Conclusion: Joseph and the Occult Connection
In attempting to understand Joseph Smith and his religious vision, historians have examined both the religious sparks kindled by his time and the social soils from which the young prophet sprang. As useful as some of these efforts have been, I still agree with Paul Edwards: our methods so far have been too "traditional and unimaginative" to comprehend Joseph's history; we remain, even now, blinded by the fears of yesterday--or biased by its erroneous judgments. Chief among the subjects that might be "feared" in Mormon history is Joseph's apparent recurrent association with the "occult" traditions of Western spirituality, and this remains the area of his history least examined and understood. It is impossible for me to present fresh evidence which seemingly links Joseph Smith to what might be interpreted as "the occult" without addressing this wider issue.
The historical record witnesses that Joseph Smith had some intercourse with at least three important manifestations of the alternative and non-orthodox religious traditions that blossomed in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance period, traditions sometimes labeled as "the occult": ceremonial magic, Masonry, and Kabbalah. These associations extended throughout his life, and his liaison with each constituted more than casual acquaintance. This is an area of history to which Mormon historians have been hesitant to turn full attention--an area where our fears (or ignorance) have delimited our understanding.
It would be foolish at this late date to maintain that any single tradition engendered Joseph Smith's religious vision. Joseph was an American original--and we need not fear him being cast as a Masonic pundit, folk magician, Rosicrucian mystic, medieval Kabbalist, or ancient Gnostic. Nonetheless, we must recognize that something in the nature of the prophet, some element of his own intrinsic vision, did resonate with the occult traditions of the Western spiritual quest. Into the spirit and matter of his religious legacy, he wove these sympathies. Joseph carried his silver talisman, inscribed with the sigil of Jupiter and Hebrew letters cast in a magic square, upon his person to his death. He called Masonry a remnant of true priesthood, and over a thousand of his men in Nauvoo, including nearly every then current or future priesthood leader of his nascent church, went through the three separate steps of ritual initiation leading to the degree of Master Mason. In his last months, amid dissension and danger, he found time to sit and read Hebrew and perhaps study Kabbalah and the Zohar
with Alexander Neibaur. In April 1844, when his congregation expected retrenchment and reconciliation, he turned to that Hebrew, and bequeathed to his disciples an extraordinary vision of God--a theosophical pronouncement which echoed the tones of Kabbalah even to the ear of a critic so far removed in time and culture as Harold Bloom.
It is this last link--Joseph's sympathy for Kabbalah--which may be the key that finally unlocks a pattern, and opens a new methodology for understanding the prophet Joseph Smith. As Richard Bushman noted:
The power of Enlightenment skepticism had far less influence on Joseph Smith. . . . Joseph told of the visits of angels, of direct inspiration, of a voice in the chamber of Father Whitmer, without embarrassment. He prized the Urim and Thummim and the seerstone, never repudiating them even when the major charge against him was that he used magic to find buried money. His world was not created by Enlightenment rationalism with its deathly aversion to superstition. The Prophet brought into modern America elements of a more ancient culture in which the sacred and the profane intermingled and the Saints enjoyed supernatural gifts and powers as the frequent blessing of an interested God.155
Joseph Smith did indeed bring into America elements of an ancient culture--but that culture was not temporally very distant from the prophet. When Joseph was introduced to Jewish Kabbalah in its classic form in Nauvoo, he found--consciously or unconsciously--the fiber of a thread woven throughout the fabric of his life. The magic he met as a youth, the prophetic reinterpretation of scripture and opening of the canon to divine revelation, the Masonic symbol system: all of these were reflections of an heterodox Hermetic religious tradition that had persisted in various occult fashions within the Western religious tradition for centuries, a tradition of which Kabbalah was a most important part. Call the tradition "occult" if you wish--certainly to survive it was at times hidden--but do not error by seeing it as simply a legacy of ideas from which the young prophet might pick and choose.
This tradition--as is now well accepted by scholars--was driven by the phenomenon of a rare human experience. As interwoven into Hermeticism, Kabbalah was a tradition not just of theosophic assertions, but of return to prophetic vision. For a millennium or more--perhaps dating all the way back to the suppressed heresy of the Gnostics--men and women within this larger tradition asserted the reality of their vision--and sometimes even used what now seems modern psychological insight in dealing with their experiences.156
Individuals caught in this experience not uncommonly saw themselves as prophets, though the force of the tradition sought to maintain a balance in the face of such realizations. Many of them thought themselves kings and queens before God, and some openly proclaimed their royalty.157
They probed the mystery of Adam and Eve, and primal creation, they embraced rituals and symbols as non-verbal expressions of ineffable insights. Their sexuality was sacralized, and not infrequently their sacred sexual practices ranged beyond the bounds of expression accepted by the societies of their times. Their most sacred mystery, the great mysterium coniunctionis,
was sometimes ecstatically mirrored in the holy union of a man and a women. They authored pseudoepigraphic works, invoking ancient voices as their own. They told new stories about God because for them God was a living story: and they found their own lives mingled within a story being told by a living God. When Joseph sought a mirror to understand himself he found reflections in a history not so distant as that of ancient Israel. His story, the prophet's story, lived within the occult legacy of his time. He touched that legacy often, and he saw in it the image--even if dimmed and distorted--of a priesthood he shared.
Joseph Smith's life reflected the nature of an unusual human experience, and to understand his history we must understand his experience in the context of history. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung dedicated the last half of his long life to elucidating the nature and psychological insights of the Kabbalistic-Hermetic-alchemical tradition. He felt it held the pearl of great price, the treasure forgotten by Christianity in its enlightened Protestant evolution. It was at the Eranos conferences dominated by Jung, that Gershom Scholem, the preeminent pioneer of Kabbalistic studies, opened the eyes of Western scholarship to the tradition's import in our history.158
Moshe Idel, Scholem's brilliant and independent protégé, has subsequently reaffirmed the value of a psychological perception in understanding its phenomena.159
With insights augmented by Scholem's work, the historian Francis Yates pioneered a new understanding of the vast influence of the occult tradition in Renaissance and Reformation culture.160
And recently Harold Bloom has pointed to its import in the creative vision of more modern times.161
Perhaps the thrust of this scholarship is now reaching the cloisters of Mormon history. But should that indeed be the case, Mormon historians must understand that they are embarking into a different methodology of history. A prophet's history flows from two springs, one above and one below, both melding in currents of his life. What story from above the prophet may have heard will remain his secret, the history no man knows. But by turning to the larger realm of prophetic history and its occult legacy, the record of its aspirations, its symbols and lore, and the enigmatic histories of the women and men who have been caught in this unique human experience, we may begin to find a methodology that leads us with new wonder into the unknown history of Joseph Smith.
Reference : http://www.gnosis.org/jskabb3.htm