When Sigmund Freud was first introduced to the Kabbalah, he exclaimed, “This is gold!” Carl Jung expressed a similar excitement, going so far as to say that the kabbalistic writings of Rabbi Baer from Mesiritz “anticipated my entire psychology in the eighteenth century.” Freud and Jung’s excitement arose from a central paradox with which the Kabbalah wrestles: that evil, which by definition is diametrically opposed to good, is at the same time its very source.
Creatively articulated by Isaac Luria, the sixteenth-century mystic whose writings form the backbone of contemporary Kabbalah, this idea of light hidden in the darkness is also a basic psychoanalytic idea, having to do with making the unconscious conscious, as well as connecting split-off complexes to the wholeness of the Self. If we don’t acknowledge and pay our dues to the darkness, it will take its due on its own terms—like the return of the Freudian repressed—with a vengeance.
Here’s one starting place for understanding what it could mean for evil to be the source of good: only a broken and disordered state of affairs such as we have in the world today can provide the optimal environment within which humanity can exercise the greatest spiritual, moral, aesthetic and intellectual virtues that truly make us a reflection of God. The discordant, unassimilated, and antagonistic effects of both our personal complexes and the evil in the universe call forth our highest potentialities. It’s similar to how a road test for a car involves being put under the most difficult conditions to push it to its edge and elicit the limits of its performance capabilities. This world is a perfect realm for the “road testing” of our souls. Humanity’s highest virtues are called upon when confronted by evil.
To glimpse the meaning of this paradox—and to grasp its relation to Jungian psychology—will first require a closer look at the creation story within the Kabbalah. Please note that as I retell and analyze this creation story, I am using male pronouns when referring to God merely for consistency’s sake, as both the Kabbalah and Jung do so.
Divine Sparks Trapped in Dark Matter
According to the Lurianic Kabbalah (henceforth referred to simply as “Kabbalah”), at the very moment that God conceived the world and poured his infinite light into the “vessels” that he had prepared for this very event, the vessels were shattered by this influx of divine light. This catastrophic “Breaking of the Vessels” shattered the vessels into shards that fell through primordial space, the metaphysical void, while at the same time severing the previously united (and unconscious) opposites that constitute the underlying unified structure of the universe. Each shard entrapped a portion of divine light, seemingly separating this primordial light from its source.
These shards, known as the kelipot (pronounced k’lee-pote), represent malevolent constrictions in being, which, according to the Kabbalah, are the source of evil and personal suffering. The negation and mirror image of divine holiness, the kelipot are like envelopes that conceal holiness just as a peel hides the fruit within. The kelipot are likened to husks or shells that imprison within themselves the divine light of God, which, because of its estrangement from its source, becomes malevolent. The kelipot alter the appearance of the light, but don’t, however, change the essence of the light itself. Infertile and lifeless, with no independent existence, the kelipot are vacuous apparitions sustained in their seeming existence only by the divine light that they have captured. Evil thus has no life of its own, as the very source of evil is both intrinsically connected to and parasitic in relation to the divine light. Though parasitically dependent upon the light of God, evil seeks to destroy holiness, which is to ultimately destroy everything, including itself. By severing the primary reality from its source of being, the kelipot assume an illusory reality, becoming a lethal mirage that, though ultimately not truly existing, could potentially destroy our species.
The kelipot are also thought to imprison aspects of human souls as well, parasitically feeding on the divine light within them, which is to say that the Kabbalah’s view of cosmic events is also a description of the dynamics within humanity’s soul. The entrapped divine sparks of light symbolize each individual’s essential but forgotten reality. The kelipot contain within themselves the source and very energy for their own undoing and, ultimately, the potential for their own redemption. For this reason the concept of the kelipot is very much akin to the Algonquian concept of wetiko (the spirit of evil that inspires humanity’s inhumanity to itself), an idea I explore more in my book Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil. Encoded in the deepest evil of wetiko is a blessing in disguise: if we recognize what it is revealing to us about ourselves, it can help us to wake up. The same is true of the kelipot.
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