Sefirot represent the life of the Divine, the constituent truths of God, and the patterns of the cosmos and the human soul
The sefirot represent simultaneously the life of the Divine, the constituent truths of God, and the patterns of the cosmos and the human soul. Here, even greater than the similarity with Saankhya is the very close correspondence with nondualistic Kashmir Shaivism, which integrates the Saankhya scheme into a larger, nondualistic model.
It would have been wonderful to hear Rabbi Rose explain each sefira in detail, but the 90-minute format did not allow for that. The time forced him to speak in broader terms. What he explained is this:
God did not create from a distance. Creation is emanation. (Again, the exact view of the Hindu mystics and philosophical schools.) Life pours forth from out of the depths of the Divine. Ein Sof is this deep well of divine creativity. It is God’s glory that fills the entire earth. (Here the words of Psalm 24:1 came to mind: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”) God manifests through this tenfold matrix of the Tree of Life, and the manifestation is a dynamic process. God is “God-ing” (to use Rabbi David A. Cooper’s term) at all places and at all times. God is both the creator and the substance of creation (in Indian philosophy, the intelligent, the efficient and the material cause).
We, as human beings, participate in divinity. God simultaneously transcends and is radically immanent. One must hold that tension constantly in order to mature spiritually. (What did the rabbi mean by “hold that tension”?; perhaps he was referring to the challenging task of keeping the mind on the Divine amidst all the clamoring distractions of the world that surrounds us.) Also, regarding spiritual maturity, he stressed the need for a deep theological humility while being invited into theological discussion.
The most common name for God in the Tanakh is Elohim. The Kabbalists of the Zohar like to point out that the name is plural. Elohim is the plural of El. What does this mean? A conventional solution, historically speaking, is that it represents an attempt to unify the powers recognized by polytheistic religion into a single divinity. The authors of the Zohar suggested another possibility. Analyzing the letters of the name (a common Kabbalistic practice), one can take the letter m to stand for mi, “who?” and l for ele, “this or these.” Mi? We know so little of the divine reality. Ele. Our experiences of divinity are true, nevertheless. This is a moment of insight, to which we need to hold fast: the connection between the life we experience and the divinity that infuses it.
That brings us back to the symbols of the sefirot. These attempt to name certain dimensions of our experience: love, judgment (in the sense of proper judiciousness), beauty, and so on.
Again, how do we think of God? As mother, daughter, wife, or life? These are different concepts from the usual king, warrior, or father we are more likely to encounter. The Tree of Life is an all-inclusive diagram, and to do anything less than to hold to this tension between Ein Sof and manifest deity is to break the wholeness of the tree. Put another way, this is all about the interconnectedness of life in all its expressions.
Next Rabbi Rose directed us to a quotation from Moses Cordovero, a great Kabbalist from 16th-century Safed, who wrote that nothing exists but divinity and its essence is to be found in every single thing. Cordovero instructed his followers not to attribute duality to God, but simply to let God be solely God. He said that if you imagine that Ein Sof emanates only to a certain point and that anything beyond that point is outside of divinity, well, God forbid! Everything is pervaded by divinity, and that includes the here and now.
Sefirot appears to us as judgment, compassion, beauty, and other qualities
Another passage from Cordovero’s writings asks the reader to imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window. Here Rabbi Rose commented that we have a great Jewish mystic well aware of the inside of a Christian cathedral and using that image to convey a spiritual insight from his own Jewish background. The sunlight has no color of its own, but passing through the glass, it appears to take on different colors. The light itself has not changed—it is still light—but it appears with different hues to the viewer. Cordovero says it is the same with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in these vessels is the essential light of divine consciousness, but diffused through the sefirot, it appears to us as judgment, compassion, beauty, and all the other qualities that the vessels represent.
A disciple of Moses Cordovero, named Isaac Luria, added important new concepts to the myth of creation. Luria also put forth his own understanding of the state before creation. Ein Sof was, of course, One, and it began to emanate. But before the creation of the world as we know it was effected, there was a great catastrophe. The vessels could not hold the divine light, and they shattered, sending sparks flying everywhere. So God tried again, this time making sure that the vessels were strong enough to hold the divine glory. These vessels are the ten sefirot. But the result of the original shattering is still with us in that the world is an admixture of light and darkness. How can each of us be capable of both horrendous acts of violence and deeds of great virtue? In us light and darkness appear mixed in mysterious ways.
For the One to become many, breakage or fragmentation is necessary
Of course, for the One to become many, breakage or fragmentation is necessary. It is part of the design of creation. (Kashmir Shaivism makes the same point: the first function of maayaa, the creative principle, is called kalaa, the category of partialness by which the divine unity appears to fragment itself into distinct entities.)
Born out of Luria’s mythology is the idea of tikkun ha-olam, the repair of the world. The human task is to restore the original divine luster as it was before the breaking of the vessels. All those divine sparks that were scattered, we are responsible for reuniting. In other words, every moment of life has the potential to be sanctified through our thoughts, words, and deeds. It is important to get away from the conventional thinking of sacred and profane and to bear in mind that anything we do has the potential for sanctification. Here the idea of kavvanah (“intentionality”) enters in. Because everything in creation is so interrelated, the intention one brings to anything is bound to have an effect elsewhere. Rituals and prayers, for example, are invested with certain kavvanot, but so are all other actions. Kavvanot frame all our experiences and help us to cultivate attitudes that are conducive to sanctification.
The word avodah literally means “work.” It can apply to work in the ordinary sense and to acts of ritual worship or service as well. On the mental level it can mean “prayer.” Again, by putting aside ideas of sacred and profane, all work, action, and thought can become sanctified. Work performed through our physical dimension, if done with the attitude of service, can make even our mundane interactions into sacred acts.
Isaac Luria wrote that tikkun ha-olam can be effected by anything one does. Saying a blessing before eating makes the act of eating holy. This applies to other actions as well. Once the blessing has been said (and the proper frame of mind established), the soul partakes spiritually of the action. Rabbi Rose expanded on this, saying that the pleasures of the world, if properly approached, can awaken awareness of divine glory, and when that awareness is awakened in us, it shines and invites others to share in it as well.
The words lech lecha in Genesis 12:1, whereby God commands Abram to go forth, take on a mystical dimension in the Zohar. The handout reproduced a brief passage from the Zohar and a paragraph of commentary written by Shalom Buzaglo in the 17th century. Quoting the biblical text, the Zohar reads: “God said to Abram, ‘Go forth.’” The commentator elaborates: “God said to Abram, ‘Go to yourself, know your self, fulfill your self.’” Shalom Buzaglo adds that the verse is addressed to everyone and is an exhortation to search out the root of the soul and to restore it to its source and essence. The more one is fulfilled, the closer that person comes to the authentic self. Rabbi Rose added that by searching out, knowing, and fulfilling ourselves, we discover the unique contributions each of us can make for the good of the world.
Another passage on the handout comes from the writings of a modern mystic, Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), who served as the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine before the state of Israel was established. The quoted passage dealt with “singing the song of the soul,” and what it refers to is the expansion of consciousness. It describes several stages, which bear some parallel to James Fowler’s psychological analysis encountered earlier in the day. Rabbi Kook describes the experience of moving beyond one’s private boundary to embrace the community of Israel in tender love, sharing its anguish and hope. Then he speaks of expanding beyond the border of Israel and “singing the song of humanity.” Beyond that he speaks of expanding further, to unite with all creatures and all worlds and all of existence, “singing a song with them all.” The highest mystic sings all these songs at once—the songs of the soul, the nation, humanity, and the cosmos—and with their resounding together he ascends to holy joy.
(Friday) evening, back at the hotel, I reflected on the events of the day and wrote down a few thoughts…
The first lesson, which is very important, is that even with the best of intentions we can easily misunderstand the sacred writings and teachings of a religion other than our own. Everyone reads through various filters of personality, cultural background, and experience, of course, and no two people will ever find exactly the same meaning in the same text. But beyond that, we do have to consider how easy it is to miss the point of what someone else is trying to say by imposing our own philosophies and theologies onto the sacred utterances of others. We may think we are discovering commonalities while we are inadvertently disregarding or missing something that is entirely distinctive in the other’s message. The morning’s panel had taught a good cautionary lesson.
Another lesson concerned the dangers of academic dryness. My notes only partially reproduce the Academese that was spoken by two of the presenters; more often they are a translation into a more approachable vernacular. If the Divine is the ultimate simplicity, why not speak of it in simple terms? Finally, three members of this particular panel showed an unfortunate disregard for the time, which was discourteous to the other presenters. Thankfully, out of the 28 sessions I attended in total, without exception the others were marked by a prevailing attitude of responsibility and courtesy.
After Rabbi Rose’s presentation, I was able to seek his clarification on a technical question regarding the sefirot. I did not want to ask it during the Q&A, feeling that it might not interest the audience and that I had no right to take up the time in satisfying my own curiosity. Swami Sridharananda’s statement that “one person’s question is another person’s annoyance” is excellent advice.
In Kashmir Shaivism the cosmic principles (tattvas) are grouped into the pure creation (consisting of five states of universal, divine awareness that transcend the dualistic experience of the world) and the impure creation, which is this realm of duality (wherein the remaining 31 tattvas operate). I had recently read that of the ten sefirot, the first three represent states of universal, divine consciousness and the remaining seven are states of human awareness. That seemed to parallel the Shaiva concept dramatically. Now, Rabbi Rose clarified that the highest three sefirot (keter, binah, and hokhmah) are states of awareness before or above cosmic manifestation, and that the remaining seven (gevurah, hesed, tif’eret, hod, netsah, yesod, and shekhinah) represent the best of human awareness in the manifest world—those qualities of judgment, loving-kindness, harmony, and so on to which we should aspire. The cosmic models of the two systems are very much alike in principle, while the rabbi’s explanation of the lower seven sefirot added a new, practical dimension that is uniquely Jewish and not present in that particular facet of Shaiva teaching. I was grateful for the insight that even when we find strongly parallel teachings in two traditions, one can still have something unique and valuable that the other lacks.