The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos (Floris Books, 2013).  The central theme of the book is the idea, found in both ancient spiritual traditions and modern philosophy and psychology, that mankind, rather than a chance product of a meaningless universe, is actually entrusted with a daunting responsibility: that of healing and repairing the cosmos itself. This idea appears in many forms, in Hermeticism, theosophy, anthroposophy, philosophical anthropology and humanistic psychology. In this excerpt from the first chapter, “The Other Side,” I present it as it is found in the spiritual teachings of Lurianic Kabbalah.

In the beginning was the spill, at least according to the account of creation given by Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist of Safed, in the sixteenth century in what was then Ottoman controlled Palestine. What exactly I mean by ‘spill’ will be explained shortly.

Kabbalah is a Hebrew word meaning ‘receiving’ and is the name given to the mystical tradition within Judaism. Kabbalah claims to explain the nature of the universe and man’s place within it, just as the Hermetic writings do, and is said to be the esoteric or inner teaching hidden within the exoteric, or outer reading of the Torah.

Perhaps its most well-known feature is the Otz Chiim, or Tree of Life, a symbolic mapping of the divine energies at work in the world, with its ten sephiroth, or ‘vessels’, which has become almost as ubiquitous in popular occultism as the Tarot, with which it is often associated; erroneously, it seems, as most Judaic scholars argue.

At Kabbalah’s heart is the relation between creation, the finite, physical cosmos, and its infinite, unmanifest source, called the Ein-Sof, which means ‘limitless’ or ‘unending’. This is a sphere or dimension of what we can call ‘negative existence’, which really means that it is a plane of reality that our finite human minds are incapable of comprehending, and not merely a simple emptiness. The Ein-Sof is so ‘other’ than what we normally perceive as reality, that we cannot make positive statements about it. Any positive statement about it, would, by definition, be a limit on it, and as it is limitless, cannot apply.

This negative existence has parallels in other spiritual traditions. It is the Neti-Neti (‘not this, not that’) of Hinduism, the sunyatta or ‘void’ of Buddhism, the Pleroma of the Gnostics. It is even part of the Christian faith. The Athanasian Creed, in use in Western Christianity since the sixth century, declares that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are ‘uncreated’ and ‘unlimited’, and in more than one place in scripture we are told that God ‘has neither body nor parts’. It is at the heart of the negative theology of Meister Eckhart, forms the Ungrund of Jacob Boehme’s difficult alchemical writings, and can be found in the Nichts or ‘positive nothingness’ of Martin Heidegger’s ‘fundamental ontology’ and his predecessor Hegel’s tortuous dialectic.

In more scientific terms, a similar idea, but without the spiritual connotations, seems to be present in the way scientists talk about the state of things ‘before’ the Big Bang. I put ‘before’ in quotation marks because, according to most accounts, there was no ‘before’ before the big bang, a confusing situation, to be sure. A kind of non-manifest ‘ground’ of our everyday reality also seems to be involved in the ‘implicate order’ of the physicist David Bohm. There are other expressions of the idea, but I think this will suffice for now.

Just as the Hermetic teachings are supposed to have been revealed to Hermes Trismegistus at the dawn of time, Kabbalah is said to have been revealed to Adam ‘in the beginning’ in Eden, but as with the Corpus Hermeticum, a more wieldy dating for its conception is available. Historically, Kabbalah comes to light in the twelfth and thirteen centuries in Spain and Southern France, emerging from earlier forms of Jewish esotericism, such as the Merkabah or ‘throne’ or ‘chariot’ mysticism, that centres on the vision of a mystical chariot in Ezekiel.

The Zohar, one of the most important texts in Kabbalah, was said to have been discovered in 1286 by Moses de León, a thirteenth century Spanish Kabbalist. León claimed that it was written in second century Israel by the miracle-working Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, but most modern scholars believe it was written by León himself. Although mainstream Judaism considers Kabbalah nonsense, it is at the centre of Hasidic Judaism, the more ecstatic form of the faith.

Isaac Luria

Isaac Luria is considered the ‘father of contemporary Kabbalah’, and it his interpretation of the mystical tradition that concerns us here. A story has it that one day, Isaac’s father, an Ashkenazi Jew, was in the synagogue in Jerusalem (where Isaac was born) studying, when he was visited by the prophet Elijah. He told him that he would have a son who would deliver Israel from the klipoth (‘shells’ or forces of evil) and transmit to the faithful their tikkun (‘reparation’), and that he would make clear many of the mysteries of the Torah and explain the secrets of the Zohar. The story is most likely apocryphal, but it sums up Luria’s short life admirably.

By the age of twenty-two, Luria had become devoted to the study of the Zohar, which had only recently been printed for the first time. He became a hermit, living for seven years on the banks of the Nile in a small cottage. During this time he saw his family (he was by then married) only on the Sabbath, and had taken a vow of silence, speaking only when necessary, even to his wife. Legend has it that during his solitude he was visited on more than one occasion by Elijah, who tutored him in the mysteries.

In Safed in 1570, Luria became a student of the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), author of Pardes Rimonin, or ‘Garden of Pomegranates’, an attempt at a systematic presentation of Kabbalistic philosophy, linking it to previous teachings, and trying to bring different variants together into a coherent whole. Considered a classic and standard text, its presentation was only superseded by Luria’s own ideas. Luria’s tutelage under Cordovero lasted only a short while, a few months at best, and when Cordovero died, the circle of students looked for new guidance. Their search didn’t take them very far, and Luria accepted the role as teacher. Elijah’s prophecy, apocryphal or not, seemed to be coming true, and for the remaining two years of his life, Luria laid down the groundwork of a new reading of the revelations.

Luria himself did not write much. His literary remains consist of a few poems, but after his death his ideas were disseminated by his disciple Chayyim Vital (1543-1620), who played a kind of Plato to Luria’s Socrates, making notes of his lectures and compiling these into books, such as the eight volumes of his Otz Chiim. It was through Vital’s efforts that Luria’s vision achieved the prominence it has.


Luria’s re-visioning of Kabbalah came about because of problems in answering certain basic questions, such as how God or the Ein-Sof, which is infinite, could create a finite world like our own. (A similar and related conundrum is how God, who is all good, could create a world like ours, that contains evil.)

Luria’s answer was ingenious. Luria came up with the concept of tzimtzum, which means ‘concealment’ and ‘contraction’. According to Luria, in order to create our world – the universe – God had to ‘withdraw’ or ‘contract’ a part of his infinite being, to create, as it were, a ‘hole’ in himself within which a void or empty space could exist. We can, then, think of our entire universe as a kind of hole in God. And as our universe is, by our standards, fairly large, we can understand why the Kabbalists believed that trying to grasp the reality of the Ein-Sof might be beyond our powers.

Once the tzimtzum created the void, Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man, appeared. This idea, of an archetypal human form, which is itself the universe, can be found in other spiritual traditions. Swedenborg, for example, speaks of the Grand Man, an idea that was carried on by his erstwhile disciple William Blake (1757-1827), who speaks of the ‘Human Form Divine’. The Hindu Vedas speak of Purusha, or ‘Cosmic Man’, from whose body the world is created. The basic idea is that the universe itself is ultimately in the shape or form of man, a very early form of what today we call the ‘anthropic cosmological principle’, the idea that the universe is designed in such a way that it will bring about the creation of intelligent life.

Out of the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears of Adam Kadmon come flashing lights, emanations of the divine creative energies. These form the sephiroth, or ‘vessels’, designed to contain these energies, as well as the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the holy otiyot yesod or spiritual ‘building blocks’ of creation. (Much as the Greek philosopher-mystic Pythagoras believed that the world was made, literally, of numbers, the Kabbalists believed it was made out of the Hebrew alphabet.) As in many spiritual traditions, in Kabbalah words and language have mystical powers, and this is why the true name of God is never to be pronounced; instead it is referred to as the ‘Tetragrammaton’, the YHVH or ‘Jehovah’ of convention. Were God’s true name spoken, it would, Kabbalah tells us, destroy the world.

When the Vessels Break

The vessels designed to hold the divine energies and archetypal forms with which the Ein-Sof will create the world proved unable to contain them. Just as an electrical transformer can hold only so strong a current, the sephiroth could not withstand the terrific power coursing through them. What happened then is known as the shevirat-ha-kelim, the ‘breaking of the vessels’ (kelim is another word for ‘vessel’).

In this cosmic catastrophe, the vessels shatter, and the divine energies are scattered throughout the void. In one version, the divine energies are seen as waters flowing from heaven. The vessels aren’t deep enough to contain the waters, and so they ‘spill’ out into the emptiness, creating literally a ‘holy mess’. Hence the opening sentence of this chapter. The sacred letters of the alphabet are also jumbled into a confusing nonsense. A tear appears in the seamless void and the unified divine forces separate into their opposites, male and female, causing a fracture in God and the Primordial Man. In the words of Gershom Scholem, the most respected Judaic scholar of the last century, following the shevirat-ha-kelim, ‘Nothing remains in its proper place’ and ‘everything is somewhere else’. That ‘somewhere else’ is our world.

As shards from the broken vessels fall, they capture sparks of the divine light, and these sparks sink into layers of darkness, much like the ‘grim darkness’ of the Hermetic account. Tumbling into Sitra Achra, the ‘Other Side’ – the universe as we know it – the shards come together to form ‘husks’, or ‘shells’, known as klipoth, a kind of negative version of the sephiroth, something like a Kabbalistic anti-matter (their designations as ‘husks’ and ‘shells’ suggest their empty character).

The result of the breaking of the vessels is that the world, which the Ein-Sof had originally planned to be formed of the highest values – beauty, love, mercy, wisdom, knowledge – is now corrupted by their evil counterparts. And we too, who are fragments of the androgynous Primordial Man, are infected with the corruption. The klipoth that make up the universe are in us too, and we find ourselves here, separated into opposites, male and female, stranded on the Other Side. Hence our world is one of pain, suffering, falsehood, conflict, and the other evils we are all too familiar with.


This depressing state of affairs is reminiscent of the Gnostic view of ourselves as trapped in an evil world devised by an idiot god. But, as in the Hermetic account, all is not lost. Luria’s dramatic version of the creation story and its subsequent cosmic catastrophe would be a paranoid’s dream – or nightmare – if it were not for the possibility that the situation can be saved. In this man plays the central role. If in the Hermetic creation myth we are caretakers of the world, for Lurianic Kabbalah, we are its cosmic repairmen, here to clean up the mess caused by the spilling of the divine energies.

Although the klipoth are within us, as in the Hermetic account, we also carry within us sparks of the divine energies. In fact, everything in the world has within it some heavenly spark. Mankind’s job is to free the sparks (netzotzim) from the shards, through what Luria called tikkun, or ‘repair’. Through this we will restore the shattered sephiroth, heal the rift between the opposites, and unify the polarized masculine and feminine aspects of God.

The German-Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) combined a deep interest in Kabbalah with a commitment to Marxism. In one of his most well-known essays, Benjamin wrote of what he called ‘the angel of history’. Where we perceive the past as a chain of separate events, the angel, Benjamin tells us, sees it as ‘one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage’. This ‘single catastrophe’ is the result of the breaking of the vessels, and it takes place throughout history, here, on the Other Side. Benjamin had hopes that a kind of Marxist redemption would save the world, and ‘make whole what has been smashed’. Yet ultimately he despaired and committed suicide while trying to escape the Nazis.

Luria, and the Kabbalists who followed him, believed that we can stop the catastrophe and make whole what has been smashed. But he didn’t think, as Benjamin did, in terms of some Messianic event – a revolution or even divine intervention – that would finally stop the wreckage from piling up. His approach was more individual. He believed that in our lives we encounter those trapped ‘sparks’, whether in people, nature, or inanimate things, which we are uniquely qualified to liberate, just as we encounter people and situations that can help liberate our own ‘sparks’. By doing this, we ‘repair’ the universe. But equally so, our failure to perform tikkun only increases the world’s confusion.

This being so, mankind has a crucial role to play in the world. As Sanford L. Drob, a contemporary Kabbalist, writes: ‘the restoration and repair of the broken vessels is largely in the hands of humankind.’ As mentioned, for some Kabbalists, God or the Ein-Sof shattered the vessels on purpose, precisely so that man could repair them. But in this version, our work is more than repair. ‘In freeing the divine sparks from the klipoth,’ Drob writes, ‘and restoring them to God, and re-establishing the flow of masculine and feminine divine energies, man acts as a party in the creation and redemption of the world, and is actually said to complete God himself.’ Not only are we entrusted with the responsibility of saving the universe, but, as mentioned earlier, God too.

Teaser image by ranshoket, courtesy of Creative Commons license.