The Zohar: Emanation

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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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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: ‎
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‎“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). ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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’. ‎
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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. ‎
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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’. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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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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