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Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection
by Lance S. Owens
IN 1973 RLDS HISTORIAN PAUL M. EDWARDS identified a fundamental deficiency of Mormon historical studies: "We have not allowed," says Edwards speaking of Mormon historians, "the revolutionary nature of the movement from which we have sprung to make us revolutionaries." He continued:The one thing about which we might all agree concerning Joseph Smith is that he was not the usual sort of person. He did not approach life itself--or his religious commitment--in a usual way. Yet the character of our historical investigation of Joseph Smith and his times has been primarily traditional, unimaginative, and lacking in any effort to find or create an epistemological methodology revolutionary enough to deal with the paradox of our movement. The irony of our position is that many of our methods and interpretations have become so traditional that they can only reinforce the fears of yesterday rather than nurture the seeds of tomorrow's dreams.
More than two decades have passed since those words were penned, years marked by a veritable explosion in Mormon studies, and yet Edward's challenge "to find or create an epistemological methodology revolutionary enough to deal with the paradox" of Joseph Smith remains a summons largely unanswered. Revolutions are painful processes, in measure both destructive and creative. The imaginative revisioning of Joseph Smith's "unusual approach" to life and religion, demands a careful--though perhaps still difficult and destructive--hewing away of an hundred years of encrusting vilifications and thick layerings of iconographic pigments, masks ultimately false to his lively cast. Smith eschewed orthodoxy, and so eventually must his historians. To that end, there is considerable value in turning full attention to the revolutionary view of Joseph Smith provided by Harold Bloom in his critique of The American Religion.
Broadly informed as a critic of the creative imagination and its Kabbalistic, Gnostic undertones in Western culture--and perhaps one of the most prominent literary figures in America--Bloom has intuitively recognized within Joseph Smith a familiar spirit, a genius wed in nature to both the millennia-old visions of Gnosticism in its many guises, and the imaginative flux of poesy. Individuals less informed in the history and nature of Kabbalism--or of Hermetic, Alchemical and Rosicrucian mysticism, traditions influenced by a creative interaction with Kabbalah--may have difficulty apprehending the basis of his insight. Indisputably, the aegis of "orthodox" Mormon historiography is violently breached by Bloom's intuition linking the prophet's visionary bent with the occult aspirations of Jewish Kabbalah, the great mystical and prophetic tradition of Israel.
Bloom is, of course, not a historian but a critic and interpreter of creative visions, and his reading of Smith depends perhaps less on historical detail than on his intuition for the poetic imagination. The affinity of Smith for these traditions is, nonetheless, evident to an educated eye.What is clear is that Smith and his apostles restated what Moshe Idel, our great living scholar of Kabbalah, persuades me was the archaic or original Jewish religion. . . . My observation certainly does find enormous validity in Smith's imaginative recapture of crucial elements, elements evaded by normative Judaism and by the Church after it. The God of Joseph Smith is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the true religion. . . . Either there was a more direct Kabbalistic influence upon Smith than we know, or, far more likely, his genius reinvented Kabbalah in the effort necessary to restore archaic Judaism.
While I would not diminish the inventive genius of Joseph Smith, careful reevaluation of historical data suggests there is both a poetic and an unsuspected factual substance to Bloom's thesis. Though yet little understood, from Joseph's adolescent years forward he had repeated, sometime intimate and arguably influential associations with distant legacies of Gnosticism conveyed by Kabbalah and Hermeticism--traditions intertwined in the Renaissance and nurtured through the reformative religious aspirations of three subsequent centuries. Though any sympathy Joseph held for old heresy was perhaps intrinsic to his nature rather than bred by association, the associations did exist. And they hold a rich context of meanings. Of course, the relative import of these interactions in Joseph Smith's history will remain problematic for historians; efforts to revision the Prophet in their light--or to reevaluate our methodology of understanding his history--may evoke a violently response from traditionalists. Nonetheless, these is substantial documentary evidence, material unexplored by Bloom or Mormon historians generally, supporting a much more direct Kabbalistic and Hermetic influences upon Smith and his doctrine of God than has previously been considered possible.
Through his associations with ceremonial magic as a young treasure seer, Smith contacted symbols and lore taken directly from Kabbalah. In his prophetic translation of sacred writ, his hermeneutic method was in nature Kabbalistic. With his initiation into Masonry, he entered a tradition born of the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition. These associations culminated in Nauvoo, the period of his most important doctrinal and ritual innovations. During these last years, he enjoyed friendship with a European Jew well-versed in the standard Kabbalistic works and possibly possessing in Nauvoo an extraordinary collection of Kabbalistic books and manuscripts. By 1844 Smith not only was cognizant of Kabbalah, but enlisted theosophic concepts taken directly from its principal text in his most important doctrinal sermon, the "King Follett Discourse."
Smith's concepts of God's plurality, his vision of God as anthropos, and his possession by the issue of sacred marriage, all might have been cross-fertilized by this intercourse with Kabbalistic theosophy--an occult relationship climaxing in Nauvoo. This is a complex thesis; its understanding requires exploration of an occult religious tradition spanning more that a millennium of Western history, an investigation that begins naturally with Kabbalah.
"Sacred Activism is the fusion of the mystic's passion for God with the activist's passion for justice, creating a third fire, which is the burning sacred heart that longs to help, preserve, and nurture every living thing." - Andrew Harvey
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