Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection

by Lance S. Owens

Part 3: Includes pages 166 - 194 (end)

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Prophet and Freemasonry

Whatever one concludes about the varied hints of scattered early associations with Hermeticism, Joseph Smith had well-documented connections with one of the tradition's major legacies, Masonry. The prophet's associations with the Masonic tradition are thoroughly documented and discussed by Michael W. Homer in this issue of Dialogue. It is unlikely that Smith would have so fully involved himself and his church with the Masonic tradition if he had not sensed therein some intrinsic compatibility with his own religion-making vision. As Homer demonstrates, the prophet said that Masonry was "taken from priesthood," and his followers continued quoting that observation for fifty years after.104 It is possible that Joseph's interpretation of Masonry as a legacy of ancient priesthood was based in his own understanding of a history extending back hundreds of years, a history entwined with the Hermetic mythos and with Kabbalah, alchemy, and Rosicrucianism. The alliance of this occult legacy with Masonry was well understood by esoterically-inclined Masons; assertions of such links were bandied about by American anti-Masonic publications in the late 1820s.105 As noted, Joseph's own history several times touched Hermetic-Kabbalistic traditions. One could argue that he even interacted with them in a creative, visionary sense.

Joseph's contacts with the Hermetic mythos were sufficient to generate vague assumptions about Masonry's earlier roots, and these assumptions could have been an historical subtext to his remarks about Masonry being a remnant of ancient priesthood. Interestingly, modern historical examination of the occult tradition suggests a shadow of truth in Joseph's statement: Kabbalah and Hermeticism, as representatives of a historical stream of occult knowledge (or as reservoirs of Gnosticism) did claim ancient lineages of "priesthood." Joseph had every reason to take those claims seriously, as do historians today, albeit within a narrower interpretive context. In this light, Joseph's connection to Masonry takes on several different shades of meaning.

The ubiquitous influence of Kabbalah upon the occult traditions of the nineteenth century has been stressed, but its specific import in Masonry requires repeated emphasis. Noted historian of occultism Arthur Edward Waite suggested in his 1923 encyclopedia of Freemasonry that much of the "great" and "incomprehensible" heart of Masonry came from Kabbalah, "the Secret Tradition of Israel."106 He finds such important Masonic symbols as the Lost Word, the Temple of Solomon, the pillars Jachin and Boaz, the concept of the Master-Builder, and restoration of Zion, all derived from the lore of Kabbalah. The organizer of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in America, Albert Pike, manifested a similar sentiment and indexed over seventy entries to the subject of Kabbalah in his classic nineteenth-century study, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.107 Though Pike's work was published in 1871, his views reflected lore already established in Masonry during the period of Joseph Smith's Masonic initiations three decades earlier. Indeed, one of the earliest documentary mentions of Masonry appearing in 1691 specifically linked it with these Jewish traditions.108

As Homer notes, the Scottish Rite developed by Pike was an evolution of the eighteenth-century French Masonic Rite de Perfection, which in several degrees was influenced by Kabbalah.109 Kabbalah's importance in Masonic lore is also witnessed by Maritnez de Pasqually and his late-eighteenth century Kabbalistic-Masonic restoration of ancient priesthood in the Order of Les Elus Cohen. Much of this Kabbalistic influence upon Masonry may have come from Rosicrucianism (again recalling their close association), infused as it was with alchemical and Kabbalistic symbolism. But some additional influence might be attributed to esoteric sources like the Frankist movement. The Frankist—followers of Jacob Frank, and successors to the Kabbalistically inclined Sabbatean heresy—had become active in Central European Masonic organizations in the late eighteenth century.110 Given the wide diffusion of a Christianized and Rosicrucian version of Kabbalah into Masonry, Joseph Smith probably heard something about the tradition during the course of his almost twenty-year association with Masons and Freemasonry.

It might be argued that these occult Masonic inclinations were all part of a sophisticated, esoteric form of European Masonry foreign to the world of frontier America. To the contrary—and though not yet fully investigated—there are several reasons to believe that what Joseph Smith encountered in Nauvoo was an esoteric interpretation of Masonry. As mentioned earlier, between the mid-eighteenth and the beginnings of the nineteenth century a multitude of occult orders rose from Masonry. Each of these tended to develop its own interrelated system of symbolic ceremonies for conveying distinct esoteric visions. The different rites also often claimed variant "authentic" Masonic origins: in ancient Egyptian mysteries; in the lineages of the medieval Knights Templar; in Kabbalistic transmissions; and in Hermetic-alchemical-Rosicrucian traditions. Robert Macoy's 1872 encyclopedia of Freemasonry cataloged over forty-five distinct systems of Masonic rites developed during the period from 1750 to 1820.111 In retrospect one might suggest that during this unusual epoch a creatively elite group of individuals coming from many sectors of society encountered in the Masonic mythos a new medium for expressing their visions. Though basic York rite (or Blue Lodge) Masonry with its three degrees was a common grounding for most of these, around that foundation appeared many layerings of esoteric accretions. With the tools of allegory, symbol, and imagination, and in a format suggesting great mysterious antiquity, men touched by the Masonic mythos began producing new "ancient" rituals. One is reminded of Ireneaus' complaint about the Gnostics responding to the creative muse of their times: "every one of them generates something new, day by day, according to his ability; for no one is deemed mature, who does not develop . . . some mighty fiction."112

John C. Bennett, one of the more enigmatic figures in Mormon history, was the indisputable impetus to Masonry's introduction in Nauvoo. Bennett's mercurial career among the Mormons has fascinated and bewildered historians. Seemingly from out of the blue, Bennett appeared in Nauvoo and was baptized into the Mormon church in the summer of 1840. Within less than a year he became mayor of Nauvoo, chancellor of the University of Nauvoo, major general of the Nauvoo Legion, Assistant President of the Mormon church, and an intimate friend and counselor to Joseph Smith. In June 1841, less than three months after becoming Assistant President, he began attempts to organize a Mormon Masonic Lodge. But the Masonry he brought to Nauvoo had several unusual occult aspects. Less than a year later, he made an equally dramatic exit, excommunicated amid a flurry of allegations suggesting widespread sexual improprieties.

By the time he arrived in Nauvoo, the thirty-five-year-old Bennett had attended Athens state university; studied medicine with his uncle, the prominent frontier doctor and Ohio historian, Dr. Samuel Hildreth; helped to found educational institutions in West Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio; organized at Willoughby College the medical school and served as first dean and professor of gynecology and children's diseases; been a licensed preacher in Ohio; been appointed brigadier general of the Illinois Invincible Dragoons; and in 1840 become quartermaster general of Illinois state militia.113 He had also apparently abandoned a wife and children, been ejected from at least one Masonic Lodge for unbecoming behavior, and been accused of selling medical degrees. Bennett's interests, including religion, medicine, the military, and Masonry, suggest a person inclined towards investigating the more esoteric aspects of Masonry. His apparent libidinous proclivity may also have aroused his curiosity about unorthodox sexual practices associated with more creative Masonic rites.

Given the relation between Bennett and Smith, Bennett probably had communicated some Masonic ideas to Smith before petitions were made for the formation of a Nauvoo Masonic Lodge in mid-1841. That the temple endowment ceremony developed by Smith in May 1842 was influenced by Masonry cannot escape notice. But beyond the temple endowment, several other components were developing in Joseph's vision during this period that sounded an even stranger resonance with ideas from esoteric Masonic quarters. Two stand out: organization of an "Order of Illuminati" or political Kingdom of God, and introduction of "Spiritual Wifery."114

Bennett claimed that in a revelation dated 7 April 1841—the day before he was made Assistant President of the church—Joseph Smith personally commissioned him to establish an "Order of the Illuminati" in Nauvoo.115 Though the organization was not then specifically called by this name, a revelation received by Joseph on 7 April 1842 commanded formation of "The Kingdom of God and His Laws with the keys and powers thereof and judgment in the hands of his servants."116 More commonly called the Council of Fifty, the organization finally took form in March 1844. Joseph was soon thereafter ordained King of the Kingdom, a ritual of coronation also performed for each of the next two presidents of the church, Brigham Young and John Taylor. Whether Bennett got the idea for an order of Illuminati from Smith, or Smith from Bennett, is open to argument. But Ebenezer Robinson, editor of the Nauvoo Times and Seasons until February 1842 and a contemporary observer, thought the stimulus arrived with Bennett: "Heretofore the church had strenuously opposed secret societies such as Freemasons . . . but after Dr. Bennett came into the Church a great change of sentiment seemed to take place."117 Subsequent history links the idea with Bennett. After Smith's death, Bennett sought out the charismatic claimant to Smith's prophetic mantle, James Strang, and convinced him to establish an "Order of the Illuminati."118

The Council of Fifty in Nauvoo manifest a distinctly Masonic character, and Masonic ceremonial elements were incorporated in the council's meetings. A similar tenor emerged in Strang's Order of the Illuminati. It was only a few months after the claimed revelation commissioning him to organize the "Illuminati" at Nauvoo that Bennett initiated efforts to form the Masonic lodge. But Mormon historians have yet to specifically explored implications of another fact: both the name given by Bennett for the organization, "Order of the Illuminati," and the political concept embodied by the organization had a clear Masonic heritage.119 The parallel is so close that one wonders whether Bennett might have brought this and other more esoteric Masonic concepts with him into Nauvoo. At about this same time the practice of "Spiritual wifery" or plural marriage was also introduced. Bennett made several exaggerated claims in his later exposés about libertine sexual practices, claiming the women of Nauvoo were inducted into three ritual orders based on the sexual favors expected of them. Such claims are not tenable, but nonetheless recent historians have noted the apparent association of the Relief Society with Masonry. And Bennett's more slanderous claims aside, it is a fact that the female leaders of the Relief Society in Nauvoo were at one time all wives of Joseph Smith. Whatever the actual relationship to the practices in Nauvoo, Masonic lodges had existed which did indulge in such practices, the most specific example being Cagliostro's Egyptian rite.120 By all reports, Bennett would have intimate interest in this sort of Masonry—or this sort of Mormonism—and it would be hard to imagine him not encouraging Joseph's ideas about new forms of ritual marriage.

In this context, another question lingers: Is it possible Bennett's meteoric rise to prominence in Nauvoo was related to some unsuspected Masonic factor? Did he arrive in Nauvoo claiming independent esoteric lineages of Hermetic or Masonic priesthood, or some ancient and occult knowledge—declarations that Joseph, because of prior life experiences and associations, choose to honor? Though Bennett finally may have been nothing but a talented charlatan, it must be granted that a complex legacy of spiritual insight was embedded in Masonic rituals, myths, and symbols; they had a history and a lineage reaching back many centuries into Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and alchemical Gnosis. John C. Bennett may have brought something more than Blue Lodge Masonry to Nauvoo. And, regardless of his true intentions, what he brought may have been useful to a prophet.

In Nauvoo, in 1842 and after, I suggest Joseph Smith encountered a reservoir of myths, symbols, and ideas conveyed in the context of Masonry but with complex and more distant origins in the Western esoteric tradition. They apparently resonated with Smith's own visions, experiences modulating his spiritual life from the time of his earliest intuitions of a prophetic calling. He responded to this stimulus with a tremendous, creative outpouring—the type of creative response Gnostic myth and symbol were meant to evoke, and evidently had evoked across a millennium of history. But, leaving Masonry, there was still another, more primary transmission of this esoteric tradition that would touched Joseph's creative imagination during his last years in Nauvoo.


Joseph Smith and Kabbalah in Nauvoo

By 1842 Joseph Smith most likely had touched the subject of Kabbalah in several ways and versions, even if such contacts remain beyond easy documentation. During Joseph's final years in Nauvoo, however, his connection with Kabbalah becomes more concrete. In the spring of 1841 there apparently arrived in Nauvoo an extraordinary library of Kabbalistic writings belonging to a European Jew and convert to Mormonism who evidently new Kabbalah and its principal written works. This man, Alexander Neibaur, would soon become the prophet's friend and companion.

Neibaur has received little detailed study by Mormon historians, and his knowledge of Kabbalah has earned only an occasional passing footnote in Mormon historical work.121 Neibaur was born in Alsace-Lorraine in 1808, but during his later childhood the family apparently returned to their original home in eastern Prussia (now part of Poland). His father, Nathan Neibaur, was a physician and dentist, who family sources claim, was a personal physician to the Napoleon Bonapart and whose skill as a linguist made him of "great value" to Napoleon as an interpreter (claims perhaps inflated by posterity). Like his father, Alexander became fluent in several languages, including French, German, Hebrew, and later, English. He also read Latin and Greek. Family tradition claims that as the first child and eldest son, his father wished him to become a rabbi, and that the young Neibaur was begun in rabbincal training. However, at age seventeen he instead entered the University of Berlin to study dentistry, and completed his studies around 1828. Sometime shortly afterwards, he converted to Christianity and migrated to Preston, England. There he established a dental practice and married in 1833. In mid-summer 1837, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, and Joseph Fielding arrived in Preston. Neibaur had been troubled by several dreams about a mysterious book, and his first question for Joseph Smith's apostles was whether they had a "book" for him—which of course they did. He was baptized with his family the next spring. On 5 February 1841 they departed for Nauvoo, arriving in Quincy, Illinois, on 17 April. Four days later Neibaur met Joseph Smith, and on 26 April he notes in his journal, "went to work for J. Smith." Two day later he acquired a quarter-acre lot in Nauvoo, and on 1 June moved his family into their newly complete Nauvoo home on Water Street, a few blocks from Joseph Smith's residence.122

Where and how Neibaur first came in contact with Kabbalah remains a mystery, though a careful evaluation of his history and personal travels offers a few hints. Given his father's position, his childhood in western Poland, his studies in Berlin and his subsequent conversion to Christianity, some contact with a reservoir of Kabbalistic knowledge among Sabbatean or Frankist Jews should be considered.123 If he did indeed undertake rabbical studies in Poland prior to his university education, he could not have avoided some exposure to the subject. That Neibaur brought a knowledge of Kabbalah to Nauvoo has been mentioned in several studies of the period. For instance, Newel and Avery note in their biography of Emma Smith, "Through Alexander Neibaur, Joseph Smith had access to ancient Jewish rites called cabalism at the same time he claimed to be translating the papyri from the Egyptian mummies [which became his Book of Abraham]."124 That he not only knew something of Kabbalah, but apparently possessed a collection of original Jewish Kabbalistic works in Nauvoo, is however documented in material almost totally overlooked by Mormon historians.

In June 1843, Neibaur published in Times and Seasons a short piece entitled "The Jews." The work ran in two installments, in the issues of 1 June and 15 June. As to why he wrote this piece, he states only that his effort was inspired by a talk he had heard Joseph Smith present.125 His essay deals ostensibly with the concept of resurrection held by the Jews. What he discusses for the most part is, however, the Kabbalist concept of gilgul, the transmigration and rebirth of souls.126 The essay is interesting not because of his comments on resurrection, but because of his repeated citations of classic Jewish Kabbalistic texts. In the course of his four-page piece, Neibaur cites over two dozen texts and authors. Of the citations I have been able to identify, at least ten are to Kabbalistic authors or works.127 The tone of the entire piece, and the authoritative use of Kabbalistic materials, suggests Neibaur's respect for Kabbalah.

Neibaur's notations to these Medieval and Renaissance Jewish works illustrates that he probably both possessed the texts and had a general knowledge of their contents. Although transliterations of Hebrew into English remain variable even in modern publications, Neibaur's renderings into English of the titles and authors cited are fairly consistent and accurate to the original Hebrew. The general precision of his numerous citations suggest Neibaur had access to the works he quoted.128 Included among his citations are several "classic" Kabbalistic texts—the most important Jewish Kabbalistic manuscripts circulated between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries—works such as the Zohar, Midrash Ha-Neelam, Menorat ha Ma'or, Emek ha-Melekh, and the 'Avodat ha-Kodesh, as well as a few rarer documents. Much of the material he cites was available only in Hebrew, and to this date has not been translated and published. By any standard, these were unusual works to possess on the American frontier, and certainly an extraordinary collection of texts to be found in the prophet Joseph's Nauvoo.

Joseph Smith and Alexander Neibaur were frequent associates. Neibaur had been engaged by Joseph a few days after his arrival in Nauvoo in April 1841. During the last months of the prophet's life, both his and Neibaur's diaries indicate that Neibaur read with and tutored Smith in Hebrew and German.129 Given this friendly relationship, the interests of the prophet, and the background of Neibaur—and perhaps even the books in Neibaur's library—it seems inconceivable that discussions of Kabbalah did not take place. Kabbalah was the mystical tradition of Judaism, the tradition which claimed to be custodian of the secrets God revealed to Adam. These secrets were occultly conveyed by the oral tradition of Kabbalah throughout the ages—so it was claimed—until finally finding written expression in the Zohar and the commentaries of the medieval Kabbalists, books Neibaur possessed. Kabbalah was the custodian of an occult re-reading of Genesis and the traditions of Enoch, it contained the secrets of Moses. And it was a subject that Joseph Smith had probably already crossed in different versions several times in his life. Can anyone familiar with the history and personality of Joseph Smith—the prophet who restored the secret knowledge and rituals conveyed to Adam, translated the works of Abraham, Enoch, and Moses, and retranslated Genesis—question that he would have been interested in the original version of this Jewish occult tradition? And here, in Neibaur, was a man who could share a version of that knowledge with him.

Whatever the reasons for the similarities, it should be remembered that the Hermetic-Kabbalistic world view parallels Joseph's vision of God in many particulars. Not only might Joseph have been interested in this material, but he would have noted how similar this sacred, secret tradition was with his own restoration of ancient truth. And perhaps Neibaur, on a religious quest—from Judaism and Kabbalah, Europe and England, to Christianity and Mormonism and a new home in Nauvoo—saw or even amplified that intrinsic sympathy in his explications of the tradition for Joseph.

Certainly the first text Joseph Smith would have confronted was the Zohar, the great heart of the Kabbalah. This is one of the works Neibaur cited repeatedly in his article and, as the central text of Kabbalah, is the key book any individual with Kabbalistic interests would have preserved in his library. Familiarity with the Zohar was a given for a Kabbalist, particularly one with knowledge of works as divergent as those cited by Neibaur, all of which expounded in some degree upon themes in the Zohar. If Neibaur had read to Joseph from any single text, or explained Kabbalistic concepts contained in a principal book, the Zohar would have been the book with which to start. This might explain why in 1844 Smith, in what may be his single greatest discourse and in the most important public statement of his theosophical vision, apparently quotes almost word for word from the first section of the Zohar.


Kabbalah in Mormon Doctrine: The King Follett Discourse

On Sunday afternoon, 7 April 1844, Joseph Smith stood before a crowd estimated at 10,000 and delivered his greatest sermon, the King Follett Discourse.130 Dissension, rumor, accusation, and conspiracy all abounded in Nauvoo on that pleasant spring day, and Joseph was at the center. This would be Joseph's last conference, ten weeks later he lay murdered at Carthage Jail. In this atmosphere of tension, many in the congregation probably expected a message of conciliation, a retrenchment. Instead, the prophet stunned listeners with his most audacious public discourse—a declaration replete with doctrinal innovations and strange concepts that many of the Saints had never before heard. As Fawn Brodie noted, "For the first time he proclaimed in a unified discourse the themes he had been inculcating in fragments and frequently in secret to his most favored saints: the glory of knowledge, the multiplicity of gods, the eternal progression of the human soul."131

Van Hale, in his analysis of the discourse's doctrinal impact, notes four declarations made by Joseph Smith which have had an extraordinary and lasting impact on Mormon doctrine: men can become gods; there exist many Gods; the gods exist one above another innumerably; and God was once as man now is.132 Interestingly, these were all concepts that could, by various exegetical approaches, be found in the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition. But even more astoundingly, it appears Joseph actually turned to the Zohar for help in supporting his introduction of these radical doctrinal assertions.

The prophet begins his discussion of the plurality and hierarchy of the Gods with an odd exegesis of the first words of Genesis, Bereshith bara Elohim:

I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible. . . . I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today. I will go to the very first Hebrew word—BERESHITH—in the Bible and make a comment on the first sentence of the history of creation: "In the beginning. . . ." I want to analyze the word BERESHITH. BE—in, by, through, and everything else; next, ROSH—the head; ITH. Where did it come from? When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the first part—the BE—there; but a man—a Jew without any authority—-put it there. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head of any man. It read in the first: "The Head One of the Gods brought forth the Gods." This is the true meaning of the words. ROSHITH [BARA ELOHIM] signifies [the Head] to bring forth the Elohim. If you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God. No learned man can tell you any more than what I have told you. Thus, the Head God brought forth the Head Gods in the grand, head council.133

By any literate interpretation of Hebrew, this is an impossible reading. Joseph takes Elohim, the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object, the thing which received the action of creation. Bereshith ("in the beginning") is reinterpreted to become Roshith, the "head" or "Head Father of the Gods," who is the subject-actor creating Elohim.134 And Elohim he interprets not as God, but as "the Gods." Louis C. Zucker, who published an insightful examination of Smith's study and use of Hebrew, notes that this translation deviates entirely from the interpretative convention Joseph had learned as a student of Hebrew in Kirtland. Joshua Seixas, the professor who had instructed Joseph and the School of the Prophets in early 1836, used in his classes a textbook he had written, Hebrew grammar for the Use of Beginners.135 In the Seixas manual (p. 85), this Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 is given along with a "correct" word-for-word translation: "In the beginning, he created, God, the heavens, and the earth." Seixas would not have introduced in his oral instruction a translation entirely alien to the conventions of his own textbook. Zucker comments on Smith's strange translation of the verse: "Joseph, with audacious independence, changes the meaning of the first word, and takes the third word `Eloheem' as literally plural. He ignores the rest of the verse, and the syntax he imposes on his artificial three-word statement is impossible."136

But Zucker (along with Mormon historians generally) ignored another exegesis of this verse—an exegesis which was a basic precept of Jewish Kabbalah from the thirteenth century on and which agrees, word for word, with Joseph's reading.137 In the tradition of Kabbalah, Bereshith bara Elohim was most emphatically not an "artificial three-word statement," as Zucker implied. Gershom Scholem, in the middle of a long discussion, explains this other view:

The Zohar, and indeed the majority of the older Kabbalists, questioned the meaning of the first verse of the Torah: Bereshith bara Elohim, "In the beginning created God"; what actually does this mean? The answer is fairly surprising. We are told that it means Bereshith—through the medium of the "beginning," [Hokhmah, or "Wisdom," the primordial image of the Father God in the Kabbalistic Sefiroth]—bara, created, that is to say, the hidden Nothing which constitutes the grammatical subject of the word bara, emanated or unfolded,—Elohim, that is to say, its emanation is Elohim. It [Elohim] is the object, and not the subject of the sentence.138

Scholem's point is perhaps made clearer by restatement. In the Zohar, and in the commentaries of the majority of older (that is, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Kabbalists), the verse Bereshith bara Elohim is grammatically turned around. Bereshith is understood to refer to the Sefirah of Hokhmah, translated as "Wisdom" and identified in Kabbalistic theosophy as the Supernal Father—the figure who is usually interpreted in Kabbalah as the First of the Godhead. Hokhmah then emanates, or "creates" in the sense of unfolding, the Elohim.139 As Scholem notes, the interesting thing here is that Elohim has become the object of the sentence, and is no longer the subject. This is precisely Joseph Smith's reading.

This interpretation of Genesis 1:1 is not deeply hidden in the Zohar, but constitutes its opening paragraphs, and is the central concern of the entire first section of this long book. The Zohar begins with a commentary on Bereshith bara Elohim:

It is written: And the intelligent shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever. There was indeed a "brightness" [Zohar].140 The Most Mysterious struck its void, and caused this point to shine. This "beginning" [Reshith] then extended, and made for itself a palace for its honour and glory. . . . Thus by means of this "beginning" [Reshith] the Mysterious Unknown made this palace. This palace is called Elohim, and this doctrine is contained in the words, "By means of a beginning [Reshith, it,] created Elohim."141

So far this is exactly Joseph Smith's reading. In his exegesis Joseph takes Elohim, the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object which received the action of creation from the first god-image (here called Reshith), just as does the Zohar. Indeed, his words as transcribed by William Clayton, "Rosheet signifies to bring forth the Eloheim," are almost identical with the Zohar's phrasing of the interpretation.142

In his next step of translation, Smith interprets Bereshith to become Rosh, the "head" or head God. As Zucker objected, orthodox standards of translations do not yield the word Rosh, or "head," from Bereshith. But it was not "audacious independence" alone that led Smith to changed the meaning. A basis for this reading is actually found in the next verse of the Zohar: By a Kabbalistic cipher of letters—a technique used in Kabbalah to conceal deeper esoteric meanings—the Zohar explains that the word Reshith "is anagrammatically Rosh (head), the beginning which issues from Reshith."143 (To understand the fuller intent of this phrase, one must again remember that Rosh or reshith is here interpreted by Kabbalah to be Hokhmah, the first god-image, the Supernal Father.) Thus in this text Reshith has been interposed as an anagram for Rosh—who is understood to be the "Head God," Hokhmah. Could this be what Joseph means when he says "a man, a Jew without authority" changed the reading of the word, perhaps by failing to understand this ancient Kabbalistic anagram?

Finally, Smith translates Elohim in the plural, as "the Gods." The word is indeed in a plural Hebrew form, but by the orthodox interpretative conventions Joseph was taught in his Kirtland Hebrew class (which remain the norm) it is read as singular. In the Zohar, however, it is interpreted in the plural. This is witnessed throughout the Zohar and appears clearly in the following paragraph from the opening sections of the work, where the phrase "Let us make man" (Gen. 1:26) is used as the basis for a discussion on the plurality of the gods:

"Us" certainly refers to two, of which one said to the other above it, "let us make," nor did it do anything save with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague. But that which is called "the Cause above all causes," which has no superior or even equal, as it is written, "To whom shall ye liken me, that I should be equal?" (Is. 40:25), said, "See now that I, I am he, and Elohim is not with me," from whom he should take counsel. . . . Withal the colleagues explained the word Elohim in this verse as referring to other gods.144

Within this passage is both the concept of plurality and of the hierarchy of Gods acting "with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague." This interpretation is of course echoed in the King Follett discourse and became a foundation for all subsequent Mormon theosophy.

Two months after giving the King Follett Discourse, Joseph returned to these first Hebrew words of Genesis and the subject of plural Gods. Thomas Bullock transcribed his remarks on the rainy Sunday morning of 16 June 1844. This was to be Joseph's last public proclamation on doctrine; eleven days later he lay dead. Joseph first introduced his subject—the plurality of Gods—then again read in Hebrew the opening words of Genesis and repeated his interpretation of Bereshith bara Elohim, using much the same phrasing recorded two months earlier in the King Follett Discourse. He then turned to Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man," the same passage interpreted in the Zohar to imply a plurality of Gods. After reading the verse aloud in Hebrew, he interpreted the text and found in it the same occult import given by the Zohar: The God "which has no superior or equal" (the Zohar's words), the "Head one of the Gods" (Joseph's term) addressed the "other Gods," Elohim in the plural translation, saying "let us make man." Bullock transcribed his remarks thus: "if we pursue the Heb further it reads [here he apparently read in Hebrew Genesis 1:26] The Head one of the Gods said let us make man in our image. . . . in the very beginning there is a plurality of Gods—beyond power of refutation—it is a great subject I am dwelling on—the word Eloiheam ought to be in the plural all the way thro."145

As he began his exegesis of the opening Hebrew phrase of Genesis in the King Follett Discourse, Joseph stated that he would go to the "old Bible." In Kabbalistic lore, the commentary of the Zohar represented the oldest biblical interpretation, the secret interpretation imparted by God to Adam and all worthy prophets after him. Joseph certainly was not using the knowledge of Hebrew imparted to him in Kirtland nine years earlier when he gave his exegesis of Bereshith bara Elohim, or plural interpretation of Elohim. Was then the "old Bible" he used the Zohar? And was the "learned man of God" he mentioned Simeon ben Yochai, the prophetic teacher attributed with these words in the Zohar?

Joseph wove Hebrew into several of his discourses during the final year of his life. In these late Nauvoo discourses, however, he interpreted the Hebrew not as a linguist but as a Kabbalist—a reflection of his own predilections and of the fortuitous aid of his tutor, Alexander Neibaur.146 But in conclusion, we need to step back from this discussion of words and see that behind them resides a unique vision, a vision characteristic of the occult Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition. Harold Bloom called the King Follett Discourse "one of the truly remarkable sermons ever preached in America." It is also a remarkable evidence of the prophet's visionary ties to the archaic legacy of Jewish Gnosticism and to the single most influential force in the evolution of Christian occultism: the Kabbalah.


Kabbalah after Joseph: A Legacy Misunderstood

Kabbalistic theosophy was, if nothing else, complex. Different interpretations abounded among Christian Kabbalists removed from the original Kabbalistic foundations of Jewish culture and halakhic observance. We can imagine how easily such ideas might have been misunderstood by a concretely minded Yankee disciple of Joseph Smith. This may help explain a troubling conundrum of early Mormon theology: Brigham Young's assertion that "Adam is God." Brigham claimed that Joseph had taught him this doctrine—although there is no evidence that Joseph ever publicly avowed such a view.147 In Kabbalah the theme is, however, prominent: Adam Kadmon is indeed "God," and His form is in the image of a Man—as noted earlier. Given the evidence that Joseph did know some elements of Kabbalah and had access both to the Zohar and to a Jew familiar with a wide range of Kabbalistic materials, it seems probable that Brigham heard this concept in some form from Joseph. The Adam-God doctrine may have been a misreading (or simplistic restatement) by Brigham Young of a Kabbalistic and Hermetic concept relayed to him by the prophet.

More than one element in early Mormon theology suggests that subtle visions could be made grossly concrete. Perhaps the most striking example is sacral nature of marital sexual union and the human potential for multiple sacred marriages, a potential shared in Joseph's time by both women and men. As Bloom noted, in Kabbalah and perhaps in Smith's practice "the function of sanctified human sexual intercourse essentially is theurgical."148 This was an important undertone in the wider circles of Christian occultism, eventually manifest in several occult Masonic societies. How Joseph interacted with this tradition and vision is the single most interesting and important issue awaiting historians of Mormonism. That this was an issue early in his life is witnessed by the need to marry and have Emma with him prior to obtaining the golden plates of the Book of Mormon.149 That the preoccupation persisted throughout his life needs little argument. Ideas of sacred sexuality permeated Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and alchemy, perhaps touching even the mystical vision of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his overtly Masonic opera, The Magic Flute: "Mann und Weib, Weib und Man; Reichen an die Gottheit an!" ("Man and Woman, Woman and Man, Together they approximate the Divine!").150 By investigating in depth the legacy of ideas and experiences of Kabbalah and Christian occultism, we might begin to understand this perplexing vision shared by the prophet Joseph Smith.

That Kabbalistic ideas persisted among Joseph's disciples is suggested in an intriguing piece of evidence appearing three years after the prophet's martyrdom. To understand this item, a more detailed understanding of Kabbalah as Joseph may have heard it is necessary. Briefly summarized: the most important symbolic representation of the structure of "the Kingdom of God" in Kabbalah was the "Tree of the Sefiroth" (See Figure 1 and 2.). The Tree was re-drawn by Robert Fludd (an important English Kabbalist and Rosicrucian of the seventeenth century) in a slightly different fashion.151 (See Figure 12.) In his figure, Fludd uses the allegorical image of a Tree with roots in heaven above and palm-like "branches" at the bottom (in the Sefirah of Malkhuth, meaning "Foundation"), extending into the earth. The tree is crowned; the crown representing Kether (meaning "Crown"), the first Sefirah and primal god-image. Below this crown, the tree branches into the other nine Sefiroth.

In the Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star in 1847 an interesting figure appears, titled "A Diagram of the Kingdom of God" (Figure 12).152 The artist and author of this small piece was probably Orson Hyde. Hyde's tree is also crowned, and branches in precisely the fashion of Fludd's tree. The only difference is that the Hyde tree has twenty-two branches. This is a remarkable choice of numbers, as any student of Kabbalah will recognize. In Kabbalah there are two important numerical aspects of the Tree of Sefiroth: the first is the number ten, the number of Sefiroth, the second is the number twenty-two, the number of paths between the Sefiroth, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus Joseph Smith may have conveyed to one his apostles—or Hyde may have independently found compatible with the prophet's teachings—the most essential symbolic element of Kabbalah, the "mystical shape of the Godhead" contained in the image of the Sefiroth as redrawn by a principal and very influential seventeenth-century Christian Kabbalist, Fludd.

That interest in the subject of Kabbalah and Hermeticism persisted in at least one disciple of Smith's is witnessed by William Clayton. Clayton was Smith's personal secretary and one of his intimate associates during the prophet's last years in Nauvoo.153 Few, if any, individuals had a closer view of Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo period. This may explain Clayton's otherwise unusual interest in Kabbalah and alchemy manifest in his later years. In 1864 someone in Utah loaned Clayton a guidebook of "Cabala," a tract apparently containing several advertisements for esoteric materials relating to "Cabala" and alchemy. As one of Clayton's biographers write, "Though the record is not clear, it may be that . . . he wanted . . . something akin to the so-called Philosopher's Stone of the ancient alchemists—a substance that supposedly enabled the adept, when applied correctly, to transmute metals." Clayton subsequently organized an alchemical society in Salt Lake City, with himself as corresponding secretary, and purchased several mail-order alchemical outfits. The group, which numbered at least twenty-six members, spent months attempting to transmute metals without success before finally abandoning their project.154 Though it appears Clayton was simply duped by a mail-order shyster, his esoteric interests and his faith in them might also be explained by some recollection he harbored about Kabbalah and the prophet in Nauvoo.


Conclusion: Joseph and the Occult Connection

In attempting to understand Joseph Smith and his religious vision, historians have examined both the religious sparks kindled by his time and the social soils from which the young prophet sprang. As useful as some of these efforts have been, I still agree with Paul Edwards: our methods so far have been too "traditional and unimaginative" to comprehend Joseph's history; we remain, even now, blinded by the fears of yesterday—or biased by its erroneous judgments. Chief among the subjects that might be "feared" in Mormon history is Joseph's apparent recurrent association with the "occult" traditions of Western spirituality, and this remains the area of his history least examined and understood. It is impossible for me to present fresh evidence which seemingly links Joseph Smith to what might be interpreted as "the occult" without addressing this wider issue.

The historical record witnesses that Joseph Smith had some intercourse with at least three important manifestations of the alternative and non-orthodox religious traditions that blossomed in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance period, traditions sometimes labeled as "the occult": ceremonial magic, Masonry, and Kabbalah. These associations extended throughout his life, and his liaison with each constituted more than casual acquaintance. This is an area of history to which Mormon historians have been hesitant to turn full attention—an area where our fears (or ignorance) have delimited our understanding.

It would be foolish at this late date to maintain that any single tradition engendered Joseph Smith's religious vision. Joseph was an American original—and we need not fear him being cast as a Masonic pundit, folk magician, Rosicrucian mystic, medieval Kabbalist, or ancient Gnostic. Nonetheless, we must recognize that something in the nature of the prophet, some element of his own intrinsic vision, did resonate with the occult traditions of the Western spiritual quest. Into the spirit and matter of his religious legacy, he wove these sympathies. Joseph carried his silver talisman, inscribed with the sigil of Jupiter and Hebrew letters cast in a magic square, upon his person to his death. He called Masonry a remnant of true priesthood, and over a thousand of his men in Nauvoo, including nearly every then current or future priesthood leader of his nascent church, went through the three separate steps of ritual initiation leading to the degree of Master Mason. In his last months, amid dissension and danger, he found time to sit and read Hebrew and perhaps study Kabbalah and the Zohar with Alexander Neibaur. In April 1844, when his congregation expected retrenchment and reconciliation, he turned to that Hebrew, and bequeathed to his disciples an extraordinary vision of God—a theosophical pronouncement which echoed the tones of Kabbalah even to the ear of a critic so far removed in time and culture as Harold Bloom.

It is this last link—Joseph's sympathy for Kabbalah—which may be the key that finally unlocks a pattern, and opens a new methodology for understanding the prophet Joseph Smith. As Richard Bushman noted:

The power of Enlightenment skepticism had far less influence on Joseph Smith. . . . Joseph told of the visits of angels, of direct inspiration, of a voice in the chamber of Father Whitmer, without embarrassment. He prized the Urim and Thummim and the seerstone, never repudiating them even when the major charge against him was that he used magic to find buried money. His world was not created by Enlightenment rationalism with its deathly aversion to superstition. The Prophet brought into modern America elements of a more ancient culture in which the sacred and the profane intermingled and the Saints enjoyed supernatural gifts and powers as the frequent blessing of an interested God.155

Joseph Smith did indeed bring into America elements of an ancient culture—but that culture was not temporally very distant from the prophet. When Joseph was introduced to Jewish Kabbalah in its classic form in Nauvoo, he found—consciously or unconsciously—the fiber of a thread woven throughout the fabric of his life. The magic he met as a youth, the prophetic reinterpretation of scripture and opening of the canon to divine revelation, the Masonic symbol system: all of these were reflections of an heterodox Hermetic religious tradition that had persisted in various occult fashions within the Western religious tradition for centuries, a tradition of which Kabbalah was a most important part. Call the tradition "occult" if you wish—certainly to survive it was at times hidden—but do not error by seeing it as simply a legacy of ideas from which the young prophet might pick and choose.

This tradition—as is now well accepted by scholars—was driven by the phenomenon of a rare human experience. As interwoven into Hermeticism, Kabbalah was a tradition not just of theosophic assertions, but of return to prophetic vision. For a millennium or more—perhaps dating all the way back to the suppressed heresy of the Gnostics—men and women within this larger tradition asserted the reality of their vision—and sometimes even used what now seems modern psychological insight in dealing with their experiences.156 Individuals caught in this experience not uncommonly saw themselves as prophets, though the force of the tradition sought to maintain a balance in the face of such realizations. Many of them thought themselves kings and queens before God, and some openly proclaimed their royalty.157 They probed the mystery of Adam and Eve, and primal creation, they embraced rituals and symbols as non-verbal expressions of ineffable insights. Their sexuality was sacralized, and not infrequently their sacred sexual practices ranged beyond the bounds of expression accepted by the societies of their times. Their most sacred mystery, the great mysterium coniunctionis, was sometimes ecstatically mirrored in the holy union of a man and a women. They authored pseudoepigraphic works, invoking ancient voices as their own. They told new stories about God because for them God was a living story: and they found their own lives mingled within a story being told by a living God. When Joseph sought a mirror to understand himself he found reflections in a history not so distant as that of ancient Israel. His story, the prophet's story, lived within the occult legacy of his time. He touched that legacy often, and he saw in it the image—even if dimmed and distorted—of a priesthood he shared.

Joseph Smith's life reflected the nature of an unusual human experience, and to understand his history we must understand his experience in the context of history. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung dedicated the last half of his long life to elucidating the nature and psychological insights of the Kabbalistic-Hermetic-alchemical tradition. He felt it held the pearl of great price, the treasure forgotten by Christianity in its enlightened Protestant evolution. It was at the Eranos conferences dominated by Jung, that Gershom Scholem, the preeminent pioneer of Kabbalistic studies, opened the eyes of Western scholarship to the tradition's import in our history.158 Moshe Idel, Scholem's brilliant and independent protégé, has subsequently reaffirmed the value of a psychological perception in understanding its phenomena.159 With insights augmented by Scholem's work, the historian Francis Yates pioneered a new understanding of the vast influence of the occult tradition in Renaissance and Reformation culture.160 And recently Harold Bloom has pointed to its import in the creative vision of more modern times.161 Perhaps the thrust of this scholarship is now reaching the cloisters of Mormon history. But should that indeed be the case, Mormon historians must understand that they are embarking into a different methodology of history. A prophet's history flows from two springs, one above and one below, both melding in currents of his life. What story from above the prophet may have heard will remain his secret, the history no man knows. But by turning to the larger realm of prophetic history and its occult legacy, the record of its aspirations, its symbols and lore, and the enigmatic histories of the women and men who have been caught in this unique human experience, we may begin to find a methodology that leads us with new wonder into the unknown history of Joseph Smith.



Appendix: Alexander Neibaur's Library


Below is a summary of citations given by Alexander Neibaur in his article "The Jews," Times and Seasons 4 (1 June 1843): 220-22, and 4 (15 June 1843): 233-34. They are listed in order of first occurrence in his text. When an author or text is cited more than once, only the first is listed. These citations include several of the "classic" Kabbalistic texts circulated between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries—works such as the Zohar, Menorat ha Ma'or, Emek ha-Melekh, and the 'Avodat ha-Kodesh—as well as a few rarer documents. I have noted several citations to these important texts in recent of Kabbalah by Moshe Idel and Gershom Scholem.


"Rabbi Manasse Ben Israel says in Nishmath Cajim": R. Manasseh Ben Israel, Nishmat Hayyim, a work published in Amsterdam in 1652 in defense of the Kabbalistic concept of gilgul, the transmigration of souls. (Neibaur specifically mentions the term "Gilgool".) (Scholem, Kabbalah, 349.)

"R. Issac Aberhaph in his Menorat Hamorr": Israel al-Nakawa is the true author of this important fourteenth-century work, Menorat ha Ma'or. I have not yet identified the author cited by Neibaur, "R. Aberhaph," which is apparently in error. (Scholem, Kabbalah, 66.)

"R. Baccay" (later cited as "R. Bacay" and "Rabbi Bachay"): Possibly R. Samson Bacchi of Casale Monferrato. A seventeenth-century Italian Jew and Kabbalist, and a disciple of the leading Kabbalist in Italy, R. Moses Zacuto. R. Bacchi had intimate knowledge of the Sabbatean movement and several associations with followers of Sabbatai Sevi. (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 501-3) He had studied Lurianic Kabbalah with one of Luria's disciples, Joseph ibn Tabul. (Scholem, Kabbalah, 424.) Another possibility is the twelfth-century philosopher Bachya Ben Joseph ibn Pakuda.

"R. Isaac Abarbanel": R. Isaac Abrabanel (or Abravanel) was a prominent commentator on Kabbalistic eschatology and messianism active in late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Idel notes Abarvanel as one of the commentators who tended to add a Platonic interpretation to Kabbalistic ideas. (Idel, Kabbalah, 3, 144, 281; Scholem, Kabbalah, 71; Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 14.)

"R. D. Kimchi": R. David Kimchi, a thirteenth-century grammarian and biblical commentator.

"Rabbi Naphtali in Emakhamelek": Emek ha-Melekh by Naphtali Bacharach, published in 1648 and considered "one of the most important kabbalistic works." A German kabbalist active in the first half of the seventeenth century, "Bacharach appears as an enthusiastic and fanatical kabbalist, with a special flair for the mystical and non-philosophical traits of Kabbalah. . . . The book Emek ha-Melekh had a great impact on the development of the late Kabbalah. It was widely recognized as an authoritative source on the doctrine of Isaac Luria, and kabbalists from many countries . . . quoted him extensively. His influence is also noticeable in Sabbatean literature" (Scholem, Kabbalah, 394-95).

"Jalkut Kodosh" (later cited "Jalkut Kadash" and "Talkut Kadash"): Yalqut Khadash, a seventeenth-century anthology of Kabbalistic material. This anthology contained a most interesting text on the mystical and salvific intention of sexual union between male and female (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 61-62).

"Medrash Neelam": Midrash Ha-Neelam is a principal section of the Zohar, the central Kabbalistic collection of esoteric teachings. Scholem argues that it may be temporally one of the oldest constituent sections of the Zohar (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 181-88).

"R. Joseph Albo": Spanish philosopher and Kabbalist (ca. 1380-ca. 1435) whose principal work, Sepher ha-Ikkarim, achieved considerable popularity with both scholars and laymen. (Idel, Kabbalah, 144.)

"Aphkat Rackel" (later also cited as "Ophkat Rochel"): Abkat Rokhel, a Kabbalistic book in circulation in the seventeenth century (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 661n.)

"R. Jacanan": R. Yohanan ben Zakkai is a Talmudic figure, and this reference is most likely to him.

"Talmuh Tract Sanhedrin": Talmudic text. (Idel, Kabbalah, 403.)

"Bereshith Rabba": The Bereshith rabbati by R. Moses ben Isaac ha-Darshan of Narbonne, France (eleventh century). (Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, 156). R. Moses was a primary source of early gematriot, the cipher of letters to find hidden meanings in scripture. (Scholem, Kabbalah, 338.)

"R. Levi ber Gerohonon": Levi ben Gershon (also Gershom or Gersonides) lived in the South of France (1288-1344), and is often considered the greatest Jewish philosopher after Maimonides. Working in an intellectual atmosphere charged with Kabbalistic and Aristotelian influences, he authored philosophic and scientific works which had a wide influence.

"R. Jonathan": Not yet identified.

"Talmud Tract Resokim": Talmudic text.

"R. Elias": Not yet identified.

"Rabbi Akiba": R. Akiba (or, R. 'Akiva), a second-century Jewish hero and early midrashic commentator, revered in later commentary to have been a source of both halakhic and esoteric knowledge. (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 78-79).

"Avodath Hakodash" (also cited as "Abodah Hakadash"): 'Avodat ha-Kodesh, by R. Meir ibn Gabbay. Written in 1531 in "Palestine or Egypt by the leading kabbalist of the generation before Luria" (Scholem, Sevi, 47), this is a "classic exposition of theosophical kabbalah" (Idel, Kabbalah, 399), and "made an especially impressive summary of the teachings of the earlier Kabbalists" (Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, 81). It was published in Venice in 1566 (Scholem, Sevi, 47). Ibn Gabbay in this and other works developed the theurgic concept of man as divine in form, influencing the divine. (Idel, Kabbalah, 176).

"Talmud Tract Ketuboth": Talmudic text.

"Sohar": The primary text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. The first printed edition of the Zohar appeared almost simultaneously in two different place, Mantua and Cremona, in 1588-90. Several later editions appeared, but the Mantua edition had the widest influence, and most subsequent editions were based on its text. Portions of the Zohar appeared in Knorr von Rosenroth's Latin Kabbalah Denudata, first published at Sulzbach in 1677.

"Rabbi Simeon, son of Jacay": R. Simeon b. Yochai, the central figure in the text of the principal Kabbalistic text, the Zohar.

"Pesikta Raba": This is the Pesiqta Rabbathi, one of the late midrashim, notable for the impressive eschatological sections and messianic exegesis. This particular midrash was important to Sabbateans, who used sections of it to explain the messianic burden born by Sabbatai Sevi. (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 54, 146, 175.)

"Rabbi Jehuda": Not yet identified.

"Rabbi Joshua ben Menaser": Not yet identified.

"The Book Siphri": Sifrei, a midrashic-talmudic text. (M. Idel, Kabbalah, 403.)

"Book Rad Hakemah": Possibly Kad ha-Kemah by Bachya Ibn Pakuda, a thirteenth-century philospher whose work had a strong spiritual affinity with the Arab mystics, and influenced subsequent Jewish mysticism.


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Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection