The experience of evil as a consequence of Adamic sin
Lorenzo Maitani (1275-1330) – The exile from paradise – Bas-relief, Cathedral of Orvieto, Umbria (Italy)

Published in: Osservatore Astrologico no. 8, February 1990

Italian version

In this article, I investigate the origins of those impurities of divine light called “evil”. The reason that led me to choose kabbalistic thinking as the representative form of ideas about evil lies in both the orthodox and revolutionary character of this significant current of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah. Originally it was born as a movement to recover a mythical space that rabbinic Judaism had excluded. The God of the Jews digs an impassable abyss between himself and his creatures; his purity isolates him, rejecting any anthropomorphic representation. The popular sentiment seems to have tried to free itself from a doctrine that masks evil and suffering as pseudo-problems, justification for a detachment from worldly impurities. Instead, the kabbalistic movement – thanks to an articulated exposition of divine action in the world of creatures – was widely accepted in those cultural strata that did not possess the dogmatic confidence of a rabbi and yet underwent the frightening experience of the diaspora.

Now, we will circumscribe the sources that fuelled the speculations of the large group of Spanish kabbalists of the 13th century, the first to express the Kabbalah in literary form. A source of rich commentaries was the Pentateuch books, the so-called written Torah: the laws and commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai’s top. In them, we learn (Genesis 3 ff.) of Adam’s sin, guilty of having tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge by trampling on the Lord’s prohibition. Expressed in the Bible on a figurative level, original sin becomes, according to the kabbalistic interpretation, the central cornerstone of the confrontation between the forces of purity and demonic contamination. In some passages of the Zohar, the apogee of Kabbalistic literature, we can see that God had sprouted two trees in Eden: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). Now, the tree of life is compared to the written Torah, to the divine commandment expressed in its absolute modalities, directly unknowable by the human being. At the same time, the oral Torah is open to all misunderstandings arising from its application and explanation. The relativisation of the Torah acquires particular significance in a work following the Zohar, the Sefer ha-Temunah [1], The Book of the Form (of Hebrew letters and by extension of God’s image therein). The author no longer configures a creative process like in the Bible but a whole series of creations dominated by a sephirah, the dynamis of the living God [2]. Each sephirah forms a cosmic cycle (shemittah) lasting seven thousand years. When multiplied by the seven lower sephiroth of the kabbalistic tree of life, it makes a total of forty-nine thousand years, after which humanity returns with the fiftieth millennium to primitive purity. According to the unknown author of this late kabbalistic work, we live in the second of the three shemitteth, the aeon of Justice, which knows the serpent’s temptation and the severity of the divine command. In the previous aeon of Grace, the Torah contained no prohibitions; there was neither the serpent nor evil instincts; the word of God had not suffered the heresies of its application in the material world.

Why is the Torah, despite its unalterable form, read in so many different ways? In the opinion of some kabbalists, the Torah’s various layers of meanings rely on the reader’s mystical perfection. Initially, the Torah is given in the unintelligible form, audible only by the prophets and those mystically united with the divine source. The grounding of these layers of meaning in the transitory experience forms particular permutations and vocalisations with the consonants that make up the body of the Torah. The Torah is the word of God that creates the world, and some kabbalists go so far as to say that it is enough to move a single letter to subvert the order of things.

We see an example of this transformism in the passage of a work of the kabbalist Abraham Azulai [3], who comments on the verse of the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:2) “Do not wear any clothes made of wool and linen together”. The Hebrew verse sounds “sha’atnez tzemer u-fishtim” and refers to the ban on wearing sha’atnez clothes made with this mixture of fabrics [4]. Adam did not possess the roughly material body in the Earthly Paradise, called in mystical jargon “snakeskin”, so he certainly did not need clothing. In reality, before the transgression, the same sentence was read with a different combination of the same consonants: “satan ‘az metzar u-tefsim” or “not be possessed by the misery of the reckless Satan”. In this overlap of meanings, the idea is that matter originates from the progressive decay of the primordial unity, Adam Kadmon, who, according to the kabbalists, is the macrocosmic archetype of the earthly Adam, the progenitor of humanity. Therefore, evil is inherent in its very formation in today’s humanity. The Torah we read today adapts to the instrumental needs of an existence appointed to the God of Justice. Only in a future messianic age will man be transfigured in a mystical approach to the divine source, grasping the spiritual message of the Torah in its aspect of Grace and Mercy.

The time has come to ask ourselves: how did this decline come about? That is where the feminine aspect of God comes into play, deliberately overshadowed by rabbinic Judaism but which the kabbalists gave us back in all its symbolic meaning. In Genesis 5:2: “Male and female he created them, he blessed them and named them Man when they were created”, we see affirming at the dawn of the sixth day of creation that mystical union of the male and female aspect of God, which still exists in the making of the woman from Adam’s rib, as made known to us in Genesis 2:22; in fact, the woman has no proper name, even if she is Adam’s companion. Only after the exile from paradise did Adam give her the title of Eve, that is, living, mother of all living beings (Genesis 3:20). It’s the beginning of the decay process covering Adam and Eve’s bodies in the skin instead of Adam’s “clothes of light” (kothnoth ‘er) in mystical union with his consort before the exile. We read in Genesis 2:25: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” and in Genesis 3:21: “And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.”

The rupture of the masculine and feminine principles finds its formulation in the kabbalistic notion of Shekhinah, the presence and domicile of God in the world. While in rabbinic Judaism, the Shekhinah has never really been separated from God, in the speculations of the kabbalists, it acquires the significance of a divine hypostasis. The Shekhinah is conceived as separate from God himself: an aspect of God, an emanation of divine action, simultaneously operating as a mediator of the same. In the original presentation of the Zohar, the Shekhinah is the tenth sefirah, the immanent presence of God in his creation, which, at the beginning of this creative act, cooperates harmoniously with the forces of Grace and Justice. However, Adam’s sin triggers the excess of the judicial element. Here, the Shekhinah, to use the words of the Zohar, “experiences the other side, which is bitter, and then its face darkens.” [5].

Evil would therefore consist in the hypertrophy of the power of Justice, but only to the extent that it violates the original unity, and the belonging of the Shekhinah to God becomes questionable. The matter is not the origin of evil; the actual source is the separation of what is below from what is above, the creature’s isolation from its creator, and the abandonment of the spiritual sense that strips matter of its vital force. The Tree of Life then becomes the Tree of Death, klippoths – shells – which prevent man – in a demonic way – from receiving the divine light by locking him up in a roughly material world.