The experience of evil as a consequence of Adamic sin

Lorenzo Maitani, The exile from paradise – Bas-relief Cathedral of Orvieto, Umbria

Published in: Osservatore Astrologico no. 8, February 1990

Italian version

In this article, I investigate the origins of those impurities of divine light given the name of “evil”. The reason that prompted me to choose kabbalistic thought as the representative form of ideas on evil lies in both the orthodox and revolutionary character of this significant current of Jewish mysticism, which was 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. It appears that popular sentiment sought to free itself from a doctrine that masks evil and suffering as pseudo-problems, drawing from them the 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 layers that did not possess the dogmatic security of a rabbi and which nevertheless suffered the scary experience of the diaspora.

Now, we will circumscribe the sources that nourished the speculations of the numerous group of Spanish kabbalists of the 13th century, the first to express in literary form the Kabbalah. The 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 the sin of Adam, guilty of having tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge by trampling on the Lord’s prohibition. Expressed in the Bible at an allegorical level, original sin becomes, according to the kabbalistic interpretation, the central cornerstone of a comparison between the forces of purity and demonic contamination. In some passages of the Zohar, the apogee of Kabbalistic literature, we can note that God had made two trees sprout 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 that may arise from its application and explanation. The relativisation of the Torah acquires particular significance in a work after the Zohar, the Sefer ha-Temunah [1], The Book of the Form (of Hebrew letters and by extension of God’s image contained therein). The author no longer configures a creative process like in the Bible, but a whole series of creations where dominates a sefirah, the dynamis of the living God [2]. Each sefirah forms a cosmic cycle (shemittah) lasting seven thousand years, which, multiplied by the seven lower sefiroth of the kabbalistic tree of life, leads to a total of forty-nine thousand years; after which humanity returns with the fiftieth millennium to the 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 divine command severity. In the previous aeon of Grace, the Torah did not contain 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.

Now, why the Torah, despite its unalterable form, is read in many different ways? According to some kabbalists’ opinion, the Torah’s various layers of meanings depend on the reader’s mystical perfection. Initially, the Torah is given in the unintelligible form, audible only by the prophets and by those mystically united with the divine source. The taking root of these layers of meaning in the transient experience forms particular permutations and vocalisations with the consonants that constitute the Torah’s body. The Torah is God’s word that creates the world, and some kabbalists come to affirm 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 prohibition of 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, in today’s humanity, evil is inherent in its very formation. The Torah we read today adapts itself 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 Torah’s spiritual message in its aspect of Grace and Mercy.

The time has now come to ask ourselves: how did this decline occur? Here comes into play the feminine aspect of God that was deliberately overshadowed by rabbinic Judaism, but which instead the kabbalists gave us back in all its symbolic significance. In Genesis 5:2: “Male and female he created them, and 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 that still exists in manufacturing of the woman from Adam’s rib, as we are made known in Genesis 2:22; in fact, the woman has no proper name, even though she is Adam’s companion. Only after the exile from paradise will 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 in place 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 skins and clothed them.” The rupture of the masculine and feminine principle finds its formulation in the kabbalistic notion of Shekhinah, the presence and domicile of God in the world. While in rabbinic Judaism, the Shekhinah was never really 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, operating simultaneously 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. Still, Adam’s sin unleashes the excess of the judicial element. Here then, is that the Shekhinah, to use the words of the Zohar, “tastes the other side, bitter, and then his face is dark.” [5].

Evil would therefore consist in hypertrophy of the power of Justice, but only in so far as 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, the abandonment of the spiritual sense that strips matter of its vital force. The Tree of Life then becomes the Tree of Death, of klippoths – shells – which prevent a man from divine light in a demonic way by enclosing him in a roughly material world.