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Saturday, 5 June 2021

239) DO SOME KABBALISTIC NOTIONS OF G-D VIOLATE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF MONOTHEISM?

 

A 19th century depiction of the Ten Sefirot (unknown origin).

INTRODUCTION:

Kabbalists always had to deal with the challenge of their seemingly multiple perceptions of G-d coming very close to a violation of the monotheistic idea of a single unity of the divine being. In this article, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro[1], we delve into some of these perceptions in an attempt to see just how far they have sometimes gone.

 

TEN SEFIROT:

According to classical Kabbalah and modern Chasidut, the G-dhead comprises or manifests as Ten Sefirot, or G-dly spheres. In other words, G-d has ten ‘aspects’ (kindness, severity, beauty etc.) and through them He is known to mankind and the world. Of course, adherents of this doctrine will explain that G-d is still one, it’s just that G-d can manifest in ten different ways, depending on the circumstances. However, this is not how the proponents of Kabbalah and practitioners of the mystical doctrine always envision the Sefirot.

Maimonides (1135-1204) would not have known about the Sefirot as these ideas only became prevalent after his time with the publication of the Zohar in around 1290. However, based on his writings it is abundantly clear he would have opposed the Sefirotic principles as a departure from his well-known notion of a transcendent, unknowable G-d with a simple unity.

 

THE ‘TEN’ AND THE ‘THREE’:

After Maimonides, opponents of the Kabbalah became quite outspoken against the belief in Sefirot. As Shapiro puts it:

“…opponents of kabbalah viewed the…Sefirot…in the same way as the Trinity, namely a violation of G-d’s absolute unity and thus idolatrous.”

Even R. Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291), a radical if not maverick Kabbalist, actually sided with the non-mystics on the issue of Sefirot, and believed it to be more theologically provocative to the unity of G-d than the Christian notion of Trinity.

[See Kotzk Blog: 187) THE CENSORSHIP OF ABULAFIA AND HIS ATTEMPT TO CONVERT THE POPE:]

R. Yitzchak ben Sheshet (1326-1407), also known as the Rivash, quotes a philosopher who says that Christians believe in the ‘three’ whereas Kabbalists believe in the ‘ten’.[2]

 

ARE SEFIROT THE MANIFESTATION OR THE ESSENCE OF G-D?

As to whether the Sefirot are the softer version of a ‘manifestation’ of G-d or the harder version of G-d’s ‘essence’, Kabbalists like R. Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) maintained them to be part of G-d Himself. In this sense, G-d becomes divisible into ten G-dly components which remain “one with Him”. R. Cordovero writes:

“At the start of the emanation, the Ein Sof [Infinite One]…emanated ten Sefirot, which are from His essence, are one with Him and He and they are all one complete unity.”[3]

This view, that the ‘ten are one’, is reflected not only in Cordovero but in much of Kabbalisic thought as G-d’s ‘unknowable essence’. However, heaping difficult ideas under the rubric of vague or mystical nomenclature does not remove their theological challenge to basic monotheism.

 

KAVANAH ON THE SEFIROT DURING PRAYER:

The difficulty is compounded when we start seeing the common Kabbalistic practice of directing kavanah, or intention, toward various Sefirot during prayers. Through this, one appeals to the ‘correct’ divine power at the appropriate time. There is a fine line between ‘directing attention’ and ‘praying’ to a particular Sefira, especially during the process of prayer.

R. Yakov the Nazirite from twelfth century Southern France who taught that the first and last three blessings of the Amidah must be directed towards the Sefirah of Bina, while the middle section must be directed towards Tiferet by day and Bina by night. In response to that view, R. Avraham ben David of Posquieres (c. 1125-1198), known as Ravad taught that the first and last three blessings are to be directed towards the ‘main’ G-d, Ilat ha’ilot (the Cause of causes) but the middle section which is more personal and less universal, is to be directed towards the Creator of the universe, Yotzer Bereishit. On this view, one would not make personal requests of the Supreme Deity because He does not hear prayers. One only praises the Ilat ha’ilot but prays to the Shomea Tefilah, the G-d who hears the prayers.[4]

 

SEFIROT AS CREATORS OF THE UNIVERSE:

There is also the Kabbalistic idea that the Ein Sof, or Infinite One, similarly known as Ilat ha’ilot, or Cause of causes, created the universe with his ‘light’ or ‘power’ which allude to the ten Sefirot. This way the Sefirot are elevated to a parallel position with the G-dhead. And again, some supporters of this doctrine will explain that this really means that the intent is to the Ein Sof behind the Sefirot and not to the Sefirot themselves. Either way it still brushes very close to - some might say this even supports - the notion of a form of G-dly dualism and parallelism.

 

THE ‘LESSER G-D’:

This is how R. Yitzchak ibn Latif (c.1210-1280)[5] describes the ‘lesser’ G-d of creation, also known as the ‘Immanent G-d’ or the ‘First Created Being’:

“The First Created Being, may He be blessed, knows everything by virtue of His essence, for He is everywhere and everything is in Him…and all beings exist through Him by way of emanation and evolvement, and nothing exists outside of Him.”[6]

 

THE SABBATEAN NOTION OF THE ‘G-D OF ISRAEL’:

Building on this type of foundation, the Sabbatean Kabbalist Avraham Miguel Cardozo explained that ‘main’ G-d is essentially removed from this world and its affairs, and that it is only the “G-d of Israel” who created the universe and continues to provide providence over it. It was this “G-d of Israel” who appeared to the patriarchs and took the Jews out of Egypt.

This is very similar to the belief of the early Gnostics - a mystical tradition followed by non-rabbinical Jews and Christians during the first century CE – where a distinction was made between the highest and unknowable G-d who was the Supreme Being, and what was known as the Demiurge or creator of the world and physicality. The Gnostics emphasised spiritual knowledge (from Greek gnosis which means knowledge, particularly spiritual knowledge) and they broke away from the more orthodox versions of their respective religions and sects.

This approach, where the ‘main’ G-d remains aloof and oblivious to the affairs of the universe, was not only the province of the Sabbateans. R. Yitzchak Lopes of Aleppo, for example, endorsed this view of Cardozo, although, in fairness, some believed him to have been a secret Sabbatean.

 

THE PRE-SABBATEAN NOTION OF THE ‘G-D OF THE TORAH’:

The fact remains that Cardozo’s Sabbatean views did not emerge in a vacuum, because many medieval Kabbalists (i.e., prior to the Sabbatean movement) held such views as well. Ilat ha’ilot, the Cause of causes was indeed considered to be totally removed from the affairs of the world. This was why these Kabbalists specified that no prayers should be directed to the ‘main’ G-d as He is too transcendent. Rather, prayers need to be addressed to the ‘lower’ G-d who created the world. This G-d is the “G-d of the Torah” (reminiscent of Cardozo’s “G-d of Israel”), who in the case of these mainstream Kabbalists was identified as Keter, the highest of the Sefirot. Sometimes it was to Chochma, the ‘second highest’ of the Sefirot, that the prayer were directed.[7]

 

THE IDEA THAT THE SEFIROT PRAY TO G-D:

There is a further position where it is believed that the Sefirot themselves pray to Ilat ha’ilot. This view was held by R. Yosef ben Shalom of Barcelona of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, who is known for his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah. If the Sefirot are said to pray to G-d, it becomes rather difficult to accept the idea that the G-dhead with the Sefirot make a complete and indivisible unity.

 

SEFIROT AS CREATED BEINGS:

The alleged uncorrupted unity of G-d and the Sefirot is again challenged by the opinion of R. Azriel of Gerona (1160-1238) who claimed that besides for first Sefira, which is said to have always coexisted with Ilat ha’ilot, all the other Sefirot had a beginning in time and were therefore created entities. How can a created being be equated with an Infinite G-d?

 

THE KERUV HAMEYUCHAD:

Shapiro brings another example of the Kabbalistic distinction between aspects within the G-dhead from the entity known as the Keruv haMeyuhad, or Unique Cherub. This idea originated during Medieval times and was probably the forerunner to the very idea of the Sefirot. This Unique Cherub was said to be an anthropomorphic entity resembling the future human, and man was made in its image.[8] It was to this ‘being’ that many Kabbalists directed their prayers. This Keruv haMeyuhad was considered to be a ’lesser YHVH’.[9] These references to so-called ‘lesser G-ds’ and ‘higher G-ds’ resemble other mystical systems not usually associated with basic monotheism.

 

SEFIROT ARE NOT ABOVE TIME:

Another indication that the Sefirot are not simply viewed as different manifestations of a single G-d can be seen in the teachings of the nineteenth century R. Yitzchak Pilitz. To solve the question of how can G-d - who knows everything including the choices we are yet to make - give us freedom of choice? Where is the freedom if the outcome is already foretold? R. Pilitz suggests that that is true only of the Ein Sof, the Infinite One, but it is not true of the ‘other’ parts of G-d, the Sefirot.  The Ein Sof knows the outcome of future events but the Sefirot, who run the world, function within time and do not know the future and therefore do not know which choices a person will make[10].

Again, this underscores the fundamental differences between the Sefirot and G-d, and it becomes difficult to accept that both entities are considered an indivisible unity or a manifestation of a simple monotheistic oneness.

 

 

 

 

FURTHER READING:

Kotzk Blog: 266) BETWEEN FRANKFURT AND TZFAS:

Kotzk Blog: 104) PRAYING TO ANGELS?



[1] Marc Shapiro, 2004, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 40-44.

[2] She’elot uTeshovot haRivash 157.

[3] Pardes Rimonim, 4. 4.

[4] See Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, Northvale, NJ, 1998, 2, 48.

[5] He lived in Toledo just before the publication of the Zohar.

[6] See Heller-Wilensky, “First Created Being”, 263.

[7] See Heller- Wilensky, “First Created Being” in Early Kabbalah and its Philosophical Sources (Hebrew) in ead. And Moshe Idel (eds.), Mehkarim behagut yehudit (Jerusalem, 1989), 261-276).

[8] See Joseph Dan, The ‘Unique Cherub’ Circle, Tubingen, 1999, 72.

[9] See Gershom Scholem, 1987, Origins of the Kabbalah, ed. R.J.Z. Werblowsky, trans. Alan Arkush, Princeton, NJ.

[10] Zera Yitzchak, 10b-11a.

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