Joseph Smith and Kabbalah in Nauvoo
By 1842 Joseph Smith most likely had touched the subject of Kabbalah in several ways and versions, even if such contacts remain beyond easy documentation. During Joseph's final years in Nauvoo, however, his connection with Kabbalah becomes more concrete. In the spring of 1841 there apparently arrived in Nauvoo an extraordinary library of Kabbalistic writings belonging to a European Jew and convert to Mormonism who evidently new Kabbalah and its principal written works. This man, Alexander Neibaur, would soon become the prophet's friend and companion.
Neibaur has received little detailed study by Mormon historians, and his knowledge of Kabbalah has earned only an occasional passing footnote in Mormon historical work.121
Neibaur was born in Alsace-Lorraine in 1808, but during his later childhood the family apparently returned to their original home in eastern Prussia (now part of Poland). His father, Nathan Neibaur, was a physician and dentist, who family sources claim, was a personal physician to the Napoleon Bonapart and whose skill as a linguist made him of "great value" to Napoleon as an interpreter (claims perhaps inflated by posterity). Like his father, Alexander became fluent in several languages, including French, German, Hebrew, and later, English. He also read Latin and Greek. Family tradition claims that as the first child and eldest son, his father wished him to become a rabbi, and that the young Neibaur was begun in rabbincal training. However, at age seventeen he instead entered the University of Berlin to study dentistry, and completed his studies around 1828. Sometime shortly afterwards, he converted to Christianity and migrated to Preston, England. There he established a dental practice and married in 1833. In mid-summer 1837, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, and Joseph Fielding arrived in Preston. Neibaur had been troubled by several dreams about a mysterious book, and his first question for Joseph Smith's apostles was whether they had a "book" for him--which of course they did. He was baptized with his family the next spring. On 5 February 1841 they departed for Nauvoo, arriving in Quincy, Illinois, on 17 April. Four days later Neibaur met Joseph Smith, and on 26 April he notes in his journal, "went to work for J. Smith." Two day later he acquired a quarter-acre lot in Nauvoo, and on 1 June moved his family into their newly complete Nauvoo home on Water Street, a few blocks from Joseph Smith's residence.122
Where and how Neibaur first came in contact with Kabbalah remains a mystery, though a careful evaluation of his history and personal travels offers a few hints. Given his father's position, his childhood in western Poland, his studies in Berlin and his subsequent conversion to Christianity, some contact with a reservoir of Kabbalistic knowledge among Sabbatean or Frankist Jews should be considered.123
If he did indeed undertake rabbical studies in Poland prior to his university education, he could not have avoided some exposure to the subject. That Neibaur brought a knowledge of Kabbalah to Nauvoo has been mentioned in several studies of the period. For instance, Newel and Avery note in their biography of Emma Smith, "Through Alexander Neibaur, Joseph Smith had access to ancient Jewish rites called cabalism at the same time he claimed to be translating the papyri from the Egyptian mummies [which became his Book of Abraham]."124
That he not only knew something of Kabbalah, but apparently possessed a collection of original Jewish Kabbalistic works in Nauvoo, is however documented in material almost totally overlooked by Mormon historians.
In June 1843, Neibaur published in Times and Seasons
a short piece entitled "The Jews." The work ran in two installments, in the issues of 1 June and 15 June. As to why he wrote this piece, he states only that his effort was inspired by a talk he had heard Joseph Smith present.125
His essay deals ostensibly with the concept of resurrection held by the Jews. What he discusses for the most part is, however, the Kabbalist concept of gilgul,
the transmigration and rebirth of souls.126
The essay is interesting not because of his comments on resurrection, but because of his repeated citations of classic Jewish Kabbalistic texts. In the course of his four-page piece, Neibaur cites over two dozen texts and authors. Of the citations I have been able to identify, at least ten are to Kabbalistic authors or works.127
The tone of the entire piece, and the authoritative use of Kabbalistic materials, suggests Neibaur's respect for Kabbalah.
Neibaur's notations to these Medieval and Renaissance Jewish works illustrates that he probably both possessed the texts and had a general knowledge of their contents. Although transliterations of Hebrew into English remain variable even in modern publications, Neibaur's renderings into English of the titles and authors cited are fairly consistent and accurate to the original Hebrew. The general precision of his numerous citations suggest Neibaur had access to the works he quoted.128
Included among his citations are several "classic" Kabbalistic texts--the most important Jewish Kabbalistic manuscripts circulated between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries--works such as the Zohar, Midrash Ha-Neelam, Menorat ha Ma'or, Emek ha-Melekh,
and the 'Avodat ha-Kodesh,
as well as a few rarer documents. Much of the material he cites was available only in Hebrew, and to this date has not been translated and published. By any standard, these were unusual works to possess on the American frontier, and certainly an extraordinary collection of texts to be found in the prophet Joseph's Nauvoo.
Joseph Smith and Alexander Neibaur were frequent associates. Neibaur had been engaged by Joseph a few days after his arrival in Nauvoo in April 1841. During the last months of the prophet's life, both his and Neibaur's diaries indicate that Neibaur read with and tutored Smith in Hebrew and German.129
Given this friendly relationship, the interests of the prophet, and the background of Neibaur--and perhaps even the books in Neibaur's library--it seems inconceivable that discussions of Kabbalah did not take place. Kabbalah was the mystical tradition of Judaism, the tradition which claimed to be custodian of the secrets God revealed to Adam. These secrets were occultly conveyed by the oral tradition of Kabbalah throughout the ages--so it was claimed--until finally finding written expression in the Zohar
and the commentaries of the medieval Kabbalists, books Neibaur possessed. Kabbalah was the custodian of an occult re-reading of Genesis and the traditions of Enoch, it contained the secrets of Moses. And it was a subject that Joseph Smith had probably already crossed in different versions several times in his life. Can anyone familiar with the history and personality of Joseph Smith--the prophet who restored the secret knowledge and rituals conveyed to Adam, translated the works of Abraham, Enoch, and Moses, and retranslated Genesis--question that he would have been interested in the original version of this Jewish occult tradition? And here, in Neibaur, was a man who could share a version of that knowledge with him.
Whatever the reasons for the similarities, it should be remembered that the Hermetic-Kabbalistic world view parallels Joseph's vision of God in many particulars. Not only might Joseph have been interested in this material, but he would have noted how similar this sacred, secret tradition was with his own restoration of ancient truth. And perhaps Neibaur, on a religious quest--from Judaism and Kabbalah, Europe and England, to Christianity and Mormonism and a new home in Nauvoo--saw or even amplified that intrinsic sympathy in his explications of the tradition for Joseph.
Certainly the first text Joseph Smith would have confronted was the Zohar,
the great heart of the Kabbalah. This is one of the works Neibaur cited repeatedly in his article and, as the central text of Kabbalah, is the key book any individual with Kabbalistic interests would have preserved in his library. Familiarity with the Zohar
was a given for a Kabbalist, particularly one with knowledge of works as divergent as those cited by Neibaur, all of which expounded in some degree upon themes in the Zohar.
If Neibaur had read to Joseph from any single text, or explained Kabbalistic concepts contained in a principal book, the Zohar
would have been the book with which to start. This might explain why in 1844 Smith, in what may be his single greatest discourse and in the most important public statement of his theosophical vision, apparently quotes almost word for word from the first section of the Zohar.
Reference : http://www.gnosis.org/jskabb3.htm