Did Swedenborg Study Kabbalah? Part 2: Probing His Historical Context

By Rebecca Esterson, Lecturer in Sacred Texts and Traditions and in Swedenborgian Studies, Center for Swedenborgian Studies of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley)

In part one of this blog entry, we looked at similarities of ideas between Swedenborg and kabbalah in its various forms, Christian and Jewish. Comparison by itself has its limits, however, and any study of Swedenborg and kabbalah must also consider what evidence we have for historical contiguity. Scholars have identified two potential avenues for the influence of kabbalah on Swedenborg. The first is the atmosphere at Uppsala University in the eighteenth-century and Swedenborg’s close relationship with his brother-in-law in whose home he lived for six years: Professor Eric Benzelius, who was integral to the university’s acquisition of kabbalistic texts and teachers. The term “philosemitism” has been rightly problematized by today’s historians of early modern Europe,[1] but it nevertheless describes something of the fervor of Protestant Hebraism that characterized Swedish universities in the early modern period.

Rabbinic studies and kabbalah were an integral part of the curriculum at Uppsala while Swedenborg was a student there, and converted Jews such as Johan Kemper were recruited to Uppsala by royal decree to teach kabbalah and produce commentaries in Hebrew. One recent discovery in this vein is a dissertation by Uppsala professor Daniel Lundius, bearing Swedenborg’s signature on the cover page. Lundius’s dissertation gives a general overview of kabbalah, describes the functions of the various sefirot, and references the Sefer Yetzirah as well as mystical Bereshith and Mercabah literature. Susanna Åkerman-Hjern, who made the discovery, notes two Latin phrases in the dissertation which resemble important terms in Swedenborg’s later theological writings: influxum Divinum and arcana Dei. She concludes from the Uppsala evidence that a “soft but definite” influence is present.[2]

Secondly, scholars point to the diffusion of kabbalistic thought among intellectuals in England, France, Sweden, and Germany with whom Swedenborg had either direct or indirect contact—Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz being the most significant. Of this connection, James Lawrence writes: “the reception of kabbalah into serious conversations in Early Modern and Modern theosophical currents created a broad intertext among philosophers with religious commitments—especially those interested in the nexus of metaphysics, natural philosophy, and theories of representation in images, mathematics and language.”[3] Swedenborg kept notes on philosophers who were of particular interest to him, and the only instances of the word “kabbalah” that we have in his own handwriting are from three direct quotations by Leibniz and Hugo Grotius, which Swedenborg copied into his unpublished notebooks. Nevertheless, attempts at determining a direct line of influence are frustrated by the fact that Swedenborg never directly references in his writings a single kabbalistic source, text, or teacher; and we know of no source in his personal library.

As we wade through what evidence we can gather, a picture emerges of a man who would have been familiar in his early university years with Jewish mystical thought as interpreted by converts and Christian Kabbalists as well as through the mediated influence of western philosophical and theosophical currents of the day, but beyond that we know very little for sure. The particulars of how Swedenborg was influenced and which of his ideas might justifiably be credited to kabbalah remain consigned to the art of speculation. Swedish historian and comparative literature scholar Martin Lamm describes the many analogies of thought between Swedenborg and Christian kabbalist Pico della Mirandola, all the while conceding that “We are unfortunately faced with the more or less impossibility of establishing by which route the doctrines of the Kabbalistic philosophy have reached him.”[4]

A study of Swedenborg and kabbalah nevertheless has its place. Just as we must clarify what comparative and historical studies cannot tell us, we must also ask what they can tell us. In this case, the study draws out elements of cultural negotiation or a history of mutual assimilation and antagonism between Jews and Christians. Given the environment of his upbringing and his professional activities, Swedenborg was embedded in an amalgam of conflicting views regarding the wisdom to be mined from Jewish sources and the perceived ignorance of Jews themselves. Currents of hermeticism, neoplatonism, Hebraism, and kabbalah swirled between thinkers and movements in eighteenth-century Europe, and these currents clashed in some cases with tides of Christian orthodoxy and conventional stereotypes of Jews. Swedenborg, in the very ambiguity of his relationship to Jewish mysticism, embodies the tension between creativity and destruction that this environment conditioned.

While Swedenborg’s work, for all the reasons state above, shared meaningful hermeneutical horizons with kabbalah in its various forms, it also drew from Augustine, Luther, and others on old stereotypes of Jews as literalists. And like so many Christian Hebraists before him, his work created opportunities for boundary-crossing between Judaism and Christianity, while simultaneously putting up walls. Exploring the contours of the reading and misreading that occur between Jewish and Christian sources over the centuries reveals a discourse that belies any understanding of these as two distinct traditions, even when—or perhaps especially when—the commentaries themselves insist on such a distinction.

In those moments when Christian and Jewish sources resemble each other, a study of comparisons can provide a narrative, not of origins but of memory—or what Harold Bloom calls “belatedness.”  Latent or forgotten strategies in one tradition are triggered by something when in the presence of another tradition. Like Swedenborg’s reliquiae (remnants) or the nitzutzim (sparks) of kabbalah, fragments of a shared heritage are discovered in hidden places, even if the shells that contain them are potentially destructive.


[1] See, for instance, Eliane Glaser, Judaism without Jews: Philosemitism and Christian Polemic in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[2] Susanna Åkerman-Hjern, “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), 5.

[3] James Lawrence, And Speaking of Something Else: Biblical Allegoresis, Swedenborg, and Tradition (PhD dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 2011), 167.

[4] Martin Lamm, Emanuel Swedenborg: The Development of His Thoughttranslated by Tomas Spiers and Anders Hallengren (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1999), 284.

Further Reading

Åkerman-Hjern, Susanna. “De sapientia Salomonis: Emanuel Swedenborg and Kabbalah.” Paper accepted for publication in The Visual and the Symbolic in Western Esotericism, edited by Peter J. Forshaw, Leiden: Brill, 2016.

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.

Visit our Swedenborg Studies bookstore page to explore our series of scholarly titles >

Read more posts from the Scholars on Swedenborg series >

© Copyright 2018 Swedenborg Foundation

powered by Everything theme