be turned against them and that the dead men’s bones could have smothered the spirit of truth, is the saddest feature of Christianity!”

These are clear words.  Blavatsky adds:

“For over fifteen centuries, thanks to the blindly-brutal persecutions of those great vandals of early Christian history, Constantine and Justinian, ancient WISDOM slowly degenerated until it gradually sank into the deepest mire of monkish superstition and ignorance.” (“Isis Unveiled”, Vol. I, p. 436)

In spite of persecution, ancient wisdom is alive in the Jewish tradition, as H. P. B. shows in many a place, usually amidst apparent criticisms. One has to read beneath the surface and identify the key sentences in what she writes. In her article “The Kabalah and the Kabalists”, she admits the Jewish Kabalah is an Occult key.  She compares in this text Hebrew to Sanskrit as occult languages, and shows Hebrew to be much weaker than the Eastern language. Still it is a deep and occult language, as she demonstrates during the comparison. Other languages may not even deserve such an examination. In her text “Tetragrammaton”, H. P. B. declares she is discussing the concept of Tetragrammaton  according to the “Zohar” and on the basis of the explanations given her “personally by a Hebrew initiated Rabbi, in Palestine”. (“Collected Writings”, H.P.B., TPH, volume VIII, p. 142). In the same text, H.P.B. says she has been studying the Kabalah “for nearer forty than thirty years” (p. 140).

She had a wide and deep understanding of the Jewish literature, including the works written by Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides (1134-1204).

Secret Wisdom in “The Guide for the Perplexed”

One of the greatest Jewish sages in the Middle Ages, if not in all time, Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, and later lived in Egypt. He wrote many of his books in Arabic language. While discussing his views of the esoteric tradition. H. P. B. shows that in the Middle Ages it was not easy to completely transcend attachment to one’s specific religion. She writes:

“Maimonides (….), while expressing scorn for the esotericism in the religion of other nations, confessed esotericism and symbology in his own, preached silence and secrecy upon the true meaning of Mosaic sayings, and thus came to grief.” [5]

Theosophy says it was during the third root-race of our humanity that human beings became fully material and separated in two sexes. The process is symbolically narrated in the Jewish Torah story of Adam and Eve, later adopted by Christians. Blavatsky writes:

“Eugibinus, a Christian, and the Rabbis Samuel, Manasseh ben Israel, and Maimonides taught that ‘Adam had two faces and one person, and from the beginning he was both male and female - male on one side and female on the other (like Manu’s Brahma), but afterwards the parts were separated’.” [6]

The more one studies, the more evidences one sees of an inner wisdom in Judaism which is connected to ancient universal tradition. Apparent absurdities serve the purpose of conveying secret and symbolic meanings, and H.P.B. says:

“Very few Christians understand, if indeed they know anything at all, of the Jewish Theology. The Talmud  is the darkest of enigmas even for most Jews, while those Hebrew scholars who do comprehend it do not boast of their knowledge. (….…) Maimonides, the great Jewish theologian and historian, who at one time was almost deified by his countrymen and afterward treated as a heretic, remarks, that the more absurd and void of sense the Talmud seems the more sublime is the secret meaning. This learned man has successfully demonstrated that the Chaldean Magic, the science of Moses and other learned thaumaturgists was wholly based on an extensive knowledge of the various and now forgotten branches of natural science.” [7]

In his famous “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Maimonides repeatedly alludes - in an indirect way - to the existence of a secret school of sacred philosophy within the Jewish religion. In the Introduction to Part III of the “Guide”, he writes:

“We have stated several times that it is our primary object in this treatise to expound, as far as possible, the Biblical account of the Creation (Ma’aseh mercabah) in a manner adapted to the training of those for whom this work is written.” [8]

Thus Maimonides makes reference to a training which is available to those who deserve it.  It is interesting to see what Blavatsky writes about Mercavah or Mercabah:

“Ain-Soph, the ABSOLUTE ENDLESS NO-THING, uses also the form of the ONE, the manifested ‘Heavenly man’ (the FIRST CAUSE) as its chariot (Mercabah, in Hebrew; Vahan, in Sanskrit) or vehicle to descend into, and manifest through, in the phenomenal world.” [9]

Later on she adds:

“ ‘Whosoever acquaints himself with  the Mercabah and the lahgash (secret speech or incantation), will learn the secret of secrets’. Lahgash  is nearly identical in meaning with Vach, the hidden power of the Mantras.” [10]

True sacred teaching leads to the development of unknown potentialities in human mind for which one must be psychologically and ethically prepared. Only the Few are ready for that, for they must be qualified in their own souls, and not only in their minds.  Hence the need for secrecy.  

Maimonides proceeds in the same fragment:

“We have also stated that these subjects belong to the mysteries of the Law. You are well aware how our Sages blame those who reveal these mysteries, and praise the merits of those who keep them secret, although they are perfectly clear to the philosopher.”

In spite of obstacles and barriers,  Maimonides says in the sentence above  that the mysteries “are perfectly clear to the philosopher”.   The true philosopher has a transcendent view of things. His insight crosses the walls of protection, which were never meant to stop him, as the next lines will clarify.

In the following sentence, one must also take into consideration that, from an esoteric point of view, “the Lord” is only a symbolical personification of the Universal Law. 

Maimonides writes:

“In this sense they explain the passage ‘Her merchandise shall be for them that dwell before the Lord, to eat sufficiently’ (Isa. Xxiii.18), which concludes in the original with the words ve-li-me-kasseh ‘atik, i. e., that these blessings are promised to him who hides things which the Eternal has revealed [to him], viz., the mysteries of the Law (Babyl. Talmud, Pesahim 119a).  If you have understanding you will comprehend that which our Sages pointed out. They have clearly stated that the Divine Chariot includes matters too deep and too profound for the ordinary intellect.” 

“Divine Chariot” is the Divine Vehicle, the Divine Teachings, the instrument of Wisdom. 

The concept of “ordinary intellect” corresponds in theosophy to the idea of “the doctrine of the eye”.

It is the viewpoint of appearances, as opposed to “the doctrine of the heart” or the perception of hidden essence. (See “The Voice of the Silence”, H.P. Blavatsky)

Maimonides goes on:

“It has been shown that a person favoured by Providence with reason to understand these mysteries is forbidden by the Law to teach them except viva voce, and on condition that the pupil possess certain qualifications, and even then only the heads of the sections may be communicated.”

“Providence” is, of course,  a Western word for Karma Law. Maimonides is referring to a person who has the proper karmic merits

It is due to the ancient principle or rule of “direct oral transmission” in esoteric schools,  that Initiates seldom imparted their teachings in written form.

But such a rule creates its own problems, and Maimonides goes on:

“This has been the cause why the knowledge of this mystery has entirely disappeared from our nation, and nothing has remained of it. This was unavoidable, for the explanation of these mysteries was always communicated viva voce, it was never committed to writing. Such being the case, how can I venture to call your attention to such portions of it as may be known, intelligible and perfectly clear to me? But if, on the other hand, I were to abstain from writing on this subject, according to my knowledge of it, when I die, as I shall  inevitably do, that knowledge  would die with me, and I would thus inflict great injury on you and all those perplexed [ by these problems]. I would then be guilty of withholding the truth from those to whom it ought to be communicated, and of jealously depriving the heir of its inheritance. I should in either case be guilty of gross misconduct.”

There is karma involved in trying to help those who suffer, as there is karma involved in not helping them.  Karma is generated by teaching people on esoteric philosophy, and karma is generated by not teaching them. There is no easy or complete solution to the dilemma; yet theosophists must do as Maimonides did: they must try to help human evolution and make the world a better place by preserving the wisdom tradition. Maimonides proceeds to further explain the need for secrecy:

“To give a full explanation of the mystic passages of the Bible is contrary to the Law and to reason; besides, my knowledge of them is based on reasoning, not on divine inspiration (and is therefore not infallible).” 

Humbleness is inseparable from wise me. The text continues to say:

“I have not received my belief in this respect from any teacher but it has been formed by what I learnt from Scripture and the utterances of our Sages , and by the philosophical principles I have adopted.” 

Maimonides has not received his belief from any teacher, but if he had, there is no guarantee that he would so declare in public. While admitting that one of his sources of conviction is in the utterances of Jewish sages, he accepts full responsibility for what he says. Esoteric philosophy can be summed up - and lived up to - as a set of universal principles, often expressed in axioms. It is only natural that Maimonides says he gains insights from the philosophical principles he has adopted.  

The fragment proceeds:  

“It is therefore possible that my view is wrong, and that I misunderstood the passages referred to.”

This statement has the advantage of protecting tradition against blind belief. Since the source of knowledge is not seen as infallible, each student must think by himself. This leads him to self-responsibility by having to judge and evaluate the validity or otherwise of the teaching. In the process, a true, inner affinity with the teaching emerges in the consciousness of the truth-seeker.  

The next sentences close the fragment we are discussing from “The Guide”. They refer to the prophet Ezekiel, whose vision happens to be extensively discussed by Blavatsky [11]. 

Maimonides says:

“Correct thought and divine help have suggested to me the proper method, viz., to explain the words of the prophet Ezekiel in such a manner that those who will read my interpretation will believe that I have not added anything to the contents of the text, but only, as it were, translated from one language into another, or given a short exposition of plain things.  Those, however, for whom this treatise has been composed, will, on reflecting on it and thoroughly examining each chapter, obtain a perfect and clear insight into all that has been clear and intelligible to me. This is the utmost that can be done in treating this subject so as to be useful to all without fully explaining it.”

This very same editorial line has been followed by H.P.B.  in writing “Isis Unveiled”, “The Secret Doctrine”, and other works.  Since secrets have to be preserved, occult subjects must be treated in a “useful” way, “without fully explaining” them.

Different Levels of Meaning

The words of a sage have several levels of meaning.  The secret language often flows inside the outer or public speech, and it is exclusively addressed to those who “have ears to hear”, in the expression ascribed to that Jewish sage, Jesus or Jehoshua,  in conversation with his disciples in Matthew, 11: 9-16.  

In a chapter dedicated to the symbolical language of the prophets, Maimonides explains:

“If we hear a person speaking whose language we do not understand, we undoubtedly know that he speaks, but do not know what his words mean; it may even happen that we hear some words which mean one thing in the tongue of the speaker, and exactly the reverse in our language, and taking the words in the sense which they have in our language, we imagine that the speaker employed them in that sense. Suppose, e.g., an Arab hears of a Hebrew the word abah, he thinks that the Hebrew relates how a man despised and refused a certain thing, whilst the Hebrew in reality says that the man was pleased and satisfied with it. The very same thing happens to the ordinary reader of the Prophets; some of their words he does not understand at all, like those to whom the prophet says (Isa. XXIX, 11), ‘the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed’; in other passages he finds the opposite or the reverse of what the prophet meant; to this case reference is made in the words ‘Ye have perverted the words of the living God’ (Jer. XXIII, 36). Besides, is must be borne in mind that every prophet has his own peculiar diction, which is, as it were, his language, and it is in that language that the prophecy addressed to him is communicated to those who understand it.” [12]

Maimonides then goes on to make a detailed analysis of the symbolical language used in Biblical texts, which often refer to celestial events involving the Sun, the Moon and stars to actually mean changes in states of consciousness in a nation or individual, due to the creation of new karmic situations.

A Story by Martin Buber

Esoteric books are not esoteric just because some of them are kept away from the public.  

Every great work or text is sealed in itself, in a way. Its higher layers of meaning can only be understood from the point of view of a universal, selfless and intuitive consciousness which not every reader has already attained.

This factor is present in the works of Helena Blavatsky and in every deep writing. One has to have the right point of view in order to really see what is written in them, and part of a student’s discipline is to learn to develop a sort of “second attention”; a  compassionate, but also impersonal, look at life. 

The use of parables and symbolism is an important tool in the process of transcending dead letter and awakening to a wider perception of teachings and events. If progress is achieved, however, what sort of events can take place in the lives of those who awaken to “a new sky and a new earth”? 

And what are the dangers involved?

A very short story, told by Jewish author Martin Buber, makes a fine example of that. It has to do with the Sabbath and with undue curiosity. It also reveals an aspect of the inner side of Jewish wisdom which is in perfect accordance with some aspects of Eastern esoteric philosophy.     

Martin Buber writes:

“In Lublin the Afternoon Prayer was delayed even on the Sabbath.  Before this prayer, the rabbi sat alone in his room every Sabbath, and no one was permitted to enter it.  Once a Hasid hid there to find out what happened on these occasions. All he saw at first was that the rabbi seated himself at the table and opened a book. But then a vast light began to shine in the narrow room, and when he saw it the Hasid became unconscious. He came to himself when the rabbi left the room, and he too went out as soon as he fully regained consciousness. In the entrance, he saw nothing, but he heard them saying the evening prayer and realized with horror that the candles must be lit and that he, notwithstanding, was surrounded by utter darkness. He was terrified, implored the rabbi to help him, and was sent to another city, to a man who was known to perform miraculous cures. He asked the Hasid about the circumstances of his going blind, and he told him.  ‘There is no cure for you’, said the man. ‘You have seen the original light, the light on the days of creation, which empowered the first  people on the earth to see from one end of the world to the other, which was hidden after their sinning, and  is only revealed to zadikim [holy men] in the  Torah. Whoever beholds it unlawfully - his eyes will be darkened for ever.” [13]

Curiosity, or the desire to know, is a nice feeling as long as it is addressed to wisdom itself, and not merely to its outer dimensions. One has also to use legitimate means to satisfy one’s curiosity. As H. P. Blavatsky wrote in her article “Chelas and Lay Chelas”[14], one must “deserve, then desire”. 

Every attempt to steal knowledge is disastrous in one way or another.

The Meeting Point of All Religions

What is then one legitimate means, among others, by which one can obtain mystical knowledge and reduce the gap between one’s own consciousness and the consciousness of the zadikim or holy men?

A Hasidic fragment makes a few practical recommendations:

“Think of yourself as nothing, and totally forget yourself when you pray. Only have in mind that you are praying for the Divine Presence.”

“You can then enter the Universe of Thought, a state that is beyond time. Everything in this realm is the same, life and death, land and sea….. But in order to enter the Universe of Thought where all is the same, you must relinquish your ego, and forget all your troubles.”

“You cannot reach this level if you attach yourself to physical, worldly things. You are then attached to the division between good and evil, which is included in the seven days of creation. How then can you approach a level above time, where absolute unity reigns?”

“Furthermore, if you consider yourself as ‘something’, and ask for your own needs, God cannot clothe himself in you. God is infinite, and no vessel can hold Him at all, except when a person makes himself like Nothing.”[15] 

“God” is, of course, no “Lord” actually. It is the impersonal Universal Law, or the living, infinite and boundless Universe itself.

The condition which enables one to attain a direct contact with the Law according to this Hasidic teaching corresponds to the Buddhist Void.

Religions are like rivers: wisdom itself is the Ocean.  Through the constant process of evaporation, the Ocean feeds the clouds in the sky, one of whose functions is to keep rivers alive. So the Ocean of Wisdom is both the destiny and the source of the rivers of devotion and search for truth.

Judaism is no shallow religion. It is deep enough for everyone to see that its highest essence - the waters of life - is present in other religions and philosophies. The same can be said, of course, of other rivers of classical knowledge. Among them are Taoism, Raja Yoga, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism - and the more recent Christian and Islamic sects, which borrowed so much from Judaism, and which must learn to respect the Hebrew tradition as their Source.

There is of course nothing necessarily wrong about borrowing knowledge from other fields, as long as it is not stolen or taken by violence. All fields of knowledge can learn from each other, for life is truly an interdisciplinary effort in search for wisdom and happiness, and mutual help is part of the One Law.

Each tradition which unconditionally respects Life constitutes in its own way the center of all human wisdom. For universal knowledge is like the Circle of Pascal, whose Center is potentially everywhere, and whose substance can belong to no one.   

Human beings are all brothers and sisters, and in spite of what blind dogmatisms may say, fratricide is against the One Law.  An unconditional respect for All Life, on the other hand, opens the way to truth, to wisdom, to peace - and to inner happiness.


[1] “The Secret Doctrine”, Helena P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, Vol. I, “Introductory”, p. xl.

[2] “The Secret Doctrine”, H. P. Blavatsky, Vol. I, p. xliii.

[3] “The Secret Doctrine”, Vol. I,  p. xxiii.

[4] “Isis Unveiled”, Helena P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, Volume I, pp. 435-436.

[5] “The Secret Doctrine”, Vol. II, pp. 456-457.

[6] “The Secret Doctrine”, Vol. II, p. 134, footnote.

[7] “Isis Unveiled”, Volume I, p. 17.

[8] “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Moses Maimonides, Dover Publications, New York, a reprint from   its 1956 edition, 414 pp.,  pp. 251-252.

[9] “The Secret Doctrine”, Vol. I, p. 214.

[10] “The Secret Doctrine”, Vol. I, p. 354.

[11] A discussion of Ezekiel’s wheel and vision will be found at “Isis Unveiled”, by H. P. Blavatsky, Vol. II, Chapter IX, especially pp. 455-472.

[12] “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Moses Maimonides, Chapter XXIX of Part II, p. 204.

[13] Martin Buber, in “Teachings  of the  Jewish Mystics”, a volume edited by  Perle Besserman, Shambhala Publications, Boston &  London, 1998, 150 pp.,  see pp. 20-21.

[14] “Chelas and Lay Chelas” can be found in our associated websites. 

[15] “The Maggid of Metzerich”, translated by Ayeh Kaplan. See “Teachings of the Jewish Mystics”, the volume edited by Perle Besserman, Shambhala Publications, 1998, p. 25.


On the role of the esoteric movement in the ethical awakening of mankind during the 21st century, see the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline. 

Published in 2013 by The Aquarian Theosophist, the volume has 255 pages and can be obtained through Amazon Books.