Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Nonduality in the Thought of Proclus and its Parallels in the Kabbalah of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero

When one compares the systematic thought of the great Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus with the writings of the medieval Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, one is astounded by the uncanny similarities to the point that one sees no real difference.  Perplexity results because Proclus (5th century C.E.) wrote in Greek and Rabbi Cordovero (16th century C.E.) wrote in Hebrew.  There is no way that Proclus could have been read by Rabbi Cordovero and influenced his thinking.  In this article I will present two quotations that show such an unbelievable correspondence in their thought that we are forced to concede some occult spiritual connection between these two great souls.

First let's examine a quotation from Rabbi Cordovero that appeared in Daniel C. Matt's popular work The Essential Kabbalah.  The quotation is from Cordovero's massive Zohar commentary, Or Yaqar volume 15.
If we believe that Ein Sof emanated the emanation and does not clothe itself within, then everything that enamated is outside of it, and it is outside of everything.  Then there are two.  So we must conclude that nothing is outside of God.  This applies not only to the sefirot but to everything that exists, large and small--they exist solely through the divine energy that flows to them and clothes itself in them.  If God's gaze were withdrawn for even a moment, all existence would be nullified.  This is the secret meaning of the verse: "You enliven everything" (Nehemiah 9:6).  So divinity flows and inheres in each thing that exists.  This is the secret meaning of the verse: "The whole Earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3).  Contemplating this, you are humbled, your thoughts purified.

Or Yaqar - "A Percious Light" by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero
Only 9 volumes shown here, the complete work is 22 volumes!

I have highlighted a portion of this text because we see almost the exact same thought contained in Proclus!  First I should say that "Ein Sof" is a Kabbalistic technical term for God as the Cause of Causes, the ineffable root of existence, and means "The Infinite" but its more literal translation is "without limit".  It holds the same position as The One in the structure of Neoplatonic metaphysics.

When we equate Ein Sof with The One we learn how to translate Kabbalistic terminology into abstract ideas more familiar to Western minds whose basic categories of thought stem from Platonic and Aristotelian concepts.  What results is a kind of 'dictionary' allowing for Neoplatonism to enlighten the Kabbalah and vice-versa.  By examining the writings of Proclus and Rabbi Cordovero, we will see the best examples of this parallelism which gives students of both systems of thought a great opportunity for cross-fertilization for the germination of new insights.

Let's now examine a strikingly similar quotation from Proclus' Commentary on Plato's Timaeus (2008 Cambridge University Press, volume 2):
For the divine does not stand aloof from anything, but is present for all things alike.  For this reason, even if you take the lowest levels of reality, there too you will find the divine present.  The One is in fact everywhere present, inasmuch as each of the beings derives its existence from the gods, and even though they proceed forth from the gods, they have not gone out from them but rather are rooted in them.  Where, indeed, could they 'go out', when the gods have embraced all things and taken hold of them in advance and still retain them in themselves?  For what is beyond the gods is That which is in no way existent, but all beings have been embraced in a circle by the gods and exist in them.  In a wonderful way, therefore, all things both have and have not proceeded forth.  They have not been cut off from the gods.  If they had been cut off, they would not even exist, because all the offspring, once they were wrenched away from their fathers, would immediately hasten towards the gaping void of non-being.

Proclus, 410-485 C.E.

Compare now the highlighted portions of this quotation with the earlier quote.  Do they not say the same thing, albeit in their own colors, but nonetheless it is really the exact same idea.   Now when we consider that Rabbi Cordovero could not have read Proclus, we are dumbfounded by how their thought could line up so perfectly.  We must conclude that either they were drawing from the same stream of spiritual inspiration; or if you can push this to the occult limit, that Rabbi Cordovero and Proclus are the same soul, one a reincarnation of the other.

Cordovero's grave in Safed Cemetery
Where is his soul today?

That being said, it is very interesting for students of Neoplatonism or Kabbalah to study the writings of these two giants simultaneously.  Both Proclus and Rabbi Cordovero had intense religious devotion as well as scholarly aptitude, both produced voluminous writings and were the heads of esoteric schools.  What is more, both were masters of the commentary tradition on sacred writings--Proclus' commentaries on Plato are the deepest are richest of such, while Cordovero's commentaries on Sepher Ha-Zohar the most extensive and penetrating.  Consider the analogy:

Proclus is to Plato as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero is to Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai

Not only that but the biographies of both Proclus and Cordovero tell how they changed the direction of their lives to the dedication and pursuit of mystical philosophy, at the exact same age of 20 years old!  How can we hear about all of this and not share my conclusions about the spiritual link between them?

This article intended to simply generate interest in two great thinkers who are very dear to my heart, as well as point out similarities for scholars of either tradition to see that Neoplatonism and Kabbalah share such a similarity of thought that we should wonder about a hidden stream of tradition that connects the two over a long period of time, suggesting a common heritage and unity.

Books mentioned in this article:


  1. Interesting post. I'm working on the influence of Proclus on Renaissance Magic over at my blogs http://renaissancemagic.blogspot.com/ and http://theurgystudies.blogspot.com/ ... have you read this article by Baeck which compares the philosophy of Proclus with the metaphysics of the Sefer Yetsirah?

  2. Thanks Mr. Hand for the comment. I had not read that article before but did just now. I was a bit unsure at first, but there are some similarities in SY with Proclus' theology. I am dedicated to the writings of Proclus and will be working on commenting on them and also trying to help make them more accessible. And also, making their purpose and intent more approachable. For example, what exactly was the purpose of Elements of Theology and why was it written the way it was? This is my current focus, output coming soon ;D

  3. Hi Stephen

    I've commented on your post at

    Best Wishes