Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality

Santa Cruz Spirituality: Kabbalah; divination and tarot; Western mystery schools
by Paul Tutwiler


Cabal, a literary word for plot or for a group that plots, is sinister in tone, implying secrecy and the overthrow of some established order. The word has been in the English language since the seventeenth century, having come to it through French, in which it is cabale. In its origin, however, the word dates back to the Middle Ages and to the Hebrew word Qabbalah, which modern scholars write as Kabbalah, and which is also known in Santa Cruz as Qabalah.

Kabbalah is a fairly common word in rabbinic Hebrew: it simply means 'tradition.' In the Talmud [body of Hebrew Bible's authoritative commentaries], it served to designate the non-Pentateuchal parts of the Hebrew Bible. Later, every tradition was called by this name, without its entailing any specifically mystical nuance. (Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 38.)

Kabbalah evolved, however, to refer to the principal topics of the Jewish faith, which are

the celestial economy, the process of creation, the scheme of Providence in regard to man, the communications of God in revelation and to the just in his Church, the offices and ministries of good and evil angels, the nature and preexistence of the soul, its union with matter and its metempsychosis; the mystery of sin and its penalties, the Messiah, His kingdom and His glory to be revealed, the state of the soul after death and the resurrection of the dead, with occasional, too rare but pregnant intimations on the union of the soul and God. (Arthur Waite, The Holy Kabbalah, p. 5)

The last named topic reflects the mysticism that came to be a feature of Kabbalah along with the doctrinal foundation. All in all,

... the Kabbalah represented a theological attempt, open to only a relative few, whose object was to find room for an essentially mystical world-outlook within the framework of traditional Judaism and without altering the latter's fundamental principles and behavioral norms. To what extent if at all this attempt was successful remains open to debate but there can be no doubt that it achieved one very important result, namely, that for the three-hundred-year period roughly from 1500 to 1800 (at the most conservative estimate) the Kabbalah was widely considered to be the true Jewish theology... (Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 190.)

It permeated Jewish prayer, custom, and ethics. (Ibid, p. 192.)

The meaning of "mystical world-outlook" is too important to relegate to a note. Mysticism is the experience of union with God, or with the Divine, or with the universe as the holy All. Mystical consciousness is incommunicable, which is to say that it cannot be shared with others: it is personal, individual, like one's feelings and emotions.

Although there were in antiquity and in the early Middle Ages Hebrew writings which contained many elements of what was to be the Kabbalah (Scholem, Origins, pp. 18-35) (1), as a body of thought the Kabbalah originated in Languedoc, Southern France, in the 12th century and had its "classical development" in Spain in the 13th century. (Ibid, p. 12.) The main book of Kabbalah, the Zohar, was composed in Spain between 1270 and 1300 in the Aramaic language by Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon. (Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 226-233) As time went on many Jewish scholars added commentaries which developed the already complex ideas of the Zohar. (Waite, Holy Kabbalah, p. 128)

Among the discoveries made by Renaissance Italian Christian scholars was the Kabbalah. Translated into Latin, the Zohar and the additions to it were interpreted to be the ancient wisdom of the Hebrews. Furthermore, the interpretation went, this ancient wisdom was really Christian in its meaning. Thus the religious intelligentsia of Europe thought they saw in the Kabbalah a veiled statement of the original religion which was given to man by God, and which was Christian in its essence. (Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 197-199.)

In Muslim lands there arose in the same period a form of Kabbalah which resembled Sufism, Muslim mystical contemplation. (Ibid, p. 82) This confused European scholars even more, and by the 18th century some scholars (and many of their students) thought "the Kabbalah was in essence not Jewish at all but rather Christian Greek, or Persian." (Ibid, p. 202) The confusion has remained from then down to the present, although in the 20th century the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem and others have made the true history of the Kabbalah available to the general reading public.

Some modern scholars have investigated Kabbalah in its broader contexts of mysticism and ancient religion. Prominent among them is Alfred Waite, who points out that,

modes and scheme and purview [of the Kabbalah] are essentially Jewish, supposing the exclusive claim of Israel to Divine Election and therefore the last source to which anyone so disposed could look for confirmation of the romantic notion that a transcendental doctrine of absolute religion has been handed down from the far past. That which is transmitted in the Zohar but in fragments only, is a Secret Doctrine peculiar to Israel, and it makes contact with the deep things of universal religion, the religion behind religion of Max Müller, in so far as it offers vestiges of inward experience on the union of the soul and God, because the records of this experience are everywhere in the world, in all ages, in all the great religions and it counts its living witnesses among us at this day. (Waite, Holy Kabbalah, p. 132)

Kabbalah doctrine is centered on God, who has many names in it, but who, in his own unique essence, is the Ain Soph, that is to say, the Divine Darkness, the "limitless and undifferentiated light," (Ibid, p. 21) "the Divine Essence abiding in the simplicity and undifferentiation of perfect unity." (Ibid, p. 187) This conception, however, had to be reconciled with the concrete and active God of the Scripture.

The Jew was confronted by at least two problems which called for the exercise of his further ingenuity as regards the latens Deitas [hidden God] of Ain Soph. He had to account for the bond of connection between this abyss of the Godhead and the visible universe, having man for its mouthpiece; but so far this is only the common problem of all philosophy which begins and ends in the unconditioned. He had further a problem peculiar to his own inheritance and election, and this was to establish another bond of connection between the absolute transcendency of Ain Soph, apart from all limitation, outside all human measurement, isolated from all relationship and the anthropomorphic Lord of Israel... (Ibid, p. 191)

The solution to the problem was the notion of emanation, or the existence of a series of beings, beginning with the perfect one, God, and leading one by one, each less perfect than the previous one, to us humans. In one well-known form of emanation doctrine, Neo-Platonism, this is an eternally continuous process, in which there is at no point a creation out of nothing. In the Jewish religion, however, emanation had to be reconciled with the creation of the world from nothing by the God of the Scripture. This was accomplished by asserting that the power of God, rather than God's substance, went out from him, diminishing as it manifested itself in creatures of lesser and lesser resemblance to Him. (Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 96-98)

In its description of God's relation to creation, the Kabbalah assigns a role of great — even extreme — importance to words and even to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The whole alphabet emanates from the first two letters, Aleph and Beth, (Waite, Holy Kabbalah, p. 231) and the whole world was created by further emanations.

Now the world is said to have been created by the help of the Hebrew letters, whence it follows that these were produced in the first place — or rather their archetypes. They are said to have emanated from one another, presumably on account of the fact that it is possible to reduce them to a few primitive simple forms. After their emanation, the Sacred Letters the Great Letters — the letters that are above, of which those on earth are a reflection — remained in concealment for a period which is specified as 2,000 years before the Holy One proceeded further in His work. (Ibid, p. 221)

The statement that there are "letters that are above," "Sacred Letters," refers to the doctrine of correspondences, according to which everything that happens in this world has a corresponding spiritual happening in the world above. (Ibid, p. 225) The fact that some non-Kabbalistic Christian mystics, notably Jacob Boehme in the 17th century and Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th, also taught correspondence contributed to the confusion concerning the Christian nature of the Kabbalah.

Another very important characteristic of the Kabbalah which it shared with Christians and Muslims was the notion of the levels of interpretation of the Scripture. According to this notion passages of Scripture contain a literal sense, which is the history of something or someone, a spiritual sense, which is the lesson to be learned from this, and a mystical sense, which, in the case of the Kabbalah, was "nothing less than configurations of the divine light..." (Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 173)

Contemplation of the teachings of the Kabbalah by those who knew it well and were spiritually transported by it was the peculiarly Jewish mystical experience associated with it. "The techniques of 'prophetic Kabbalah' that were used to aid the ascent of the soul, such as breathing exercises, the repetition of the Divine Names, and meditations on colors, bear a marked resemblance to those of both Indian Yoga and Muslim Sufism." (Ibid, p. 180)

Kabbalah as presented up to this point in this essay can be termed passive, or at least non-active. Although it has always been familiar to — even known by — very few people, it exists today as a legitimate form of Jewish mysticism. (The Ayn Sof Community, a San Francisco group, gives the impression on its website, 2008, that it is based on the mystical Kabbalah. For its connections with Santa Cruz see Judaism in the lists of associations.)

The Practical Kabbalah, however, the Kabbalah that does things, that exercises power, began to be widely known in European society in the period following the Renaissance. This evolution followed logically from the teachings of the Kabbalah. "'Whatsoever is found on earth,' says the Zohar, 'has its spiritual counterpart on high and is dependent on it. When the inferior part is influenced that which is set over it in the upper world is affected also, because all are united.' From this doctrine the art of Talismanic Magic must be called a logical consequence." (Waite, Holy Kabbalah, p. 133.) A similar development occurred because of the Kabbalah's view of the efficacy of some words. Thus,

The worlds were made, so to speak, by the instrument of a single letter [i. e., they follow Beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which follows Aleph, the first letter], and four letters are the living forces which actuate them. There can be therefore no question that every Kabbalist accepted, symbolically at least, the doctrine of the power of words. It must have passed very early into unfortunate applications; Sacred Names were written on amulets and talismans which were used to heal diseases, to avert evil chances and so forth. (Ibid, pp. 519-520; p. 223 regarding Beth.)

Unfortunately, too, " the conception of religious ceremony as a vehicle for the workings of divine forces, a very real danger existed that an essentially mystical perspective might be transformed in practice into an essentially magical one." (Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 194)

Thus Kabbalah came to be lumped together with Astrology, Alchemy, divination, and all the Faustian occult sciences. It was even claimed by the "Victorian schools of French and English Kabbalism" that "all 'occult sciences' are rooted in the Secret Tradition of Israel." (Waite, Holy Kabbalah, p.542)

Divination and tarot

In several European countries tarot is simply a game played with a special deck of cards. In the United States, however, the tarot deck is popularly associated with divination, which is "a way of exploring the unknown in order to elicit answers (that is, oracles) to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding." (Barbara Tedlock, "Divination," p. 189)

No one knows how far back in history divination first appeared; one or another or many a form of it, I think, has been present in all known cultures. In Western countries there have been three main streams of interest in the history of divination. One is the Judeo-Christian Bible, which has a great deal to say about it, mostly negative. A second is the study of the Greek and Roman cultures, in which phenomena like the Delphic Oracle had a notable part. Third, the most recent line of study, has been ethnography, which has been made possible by modern research in the languages and the myths of so many peoples. (2) There is also the fact that divination — whether one subscribes to it or not — is fascinating. Of course we humans want to know about events, past, present, and future, that are obscure to us and out of the reach of our ordinary ways of gathering knowledge. In other words, we should not expect the practice of divination to wither away. Its forms change, however, and many of the kinds of divination that were popular at one time are no longer in use.

Some well-known forms of divination are:

  • Interpretation of dreams (oneiromancy)
  • Possession by a spirit as in shamanic trances
  • Consultation of the dead (necromancy)
  • Interpretation of the action of physical objects such as the cards in tarot (cartomancy), crystals (crystallomancy), and tea leaves (tasseography)
  • Interpretation of the actions of nature, especially the stars (astrology)
  • Palm reading (cheiromancy - also spelled chiromancy)
  • Consultation of sacred words, such as Bible texts (3)

As to cartomancy, tarot in particular, a popular author on the subject, Eden Gray, explains,

There is something about the Tarot that is truly fascinating. Not only do the symbols depicted on the cards challenge the imagination, but the cards themselves seem to have the power to help us explore the past and reveal hidden passions, old loves and hurts, as well as hopes and desires for the future. When you have mastered their secrets, they can give you glimpses into the future and guide you to paths that may lead to greater fulfillment. (Eden Gray, Mastering the Tarot, p. 11)
Queen of Swords tarot card
Queen of Swords card from the
Rider-Waite tarot deck, 1909
Image courtesy of
The Internet Sacred Text Archive

As commonly used in the United States, the tarot deck consists of 78 cards which are a little larger than common playing cards. A 56 card subset of the 78 is divided into four suits, Swords, Batons (or Wands), Cups, and Pentacles (or Cups). Each suit of this set has ten number cards and four face or Court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page or Jack). The name Minor Arcana (lesser mystery) is given to these 56 cards. Each of the other 22 cards, the Major Arcana (greater mystery), represents a notable person, such as the high priestess or the emperor; or it represents an object in nature, such as the sun or the moon. There is no complete standardization of tarot cards.

Popular American books on the use of the tarot, such as Gray's, have about them a sense of mystery, whether or not one takes the tarot seriously. This feeling of the occult, unfortunately, dissipates when one reads the historical studies of Michael Dummett. (The Game of Tarot from Ferrara to Salt Lake City is his basic work on tarot. See the bibliography below for this and his other studies of it.) A philosopher by profession, Dummett became the historian of the tarot and published several scholarly books which leave no doubt concerning the nature and efficacy of the card readings. (Robert Erwin, Review of The Game of Tarot, in the Times [of London] Literary Supplement, July 5, 2002.)

The following paragraphs summarize Dummett, The Game of Tarot from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, pages 1 through 164:

Hermit tarot card
The Hermit card from the
Rider-Waite tarot deck, 1909
Image courtesy of
The Internet Sacred Text Archive

The earliest written reference to playing cards of any kind in Europe is from 1377. It is true that the Chinese invented playing cards, probably in the ninth century, but these cards were quite different in form from the playing cards that came to be used in Europe, and there is no evidence that the European cards derived from them. Playing cards as the Europeans came to know them probably originated in Persia, and from there went to Egypt, where a clear predecessor of European playing cards has been found in Muslim Egypt. The tarot deck, with its set of picture cards in addition to the suits, probably originated in Ferrara, Italy in the fifteenth century, and soon became widespread in northern Italy. Its original name was trionfi, but no later than 1516 it became — for reasons unknown — tarocchi. By 1534 it had passed into France under the names taro, tarau, tarault or tarot. From France it spread to other countries, keeping the Italian hard c sound (Tarock in German, for example) except in England.

The earliest recorded use of playing cards for fortune telling, cartomancy, is after 1750, and the earliest recorded instances of fortune telling with a tarot pack are in 1780. It was about 100 years after the latter that tarot cartomancy spread from France. The occultist theory attached to the Tarot deck owes its origin to Antoine Court de Gebelin (died 1784), who thought he saw Egyptian symbols in the cards. The professional fortune-teller Etteilla (died 1791) then popularized an "Egyptian" tarot pack for his trade, and Etteilla's pack became the basis or referent for subsequent occult tarot packs. A century later came Eliphas Levi (died 1875), who was the source of the whole modern occultist movement. According to Levi occult powers come from "magnetized electricity," and he added tarot to the four recognized channels of occult power, the Cabala (Dummett's spelling), alchemy, the Hermetic books, and astrology. Levi did not exactly follow Etteilla, who was only interested in fortune telling; but, rather, asserted that tarot is a kind of book, which if read correctly, contains the key to all knowledge. Levi asserted that tarot was known down through history to many writers, who presented veiled reference to it, as, for instance, the author of Gospel According to John.

French occultism, including tarot, had a limited diffusion in the United States directly, principally by way of secret societies. Occultism as a widespread movement, with its central role of tarot, was first brought to public attention in the United States in 1910, having arrived from France via England.

The historical identification of the tarot with the Gypsies (Romani People) is quite mistaken; the fact is that the Gypsies arrived in Europe after the tarot deck.

Western mystery schools

In Chapter 5 Particulars Meaning of the Term Spirituality, I observed that shamans, spiritualists, and persons who have psychedelic experiences speak of their direct knowledge of the spiritual world or at least of spiritual aspects of the world. Some of these experiences are attributed to natural, but specially developed, human powers, such as clairvoyance, the reading of human auras, and extra sensory perception of any kind.

In addition to these actions of natural powers, however, it can be supposed that there are other kinds of actions, such as divining secrets, looking into the future, or effecting changes by real, not illusory, magic. The power to perform such actions might derive from secret knowledge possessed only by people who have been initiated into a small group of insiders, often a secret society, often referred to as a brotherhood, which preserves it. In fact, many brotherhoods teach that they are preserving knowledge that was imparted long ago, even at the beginning of the world. The secret knowledge is called esoteric, and its effects are practical esotericism.

It should not be thought that esoteric knowledge has to do merely with the performance of marvelous actions. It is, rather, basically understood to be an insight into the deepest meanings of the world, an insight which transforms its possessor into a truly wise person. This wisdom is communicable, that is, it has been received from teachers and can be taught to others. It is also saving (redemptive) in the religious sense of freeing us from sin and evil. (Robert A. Gilbert, "Western esotericism," pp. 304-308 of New Religions, presents this age-old topic in a concise, contemporary way.)

Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and several local groups listed in Ancient Wisdom, trace their teachings to esoteric knowledge. Most of those in Nature Reverence Family do the same. Among the Ancient Wisdom family some of the organizations are more involved in practical esotericism than others, whereas all those in the Magick family are more oriented to practical esotericism than to the knowledge itself.

As stated above, the Kabbalah is a special and complex form of mystical language within the framework of the Jewish faith. From a comparative point of view Kabbalah is one esoteric phenomenon among many forms of Western esotericism, all of which are distinguished from the Eastern esotericism of Hinduism and Buddhism. Something about Kabbalah has for hundreds of years invited non-Jews to appropriate it to themselves, too, for their own spiritual needs. And so it has evolved to the point where in our day we find it not only as a distinct kind of esotericism in itself, but also as a basis for a particular branch of Western Esotericism that combines it with divination, specifically with tarot.

The Kabbalah-tarot or Qabalah-tarot combination emerged with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric society which was founded in 1888 in Great Britain. The founders of the Order used the views of Eliphas Levi (mentioned above, under Divination and tarot) to make the connection. The order no longer exists, but it counts among its progeny Scientology and the Qabalistic tarot. (J. Gordon Melton, The Encyclopedia of American Religions, pp. 134-136)

There are in Santa Cruz two Western Mystery Schools, which teach Qabalistic tarot. Amber Jayanti, the founder of one of them, the Santa Cruz School for Tarot and Qabalah, is well known as the author of Tarot for Dummies. Jayanti's understanding of the Qabalistic tarot derives from the school, Builders of the Adytum, which was founded by Paul Foster Case, who, in turn, was a student of Arthur Waite of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (Amber Jayanti, Tarot for Dummies, p. 58)

Tarot, she explains, plays an important role in present-day mystery schools because of the extreme versatility of the cards. "When used properly, the tarot is a set of archetypal symbols possessing the potential to do amazing things." (Ibid, p. 13) Specifically, "I believe that the tarot illustrates universal and natural laws, truths and principles — Ageless Wisdom — in the language of picture symbols."

In the mystery school tradition, the tarot cards are called keys; they are clues that open the doors to higher consciousness. The tarot's archetypal images are a type of shorthand that trains your mind to key into metaphysical and mystical principles. These principles elevate your level of awareness so that you're able to read the pictures of your life with increasing clarity and live a more fulfilling life. (Ibid, p. 55)

As to Qabalah itself, she writes,

The teachings of the Universal Qabalah are non-sexist, non-racist, and non-homophobic. The teachings unite Judeo-Christian mysticism with the hermetic arts and sciences — tarot, astrology, alchemy, numerology, and sacred geometry.

Universal Qabalah crosses all sorts of barriers by embracing the essential principles of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Shamanism, to name a few. (Ibid, loc. cit.)

The Tree of Life, a metaphor common to many religions, connects the spiritual and earthly realms. In its particularly Hebrew conception, the tree of life, the Sefirot, is a graphic illustration of the emanations from Ain Soph down to us through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and of the return to Ain Soph of the creation. The Qabalistic tarot sees in each of the 22 major arcana cards a reference to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. By consulting the cards, one learns one's location in the tree; by meditating on them, one rises up the tree. (Ibid, pp. 255-269)


  1. These elements included Gnosticism and, indeed, some association between Kabbalah and Gnosticism exists even now. Although the Kabbalah lies within the Jewish faith and is not Gnostic, although there are striking points of convergence between it and Gnosticism. The bibliography lists three excellent studies of Gnosticism.
  2. The bibliography of Tedlock's 2001 article cited above lists 26 works on the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, but only two on Europe. Another 11 are general or I cannot identify them from their titles. By way of contrast stands H. J. Rose's article, "Divination (Introductory and Primitive)," in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, representing scholarship of the early part of the twentieth century. Rose's article is one of 18 on divination. Of the remaining 17, 11 deal with Europe and Western Asia, mainly the classical world; 5 deal with Eastern Asia; one with the Americas, and none with Africa and Oceania.
  3. Eighty-three kinds of divination are listed in 2008. A similar array is organized into eleven categories by H. J. Rose in the article cited above.

Bibliography of works consulted in the preparation of this essay

Alternative Religions. 2008.

Boehme, Jacob. Passim in his many writings.
"Jacob Boehme Bibliography". Bruce B. Janz. 2008.

"Divination (fortune telling)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 2008.

Dummett, Michael and Sylvia Mann. The Game of Tarot from Ferrara to Salt Lake City. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1980.

Dummett, Michael and Ronald Decker. A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870-1970. London: Duckworth, 2002.

Dummett, Michael, Ronald Decker and Thierry Depaulis. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The origins of the wicked tarot. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

Gilbert, Robert A. "Western Esotericism." New Religions. Ed. Christopher Partridge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 304-308.

Gray, Eden. Mastering the Tarot. New York: Signet Books, 1973.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Jayanti, Amber. Living the Qabalistic Tarot. Boston: Weiser Books, 2004.

---. Tarot for Dummies. New York: Hungry Minds, Inc: 2001.

---. Thorsons Principles of the Qabalah. London: Thorsons, 1999.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

King, Karen L. What is Gnosticism? Harvard University Press, 2003.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Encyclopedia of American Religions. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1987.

Nock, A. D. Conversion. Oxford University Press, 1969.

Owens, Lance. The Gnosis Archive: Resources on Gnosticism and Gnostic Tradition. 2008.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford University Press, 1968.

Rose, H. J. "Divination (Introductory and Primitive)." Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Ed. James Hastings. Vol 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961. 775-780.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York: Dorset Press, 1987.

---. Origins of the Kabbalah. Princeton University Press, 1987.

Sinnett, Alfred P. Esoteric Buddhism. London: Tr übner & Co., 1884.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Coronis, Doctrine of the Sacred Scriptures. Internet Sacred Text Archive. 2008

---. The True Christian Religion. Internet Sacred Text Archive. 2008
Passim in his very many religious works, especially the two above.

Tedlock, Barbara. "Divination as a Way of Knowing, Embodiment, Visualization, Narrative, and Interpretation." Folklore 112.2 (2001), pp. 189-197; 189.

Versluis, Arthur. American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Vetterling, Herman. The Illuminate of Goerlitz. Leipzig: Markert & Petters, 1923.

Waite, Arthur E. The Holy Kabbalah. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1960.

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