By Rebecca Esterson, PhD candidate at Boston University and Scholar-in-Training at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley)
Many readers of Swedenborg’s biblical commentaries and theological works, from Immanuel Kant to Moshe Idel, have drawn a connection to kabbalah based solely on similarity of content. And the comparisons are indeed compelling. Lists of similarities between Swedenborg and kabbalah most often cite: (1) the tradition of uncovering multiple layers of meaning in the biblical text, found, for example, in Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven; (2) Swedenborg’s interest in the mystical significance of individual Hebrew letters; (3) the connection between earth and heaven mediated by the flow of influx; (4) the marriage relationship within the Godhead, or the uniting of “male” and “female” divine attributes; and finally and most frequently (5) Adam Kadmon of kabbalah and Swedenborg’s Maximus Homo: that the realm of the Divine takes the shape of a human body.
To this list, I would add sets of similarities depending on which kind of kabbalah is in question. The early modern Christian kabbalah of Johan Kemper and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont similarly allegorize the life of Christ as it relates to individual spiritual progression. Macroprosopus and Microprosopus of the Kabbalah Denudata compare nicely with Swedenborg’s interpretation of the Divine Esse and Existere. Another overlap with Christian kabbalah is in what Elliot Wolfson terms “hypernomianism”: that biblical laws, such as those concerning dietary restrictions or ritual sacrifice, possess “an enduring spiritual value but that their practical application is limited to a specific time in history.” Hasidic kabbalah is strikingly similar in a number of ways: its interpretation of biblical themes and figures as symbols for elements in the individual’s internal, psychological world; the language of microcosm and macrocosm to explain the relationship between human and divine worlds; the idea of avodah be-gashmiyut, or worship through mundane activity; and the concept that the angels are directly affected by the rituals and text study of earthly humans.
To these sets of similarities, we can add curious details, such as the fact that in both the Zohar and in Swedenborg’s Arcana, priests are symbols for divine love; or that Swedenborg’s reliquae, or remnants of holiness buried in the souls of individuals, are represented in the Bible by the number ten, recalling the ten Sephirot and the nitzutzim, or sparks of divinity buried and hidden in earthly vessels, from Lurianic Kabbalah.
With any such comparison, the differences are as significant as the similarities, and for all of the points listed above we could elaborate important distinctions. For example, the Christian kabbalah of Kemper, while alike in allegorizing the life of Christ, differs in its pervasive reliance on Trinitarian theology (Swedenborg consistently denounced the orthodox doctrine of a Trinity of three divine persons). Hasidic commentaries are alike for their internalizing hermeneutic but differ in their regular reliance on word play and skilled manipulation of the Hebrew language for doing this, which is something Swedenborg’s limited knowledge of the language prevented him from doing even though he venerated Hebrew as a most holy language, closest to that of the angels.
Comparison is seductive, as the more sober proprietors of theory and methodology would remind us, and the recognition of patterns is not to be trusted as evidence of contiguity. Wouter Hanegraaff and Friedemann Stengel are two contemporary scholars who firmly downplay such similarities in their discussions of Swedenborg’s possible relationship to kabbalah, insisting that other explanations can nearly always be found. Swedenborg’s Maximus Homo, for instance, can be explained by his dedicated and lengthy study of human anatomy. That the organizing structure of the heavens is in the image of a human body suggests that his religious imagination simply borrowed from his intricate knowledge of the body’s organs and systems. The Zohar’s “Primordial Man,” according to this argument, is not the same figure. To take similarity as evidence of influence is what Jonathan Z. Smith calls the confusion of homeopathic and contagious magic.
While comparison is not reliable proof of influence, for the reasons stated above, it does reveal elements of the shared hermeneutical horizon of these deeply spiritual and deeply textual traditions. For this reason, those interested in Swedenborg and in other forms of Jewish and Christian mysticism continue to find studies based on comparison useful.
A second research path for assessing whether Swedenborg studied kabbalah is historical evidence of contact with kabbalistic sources. Part two of this blog will consider what forms of contact we know of and will reflect on Swedenborg’s place in the troubled history of Jewish/Christian relations in light of the evidence.
Continue reading in part two >
 Elliot Wolfson, “Messianism in the Christian Kabbalah of Johann Kemper,” in Millenarianism and Messianism in the Early Modern European Culture: Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World, edited by M. D. Goldish and R. H. Popkin (New York: Springer, 2001), 145.
 Wouter Hanegraaff, “Swedenborg, the Jews, and Jewish Traditions,” in Reuchlin und Sein Erben: Forscher, Denker, Ideologen und Spinner (Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2005) and Friedemann Stengel, Aufklärung bis zum Himmel: Emanuel Swedenborg im Kontext der Theologie und Philosophie des 18. Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).
 Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 21.
Åkerman-Hjern, Susanna. “De sapientia Salomonis: Emanuel Swedenborg and Kabbalah.” Paper presented at the annual academic symposium of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, The Visual and the Symbolic in Western Esotericism. Szeged, Hungary: July 9, 2011.
Coudert, Allison P. “Leibniz, Locke, Newton and the kabbalah.” In The Christian kabbalah: Jewish Mystical Books and Their Christian Interpreters, edited by Joseph Dan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard College Library, 1997.
Hanegraaff, Wouter. “Swedenborg, the Jews, and Jewish Traditions.” In Reuchlin und Sein Erben: Forscher, Denker, Ideologen und Spinner, 135-154. Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2005.
Schoeps, Hans Joachim. “Philosemitism in the Seventeenth Century.” Translated by George F. Dole. Studia Swedenborgiana 7:2 (December 1990): 5–11.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven. Translated by Lisa Hyatt Cooper and introduced by Wouter Hanegraaff. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2008–2016.
Wolfson, Elliot. “Messianism in the Christian Kabbalah of Johann Kemper.” In Millenarianism and Messianism in the Early Modern European Culture: Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World, edited by M. D. Goldish and R. H. Popkin, 139-187 New York: Springer, 2001.