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The Story of the Tree of Life

This article was written by Rachel Pollack
posted under Kabbalah

Though I grew up in a modern household, my family belonged to the Orthodox branch of Judaism. We kept a kosher home, observed the major holidays, my sister and I went to Hebrew school—and yet, I never heard the word “Kabbalah.” It was not until I became fascinated with the Tarot, and studied its esoteric history, that I even knew such a tradition existed. “Tradition” is certainly the right word, for that is what Kabbalah means, a mystical tradition passed down from teacher to student. Seemingly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries that oral passage had failed, become too magical for Jews who wished to embrace the modern world.

But Kabbalah had not vanished, it had simply opened into the wider territory of “Western” Kabbalah, a system of images and ideas that brought together Jewish, Christian, Pagan, and indeed magical knowledge within a deceptively simple symbol known as the Tree of Life. It was this Western Kabbalah that so brilliantly connected the twenty-two Major Arcana cards of the Tarot with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Once I discovered Kabbalah, and began to delve into its history and ideas, I discovered layers of meaning within the ancient traditions. Amazingly, the Kabbalah, which we think of as so very old (one story claims an angel gave it to Adam in the Garden of Eden), answers many of the questions we face right now. Consider just one issue, our re-assessment of gender roles. Many people, men as well as women, rebel against what seems like secondary status for women in Christianity and Judaism. They point out that men have used the story of Eve being created out of Adam’s “spare rib” to justify men’s mistreatment of women. But in Kabbalah we find a very different interpretation, radical even by modern standards.

The Kabbalists describe Adam and Eve originally as one being, a perfect hermaphrodite, male and female forms joined at the rib. But this being, total in herself, could not learn from another. And so the Creator separated them—at the rib—so that they might explore themselves and each other.

And Kabbalah goes still further. God too, it tells us, is hermaphroditic, not an all-male Father, but a kind of Father/Mother (did you know that the Hebrew word usually translated as "Almighty" actually derives from the word for "breasts?"). And still further—the male and female parts of God have separated from each other, and only human beings can bring them back together. These ideas would strike us as radical and daring if they came from modern thinkers. But in fact they form only one part of the tradition of Kabbalah, thousands of years old.

Every book carries its own history, its own origin. The Kabbalah Tree actually goes back nearly twenty years, to when I first met a brilliant and deeply spiritual artist named Hermann Haindl. He had created a stunning set of Tarot paintings, and the publisher asked me to write a book for them. I traveled to Hermann’s home in Germany, and later to his old stone country house in Tuscany. We spent hours every day looking at Hermann’s art, sharing our spiritual ideas and experiences. The five hundred page book I wrote on the Haindl Tarot is possibly unique in Tarot literature, for it comes from the intense collaboration of two consciousnesses.

Several years ago Hermann invited me to Germany once again, to teach workshops on the Tarot and on the Goddess. But he also wanted to show me an amazing work, a giant elaborate painting of that most famous symbol in all Kabbalah, the Tree of Life. Usually, this image consists of ten "emanations" of divine energy, pictured as ten circles with twenty-two connecting lines. Kabbalists see the Tree as the very essence of universal truth. But the form of the Tree most often appears as an abstract design, and the discussion of its meanings can too easily drift off into lofty ideas without actual connection to the very life the Tree is meant to embody.

Hermann Haindl’s painting teems with life. In it we find snakes and birds, cows and lambs, eroded stone and sea waves, ancient Goddesses and dreaming faces. We even find Christ and Albert Einstein. We see nature, but also spiritual mystery—a genuine Tree of Life.

Hermann asked me to write a book to go with his painting. Though Kabbalah had fascinated me for years, I told him there were people who knew the subject much better than I did. Yes, he said, but no one knew his art the way I did. And so I dove into the image of the Tree, its history and symbolism, and the very idea of a cosmic tree that unites heaven, Earth, and the underworld. Through the writing of The Kabbalah Tree, I discovered the wonders of an ancient tradition, seemingly withered for a time, but now once again in full flower, like a great Tree in yet another burst of spring.

Rachel PollackRachel Pollack
Rachel  is considered one of the World’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot. She is also a poet, an award-winning novelist, and a Tarot card and comic book artist. She has published 12 books on the Tarot, including 78...  Read more

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