Sefirah, Sefiros, and Getting G-d Wrong

This is the time of year when even the non-kabbalist becomes aware of one of the most important notions in modern kabbalah – the ten sefiros. Every day of sefiras ha-omer, another combination of the seven “lower” sefiros stares out at you from the siddur. You get forty-nine points of contact with the mitzvah, and forty-nine separate opportunities to feel dumb about those two words in the small print in the siddur after each day’s recitation.

Many people are aware that those words not only mean something, but offer real structure and guidance towards the self-improvement that sefirah is all about. People have looked for a long time for a text that doesn’t leave the spiritual climb towards Sinai during these seven weeks so amorphous and uncharted. The person to write such a work would need to be a talmid chacham with a good command of a breadth of sources, including kabbalistic ones, good language skills, and a love for people and sensitivity to their inner dynamics.

Sefiros (the book; TorahLab ISBN 9780981497419) arrived on my doorstep this morning, a gift from my friends at AJOP and the book’s author, my old friend Rabbi Yaacov Haber (writing with Rabbi David Sedley), who possesses all the qualities mentioned above. I couldn’t resist perusing it, and I am enthusiastic about the parts that I’ve seen.

Most of what you will find in English on the sefiros is nonsense (or worse), the product of Kabbalah Center wannabes whose gray matter has been softened by the drivel they write. Some of the omer self-help manuals I’ve seen are well-meaning, but related in no manner of form to the pattern of progress (or more accurately regress) through the sefiros as we find them in the siddur.

Sefiros suffers from neither of these inadequacies. Rabbi Haber’s explanations of the sefiros (and the daily intertwined connection between them) are down to earth, but based on familiarity with seforim of considerable depth. Sources are provided. His tone is modest; he concedes from the outset that he cannot provide an exact fit for each of the forty-nine sefirah combinations. His attempts are well-thought through and reasonable, which is thrice difficult, since he provides practical suggestions each day in regard to one’s relationship with Hashem, with other people, and with oneself.

The sefer is worthwhile not only for its potential for enriching the omer period, but for acquainting the uninitiated with the arcane vocabulary of kabbalah-lite. (References to the sefiros are so common in seforim well-traveled by the masses, that some knowledge of them is required of all Jews who take such seforim seriously.) The treatment of kabbalah bears the imprint of one of my mentors, Rav Aryeh Kaplan zt”l, and it is so noted in the acknowledgements. For those who find even his distillation of kabbalah too weighty, Sefiros is a further distillation that will be attractive.

I hope I am not being picky by pointing out one area that I would have treated differently. The book refers to sefiros, in part, as “a mystical revelation of G-d’s ‘character’….They show us different aspects of G-d’s personality as we perceive Him in the world.” It quite properly encloses the word “character” in quotes (although not the word “personality”), and goes on to caution that we can never use any “physical terms because He is completely beyond human comprehension. Words like ‘kindness’ or ‘strict justice’ are meaningless when applied to an eternal, unchanging Creator.” It tells the reader that sefiros are “not descriptions of G-d Himself, but are themselves part of His creation.”

I’m not sure how to understand that last sentence. Many will take it to mean, I believe, that sefiros don’t accurately describe G-d. Instead, they are approximations

of Him, using inexact, tentative human language which we understand to be a concession to our limitations. If this is true, however, then they do not have to be part of His creation. They are just labels and handles, and not part of anything. I would have much preferred R. Aryeh Kaplan’s formulation in Inner Space: “The sefirot are the most basic modes of G-d’s creative power. The sefirot thus constitute the inner structure and makeup of the Olamot…They allow us to speak about…what He does, without referring directly to what He is.”

Sefiros are part of creation, providing some of the spiritual rules built into the universe, similar to the way that the rules and constants of Nature are part of the physical universe. On the other hand, Rabbi Haber’s formulation contains an ironic element that altogether too many people do not notice. Using the word “personality” in reference to Hashem is double inaccurate. First, for the reason he notes himself. Second, because within the word “personality” is the word “person,” which HKBH decidedly isn’t.

I hope Rabbi Haber will forgive me for my obsessiveness. It has nothing to do with his fine work. I am increasingly concerned by the lack of theological sophistication in many people I meet. (Could it be related to the narrowing of scope of what people learn, with classical seforim like Moreh Nevuchim and Kuzari shunted to the side by even many serious Torah students?) Too often, I hear (and I have asked friends and mentors who concur) people speak about HKBH as if He were Superman with no vulnerability to Kryptonite. They use human language in regard to Him without appending the word kevayachol/ (as if it were) as people used to do. It gets worse. They make assumptions and predictions about His behavior on the basis of what is “logical” – as if we had any grasp at all of Divine logic (kevayachol!) There are recurring phrases I hear: “Hashem would never treat a person in such a manner; Hashem wouldn’t disappoint a person who did X; of course He would not say ‘No’ to a person who did Y; He wouldn’t produce anything positive through people like that.” I will be much relieved if readers all tell me that I am the only person who hears these things, and there is nothing to worry about!

In any event, the difference between us probably only raises the question as to whether writing Sefiros came from chesed she-b’chesed or gevurah she-b’chesed. Chesed it is, and readers will enjoy and benefit from its acquisition.

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20 Responses

  1. David Sedley says:

    thank you for the wonderful review of our book. You can purchase a copy from http://www.torahlab.org

    I certainly agree that there is not enough sophistication in hashkafa learning today. Hopefully a greater awareness of the problem will lead to a solution.

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein.

  2. michoel halberstam says:

    It is indeed true that issues like anthropomorphisms, or semi anthropomorphisms, do create serious problems for underrstanding the nature of the relationship with God, It is also true that these issues have been the subject of intense debate amongst the Rishonim, and we can find a great deal of support for almost any one of the generally accepted positions. What troubles be is that so many people have concluded that one way, the Ramam, or anyone else for that matter, represents the real “correct” approach, and all the others are threats to emunah.

    It is important to note that the Torah treats disagreements about hashkofo in exactly the same wasy as disagreements about halacha. That is to say: there are disagreements. In the case of Halacha, the necessity to follow a uniform practice makes the existence of a “Machlokes” more obvious because it muat be dealt with in the lterature as a machlokes. In the haskofo area, there is much less of a willingness to realize that our Rabbis disagreed about alot of things. If there is disagreement about “Taam K’Ikur min hatorah”, or “min bemino lo botul”, and we survived the machlokes, we will survive these differences of opinion as well. And we will survive by living with all of them.

    One should avoid at all costs the urge to issue a short pro forma statenent which represents normative Jewish thought.

  3. jay says:

    where can i pick up a copy of the book?

  4. ZB says:

    There is another problem with the sefirot in general and kabbala in particular. We Jews pride ourselves in having a direct communication with G-d at har sinai, no middle men involved (as the Kuzari notes in its classic argument). This one major revelation at har sinai was to all of am yisroel, not to any individual prophet. Yet Kabbala has consistently added new revelations (from angles) to holy men throughout the ages, if so wouldn’t then that makes Judaism less unique then we would like it to be?

  5. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Raymond Blum, “what is this business about G-d sending one of His angels to do His bidding?”

    I had the zchut to attend Prof. Bernstein’s ztl class for 4 years, 4 decades ago. His response to your question would have been: Psalms 104:4 – The wind is God’s angel. Pshat is – do not attribute independant power to (and worship) the forces of nature. He would use that pasuk to define an angel! For many however, religion is more meaningful if it is a bit less abstract. Jewish theology, from biblical to current, does not take Rambam’s oppostion to anthropromorphism that strictly. Hence, our literature is not free of what God thinks, why He does certain things, what makes Him angry, who is His messenger, etc. – what one might call “anthropromorphism-lite.” Not my cup of tea either, but certainly a stream within our religious heritage.

  6. Raymond Blum says:

    I always enjoy anything Rabbi Adlerstein has to teach me and all of us in general. He is the consummate teacher, but I would only embarrass the both of us if I praised him any further than that.

    This discussion about the sephirot brings to mind a question that has long bothered me. We Jews pride ourselves on not being like other religions, in the sense that in some other religions, they need a mediator between them and G-d, while each of us, regardless of our spiritual station in life, can talk to G-d directly.

    And yet, the moment sephirot are brought into the picture, this whole scenario changes. No longer are we relating directly to G-d, but rather to His attributes as we perceive Him. It gets only worse when such attributes are personified into angels; what is this business about G-d sending one of His angels to do His bidding?

    Either we communicate directly with G-d, or not. I do not see how there can be some middle ground between the two, without closely resembling some other religions.

  7. tzippi says:

    Re the Kuzari as a danger: there’s a story told of a young man who came to (IIRC) the Ponovozher Rav, Rav Kahaneman, and asked him if there would be any problem with his teaching Kuzari to a class in Tel Aviv (comprised of beginner adult students). He was told that there was no problem as long as he made sure not to end the class with a question, because it wouldn’t be good for the class to be left dangling.

  8. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Michoel Halberstam: I was not aware that there are writings of prominent Roshei yeshiva which actually discourage individuals from learning the Kuzari. If that is, indeed, the case — and I have no reason to doubt you– things are worse than I thought.

    As to whether or not Rabbi Yehudah Halevi was aware of classical kabbalah or not: I don’t think so, but this is a very large issue. In any event, the Kuzari’s critique of Sefer Yetzirah is not so much the issue of simple faith versus speculation, but rather that the Sefer Yetzirah posits letters and numbers as the building blocks with which God created the world, while, according to the Kuzari,
    God directly creted the world without any intermediaries through an act of divine will.

  9. michoel halberstam says:

    Dear Dr. Kaplan. While you and I certainly don’t think so, I can point you to the writings of prominent Roshei Yeshiva who discouraged people from learning the Kuzari. In my judgment these notions are very unfortunate, as well as being just plain wrong, but you have no idea what has been characterized as dangerous by contemporay “guardians of the faith.” While you are correct in pointing out that the Kuzari’s overview of the Sefer Yetzirah does not necessarily “folow kabbalistic lines” that simply means that he was aware of the importance of this line of thought and gave it his own interpreation. While it may not reflect the views of the later mekubbalim it is a way to look at these ideas that is important and bears study. Moreover while he agrees that simple faith is superior to these types of speculation I would not agree that he “dismisses the entire Sefer Yetzirah” Why spend so much time explaining it if it were not meant to be understood. I appreciate your reading my comments however. Thank You.

  10. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Michoel Halbertstam: 1) Since when is the Kuzari viewed as “a threat to Yiddishkeit”? 2) It is highly doubtful, to say thr least, that the Kuzari’s explanation of Sefer Yetzirah follows along kabbalistic lines. Also note that at the end of the discussion the Haver dimisses the entire Sefer Yetzirah as a profound but unnecessary cosmogonic speculation on the part of Avraham Avinu BEFORE he received divine revelation.

  11. YM says:

    I am interested in purchasing this book; I also recommend Innerspace, mentioned in the post, for anyone who wants a basic vocabulary in Kabbalistic terminology and concepts.

  12. michoel halberstam says:

    The fundamental problem is the lack in a society such as ours, of any confidence in the Torah itself, and in its teachings. We fail to give our children and young adults any of the basic tools needed to even learn Chumash with its major commentaries, we place an insufficient emphasis on training yeshiva graduates to be able to read a Gemara without almost uniterrupted access to simultanoeus translation. Classical philosophy is viewed as a threat. A sefer like the Kuzari which, in addition to being a major source of a Hashkafa which is incredibly relevant to today, also contains a remarkable introduction to Chochmas Hakabbala in Maaar 4 ( dealing with the Sfer Yetzira the 32 Nesivos Hachoma, the Eser Sephiros, and the profound concept of Olam Shana Nefesh)is treated as a threast to Yiddsihkeit. The Morah Nevuchim- well fuggedaboutit. Sifrei Hassidus have been discredited, even by Chassidim as too dangerous. The place of all this treasure is being filled by nonsense. look around at what has become the “pnimius of Yiddsihkeit” We are going to find ourselves in a very cold place someday. I hope were ready

  13. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Rabbi, It may be my bias, but i believe those who have sat at the top of the pyramid as theologians, have almost always had broader exposure particularly to (then)contemporary philosophy/science; minimally (broad) familiarity, and on occasion, acknowledged expertise. At the other extreme, some contemporaries believe that philosophizing exists entirely within the scope of “hafoch bah.” For many there is hostility to contemporary philosophy/science and a fortiori history,literary analysis, etc. Does the result really suprise you? It may be alarming, but hardly suprising. And at times i wonder if even being alarmed is only an elitist tendency.

  14. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Daniel –
    It’s not the masses I’m talking about, but those with more sophistication: maggidei shiur, mashgichim, rabbanim. We have a pretty good track record of those on top distilling the essence of deeper material and making it available to others. But I think that in the last few decades there has been a narrowing of scope even among many of the figures towards the top of the pyramid

  15. Daniel Shain says:

    “I am increasingly concerned by the lack of theological sophistication in many people I meet. (Could it be related to the narrowing of scope of what people learn, with classical seforim like Moreh Nevuchim and Kuzari shunted to the side by even many serious Torah students?)”

    I wonder how Rabbi Addlerstein would recommend correcting this problem. Clearly, most yeshivas are not teaching this material in any depth, and even shmuezes and hashkafa shiurim tend to focus on issues of self improvement (usually through talmud torah -gemarrah learning), rather than broader philosophical and theological issues.

    On the other hand, philosophy and theology have never been material for the masses. While Torah learning has become popularized, I am not sure if we can expect everyone to be able to grasp or deal with works like moreh nevuchim, which was never meant to be read and understood by everyone. Rambam himself complains that many people have false and unsophisticated theological opinions, so this problem is definitely not new. In any case, these philosophical works have always been controversial, and the Yeshiva world of today (and the last 100 or more years) has certainly not emphasized (and has generally discouraged) philosophical and theological study. Part of this I think is due to the influence and spread of Kabbalah, which the Yeshiva world tells us basically not to learn in depth, and part I think is due just to (Eastern European?) narrow-mindedness and a very limited narrow view of education.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Sefirot seem to be aspects of HaShem’s actions as sensed in the created worlds, categorized and ordered according to qualities we can relate to or at least name, even though we realize that HaShem’s essence is unknowable.

    I’ve long been baffled by those Ashkenazic selichot that seem, even in their revised versions, to personify HaShem’s middot. How do we permit that misrepresentation for poetic effect? I think sefirot can be misused in much the much same fashion.

  17. Yaacov Haber says:

    Reb Yitzchok – I’m honored by the attention you have given my new book “Sefiros” and I’m in awe at how you were able to zero in to the essence of the issues and challenges of writing this book. You only get better.
    Yaacov
    http://www.torahlab.org

  18. ZB says:

    I completely agree with Rabbi Adlerstein that there is a complete unsophistication in the frum world with regard to theology/philosophy/hashkafa. That in many/most schools there is no serious attempt to explain and understand fundamental underpinnings of Judaism is a huge chesoron in my eyes. I believe that to to much of our focus in education is telling children WHAT and not teaching them WHY, and therefore a corruption of ikarai emunah is possible, no matter what level of praxis or frumkeit the person may do.

  19. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Last year I heard R. Steinsaltz give a brilliant shiur on why a (less kabalistic) variant of this most mystical of interpretations of the sefirah – the link to matan Torah/shavuot, through 49 levels of tumah, etc. – has (almost) superceded the Biblical notion of counting the omer/chag haKatzir. A useful area to think about.

  20. mb says:

    “Every day of sefiras ha-omer, another combination of the seven “lower” sefiros stares out at you from the siddur”

    Hold on there, R.Adlerstein. No such thing in my Siddur.(Or several others)
    But I guess there is not a mystical bone in my body, except for the Luz, of course!