Kabbalah and the Nature of Symbols and Metaphors

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Kabbalah and Symbolism 8-23-04 From Charles Coons




I have a few observations on your recent dialogue relating to symbolic and discursive meanings.  It seems to me that looking at this issue dialectically, which I am sure you have done, can be helpful.  The movement from symbolic to discursive might be seen as describing, in this terminology, nothing more than the creation process.  The universal "symbol" is negated resulting in a particular discursive meaning or meanings.  But the birth of the discursive meaning is not the end of the process.  The discursive meaning includes or recognizes the original universal meaning, which gives new power and significance to the original symbol.  I am assisted in this view by some reading of your former mentor, J. N. Findlay, The Philosophy of Hegel, An Introduction and Re-Examination (I found a used copy on Amazon!), and the chapter on Hegel in your Kabbalistic Metaphors. Or, the original symbol might be seen as a vessel which is shattered by the research and discovery of discursive meanings, but then the multiple meanings are dialectically restored to become a new symbol inviting further shattering.  As I understand the New Kabbalah, your writings follow much this same process.  The basic Kabbalistic symbols are applied to specific thinkers (Hegel, Jung, Freud, etc.), which amounts to a partial negation of the original symbol. But then both the original symbol and the application become richer for our reading and contemplation.  Your frequent referral to the coincidentia oppositorum explains the mutually enhanced values.


Take Care,





The Undying nature of Symbols and Metaphors? Dialog With Gary Jaron 7-27-04

Dear Gary:
Thank you for sharing with me your recent work which elaborates upon a variety of kabbalistic symbols and metaphors. Your writing me has prompted the following thoughts:

The Jungian analyst Wolfgang Giegerich has recently written a challenging article, “The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man” (Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, Vol. 6, No. 1 2004) in which he argues that the era in which symbols and symbolic experience as a foundation for an all-encompassing religious life ended with the birth of the modern age. Giegerich quotes Jung to the effect that as long as a symbol (e.g. those of the Kabbalah) are alive it is an expression of something that cannot be characterized in any other or better way. But, as Jung puts it, "the symbol is only the unfinished embryonic form of a given meaning." For Giegerich, the symbol remains unborn until it is provided a better, non-symbolic expression. However, with the birth of such meaning the symbol dies as a symbol, becomes demystified and de-mythologized. Giegerich suggests that with the modern era a new subject was born that must in effect kill off symbolic meanings and give new birth to discursive meanings which more clearly express the symbol's multiple, but definable, significances. This, indeed, for Giegerich is in effect the birth of consciousness out of the collective unconscious. For Giegerich it is impossible to return to the place where we are simply enveloped in symbolic/mythological significance, and any effort to do so rests upon an intellectual regression and benumbing of full consciousness.  I wonder how you would respond to Giegerich’s argument. It occurs to me that my own work with the New Kabbalah follows Giegerich's model (of giving birth to conscious meanings from hitherto unconscious symbols) but I am not certain if I agree with his whole analysis.

Gary Jaron’s Comments 7-27-04

As for Giegerich's article and ideas.  I think he and Jung are mistaken.  The symbol is not an 'unfinished embryonic form'.  The symbol is a finished and complete embryo!  The symbol is waiting to be born, that Giegerich has right, and when it is born it does so in the non-symbolic conscious expression which does de-mythologize it. Your own book is a great example of the power of the symbol.  You took them and gave them birth into non-symbolic language.  But that does not mean the symbol is finished.  The power of the symbol is it potentially can inspire new meaning.  It does not reach fulfillment when it is explained in non-symbolic language.  The symbol is complete once it is created in metaphoric language.  The potential to be explainedin non-symbolic language is a by product of the power of the symbol.
We use symbols and metaphors to explain things.  They are our best method  of thinking creatively.  They are much more effective means of communication than the discursive non symbolic language.  The symbol and the metaphor are like the egg of the phoenix.  A symbol dies when it  ceases to inspire and create an emotional response from those who  encounter it.  But a symbol can rise up from the ashes of its so-called death and be re-born into new meaning.  That is its power. For example: The dying and resurrecting god is a symbol that has not died.  It still evokes meaning.  [That was a multi-layered purposeful use of symbolic language.  I meant in that one sentence 1) the ancient myths of dying & resurrecting gods, like Tammuz, etc live on in Jesus, 2) Jesus has gotten  to be a more potent image, look how big a hit Mel Gibson's movie was.  3) Christianity is on the rise in numbers and influence in the US.  Again a sign of the power of that symbol.  4)The dying & resurrecting god is another metaphoric symbol for the power of metaphors and symbols!  I'm sure we could find many more explanatory meanings out of the sentence  "The  dying and resurrecting god is a symbol that has not died."  Which is the
whole point I am trying to illustrate.

Metaphors & symbols are better means to communicate than explicit discursive non-symbolic language.  Thinking only symbolically is not effective either.  You need a mix.  A 'mature' thinker uses both, and so does a 'mature' civilization.  Using symbols not a sign of regression.
For example science uses both a symbolic language and a non-symbolic explicit language.
Science would be ineffective if it only used one or the other.  Western Civilization was maturing culturally when it created the non-symbolic language which science needs in order to test its theories.  Scientific progress depends on it.  But new theories cannot be developed without symbolic language.

A culture that only lives in the world of symbols and metaphors will not make science and hence will be an 'immature' culture.  [The very use of the words 'mature - immature' is an act of using metaphoric language!]

A science will cease to be creative if it ceases to find new metaphors and symbols by which it can explore and answer those unanswered questions of how the universe works.

The myth of creation that was started in the Zohar and Luria expanded is a myth that still has power - your book is an example of that power.

Symbols and metaphors are part of the unconscious language.  Jung and Giegerich are correct.  But, this is not primitive in a historic sense. It is not something we as a culture outgrow or outgrew.  That notion is incorrect.  Metaphors and symbols are 'primitive' in the sense of being part of our thought processes that we developed prior to the more formal systems of logical and analysis, that non-symbolic discursive language. We can not think new thoughts or ideas without symbols and metaphors.  When we are inspired to make use of symbols and/or a metaphors it is an example of our unconscious thought processes trying to communicate with our conscious mind!  They are literally the gifts of the Muses.

Gary Jaron

Kabbalah, Myth and Truth

2/6/01: From Don Lewis

Dr. Drob:

I have just begun reading your book "Kabbalistic Metaphors" and was struck by the concept that myth should not be judged as "true" or "false" but as "living" or not. It suggests a path for my own investigations to explore…

My question to you is how are myths to be judged in terms of "good" and "evil". One could say that the myth of Aryan supremacy was "alive" to Germans in the 30's and 40's. It has frequently been judged to be "evil" at least in part because it was "false". What then is the relationship between living and dead, good and evil, true and false, in regard to myths?
Don Lewis

2/7/01: Response

Dear Don:

Thank you very much for your very interesting letter. Forgive my lengthy response as it is neither possible to underestimate the importance of your query about myth, truth, good and evil.

Your question goes right to the heart of the ethics of any religious or other discipline that anchors itself in metaphor, myth and spiritual feeling as opposed to reason. For me, your query regarding Aryan supremacy is not merely hypothetical, as Carl Jung, whose work I have been deeply involved with, and who was, in many ways responsible for the revival of contemporary interest in myth and the spiritual value of the irrational aspects of the psyche, himself came perilously close to embracing National Socialism and spoke (albeit descriptively) of Hitler in semi-divine terms. As Jungian psychology is, to my mind, a contemporary revival of Gnosticism, alchemy, and especially the Kabbalah, one must be concerned with the question of whether an immersion in the "living truth" of the Kabbalah could itself lead to such ethically pernicious results.

I am still struggling myself with these very issues-and they will be a major theme of my next book on Jung, Kabbalism and Nazi Mysticism. However, some of my thoughts on this issue appear in Chapter One of my Symbols of the Kabbalah, and I believe underlie my work in general. While I believe that there is much to be said for MaCintyre's view that myth is either "dead" or "alive" I do not agree with this as an exhaustive definition of myth or metaphor, particularly as these pertain to the Kabbalah. In fact, I have argued against Scholem's, and at times Idel's, thesis that Kabbalistic myths have no cognitive or philosophical content and can only be "lived" rather than understood. The entire direction of my work is, in effect, to "project" the Lurianic system, into the rational sphere and examine and evaluate it as philosophy, psychology, etc. While I am not under the illusion that such projection can by any means exhaust the significance of the Kabbalah, I believe that it is absolutely necessary, precisely in order to avoid the irrationalism that can result when myth is taken in purely conative terms. In this regard I am in accord with the spirit of the Chabad Chasiddic doctrine that the emotional Sefirot (Chesed, Gevurah, Rachamim) must come under the dominion of Chochmah Binah Da'as (the ChaBaD), Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. I believe that the Kabbalah can interact profitably with contemporary rational thought-including psychoanalysis and post-modernism, but also philosophically based ethics and politics, and empirical science.

My answer to your question is thus far very general. However, I think there are several principles intrinsic to Judaism and the Kabbalah that can help answer you a bit more specifically: Amongst these are the humbling principle, found in both the Zohar and Vital, that absolute truth is inherently unknowable and can only be approximated through ever changing metaphors; another is the midrashic notion that there are as many interpretations of Torah as there were souls who exited Egypt, a principle that is likely to foreclose any attempt to corner truth. The Kabbalists also sometimes advocated what I call the "principle of maximal differentiation." This principle is found in the writings of both Chayyim Vital and the Chabad Hasidic thinker, Rabbi Aaron Ha Levi. According to Rabbi Aaron it is a fundamental divine purpose that the world should be differentiated and revealed in each of its finite particulars and yet united in a single infinite source. A related, Kabbalistic-Hasidic principle is the notion that there are sparks of divinity or "soul" in each object, person, moment and event, and that it is the moral task of the individual , at all moments and in each of his or her encounters, to "raise the spark," or help make manifest the divinity or soul that is present in all things, persons, and (by extension) cultures. I believe that these principles each make rational/philosophical sense and that today we must invoke such principles to move towards a Judaism and Jewish mysticism that is deeply rooted in tradition but not nearly so parochial as it has been in the past.

Had Nazism been evaluated against these principles I believe it would have been found more than lacking.

Again, thanks for your very interesting and important inquiry. I would be most interested in any further ideas and comments you have in relation to this or any other topic relevant to the New Kabbalah.
S. Drob


The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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