The Zohar: Emanation
What is God?
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‘In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth’. This, of course, is the first sentence in the Bible. Any Jewish idea of God has to work with this first image. God has to create everything, presumably from nothing. It can’t just be there along with God. This idea set the first limits on what was acceptable within Jewish theology. To this day, it remains the defining characteristic of the Jewish concept of God. If creation happened, God was behind it.
It may come as a surprise that there is a Jewish system of belief that has little to do with creation. It may even come as a bigger surprise that this belief system is looked at as mainstream by many otherwise traditional Jews. These Jews may not even be aware that their belief system is at odds with the straightforward Biblical reading of creation. Their system doesn’t negate creation or anything in the Torah, it just reads the words in a completely different manner and has a totally different idea of what actually happened. The system is called ‘emanation’, and its Jewish origins go back at least to the time of Philo. It remained under the radar for over 1,000 years until it resurfaced in the writings of Jewish philosophers and mystics. But it didn’t really reach popular acceptability until the revelation of what is probably one of the ten most influential works in Jewish history – the Zohar.
The Zohar is considered to be the mystical parallel to the Bible. Traditionalists consider it to be the teachings of the 2nd century Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai and various other rabbis associated with him. Many academics attribute it to Rabbi Moshe de Leon, a 13th century Kabbalist. The actual truth could very well be somewhere in between, though how this is so, is anybody’s guess. It is possible that mystical teachings such as those found in the Zohar were floating around small rabbinic circles since the time of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, or from some time during the next several centuries. It was likely through a process of clandestine transmission that the Kabbalah was created.
The term ‘Kabbalah’, which means ‘tradition’, was probably not used to describe this form of Jewish mysticism until around the time of the publication of the Zohar in the late 13th century. But the term gradually caught on, until by the 16th century it was almost synonymous with the Zohar in particular and Jewish mysticism in general. In the Zohar and the ideas of the Kabbalah, the stress is on the nature of the interaction between God and the created world. The Zohar saw the true essence of God as beyond the grasp of human understanding. But the Zohar was not content with that unbridgeable gap. It insisted on understanding and describing the bridge between God and the creation. This bridge was the highly complex and frequently confusing world of the Sefirot.
The word ‘Sefirot’ almost defies translation. Its Kabbalistic use came from a 12th century book called the Bahir (‘Brilliance’ or ‘Glow’) where term was linked to the Hebrew world saper, meaning ‘tell’, or ‘relate’. There were ten of these sefirot, and they were statements or expressions of God’s will. A central question of all of Kabbalah is what exactly were these expressions? What image of God did they reveal?
The Zohar contains a long preface that introduces several of the most important concepts of its theology. Included in this introduction is a dramatic elaboration on a phrase in Isaiah, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these’ (40:26). It touches on the opening phrase in the Torah, ‘In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth’. It comes in the form of a response of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai to a teaching of his son Elazar:
“Elazar, my son, cease speaking, and the concealed mystery of above, which is unknown to any person, may be revealed”. Rabbi Elazar was silent. Rabbi Shimon wept and was still for a moment...But this mystery was only revealed one day when I was on the shore of the sea, and Elijah came and asked me: Do you know what is ‘who created these’? I answered him: The heavens and their hosts are the work of the Holy One, and people should look at them and bless Him…He said to me: Rabbi, this matter was concealed before the Holy One and revealed in the heavenly academy. When the mystery of all mysteries desired to be revealed, He made first a single point which ascended and became a thought, (with which) it drew all the drawings and engraved all the engravings, and engraved in the holy concealed flame a concealed image, holy of holies, a profound structure that emerged from thought, which is called ‘Who’ – the origin of structure, existent and non-existent, profound and concealed in name, and called only ‘Who’. When He desired to be revealed and to be called by this name, He was clothed in a glorious garment of light and created ‘these’. And ‘these’ ascended in name and they were joined together and completed the name ‘Elohim’ (the Hebrew words for ‘these’ and ‘who’ together form the word ‘Elohim’). Until “these” were created the name “Elohim” could not arise…Through this mystery, the universe exists’ (1:2a).
Nobody ever said the Zohar is easy reading. It is allusions built within allusions. To really understand it requires tremendous patience and broad knowledge of the concepts involved and of the esoteric terminology of the text. It is almost impossible to do it without learning it from an experienced teacher.
Nevertheless, we have to make an attempt. The paragraph quoted above attempt to explain the first three words in the Torah Bereshit bara Elohim (In the beginning Elohim created), in light of a verse in Isaiah that asks in wonder, ‘Who created these?’ It makes use of the combination of the words mi (who) and eleh (these). Rabbi Shimon tells his son that he will reveal a deeper truth that goes beyond simply asking the question. He weeps and is still, as if reluctant to proceed with this revelation. But then he ventures forth into the mystery.
He answers that Elijah himself revealed to him what this verse hints at. His quote from Elijah describes the very process of creation as it is worded in the Torah. But it bears only the slightest resemblance to the Torah. It does not depict the almost natural act of creation happening through the work of God. Rather, it goes back to the moment when ‘the mystery of all mysteries desired to be revealed’ – when the ultimate mystery of God first became knowable. There was ‘a single point which ascended and became a thought’ – this is all taking place in the mind of God. It has not entered the arena of space and time. The Big Bang began in God’s mind.
Those ‘drawings’ and ‘engravings’ were all further developments of this initial point of thought. From them came a ‘profound structure which is called “Who” – the origin of structure, existent and non-existent’. This is the primordial plan of God. It was not the created world but a prototype for that world in God’s mind, called by the strange name of ‘Who’. This thought, this plan, was then clothed in the ‘glorious garment of light’ and created as ‘these’. The plan (Mi) and the creation (eleh) combined to form the name Elohim (the letters in ‘mi’ have to be reversed to make this work). The name Elohim, according to the Zohar, is really a stage in the revelation of God’s mind. It happens only when the plan is clothed in a garment of light that enables it to be revealed. Elohim is God revealed in creation. The opening phrase in the Torah is not read, ‘In the beginning Elohim created’, but ‘In the beginning creation revealed Elohim’.
Elohim – the revealed manifestation of God, is a stage of the creation process. Elohim is not the Creator any longer, but the revelation of the divine that happens when creation occurs. Thus creation itself is nothing other than a revelation of God’s mind, and Elohim is the result of this revelation. It is God going from a hidden phase to a revealed phase. This process, as counterintuitive as it may sound to some and as non-Biblical as it may appear to most, is the Zohar’s doctrine of emanation. Creation is no longer something coming from nothing. In the Zohar, it is God’s mind emanating thought and those thoughts manifesting into different stages that we call reality. Kabbalistic literature, largely based on the Zohar, calls these stages ‘worlds’. They are the various dimensions of reality, the lowest of which is the one we exist in.
The Sefirot are those first thoughts, or emanations, developing in the mind of God. According to the Zohar, they happened in stages, one of which is represented by the name/state of ‘Who’. Subsequent Kabbalists have identified this with a particular emanation that they call Binah, or ‘understanding’. There are two emanations above it which are not subject to any human inquiry. They are either that first point of thought concealed in the mind of God, or the mind of God itself. There are seven emanations below ‘understanding’ that represent further stages in the creation process. Ultimately, the emanations are clothed in enough garments to constitute the created world as we know it. This is the stage in which the ‘these’ exists. It is at this point that the revealed Torah enters the picture and states that the creation process resulted in the revelation of God known as Elohim. ‘Through this mystery’, the Zohar tells us, ‘the universe exists’.
Perceiving the Image
What image emerges from all this? For one thing, the classic image of Elohim as Creator has been effectively shoved to the end of the long and timeless process known as emanation, or revelation. Commentators to the Zohar go so far as to suggest that the very word ‘created’ in the Torah is only a disguise for the true process which was one of revelation of God’s thought or emanations from God’s mind. God is not the Creator as much as the ‘Emanator’. The various stages beyond emanation are important to the world of the Kabbalah, of that there is no doubt. It is just that those stages, which they call ‘creation’, ‘formation’, and ‘making’, are no longer primary. They are results of the more primordial process of emanation, which took place entirely within the mind of God.
But an image does emerge. It is the image of God in transformation from totally concealed and unknowable to revealed and knowable. This transformation is what really concerns the Zohar and the Kabbalists who followed in its wake. The unknown ‘Mind’, called the En Sof (the Infinite) elsewhere in the Zohar, can only be spoken of in the barest of words. Almost nothing can be said about it other than that it is God in the most concealed state. Of the other end, the created world and the stage of God’s transformation known as Elohim, the Torah speaks in revealed terms. The Zohar transformed the Torah into a program describing the transformation of God from Ein Sof to Elohim.
God is not static in this image. God is constantly in motion, flitting between the Sefirot, transforming from one emanation to the next. Sefirot exist within Sefirot. But each one reveals another aspect of the divine; each one is another stage of God’s mind. By transforming God into an infinitely deep Emanator and transforming creation into the final stage of those emanations, the Zohar managed to connect the revealed physical world to the concealed spiritual dimension. This image would never leave Judaism.
What are we to make of an image that has little or nothing to do with the God of the Bible? Can Judaism create new images that do not fit with the old standbys?
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