Major Arcana Midrash: The Tower

A lot of people don’t like The Tower when it shows up in a tarot reading. And certainly the image doesn’t look pleasant. But I’d like to look at some Kabbalistic concepts to rethink the meaning of the card and how to interpret it in different situations.

RWS Tarot Tower.jpg

When people think of The Tower, the first Biblical reference that comes to mind is the Tower of Babel. And since this story is about arrogance and pride laid low—the people in this Bronze Age myth want to reach heaven physically and become gods themselves—there is what appears to be an obvious connection. But what happens to the people at the end of the story of Babel is confusion, and that’s where the story and the meaning of the card diverge. Humanity is confounded by a multiplicity of languages, creating more separation in the world But The Tower card is about revelation, even if it is delivered in a way that is unwelcome.

Kabbalistically speaking, one could look at The Tower as the destruction of a Kelipa. Kelipot (plural) are the metaphorical shells that surround fallen sparks of holiness, keeping them separate from the Divine. From the psychological Hasidic point of view, a Kelipa can be any ego structure or belief system that we build (consciously or unconsciously) that serves to distance us from experiencing God in every moment. Of course, God always has other plans. Thus, the lightning strike in the shape of the path down from Keter to Malchut.

This is in keeping with the idea of revelation, even if it is disruptive or destructive at first. These shells hide divine light, and the work of a Kabbalist is to find these hidden sparks and raise them up. This is first and foremost inner work. And in the destruction of the tower in the card, we see the release of these sparks in the flaming yods that surround the tower. Of course, the sudden destruction of an ego structure is hardly pleasant to say the least. But it leaves one open in a new way, more vulnerable. Thus the naked human in the following card, The Star.

Recently in my studies I came across an aggadic midrash from Genesis Rabbah, a rabbinic text written sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. And I was struck by a phrase in the story that could be translated from the Aramaic in several different ways: דולקת בירה, birah doleket,” has been translated variously as “a burning tower/fortress/palace” or “a palace aglow/filled with light.” And that is exactly at the heart of the issue in the Tower trump.

While the image in the card is indeed of a tower that’s burning, it was also filled with light—hidden light—that has been released from the hard shell of the tower. It is the light that is hidden in all Creation.

Below is a translation of the midrash from Genesis Rabbah 39:1, with the phrase shown in both ways:

“’And God said to Avram: Go forth from your land, etc.’…Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a person who was traveling from one place to another, and saw a “birah doleket”- he saw certain palace aglow/burning tower. The person wondered: Is it possible that this palace lacks an owner? The owner of the palace looked out and said: I am the owner. In the same way, Abraham our father wondered: Is it possible that this world lacks a ruler? God looked out at him and said: ‘I am the ruler of the world.”’

Tarot from a first person POV: The Inner Journey Tarot by Angelo Nasios and Jon Carraher.

Tarot from a first person POV: The Inner Journey Tarot by Angelo Nasios and Jon Carraher.

The meaning of the midrash changes radically depending on how you read those words. And I would suggest it also can also change your point of view of The Tower. Literally. Because most of us, when we see this card, we identify with one of the people in the card, falling from the tower, even though the scene in all the cards is from the outside as an observer. The Inner Journey Tarot, currently under development by Angelo Nasios and Jon Carraher, is designed to give the viewer of first person POV for each card, so when you look at the Tower card, you see it as though you are one of the people falling from the Tower. It’s a powerful and much scarier image.

But what if you were the person on the ground, seeing this happen? The image in the card is unambiguous. This is a tower on fire. But what if we shifted to think of it as a palace aglow? You might argue, but it IS a tower on fire!

Yes, and the burning bush was also on fire. And it was not consumed. It was alive with light. Moses had the consciousness to see creation as alive with light.

Commentators on this midrash on Abraham write about the two diverging translations. When it’s “on fire” Abraham is asking a question about God’s apparent absence in the world, allowing it to burn, metaphorically speaking. When the translation is “aglow” it’s a question about the source of the light that Abraham has the power to see. It’s why God chooses Abraham (please understand I write about this as story—I don’t believe in a God with a personality that chooses people)—he, like Moses, has the presence of mind to see the light under all Creation, even in places that may seem to be where one would be less likely to find light, in this case a structure that stands for power.

If you cultivate the ability to see that hidden light in all Creation, and within yourself, even in your darkest places, these is less likelihood you’ll need a Tower moment—it’s less likely you’ll need a revelation that feels like a destructive and terrifying blast to your ego. Because in doing the work of seeking the sparks of light, you will be slowly dismantling the structure yourself, stone by stone and brick by brick. Not unlike the Buddha, who said at the moment of enlightenment:

I, who have been seeking the builder of this house, failing to attain Enlightenment, which would enable me to find him, have wandered through innumerable births in samsara. To be born again and again is, indeed, dukkha!

Oh house-builder! You are seen, you shall build no house (for me) again. All your rafters are broken, your roof-tree is destroyed. My mind has reached the unconditioned (i.e., Nibbana); the end of craving has been attained.

The Tower: From the new Raziel Tarot by Rachel Pollack & Robert Place

The Tower: From the new Raziel Tarot by Rachel Pollack & Robert Place

At the start of this essay I mentioned the obvious connection to the Tower of Babel and then let it go. Rachel Pollack, when creating the Tower card for the new Raziel deck she created with Robert Place, notes that connection but chooses another image with richer and deeper associations. In the Raziel Tarot, the image for the Tower card is not the Tower of Babel, but the Temple in Jerusalem at its moment of destruction in 70 CE.

This feels right to me, because what happened with this destruction was the birth of rabbinic Judaism—and worship moved from Temple, with its priestly cult and animal sacrifice to the home and synagogue, with a more egalitarian (by 1st century CE standards) path. While the destruction of the Temple, and Jerusalem itself, was tragic, the result was a freeing of spiritual creativity and the renewal of Judaism, now free to take in influences from the wider world.

May we all learn to seek the light in ways that free us from our shells with gentle revelations of joy.

Kabbalah, Cabala or Qabalah: What's up with these different spellings?

     Kabbalah, from the original Hebrew, קַבָּלָה, can be spelled in roman letters at least 24 different ways, though the most common spellings you’ll come across are in the title of this brief post. These main three spellings are a reflection of the history of this wisdom tradition and its adoption/adaptation/appropriation by faith communities outside its original Judaic origin.

     The spelling “Kabbalah” most accurately captures in roman letters the pronunciation in the original Hebrew.

      Kabbalah is not a book, it’s one strand of the Jewish mystical tradition that encompasses many books, the most famous of which is the Zohar (The Book of Splendor). Kabbalah also includes oral teachings that have never been written down. The word Kabbalah is best translated as “received tradition.” Kabbalistic writings and practices were secret, reserved for initiates only.

     The Zohar is pseudepigrapha, written by Rabbi Moses de Leon, another Spanish Kabbalist of the thirteenth century. He claimed he was merely copying a text written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, a great sage of the first century CE. This claim gave the Zohar an ancient authenticity that conferred authority to its teachings. However, from the very start there were people who did not believe the text was ancient, as it was filled with linguistic anachronisms. Nevertheless, de Leon’s contemporaries did believe that the content—the teachings—were ancient and that they represented authentic wisdom from the oral tradition. But there were, and still are, people who believed the Zohar was an ancient text.

     Almost from the beginning, Christians were interested in the teachings in the Zohar. While it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, many learned Renaissance scholars had studied these languages—and there were also apostate Jews who were willing to help in the translation. Passages of the Zohar were first translated into Latin in the fifteenth century. But even before that, there were translations of Gates of Light, a book about the Sephirot written by Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla. This led to the development of a Christian Cabala tradition which, while its origin was in Judaism and continued to be influenced by it, grew into a tradition of its own that diverged from the original Jewish tradition.

     By the late sixteenth century, the Christian tradition of Cabala gave birth to another offshoot when occultists, of what is now known as the Western Hermetic Tradition, integrated Qabalah into a system of Western mystical traditions, including alchemy and astrology.

      Because the teachings in these three different traditions diverged in some important places, people have come to adopt a unique spelling for each so it’s clear which tradition the writer is referring to. Generally speaking, the original Jewish tradition is Kabbalah with a “K”; Christian Cabala is spelled differently and starting with a “C,” while the Western Hermetic tradition spells Qabalah with a “Q.” Confused? Don’t worry about it—but at Gates of Light Tarot, I’m sticking to the traditional Jewish spelling, since most of my orientation is from the Jewish tradition, though I do make some adjustments for the Western Hermetic tradition, for reasons noted below.

     By the eighteenth century, European occultists included tarot cards in this integrated Western Hermetic tradition, even though there is no evidence that there was a direct connection between creation of the tarot and the original Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. Nevertheless, there is a surprising convergence between the structure of the tarot deck, early interpretations of the cards, and Kabbalist teachings about the Tree of Life and the Sephirot. Applying knowledge of these Kabbalistic concepts to the tarot reveals deep layers of meaning. Similarly, the cards throw new light on the interactions of the Sephirot.

     However, Hermetic Qabalah differs in some significant ways from Judaic Kabbalah, and when it comes to the tarot decks that developed out of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, obviously, the Hermetic tradition took precedence. So that if you’re studying Judaic Kabbalah and then you read tarot books that work off of the Hermetic tradition, you may find some points confusing to say the least.

     Without going into detail (subsequent posts will tackle these subjects) there are two main areas where the differences between the traditions are thrown into relief:


The Four Worlds & The Tarot Suits: In Judaic Kabbalah, the world of Beriah corresponds with the world of Intellect, and the world of Yetzirah is the world of Emotion. Hermetic Qabalah reverses these correspondences, so that, for example, the world of Beriah is connected to feelings and emotions. And for this reason, in the Hermetic tradition, Beriah corresponds in the tarot to the suit of Cups. And Yetzirah corresponds to the world of the intellect and the tarot suit of Swords. Metaphorically of course, Cups/Emotions and Swords/Intellect makes sense. Why the designations of which world is which got switched I don’t know.

The Twenty-Two Paths: In any diagram of the Tree of Life, there are twenty-two lines connecting the Sephirot. And there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so that each of these paths corresponds to a letter. This teaching goes back to one of the earliest books in the Judaic Kabbalah tradition, the Sefer Yetzirah, which was written somewhere between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Each letter is specifically assigned to a path between two Sephirot. The Hermetic tradition (Hermeticists claim their knowledge goes back to the ancient Egyptians, but like the claim of the Zohar being an ancient text, this is spurious) also assigns the letters to pathways—however the letters follow completely different paths from the original Judaic positions. The Hermetic organization makes sense if you’re using a tarot deck based on their tradition to do spiritual work in the order as they understand it. However, there is a deeper organization to the original Judaic system. And if you use this organization to do work with the cards, you will experience different insights.

     The Polish-American scientist and philosophy Alfred Korzybski taught that “the map is not the territory.” Both the Judaic and Hermetic “maps” have validity, and both can serve as important guides to help the seeker on the journey. But at certain points when working with a tarot deck that comes out of the Hermetic tradition, one has to make a choice which system to follow. If you work with the Judaic tradition, it means doing some mental acrobatics around the names of the worlds when it comes to the correspondences between the suits and the worlds.

     In my work, I come from a Judaic understanding of the tradition, but I am flexible when it seems to make sense to me. After all, from a traditional Judaic point of view, tarot is prohibited. That said, there are several Judaic decks that are completely devoid of Western imagery—and thus avoid some of the halakhic (Jewish law) issues entirely. I will review these decks in another post.

     Meanwhile, I’m interested in hearing your experience with these two systems and how they affect your work with the cards.