The Occult Jew, pt. 3

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of a modern occult that featured its own mystifications of Jews.

England’s preeminent occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was founded in the 1880s and known for its dramatic rituals, celebrity membership, and penchant for bitter schisms. Initiates of the order were required to learn the Hebrew alphabet and the names of the ten kabbalistic sefirot, as well as the symbolism and divinatory potential of the Tarot, which they believed was linked to the Kabbalah.[1]

Much of this “Jewish wisdom” was spurious. For instance, the use of Tarot cards to predict the future was an eighteenth-century development, and their connection with Kabbalah was the invention of the nineteenth-century French occultist Alphonse-Louis Constant, better known as Eliphas Lévi. Constant’s adopted name indicates the importance of a perceived Jewish flavor to the modern occult.[2]

Alphonse-Louis Constant, better known as Eliphas Lévi

The sefirotic tree of the Kabbalah was a particular fascination of modern occultists, primarily as a focus of visual contemplation rather than as a hermeneutical key for reading scripture, as few occultists learned Hebrew or Aramaic. In nineteenth-century France, occult societies such as the Cabbalistic Order of the Rosicrucian assigned members titles such as “Commander of Tiphereth” and “Commander of Geburah”—those being two of the ten sefirot.[3]

The Golden Dawn used sefirotic terms for their visualizations and rituals. The mystic and scholar Arthur Edward Waite developed the practice further in his group, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, with ceremonies in which members were symbolically crucified “on the cross of Tiphereth” and the celebrant sported, in addition to robes and wands, “a large pendant bearing the Hebrew letter yod.”[4]

A diagram of the sefirot

Antisemites exploited the modern occult for its suggestion of secret Jewish organizations conspiring to overthrow the Christian West. Jacob Katz, in his study of the historical connections between Jews and Freemasonry, notes that the fantasy of Jewish-Masonic collusion to destroy Western civilization became an increasingly widespread trope in the second half of the nineteenth century. Katz cites an 1869 tract that uses Lévi’s occult writings as “proof that the Cabalists, the Jewish guardians of mystic secrets from ancient times, sat in the secret councils of the lodges and presided over the insidious plot to destroy Christendom.”[5]

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which I mentioned previously in connection with the golem of Prague, makes Jewish control of Masonry to enslave the world one of its claims, and this notion would be taken up by Hitler in Mein Kampf and Nazi policy. In the United States it was disseminated in an English translation of the Protocols promoted by Henry Ford, and it is still considered a reputable notion in much of the Islamic world today.

Nazi propaganda presented Freemasonry and Bolshevism as Jewish plots to rule the world

Gershom Scholem has observed that “Kabbalah,” as understood by the modern occult, is usually detached from its Jewish content and even its basic textual meaning. “[I]t became,” Scholem writes, “a kind of banner under which the public could be offered just about anything.”[6] Wouter Hanegraaff concurs, writing that “it is certainly true that occultist ‘kabbalah’ has only the most superficial of connections to original Jewish kabbalah,” but notes as well that, “from a historical perspective this is not sufficient reason to exclude the phenomenon from historical scrutiny.”[7]

More recently, Boaz Huss, Sam Glauber-Zimra, and others have called for a more inclusive and variegated understanding of the relationship between Scholem and the academic-historical approach to the study of mysticism, on the one hand, and the worlds of practicing mystics and modern occultists on the other. As these scholars have shown, some trends within the broader mystical revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attracted the interest of Jewish readers, thinkers, and religious searchers. Jews joined Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. In his memoirs, Isaac Bashevis Singer describes his ultimately disappointed obsessions with spiritualism as a young writer in 1930s Warsaw. The neo-Hasidic writer and mystic Hillel Zeitlin was inspired by European and American parapsychology.[8]

“She took me into the room and switched on the light. I saw a caseful of books on theosophy, spiritualism, hypnotism, and animal magnetism.” Isaac Bashevis Singer recollects the interest in the paranormal in 1930s Warsaw. “I became so deeply engrossed in these matters that I forgot all my troubles. I read books about psychical research well into the night until my eyes closed.”

By contrast, it appears that Jews involved in those nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century occult circles in England and France that focused on ritual magic did not possess much in the way of Jewish literacy. The writer Victor Neuburg, for instance, was a close associate of Aleister Crowley and joined him in sex magic rituals in the North African desert. Neuberg came from a Jewish family, yet his Jewishness does not seem to have been of significance for himself or Crowley, except when Crowley mocked it on a few occasions.[9]

Somewhat better known today is Israel Regardie, born to Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. Regardie got to know Crowley in the 1920s and later published a number of rituals and documents connected with the Golden Dawn offshoots that he joined. Regardie was fascinated with kabbalah but, like most of his fellow initiates in these secret orders, mostly got it at second-hand. He managed to learn some Hebrew from a tutor at George Washington University during a sojourn in Washington, D.C., and advised students of the occult to learn how to write the letters of the Hebrew alphabet properly:

enquire at a local university where Semitic languages are taught to be put in touch with a senior student who can then show you how to write the letters. Failing this, contact a local synagogue. […] They may know less about [kabbalah] than you, but at least they may be able to teach you how to write the letters correctly and that is half the battle won. [10]

Israel Regardie

Indeed, one feature of many modern occult circles is the striking contrast between the importance ascribed to Hebrew as symbolic imagery, on the one hand, and the resistance to acquiring literacy in the language. Consider satanist groups today that chant the Hebrew phrase “shem hameforash” in their rituals, as a means of flouting divine authority and religious propriety. They believe that they are pronouncing and thereby profaning the holy name of God. “Shem hameforash,” however, is not the name of God but means, literally, “the explicit name,” i.e., a reference to the unpronouncable or mystical name. Satanists who chant it are therefore a bit like confused rappers who think that they are offending people by saying the phrase “explicit lyrics.”

Rather than seeing this as a bug, we might take not knowing Hebrew as a feature of much modern occultism. A visual, non-rational, often exoticizing relationship to Hebrew letters and books was vital for the emotive and symbolic experience of these societies and their rituals. In many cases it is surely also an important mechanism to distance themselves from traditionally religious Jews and normative Jewish practices. This is reflected in the literary trope of the tome that is said to contain ancient wisdom yet is never—or cannot be—read by those who revere this wisdom.

In the modern occult, Hebrew generally has talismanic rather than linguistic power

Nor is this dynamic limited to occultists or non-Jews. The overwhelming majority of American Jews today are illiterate in Hebrew—they can sound out words without knowing what they mean or how to use them as communicative language—yet in many cases are zealously devoted to their non-literate relationship, talismanic and emotional, to the language in its opacity. And a further example of borrowing from the terminology of Jewish mysticism for new purposes is the widespread American Jewish use of the phrase “tikkun olam” (originally a legal and kabbalistic term with a specific set of meanings) to denote contemporary American social justice politics.

Notably, Scholem allowed that a few of the most insightful explicators of Jewish mysticism in the modern period were “Christian scholars of a mystical bent,” mentioning Waite in particular.[11]

One can see why. Like Scholem, Waite recognized the biases of nineteenth-century Jewish rationalist scholarship. In his magnum opus on Jewish mysticism, The Holy Kabbalah (1929), Waite expresses a frustration with the nineteenth-century historian Heinrich Graetz who, writes Waite, “may be taken to represent at his period all that is most acrid and uncompromising in hostility to Jewish Mysticism”—a line that Scholem could easily have penned. Waite was, moreover, an early and admiring reader of German articles on Kabbalah by the young Scholem. And Waite did not hesitate to point out the impostures of Eliphas Lévi or the gullibility of Lévi’s disciples. While he granted Lévi’s attraction as a charismatic, Waite warns: “I do not think that Lévi ever made an independent statement upon any historical fact in which the least confidence could be reposed.”[12]

Waite joined the Golden Dawn twice, the second time coming to the conclusion that its garbled kabbalistic symbolism might be extricated, ironed out, and made the basis of a new set of Christian-oriented, contemplative (rather than magical) practices.[13]

A. E. Waite

Waite was particularly infatuated with the Zohar—at least to the extent he could access it in French translation, which he was aware was not ideal. Waite found in the Zohar’s language of mystical eros a potential model for transformative marriage, sexuality, and procreation. If Zoharic marriage and mystical procreation were carried out in a living community, he wrote, “I think that the world might be changed.”[14]

Coming up: the Occult and modern fantasy


Ashenden, Gavin. Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration. e-book, Kent State University Press, 2008.

Faivre, Antoine. Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Trans. Christine Rhone. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010.

Glauber-Zimra, Samuel. “‘From Time to Time I Dream Wondrous Dreams’: Esotericism and Prophecy in the Writings of Hillel Zeitlin.” Advance Version. Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism 9, no. 1 (2021): 1-44.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “Jewish Influences V: Occultist Kabbalah.” In Hanegraaff, et al., eds. Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Brill, 2005. eBook Collection (ProQuest Ebook Central).

Huss, Boaz. “Academic Study of Kabbalah and Occultist Kabbalah.” In Yves Mhlematter and Helmut Zander, eds., Occult Roots of Religious Studies. Belin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2021.

Katz, Jacob. Jews and Freemasons in Europe, 1723-1939. Trans. Leonard Oschry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Lindop, Grevel. Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. e-book, Oxford University Press, 2015.

McIntosh, Christopher. Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival. Second edition. Albany: SUNY Press, 2011.

Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultis and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Regardie, Israel. The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. e-book, New Falcon Publications, 2013.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Third revised edition. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.

–. Alchemy and Kabbalah. Trans. Klaus Ottmann. e-book, Spring Publications, 2015.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Love and Exile. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

Waite, Arthur Edward. The Holy Kabbalah. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003.

–. Shadows of Life and Thought: A Retrospective Review in the Form of Memoirs. Reprint. N.p., n.d.

Zaleski, Philip and Carol. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

[1] Owen 2004, chapter two.

[2] On Lévi, see McIntosh 2011.

[3] Faivre 2010.

[4] Lindop 2015, 294; Zaleski 2015, 231. For more details on the rituals of Waite’s group see Regardie 2013.

[5] Katz 1970, 155.

[6] Scholem 2015, 6.

[7] Hanegraaff 2005.

[8] See Huss 2021, Singer 1986, and Glauber-Zimra 2021.

[9] Owen 2004, chapter 6.

[10] Regardie 2013.

[11] Scholem 1974, 2.

[12] Waite 2003, 89, 489.

[13] See Waite, n.d. and Ashenden 2008.

[14] Waite 2003, 597.

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