This is an informal post, not an academic treatise, so forgive any informal language or references to things that seem to lack reverence for the subject matter. I’m trying to explain this stuff as I would to a friend. I may also be wrong about any of it- this is just my take on the subject matter, and I am not a Hermetic.
It's also not a good introduction to Kabbalistic concepts for someone who has never encountered them or other mystical thought. To serve in that capacity is way beyond the scope of this article. If you're smart, attentive, and open-minded, however, you might get a decent overview. This article is mainly for people with at least passing familiarity with at least Hermetic Kabbalah. I'm sorry that I'm not a good enough writer to make it easier for everyone else.
My game, Tribute, is based on my understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah, rather than Gnostic, Christian, Hollywood, or Hermetic Kabbalah. I’ve studied it for almost 14 years, in order to write this game, which is still awaiting a final document. As of now, I have two different versions of the game that are playable, and am making my final decisions about which version to put out into the world.
These two different versions involve making the choice between an intricate and nuanced take on the subject matter that some, but not all, would consider unplayable and a more straightforward take that anyone can understand, but which might gloss some important Kabbalistic ideas. Despite a previous post that indicated I planned to go forward with the former, I am currently reconsidering the latter. A playable game that gets people curious might be more effective than a less easily understood one that turned part of the audience away. I had worried that the latter version wasn’t interesting enough, but it’s on me to make it interesting.
Today, I wanted to begin to talk about the kind of Kabbalah that Tribute’s based on, and to compare it with another, more well known version; the Hermetic Kabbalah used in the Western magical tradition; proponents of which include such groups and individuals as The Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley.
Lurianic Kabbalah is one school of traditional Jewish Mysticism, which cannot be separated from Torah; religious tradition and study.
I’m not going to speak about which one is true, or accurate, as I believe that they have different purposes. Lurianic Kabbalah is largely descriptive of a model of reality that practitioners are meant to work with and within, and my understanding of Hermetic Kabbalah is that it’s proscriptive-designed to be used to create results in the real world. It’s almost like Lurianic Kabbalah is a reference, and Hermetic Kabbalah is a tool. They’re going to have to be configured differently.
That’s not to say that Lurianic Kabbalah has no practical use; there is a Lurianic oral tradition of “Practical Kabbalah”, that I admit I know little about.
But on to the differences. I admit I’m not fully versed in Hermetic Kabbalah, so there will be gaps.
A Tale of Two Trees
The first and most notable difference between the two traditions is that they each have their own version of the Tree of Life, a central glyph that describes the nature of creation and the forces at play in the universe. In the Lurianic view, it describes the process of creation that the Creator used, and uses every moment to sustain the world. It's a model of everything, and how the universe works. It's a pattern present in everything that exists- people, objects, ideas, emotions, processes, and reality itself. Its the base code of the Matrix, except the characters are in Hebrew. When it's said that God made humanity in "his" image, this is the image. By working on it and using it, in the Hermetic view, you can change reality.
Here is the Hermetic Tree:
Oddly, it is an earlier version of the Jewish Tree, minus the current path attributions (I don't think anyone agreed as to which letter should go where early on) but modern Lurianic Kabbalists prefer this one:
Both have 3 horizontal Paths, 12 diagonal, and 7 vertical paths, but the most obvious difference is that there is only one path to Malkuth in the Lurianic Tree. This is in keeping with Lurianic Kabbalah’s take on the second sephirah (circle) from the bottom’s role in creation. That sephirah, Yesod, is believed to serve as a translator for the forces of the higher sephirot, which are said to exist in the upper worlds, and Malkuth- the “Kingdom”, or world as we know it. To the Lurianic Tradition, the idea that Hod and Netzach could directly link to our world would make Yesod redundant, or at least cause problems. Yesod is the Foundation of our reality; the background pattern that supports our world. Connecting Hod and Netzach to the real world (Malkuth) permanently would be like creating a short circuit and would overwhelm our world with the raw and primal forces of the upper worlds. However, doing so intentionally, and in the framework of magical working, might be useful, and so it makes sense that the Hermetics prefer the former tree. This is just my guess on why they use it.
It’s not just the placements of the paths that are different, though we’ll return to those in the next post. The Sephirot (spheres) actually take on different meanings in the two different systems. The further you go from Malkuth towards Kether, the larger the differences in interpretation.
I'll be discussing the sephirot from the bottom of the tree, Malkuth, up. Though in Kabbalistic thought, the energies of creation descend from Kether to Malkuth and back again. In Lurianic Kabbalah, our job here at the bottom is to send or reflect them back up the Tree. As a result, you may begin to perceive more of the Tree without ever leaving Malkuth in the phyiscal or even spiritual sense- you just become aware of the parts of your soul that are already on the higher levels. In Hermetic thought, it seems that the idea is to do much the same thing, but in a more directly involved way, and to "climb" the tree.
This is our world, including what we can’t fully perceive about it, most of the time.
Malkuth is similar in Lurianic and Hermetic Traditions. It’s our world, plus a bit more. There’s magic, or divine presence here, but it’s hard to tap into. The Lurianic tradition calls this presence the Shekinah- the divine feminine principle, first manifested in Binah, and actualized in Malkuth. A hermetic might see it as linked to magic, and coincidence, and the flow of events that can be tapped into. I’d let one of them describe it a bit better. Either way, Malkuth holds all the forces of the upper sephirot, and balances them into what you see around you. You can get anywhere from here, eventually.
The Lurianic Tactical Sephirot
These three sephirot are concerned with tactics- doing something to achieve something else, in Lurianic Kabbalah.
Yesod is similar in both Lurianic and Hermetic Traditions, but this is where they start to significantly diverge. Yesod means foundation. In Lurianic Kabbalah, that means relationships- not just interpersonal, but between objects and forces. It represents things like the divine covenant between the Creator and the created. I and thou. In Hermetic Kabbalah as I understand it, Yesod is related to the Astral plane- a realm of ideas and concepts- patterns and thought. If it were a place, proximity or distance here would be determined by the relative similarity and interconnectedness between ideas. You can see, though that they are saying similar things, in different clothing. Pattern and relationship. In Lurianic Kabbalah, this is the realm of Yetzirah, Formation- the place where ideas come together, before entering Malkuth, the World of Assiah, or action- reality.
Hod, which means "splendor", "awe", or "acknowledgement", is where it gets tricky. In Lurianic Kabbalah, it is the realm of empathy, and making room for others; selflessness. A person who was very Hod focused would be humble, but perhaps a bit calculating. It’s said that it represents the times when the wicked prosper, only to face final judgment later. In teaching, it would be a teacher’s tendency to simplify and to compartmentalize the ideas so the student could understand them. In the Hermetic Kabbalah, it is much more concerned with the compartmentalization aspect of this principle; things like systemizing animals, language, symbols, and any other way of getting a handle on a concept. It’s also considered a mental sephirot, and the “place” where most magic is done, according to my sources. Back in Lurianic Kabbalah, it is not considered mental- those sephirot are further up- but tactical. It represents giving ground to succeed, at least in my interpretation. Either way, Tribute itself is an exercise in Hod.
Netzach, in Lurianic Kabbalah, is “Victory” or “Endurance”; the ability to put yourself out there. Taking ground, or holding your ground to succeed. A Netzach oriented person would be noticed entering a room, and might dominate conversations. In Hermetic Kabbalah, (I believe) it’s more concerned with emotion and passions in general, and things that move you, like music, drives, or even atmosphere and drama in a ritual. I could be wrong.
The Emotional Sephirot in Lurianic Kabbalah
These are concerned with what humans would call the emotional aspects of the decision-making process in creation.
Next, is Tiphareth, Beauty. In Lurianic Kabbalah, it is an integration of the two forces above it on the tree (Gevurah and Chesed), and all other forces it connects to. It's the great mediator. A Lurianic take on beauty is one that allows everything to exist, and doesn’t erase anything ,but integrates it into a whole. It’s considered focused compassion or peace. Helping someone who doesn’t strictly deserve it because you love them. In a work of art using black and white paints, it would be a painting with both black and white, but no grey- there’s no blending away of what something is in Tiphareth, instead you find its place and allow it to exist. Another example would be the Federation from Star Trek- every culture is honored, but they work together. It has connotations of balance and rectification/healing. I hope that all makes sense. I am honestly pretty weak on what Tiphareth is to the Hermetic tradition, but I know it has connotations of the higher self, and perhaps ultimate good that we strive for in our actions. Some have called it Christ consciousness, but that’s a bit of a different tradition. A Tiphareth person might be a peacemaker.
Gevurah (along with Chesed, the next sephirah) is one major point of agreement between the two traditions. I think that for gamers these two might be the easiest to understand. Gevurah is severity and might- the destructive, limiting force. The ability to say no, in a number of ways. It’s punishment, defense, and destruction. There is nuance between the two traditions, but if you want to attack, defend, or even limit something, we’re talking about Gevurah. A Gevurah person would be harsh and judgmental, but hold themselves to the same unforgiving standard.
Chesed (lovingkindness), or sometimes “Gedulah”, which means "greatness" or "Largesse", is the opposite of Gevurah. It’s limitless giving, even to the undeserving. If Gevurah is a dictatorial despot, Chesed is the permissive king that gives away so much that the people have no reason to work for themselves. Want money? Have it. Want weapons to kill each other? Have them. Chesed is the power to say “Yes” to anything and everything. If Gevurah is defense and attacks, Chesed is where “Buffs” come from- those in game effects that boost your abilities way beyond what they should be. A Chesed person is giving, forgiving, and probably beloved. But if they go too far, they may overstep your boundaries, and assume too much good will. They grant themselves the same freedom they want for others, and this can be a problem.
This is not (usually) considered a sephirah, unless Kether is excluded as one, but is instead an emergent property of the tree, when all other sephirot have manifested.
Da’at means "knowledge", in the typical, and biblical senses, as in "Adam knew Eve". In that regard, it's like the "I see you" line from Avatar. In Lurianic Tradition, it represents direct experience, or the reality/existence of something. It is considered a lower manifestation of Kether, above. It's what you're left with after a transcendent experience of Kether, and you return to the rest of your life.
Da’at would be knowing that you can’t touch a hot burner because you viscerally remember doing it as a kid. It gets much more esoteric than that, especially when dealing with non-human frames, but that might be good enough for this post. In Hermetic Kabbalah, it seems to refer to a more specific experience one attains through the practice of magic. Direct Knowledge of the Godhead. It’s the “gold” in alchemy, as I understand it. The Lurianic take includes this, but I find it more generally applicable.
The Lurianic Supernal Sephirot
These are concerned with the mental realm of planning in Lurianic Tradition.
Binah (Understanding) is the first feminine principle in Lurianic Kabbalah. It’s on the same column as Gevurah, so it has a similar negative (not bad- negative, or "yin") role as that sephirot. It is called the mother of form, and covers inductive and deductive reasoning- inferring one thing from another. It is considered a womb where ideas gestate. It limits the final result by deciding exactly what it will become. It sort of says “Yes, but” to any good ideas that come from Chochmah, the next sephirot we’ll talk about. It’s not destructive, but it can seem so, much like a woman’s body rejecting a stillborn child can seem cruel. It works towards an ultimate good, finalizing a plan. In the Hermetic tradition, as I understand it, it seems to be much more concerned with time, and death, and is called the Dark Mother. From what I understand, finally understanding and accepting what Binah’s forces are really about, and why they’re necessary and ultimately good, is a big part of crossing “the Abyss”, the dark night of the soul. A binah person might be a stern but helpful administrator who finalizes a plan.
Chochmah (Wisdom) is divine inspiration, the eureka moment that comes out of nowhere, in Lurianic Tradition. It's the inspiring and great idea that you haven't gotten around to implementing. In less personified terms, it’s the potential of anything to be or become what it will be. It’s raw power and energy. This is one of the hardest sephirot to truly understand beyond this, as it’s very close to the ineffable Kether. Essentially, though, it’s the first possibility of manifestation. I don’t really know how Hermetics see it, other than akin to the Prime Sphere from Mage- ultimate power.
Kether (Crown) is the infinite point where the creator first makes contact with our reality and the point through which he limits himself/herself/itself to manifest our world and us. Though said to represent the will to create, and the divine pleasure of the creator, It’s considered ineffable, so the less you try to eff it, the better. An experience of Kether, though is one of oneness- dare I say identity- with the creator. Tribute uses it for the eponymous Tribute Key, that lets you transcend your limits and have a triumphant moment where the universe bows down to you. I’m in the weeds here regarding Hermetic tradition, but I venture that it’s similar there. Maybe it’s the final, not truly attainable stage of the Great Work. Once you get “here”, you keep going forever. It might look like you’ve attained perfection to others, but there’s always more. Let me know if I’m off the mark.
So that’s the difference between the two Trees of life as I understand them. In a future post I’ll talk about how the paths between these sephirot differ, and the importance of the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet in Lurianic Kabbalah.
A final Note
Any gendered terminology is used because it is part of the tradition I'm talking about. A true Kabbalist believes that the creator is beyond gender, and capable of manifesting either force. There is no bearded man in the sky, but our feeble minds use simplistic ideas like that to explain things.
Furthemore, the Sephirot are not seen as separate beings/gods in Lurianic Kabbalah- they are tools the creator chose to use. The system is only this way because he/she wants it to be, the rules are the rules of solitaire he or she decided upon, not the only way they could be. Here on Earth, we have to live by them, in Kabbalistic thought, but they're not limitations to the Creator. Lurianic Kabbalah is monotheistic, and so sees sees intermediaries like pagan gods or even angels as to be avoided. This is another difference between Hermetic and Lurianic approaches.
Thanks for reading.