Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

Q: Someone asked…

I have heard you mention on several occasions that you object to the kabbalistic idea of there being multiple manifestations of divinity. Do you believe that such ideas are avodah zarah (idolatry)? The kabbalists who employed such language were strict monotheists, and it seems that their depictions amounted to little more than poetic illustrations of the many perceptions of God found within the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. If someone were to affirm such ideas, but still believed in Ein Sof, would you still have a problem with that? Thanks.

A: Thank you for your questions.

I do indeed view the “multiple manifestations of divinity” concept (referred in the kabbalah to as partzufim, or “faces”) as being avodah zarah. The Kabbalists who used this language were not strict monotheists. They were, however, very strict dualists who affirmed a belief in a transcendent god (which they termed Ein Sof, or “The Infinite”) who, prior to the creation, “creates” (or, emanates) another god which is imminent (i.e. finite). This language is explicit in the Zohar literature, especially in its explanation of Bereshit 1:1.

Zohar 1:15a [ד] –

 בְּהַאי רֵאשִׁית בְּרָא הַהוּא סְתִימָא דְּלָא אִתְיְידַע לְהֵיכָלָא דָא
הֵיכָלָא דָא אִקְרֵי אֱלהִים וְרָזָא דָא בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלהִים

“With this Reishit (beginning), the Concealed One which is not known created (bara) this chamber, and this chamber is called Elohim (God). This is the secret meaning of the verse, ‘Be-Reishit bara Elohim‘ [i.e. ‘Using Reishit, Ein Sof created Elohim’]”

This passage reads Bereshit 1:1 as referring to two gods (powers, potencies, emanations, or what have you), one creating the other. Incidentally, the Gemara on b.Megillah 9a discusses certain changes that were made by the hakhmei ha-sanhedrin when preparing the first Greek translation of the Torah as requested by King Ptolemy. One of the changes they made was to switch the order of the words in their translation from בראשית ברא אלהים to אלהים ברא בראשית in order to avoid the appearance of polytheism since, due to the common style, as enabled by the syntax of the Greek language, the most important word would be placed first. This being the case, the hakhamim were afraid that בראשית, appearing first in the Torah, would be misunderstood as a reference to a deity. As Rashi explains there:

אלהים ברא בראשית. את השמים – שלא יאמר בראשית שם הוא ושתי רשויות הן וראשון ברא את השני

“God created in the beginning – the heavens, etc. [This rewording] was so that no one would say that Bereshit is a name and that there are therefore two gods (reshuyot, “powers”), and the one created the other.”

The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,

הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה

“Behold, Bereshit is not a name at all, rather [it means] ‘In the beginning.'”

The Zohar not only adopts the mistaken reading of Bereshit 1:1, but it also purports that it is the “secret” meaning of the original words.

Just in case you think that my reading of the Zohar is uncharitable, the Kisei Eliyahu (written in the 19th century by Eliyahu Suleiman Mani as an introduction to the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah) makes a sharp distinction between the Ein Sof – to which he says it is forbidden for us to direct our prayers – and Zeir Anpin (one of the lower manifestations/faces), which is referred to as “our God” and which, together with his celestial wife Nukba, cares for and governs the world on behalf of the Ein Sof.

From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-1

“The principle that arises [from the previous section] is that the First Cause – which is called Ein Sof by mouths of all the kabbalists – is the one who emanated, created, formed, and made all things, and he conceals himself within Zeir Anpin. Therefore Zeir Anpin is the ruler of all the created things, and directs them, and nourishes them, and provides for them with the power of Ein Sof that is in him. Therefore, he [i.e. Zeir Anpin] is our God and we are his people, for our souls are a part of him, and he is whom we should worship, etc.”

From page כ”ז – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-2

“And so you see that all the directing of the world is done through Zeir Anpin, and everything is by the power of Ein Sof, blessed is he, which illumines him like a soul within him For with his power [i.e. the power of Ein Sof] Zeir Anpin performs all of his deeds, and also with all of our calling out to him. All of our prayers are to him [i.e. to Zeir Anpin] because ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock of his hand’ [cf. Tehillim 95:7]. And just as our teacher [Yitzchak Luria] has written (may his merit protect us) in the book Mavo Shaarim, ‘We are his people Israel and all of us are guarded by Zeir and Nukba, and we are their children, as it is written: You are children of HaShem your gods’ [cf. Devarim 14:1, apparently elohim here is being taken by Luria to be plural and a mystical reference to the heavenly couple of Zeir Anpin and Nukba].”

This type of language is unfortunately not rare, and it is highly problematic.

As for the monotheism of those who espoused such ideas, I would say that while they may have strongly professed a strict monotheism, their writings betrayed otherwise. Rav Yihyeh Qafih, z”l refers to this type of profession in his Milhamot HaShem as being no different than when Christians, after explaining all of their ideas about multiplicity within God, the incarnation through a virgin, etc. then proceed to say “but we really just believe in one God” – it is not much more than lip service to a monotheistic idea. In saying this, Rav Qafih quotes directly from a very important passage in the Moreh HaNavokhim of the Rambam which says,

If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, “Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah.” (Ps. 4:5)

(I:50 – Friedlander Edition)

True monotheism is necessarily apophatic, and consists in our taking every measure to nullify any corporeality or spatio-temporal attributes from our conception of God. Doing this is essential to “pulling the plug” on even the possibility of idolatry, which a proper monotheistic conception of God necessarily precludes.

The Kabbalah, however, is not only decidedly cataphatic, but its practitioners relate to divinity in very practical and matter-of-fact ways on the basis of such mistaken descriptions of God. I wish that it were an uncommon occurrence, but I regularly hear the kabbalistic rabbis in my own city make bold and unabashed statements such as, “You’re God, I’m God, everything is God. In Judaism we believe that the entire world is just God” (this is a direct quote). The repeated instances of these and similar statements simply disallow me from accepting the thesis of the kabbalistic apologists. To claim that all of the cataphatic statements made in the Zohar and other mystical books are mere “metaphors” or “poetry” to illustrate certain concepts does not stand up to textual scrutiny. Further, it defies the consistent events of history and cannot be maintained with complete intellectual honesty. While I do believe that some kabbalists (e.g. the Ben Ish Hai) worked very hard to distance the kabbalah from this troubling phenomenon, and they should be respected and praised for doing so, the fact is that the majority then did not, and today still do not, do so.

Another important point about the “poetic” language used to express acts of God in the kabbalah is the switch from kingly decrees in the Torah’s creation narrative to very intense and graphic sexual imagery in the narrative of the Zohar. One of the reasons, in my view, that the Torah expressed creation in terms of statements or decrees (i.e. “let there be,” etc.) is because an expression of God’s will in a decree or a statement is one of the least corporeal concepts we can relate to, being readily translated into simile and metaphor. This portrayal was in sharp distinction to nearly every other creation myth in antiquity wherein the world was seen as either being manufactured from the bodies of the gods and goddesses themselves, or as a product of copulation between various divinities. Even the eminent scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, acknowledges the sexual mythos inherent in the Zoharic depiction of God in the act of creation, describing it as a “re-emergence” and admitting that such imagery is foreign and in direct tension with the Biblical account (cf. On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 108).

The purpose of not employing such common ancient mythological imagery – even though we do have a principle of torah dibrah ke-lashon benei adam (“the Torah speaks in human terms”) – was, I believe, to immediately divorce the ancient hearer of the Torah from such ideas. That the basis of creation are divine pronouncements or decrees was also explicitly championed by Hazal (cf. Pirkei Avot 5:1ff) – they never made any mention of supposed “divine sexuality.” The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so also does a fool repeat their folly” (Mishlei 26:11). May we be delivered from all such foolishness.

Lastly, and most importantly, the standard for idolatry is much lower than needing to express cataphatic views of God or adopting a form of Panentheism. As Rambam explains in the opening chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, idolatry – in its most basic form – consists of merely using or appealing to other beings (or perceived beings) as intermediaries between oneself and God – even if one does not believe that such intermediary beings are themselves gods or a part of God (cf. 1:2-3, Yemenite Manuscripts). Rambam is very clear there that professing a strict monotheism does not rescue one from committing serious acts of idolatrous worship.

Thanks for writing. I hope this helped to answer your questions.

Kol tuv,

YB

Counting the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

Sefiyrath Ha`Omer – A Relatively Simple Misswah

The Torah, in Wayyiqra 23:15, commands us as follows:

TEXT –

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

TRANSLATION –

“And you shall count for yourselves, [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath, from the day that you bring the `omer-offering of waving – there shall be seven complete weeks.”

From this pasuq, Hazal taught – among other things – that each male of Kelal Yisra’el, beginning with the second night of Pesah, needs to begin counting (vocally, and with a berakhah) seven weeks (49 days), after which would be the festival of Shavu`oth. Although we cannot currently offer the `omer, we nevertheless count the days and weeks as was done in the days of the Beth HaMiqdash.

What Does It All Mean?

Usually around the time of sefiyrath ha-`omer we begin hearing the kabbalistic buzz of latter-day interpretations of these 49 days, seven weeks. Everything from combining supposed “sefiros” to “tikkun ha-middos” is mentioned in Jewish books and religious newspapers. Some even relate it to the “49 levels of tumah” that are mentioned in the Tiqquney Zohar.

The truth, however, is that the Gemara merely states that it is “zekher le-miqdash – a remembrance of the Temple” (b.Menahoth 66a) and nothing further. The Rambam in the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:43) expands on this idea and tells us that it is a “countdown” to the anniversary of the Matan Torah (“the Giving of the Torah”) and that, just as one counts the weeks, days, and hours before the arrival of a dear friend, so also does the Jewish nation build anticipation toward Shavu`oth by counting these seven weeks of days.

Traditionally, the anticipation of receiving the Torah “anew” – as it were – has generated a focus on teshuvah and the improvement of the miyddoth (character traits). This is an excellent idea, but unfortunately it has taken on a flaky mystical focus and any real personal growth is usually overshadowed if not forgotten. Le-`aniyuth da’ati (in my humble opinion), I think that the best and most productive tradition in this vein in that of learning a chapter a week of Pirqey Avoth. I also would HIGHLY recommend learning a chapter each day of Hilkhoth De`oth (laws of character development) from the Mishneh Torah, and I consider it no accident that it too contains exactly seven chapters.

Focusing on one’s miyddoth before receiving the Torah is completely appropriate since the halakhah states that Torah is only to be taught to a student whose character is refined and whose deeds are good (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Talmudh Torah 4:1).

The Rambam in the MT: Just Two Short Halakhoth

Did you forget to count at night? Did you forget to count an entire day? Did you forget more than one day? Do you make a berakhah during the day? Can you make a berakhah if you forgot a day? These and other considerations are the common discussion points of the obligation to count the `omer today. The entire conversation has become one infused with many doubts due to a lack of confidence to decide the actual halakhah and has also become subsumed – as have many areas of Jewish law – in kabbalistic sentiments and concerns.

For all of the questions, doubts, and supposed halakhoth that can be found related to sefiyrath ha-`omer – comprising a veritable mountain – the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah dedicates only two to the subject. Two short halakhoth, placed in Hilkhoth Tamiydhiyn Umusafiyn (7:19-20 in the Yemenite [i.e. Correct and Uncorrupted] Editions), give the definition of one’s obligation, and they are as follows:

TEXT –

יט מצות עשה לספור שבע שבתות תמימות מיום הבאת העומר שנאמר “וספרתם לכם ממוחרת השבת” ומצוה למנות הימים עם השבועות שנאמר “תספרו חמישים יום” ומתחילת היום מונין לפיכך מונה בלילה מליל שישה עשר בניסן שכח ולא מנה בלילה מונה ביום ואין מונין אלא מעומד ואם מנה מיושב יצא

כ מצוה זו על כל איש מישראל ובכל מקום ובכל זמן ונשים ועבדים פטורין מספירת העומר וצריך לברך בכל לילה אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציוונו על ספירת העומר קודם שיספור מנה ולא בירך יצא ואינו חוזר ומברך

TRANSLATION –

19 “It is a positive commandment [of the Torah] to count seven complete weeks, from the day that the `omer is first brought, as it says, ‘And you shall count for yourselves [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath.’ And the commandment includes the counting of the days along with the weeks, as it says, ‘You shall count fifty days.’ And we count at the very beginning of the day, therefore we count at night, from the night of the sixteenth of Nisan onward. One who forgot and did not count at night should count during the day.

And we do not count except when standing [le-khatehilah], but if one counted while sitting then [bedi`avadh] he fulfills his obligation.

20 “This commandment is an obligation for every man of [Kelal] Yisra’el, and it applies in every place and in every time. Women and servants are exempt from sefiyrath ha-`omer. It is necessary to make the berakhah each night, ‘who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded concerning the counting of the `omer‘ before one counts.

[Bedi`avadh] if one counted without making a berakhah, he [nevertheless] fulfills his obligation and he does not go back and make the berakhah.”

The Rambam seems to hold the following:

[1] Only men are obligated to count the `omer. Women may [and likely should] count, but without a berakhah. There are opinions that include women fully in the obligation and allow her to count with a berakhah, but this position is not that of the Rambam and I myself do not hold this way. Although, as an aside, I have daughters who hold like me and do not count with a berakhah, another who does not count at all, and another who counts with a berakhah. It is important to me that my children do not feel too separated from their religious Jewish peers as that can be psychologically damaging. If I make distinctions between our family and others in our community in terms of practice, it is only in very foundational issues and the vast majority of the time these distinctions consist of hashqafic tenets (e.g. monotheism, superstitions, `avodhah zarah, “rebbe” worship, “gadolatry,” etc.) – making a berakhah when their hearts are happy and full to do the will of God, especially when they have on whom to rely, is not something that I insert myself too strongly into. I give them a pleasant and non-threatening explanation of how I hold halakhically and leave it at that. (This is good advice for the many meqori parents out there who tend to be too exacting and harsh on their children – believe me this does critical damage to their little psyches!)

[2] Both weeks and days must be enumerated. This is normative halakhah today and needs no explanation.

[3] Counting begins the second night of Pesah. This is normative halakhah today and needs no explanation.

[4] Counting is [le-khatehilah] done at night. This means after complete nightfall (sseth ha-kokhaviym) and no earlier. If one forgot to count at night, then they should still count during the day – and apparently with a berakhah. Although the position of the majority of later rishoniym and poseqiym is to count during the day only without a berakhah, there were Geonic opinions (such as the Halakhoth Gedholoth) who did not object to making the berakhah even during the day. It seems that this was also the opinion of the Rambam. In the style of the Rambam, if he felt that making a berakhah during the day was prohibited, then he would have said so – and he does not. It is important to note that Mori Yusef Qafih z”l interprets the Rambam as being of the position that the berakhah is not said when counting during the day, and since we do have a general halakhic principle of safeq berakhoth le-haqel (“in a doubt of the obligation to make a berakhah we always refrain”), perhaps this is the best course of action. After all, the Rambam states explicitly that the berakhah does not prevent one from fulfilling his obligation.

[5] Counting should be done while standing. As is clearly stated above.

[6] The berakhah is – ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו על ספירת העומר

Forgotten Days

Although the Rasa”g (Rav Sa`adyah Gaon) in his siddur rules that one may continue counting with a berakhah through the entire seven weeks of the `omer, he does note that if one forgets to count the very first night then he cannot continue counting at all with a berakhah. This is because of his diyyuq of the word “temiymoth – complete” from the pasuq in Waiyyiqra (p. 155 – קנה).

The position of the Rambam in his teshuvoth (as brought there by Mori Yusef Qafih z”l in his commentary on the MT) is that one who forgets on any night, even the first, even if he misses multiple days, may upon remembering (or simply doing teshuvah, whatever the case may be) continue to count throughout the entire seven weeks with a berakhah. The Rambam adds, however, that one who forgets a day may not say the word “temiymoth – complete” in the declaration made on the last night of the `omer. The word “temiymoth – complete” is not said in the nosah of the Baladi Yemenite tradition, but rather the Aramaic word “shalmey – complete,” and it too should be avoided by one who forgot to count for an entire day during the `omer.

Enjoy your countdown to Shavu`oth. I will be posting about the contrived “holiday” of “Lag BaOmer” in the next post.

Until then, berakhoth le-kulam.

YB

[Note: The above is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]