In the vein of my last post, where we discussed the surprising fact that some consider Kabbala to be “at odds” with the Torah, I thought I would point out the view of someone who does not, strictly speaking, oppose Kabbala, but does oppose the doctrine of the Sefirot as possibly heretical. This is the view of Rashbash, as we will see below.
To sum up the concept of Sefirot as succinctly as possible, we might just say that in their efforts to relate to the living God, many Kabbalists make statements about the nature of God, each according to their own unique schools of thought, which seem to imply that God has 10 “parts”1.
The problem that arises from saying God has different aspects present (even in a uniquely divine realm) is that it seems to contradict the idea that He is one and infinite, and therefore by definition does not have parts. (As we have mentioned, God’s unity is one of Rambam’s principles).
For this reason many people opposed the doctrine, and I’ll just bring the objections of Rashbash on the matter, in a non-perfect translation.
He begins by noting that Kabbala is an inherently secret tradition which is only passed on to the extremely wise, and then only by word of mouth. Therefore, anyone who publicizes kabbala is either making things up or violating the law to not publicize it. He then says regarding the Sefirot in particular:
“Furthermore, they don’t know what these ten Sefirot are; if they’re descriptions, or names, or influences that emanate from God…”
In Rashbash’s opinion, these are the only plausible understandings for what the Sefirot may be. He then discusses each option.
If you say they are (just) names, then they (must not be) independent parts; but if they are independent entities then they are a multiplicity of parts, and if this is the case, the Christians claim there are three parts (to God), and these ones (publicizing Kabbalists) claim there are ten!
And if you say they are (descriptive) attributes, then why are these ones different than the other attributes which describe God? God taught Moses about 13, so why have they diminished from this number by 3?…And if Moses did not reach (the level to know the Sefirot), how could another reach (the level to know) them?
…And if you say they are influences…that is to say, angels…one who prays to them- if he says they are powers or influences- if this is the case, one who prays (to) and concentrates on them is a heretic, since anyone who prays to one of the angels is a heretic! And one who thinks (the Sefirot) are things unto themselves and different than God is a heretic!
And if you say they are attributes, they should tell us what difference there is from the other ones.”
He concludes with the following:
‘…students who have not learned enough, and who do not want to put in effort into legal topics, choose impatiently to glorify themselves with the knowledge of Kabbalah, in order to make themselves great before women and ignoramuses, and to take a crown for themselves with light words…and one who guards his soul will stay away from them.”
Harsh words, I think!
First of all, Rashbash’s general objection to publicly taught Kabbala is very interesting, since it makes us doubt whether the Kabbala that we hear of and are often taught in schools is the real deal. For that matter, it seems that Rashbash would be very uncomfortable in particular that the Sefirot are often referenced in the midst of Jewish education, and commonly feature in paintings and other works of art in Jewish homes and synagogues. But of course, his is not the only opinion on the matter.
At any rate, I just thought it was interesting that someone who was not opposed to Kabbala was so strongly opposed to one of its most famous and relatively standard doctrines.
What makes his opinion even more interesting is that Rashbash’s father was actually a noted Kabbalist, and likely subscribed to the doctrine of Sefirot. I have no idea if they discussed the matter, but i think that accusing your father of holding a possibly heretical idea is one of those things that cause a lot of tension at thanksgivings and bar mitzvas.
Anyway, if you are interested in the topic, you can see how many generations of rabbis treated the question of the Sefirot in Louis Jacobs’ “Theoogy in the Responsa”.
As a bonus, I’m including a picture of Peter Haas’ book, which I came across as I was looking for the Rashbash’s book of responsa. Needless to say, I did not read it.
1I cannot do the doctrine of the Sefirot justice, since it’s enormously complicated, so if you want to learn more I suggest the interesting discussions in Moshe Hallamish’s “Introduction to Kabbalah“, Scholem’s “Kaballah”,or his classic “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”.
The Sefirot, as I understand, are the mystic’s way to solve the problem of a distant God, the “Ein Sof”, who cannot be described or related to, since He is completely transcendent. Therefore, they explained God’s relation to the world (and apparently Himself) through the doctrine of Sefirot.
As Wikipedia puts it (succinctly), the Sefirot “are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus).”
In Scholem’s useful language, the Sefirot are a “realm of divinity, which underlies the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists.”