God’s Withdrawal

Isaac Luria's theory of creation.


This selection from Louis Jacobs’ Jewish Ethics, Philosophy and Mysticism includes a translation from Hayyim Vital’s Etz Hayyim (Treatise 1, Part 2) with a commentary by Jacobs. The passages from Etz Hayyim are in bold, and Jacob’s commentary follows. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

Know that before there was any emanation and before any creatures were created a simple higher light filled everything. There was no empty space in the form of a vacuum but all was filled with that simple infinite light. This infinite light had nothing in it of beginning or end but was all one simple, equally distributed light. This is known as “the light of Ein Sof.”

These extremely difficult meditations are those of Isaac Luria but were written down by his disciple Hayyim Vital. Vital wrote a number of books expounding his master’s theories and they are the major source of books on the Lurianic kabbalah. The Zohar holds that the world was created by means of ten emanations, the Ten Sefirot. The Lurianic kabbalah considers what happened even before these were caused to be emanated. This is more than an effort to explain the ancient puzzle of how creation came to be. By this teaching, Luria wants to explain the continuing relation between the Infinite and the finite, and to lay the groundwork for explaining how evil came into the good God’s creation. Ein Sof (without limit) is the kabbalistic name for God as He is in Himself, i.e. apart from His self‑revelation to His creatures.


Two things have to be said before studying this passage. First, although the kabbalists use terms like “before” and “after” in describing Ein Sof’s creative activity, they really think of these processes as occurring outside time altogether. (It is, of course, impossible for us to grasp this idea of existence outside of time, but for the kabbalists, as for some of the philosophers, time itself is a creation.)

Secondly, all the illustrations of a vacuum, an empty space, a line and the like are seen by the kabbalists as inadequate pointers to spiritual realities. They never tire of warning their readers not to take them literally as if there really is, for instance, a space in God. God is outside time and space. Similarly, terms like above and below are only figurative. Unless this is appreciated the whole subject becomes incredibly crude.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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