Platonism and the Kabbalah
The influence of Greek philosophical thought, particularly that of Plato and Neoplatonism, upon the development in the Kabbalah has long been recognized. A number of Kabbalists took note of a close relationship between the Kabbalah and Platonic philosophy, and some went so far as to suggest that the Kabbalah itself was a source for Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas.
Probably the most important Platonic notion to find its way into Kabbalistic thought is the doctrine of forms or ideas. Even prior to the advent of the Kabbalah, Platonic Idealism had infiltrated Jewish speculation regarding the creation of the world. In the Midrash Genesis Rabbah, we find the declaration that God looked into the Torah and created the world, as if the language of the Torah consisted of a set of forms or templates for creation. Further, thr Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo, understood an isomorphism between the laws of the Torah and the ideal (Platonic) structure of the natural world.
Plato was perhaps the first to articulate the view that the finite, particular objects of the everyday, natural world are decidedly less substantial and real than the ideas that they exemplify. Plato was led to this view by the observation that one cannot identify, conceptualize or even refer to a particular horse, for example, without invoking a generic idea, and that when one speaks of, say, a triangle in mathematics, one does not refer to a particular triangular object with all of its accidental properties and imperfections, but rather to an ideal type, which represents "triangularity" per se. Plato concluded that an individual horse is what it is because it reflects, or participates in, the ideal form of "horseness;" an individual triangle is so-called because it participates in the form of triangularity. For Plato, forms and ideas are substantial and real, instants and material objects have a substantiality that is derived and dependent.
This basic "idealist" conception becomes the foundation for the Kabbalistic theory of the ten Sefirot.
In Sefer Yetzirah, the Sefirot are introduced as archetypal, numerical, or ideational elements, a Kabbalistic translation of or equivalent to the Platonic ideas. The Kabbalistic doctrine of the ten Sefirot is, thus, a world of Judaeo-Platonic forms, understood by the Kabbalists to be the value archetypes through which God created and structured the cosmos. In holding that both God and creation are comprised of such values as "will", "wisdom", "understanding", "kindness", "justice", and "beauty" the Kabbalists placed the Platonic doctrine of ideas at the core of their own theosophy. Like the Platonists, the Kabbalists maintained that it was these ideal values that are most substantial and real. The objects of the material world are these ideas and values shadows or reflections. In their doctrine of Tzimtzum, the Kabbalists expressed the view that even the "forms" themselves (i.e., the Sefirot) are a shadow resulting from the concealment of the unitary essence of the infinite God, and that particular finite things are themselves the result of a further process of obstruction and concealment. Put in another way, for the Kabbalists a finite particular object is an imperfectly known perspective on the very archetype it instantiates.
There are extraordinary parallels between the Kabbalistic notion of Ein-sof and the Platonic "Form of the Good," and, especially, the Neoplatonic "One," which was conceived by Plotinus and his followers in "negative theological" terms as absolutely transcendental, ineffable and devoid of all predication. As discussed in Chapter Four, pp. 113-151 of Kabbalistic Metaphors, both ancient Neoplatonism and its contemporary expression (in the philosophy of J.N. Findlay) provide an enormously rich basis for comprehending the Kabbalah in philosophical terms.
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Plato and the Kabbalah
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