Moshe Cordovero: The Sefirot
What is God?
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Everybody has heard something about Kabbalah. It has made its way from being the private secret knowledge of a handful of Jewish mystics, to the latest fad. Originally, it was the version of Jewish mysticism that somehow made its way to Provence in southern France, where it developed into and independent branch of Torah. By the time of the glory century of Tzefat (1525-1625), it was at the cutting edge of Jewish intellectual and spiritual activity. It had become highly developed and surprisingly complex. By the time of Moshe Cordovero in Tzefat, the system had become so refined and so worked out that it would have matched contemporary quantum mechanics blow for blow.
More than anything else, it was about God. Strictly speaking, it was about that old question of how God interacts with creation. But unlike the old ways of looking at that question, Kabbalah and the Cordovero system were really looking into how the emanation process resulted in God transforming into the created reality. They wanted to understand the spiritual mechanisms at work. How do you get from the unknowable to the knowable? How do you get from the spiritual to the physical?
The key to it all was the Sefirot. On one side of the equation was the unknowable En Sof, the Infinite One, whose essence was everything, but about whom nothing could be said or understood. On the other side stood the created world – which seemed just too physical and too real to be infused with God. The Sefirot were that bridge that connected the two. But what were they? Were they God in some more knowable form, or were they the non-divine bridge between God and creation? Were they the distilled essence of God or were they vessels that somehow contained God’s refined essence and distributed it to the created world? This question made its way to Tzefat in the early 16th century and occupied the mind of Moshe Cordovero.
Many of his books cover parts of the system, but the Pardes Rimonim gives the best overall picture. The fourth section of Pardes Rimonim openly deals with the question of what the Sefirot actually are. In the fourth chapter he lays it all out: ‘In truth, what is fitting to know is that at the beginning of emanation, the En Sof, the Holy One Blessed be He, emanated the 10 Sefirot that are from God’s essence and are one with God. God and they are a perfect oneness. These Sefirot are the soul, which are dressed in the 10 Sefirot that have fixed names, which are the vessels. It is like saying that the 10 Sefirot of essence are the brain and soul for the 10 Sefirot which are vessels.’
First off, we need a little more background. As is well known in general and is obvious from this paragraph, there are 10 Sefirot. What isn’t so well known in general or obvious from this paragraph is that they have very specific names and a specific order. They are usually listed in order of ‘descent’ from the En Sof. Keter (the ‘crown’, which represents the will of God), Wisdom, and Understanding (this is the one we encountered in the section from the Zohar) form a group of three that represent God’s thought. The next seven represent God’s emotions or other qualities that are not usually related to intellect. They come in various arrangements in roughly the following order: Kindness (or Love), Restraint, Beauty, Dominance (or Victory), Glory (or Splendor), Foundation, and Kingship.
There is a vast amount to write about all of this, but it will take us off of our primary concern. We want to know what the Sefirot actually are. Cordovero rejected the views that they are either God’s essence, or that they are vessels containing God’s essence. The ‘essence’ view has the problem that it makes God’s essence divided into 10 parts, a highly problematic position according to Jewish philosophy. The ‘vessel’ view has the problem that it makes the Sefirot nothing more than created entities that contain God, similar to how Saadia Gaon saw the Glory. This is in conflict with numerous statements of the Zohar that declare the oneness and unity between God and the Sefirot. This was the problem in a nutshell – how to mesh Jewish philosophy with Jewish mysticism as described in the Zohar.
Cordovero’s solution was not to come up with a third possibility aside from ‘essence’ or ‘vessels’, but to combine the two approaches to say that they are both true. ‘At the beginning of emanation, the En Sof, the Holy One Blessed be He, emanated the 10 Sefirot that are from God’s essence and are one with God. And God and they are a perfect oneness.’ This statement very clearly takes the position that the Sefirot are ‘essences’ that ‘are one with God’, ‘a perfect oneness’. This reflects the view of the Zohar and so was solidly anchored in Kabbalistic tradition.
But then he states that: ‘These Sefirot are the soul, which are dressed in the 10 Sefirot that have fixed names, which are the vessels’. What are these ‘Sefirot that have fixed names’? Are they ten additional Sefirot? Didn’t the original Sefirot, which are ‘essences’, also have fixed names? Furthermore, how can ten Sefirot be ‘dressed’ in ten other Sefirot?
It seems that the answer to these questions will take us to the core of what the Sefirot are. There are not two different sets of Sefirot, making 20 Sefirot. This is something that we never hear about in any system of Kabbalah. What Cordovero intended was not to add more Sefirot but that the original ten have transformed into a slightly different form. The original ten that were revealed in one dimension emanated from God’s essence, so they were God’s essence. When the next stage was reached, these same ten Sefirot acquired ‘fixed names’ – meaning that they had ‘solidified’ into their permanent distinct forms. This new form of the Sefirot ‘dressed’ the original form in the way that a vessel may contain something inside its walls.
Cordovero provides us with no less than four analogies to illustrate what is going on here. The first two are fairly similar in nature. They compare the situation to water in transparent containers of various colors or to sunlight shining through glass of various colors. In both cases, the water or the light is the essence that remains unchanged, while the appearance of that essence changes depending on the color of transparency.
These analogies suffer from the problem of being inexact when subject to scrutiny. The ‘vessel’ is obviously distinct from the ‘essence’ and not a ‘solidified’ form of the essence. They do show how the essence can appear at all, and how it can appear to change. But it is still unclear what the vessel actually is. The fourth analogy is the most difficult to understand but seems to be the one that best explains how the vessels come about. In this analogy the En Sof is a great light or a fire that is impossible to look at because it is so bright. In the midst of the light, the light forms a ‘globe’ that shades the light that enters into it from its outer edges. It is now possible to gaze inside that globe to see a glimmer of the light. Another globe forms inside the first globe which shades the light even more and makes it more visible. This goes on until ten such globes, one inside the other, are formed, each revealing a different degree of the light.
The light remains the same throughout the process. The only change is in that it becomes more visible owing to the shading of the globes. Nothing ‘new’ has happened to the light. The globes are the Sefirot. The light is the En Sof. The light inside the various globes is the first stage of the Sefirot – when they are unnamed and going through the stages of the light’s inner journey. The light itself, however, forms the globes, in some way that is not explained. Subsequent Kabbalists explained that the globes are the ‘solidifying’ or ‘thickening’ of the light. Thus the Sefirot are really two aspects of the original light. They are the diffused light itself, and they are the solidified light that shades the diffused light. Looked at in this sense, the globes are ‘garments’ for the light.
There are certain fundamental ideas that emerge from all this. First, we can see that it is God all the way down. God is the invisible and unknowable En Sof; God is the increasingly visible and knowable light as it passes through the various filters (globes, transparencies); God is the filters themselves in a form that could only exist because God allows them to be. Cordovero's definitive quote is, ‘God is all existence, but all existence is not God’ – a statement that would have great influence in the development of a Jewish form of panentheism.
The second important idea is that the Sefirot are God and they are not God. They are God in that they are the undifferentiated light as it passes through the filters. In this manifestation they are ‘one with God’, ‘a perfect oneness’. But they are also the differentiated filters themselves, which, cannot be considered the essence of God at all. They are a solidified form of God that has limitations and boundaries and possess none of the infinitude of the En Sof. God is revealed not by exposing the invisible hidden essence, but by shading the infinitely bright invisible essence. It is by passing God’s essence through these filters that God is revealed. Ultimately the filters become ‘thick’ enough to reveal a shade of God that is familiar to us. In fact it is us. The created world is that final stage in which the filters make God’s essence seem palpable and ‘real’.
Perceiving the Image
It is likely that Moshe Cordovero would say that the Sefirot are God’s essence as revealed through ‘garments’ that obscure in order to make that essence more perceivable. God is in them but they are not God. The same goes for the created world itself, but on a level that is even more removed from the original essence. God is in those creations. God is those creations after being passed through the final stages of the filters. But the created world is not God. To worship a creation as God is to sell oneself short. It is to only look at the filtered version and to ignore the true version. We, the worshipers, are also ‘filtered versions’, so worshiping creations is worshiping something that is no more worthy of worship than ourselves. Worshiping the ‘true’ version, on the other hand, is to direct one’s spiritual focus to what is infinitely above us in every imaginable way. It is to worship that which is inconceivable and imperceivable instead of that which is conceivable and perceivable.
There is however, a certain element of the unfiltered version that exists within the filtered versions. On the highest level, the level in which the essence first spreads through the Sefirot, it may be possible to perceive some trace of the infinite. On this level, there is only the faintest difference between the unknowable En Sof and the barely knowable essence. Is that difference everything or is it nothing. The Kabbalists in general took the route that the knowable essence is worthy of worship as long as one recognizes that one is worshiping the essence and not the vessel. It may be walking a fine line that is too close for comfort for some, but for those who crave genuine oneness with God, it is worth the risk. If this is the only path to actually perceiving the true essence of God, how could they forsake it?
Is this really the way to understand God – by accepting the mystical breakthroughs of someone else and following along that path? Or is it better to pave one’s own path and hope for the best?
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