Sefer Ha- Bahir, the book of Brightness, is one of the oldest and most important classical Kabbalah texts. Paradoxically, it is also one of the most puzzling and obscure books.
Historically, it first appeared in Southern France around 1176 and until its first printed version, it circulated only among small Kabbalistic circles. Its author is unknown, but the Kabbalist tradition ascribes it to Rabbi Nehuniah ben Hakana because the Bahir begins with his words. Rabbi Nehuniah was a Talmudic sage of the first century, known as the leader of a major mystical school that flourished in the Holy Land exploring speculations on the nature of the Divine, and introduced various new and central concepts into Kabbalah, like the system of the sefirot as divine potencies, or the symbol of the cosmic “tree that is all” as the source of being and souls.
For the first time, the Bahir uses sexual language to describe God, appearing as the combination of the perpetual dynamic of masculine and feminine forces. Sexual symbols are also an important tool for analyzing Hebrew letters and show their significance and connection to the human body on the one hand, and to the cosmic reality on the other. Some letters are phallic (anyway an abundant symbolism in the Bahir), a few yonic (pertaining to female sexuality), and, most interesting, some are considered hermaphroditic.
The anthropomorphic connection between the divine spheres and human body also produces a peculiar view of evil. The Bahir not only conceives Satan as an evil attribute of God, but concretizes Satan as the left hand that is the source of chaos (Tohu, from a root meaning “confounded”). This provocative idea claims that Tohu, the cosmic source evil, is as a matter of fact part of God. As Scholem, the founder of academic Kabbalah, pointed out, this reminds us of Jung’s idea that a genuine God must have a diabolic aspect. This view (which had Kabbalistic followers) may have been the reason the Bahir was rejected by some prominent Kabbalists who couldn’t accept such a sacrilegious notion of God.
The problem of evil in the Bahir is also related to the introduction of the idea of gilgul, re-incarnation (later developed in the Zohar and in Sefer Gilgulim and other writings of the Ari’s school). In the Bahir, re-incarnation explains the problem of injustice in this world; punishment and reward are a result of one’s previous life rather than a direct consequence of the present. As such, the idea of re-incarnation becomes a theodicy, i.e. the justification of the belief in divine providence. This is of course a rather unsettling scheme if one considers God’s satanic attribute.