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An Introduction to Kabbalah Part 6: The Sefirot, or, 'If Everything is God, how come it doesn't look that way?'

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In the first five articles in this series, we've explored some of the basic questions of the Kabbalah: what it is, how it can function as a spiritual practice, and how it is taught (and mis-taught) today. Beginning this week, we shift gears, digging into some core Kabbalistic concepts and exploring them in a bit more depth.

Recall from a few weeks ago that there are many "streams" of Kabbalah, which emphasize different aspects of the mystic quest. The best-known and most important of the streams of Kabbalah is called, by scholars, "theosophical" Kabbalah. Theosophical means having to do with knowledge, or wisdom, about the Divine, and so theosophical Kabbalah explains, in great detail, the nature of the Godhead, the relationship of the Infinite to the Finite, and how this world came into being. (The word "theosophical" was used by a group of 19th and 20th century mystics, including W.B. Yeats, to describe their quest. However, scholars today use the term generally, not referring to Theosophy specifically.)

The fundamental task of theosophical Kabbalah is to explain the structure of the universe, especially how the universe can exist at all if God is truly infinite. Think about it: if God is infinite, then why are there computers, desks, people, trees, and sky? Why does the world appear to be a place of separate objects, thrown together by chance, and hardly "filled with Divine light"? If everything is God, why does it look like this?

Now, as we've already seen, Kabbalists have a very different, and often surprising, idea of "God" from what we normally do. In fact, the concept of "God" (Elohim) is a concept that evolves, over time, from the Infinite -- what we think of as "God" is only one face of the ein sof, the Infinite. So, as you read through this introduction to theosophical Kabbalah, you may find yourself thinking "This is not the God I learned about in Sunday school" or "This is not the God I hear people talking about on television." Good -- that is a sign that you're getting it.

But this concept of God has its problems. To take but one example, if God is perfect, that means God cannot change, because a change implies a movement from one set of attributes (A, B, C, D) to another (A, B, C, X). Both of those sets cannot be perfect, and so, therefore, God cannot change. But if God cannot change, how can God "create" the universe? How does one explain the Biblical passages in which God does appear to change from, say, angry to forgiving?

Rationalist philosophers, chiefly Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), were very concerned with these questions, and proposed many answers (in Maimonides' case, the answer is usually that texts which talk about God changing are only speaking euphemistically). But the Kabbalists, active in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, came up with very different answers to the same philosophical questions. What for a philosopher is only allegory is, for a Kabbalist, a myth or symbol which says something important about the structure of the universe.

For example, when the Bible says that the Egyptians "saw the hand of God," a rationalist explains that this is simply a figure of speech; of course there's not a big hand in the sky. A Kabbalist also denies that there's a big hand in the sky, but has a very different interpretation of the text: now "hand" refers to certain of the attributes of God, certain potencies in the universe, and a certain network of symbols. "Hand" and "finger" represent different aspects of the universe - they're not just figures of speech.

Likewise in the fundamental question of how the One relates to the Many: how, if everything is God, you're still you, reading this article. As we said already, this is perhaps The fundamental question for theosophical Kabbalah. Normally, we suppose that form is separate and real. We think tables and chairs are real and separate, and, most importantly, we think that we are, too. And since I am separate from you, and since my happiness is what matters, I develop all kinds of complicated strategies to keep myself happy, even if it occasionally is at your expense. I know that I should act in all sorts of moral and healthy ways, but I don't, because I want stuff, money, happiness, love -- I'll even act against my own long-term interests to get them.

But this is all premised on a mistake: that "I" am where the buck stops, that this illusion of consciousness is actually its own separate thing to be defended. Whereas really, "I" am a manifestation of Infinite Light, and my separation from the source of light exists only on one plane of perception. Okay, you might say, so what do I do about it?

For theosophical Kabbalah, the answer is: know the truth, and become attuned to it. Know that the structures of your experience are not really "you" but are, in fact, the sefirot, an untranslatable word which literally means "numerals" but which really refers to far more than math. The sefirot function as vessels of Divine energy present in all of creation, including in us. God manifests godself through the sefirot, and so the world appears as it does. The qualities of the sefirot, like the contours and shades of the stained glass, give form to the formless. They are why the world appears as it does. For a traditional Kabbalist, they are the fundamental structure of the universe. The Infinite light is refracted, as it were, through these colored lenses of the sefirot. Here is Rabbi Moses Cordovero on this subject, from his Pardes Rimonim.

In the beginning, Ein Sof [the Infinite] emanated ten sefirot, which are of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot. Division and change do not apply to it, only to the external sefirot.

To help you conceive this, imagine water flowing through vessels of different colors: white, red, green and so forth. As the water spreads through those vessels, it appears to change into the colors of the vessels, although the water is devoid of all color. The change in color does not affect the water itself, just our perception of the water. So it is with the sefirot. They are vessels, known, for example, as Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet, each colored according to its function, white, red, and green, respectively, while the light of the emanator -- their essence -- is in the water, having no color at all. This essence does not change; it only appears to change as it flows through the vessels.

Better yet, imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot -- the variegated stained glass -- judgment or compassion prevails.
(Daniel Matt, trans.)

The energies of the sefirot -- the colors of the glass, in Cordovero's metaphor -- give shape and apparent form to the world as we experience. Recall that, ultimately, the world and our experience is nothing but the One dancing with Itself. So what gives it the feeling-tones of fear, love, and harmony? What gives it the physical manifestations of hardness, softness, warmth and cool? What gives it the molecular, atomic, subatomic form that it has? Cordovero and other Kabbalists did not know about atoms and molecules; their system was the sefirot. The ultimately unified nature of the world is variegated by these ten principles. (Really, it becomes much more complicated, because each of the ten includes the other ten, making 100, and exists on four worlds, making 400 -- but ten will do for now.)

As an aside, you may have noticed that the sefirotic view of the universe is quite similar to those perspectives which maintain there is no real separation between the apparently-real objects in the universe. What are you, really? An assemblage of carbon, hydrogen, and other molecules, bound together by laws of physics -- but then, those molecules are really made up of atoms, which are really made up of... what? Superstrings? Emptiness bound together by natural law? In a fascinating way, the notion that we are all energy -- "Light" if you like -- organized by principles of Divine wisdom is closest to what our contemporary scientists are saying than conventional atomic physics. Of course, we can't experience these levels of reality directly, but it's interesting to note the parallel.

For the Kabbalah, not atoms or subatomic forces but the sefirot are the fundamental structures of the world of multiplicity. They are how the One relates to the many, and while Cordovero's short text above may not be philosophically satisfying in the most rigorous way, it does provide the framework under which the theosophical Kabbalah proceeds.

So far, I have spoken on a mostly cognitive level. This has probably worked well for some readers, but not so well for others. The Kabbalah teaches that there are four levels to our experience of the world, roughly corresponding to body, heart, mind, and Spirit. Most of us favor some of those levels over others. For some, I haven't spoken abstractly enough, but for others, this probably sounds way too heady. So, next week, we'll look at the sefirot from a different perspective: not theology, but psychology. See you soon!