The Kabbalistic Conception of God

The medieval mystics made a distinction between the infinite, unknowable God and God's revealed aspects.

The Kabbalists introduced a distinction between the hidden and revealed aspects of God. The hidden, infinite aspect of God is called “the Infinite” (Ein Sof, “without end”). This name was understood as the proper one for the hidden aspect of God. It suggests that God exists without implying anything about His character.

According to the Kabbalists, God should be called It rather than He, although there is no neuter gender in the Hebrew language. Actually, because of the great sublimity and transcendence of God, no name at all can be applied to “the Infinite.” The name Ein Sof conveys only that God is unlike anything we know. According to these mystics, Ein Sof is not the proper object of prayers, since Ein Sof has no relationship with His creatures. The personal aspect of the hidden God is mediated by the ten sefirot, ten knowable aspects of His being. There are, therefore, two natures of God, the infinite, unknowable essence and the ten discernible aspects.

The word sefirot originally meant “numerals,” and was taken from the earliest Hebrew text on the nature of numbers and letters, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation). Sefirot is a generic term that means that the aspects of God’s being, or the instruments of God’s activity, can be counted. There are ten sefirot just as there are ten cardinal numbers. Some Kabbalists explain that the word comes from the Hebrew root sapper, “to tell,” implying that these aspects tell us about God. Others have suggested that it derives from the Hebrew word for sapphire, since the sefirot illuminate our knowledge of God like a precious and radiant gem.

There have been a variety of attempts to translate sefirot into English. They have often been called “spheres,” “radiances,” or other occult terms. The sefirot, however, are numerically identifiable symbols of the various aspects of God’s being or activities. A more faithful English rendition would be “calculi,” a word that signifies both a means of reckoning and the use of symbols. Since there is no good English translation of sefirot, the use of the original Hebrew term is still preferable.

The sefirot are the bridge across the abyss, the connective tissue between the infinite God and the finite world. They are the link that makes it possible to maintain God’s absolute unity while preserving the relationship between God and man. They, and not Ein Sof, are the object of human prayers. By differentiating between Ein Sof and the sefirot, it is possible to say that God is incorporeal, immaterial, and unchangeable while still adhering to the traditional notion of the personal God. All anthropomorphic and anthropopathic references (i.e., references to God that use human physical and emotional descriptions) and the traditional notion of an active, personal God refer to the sefirot. All the statements that imply corporeality, composition, and change in God refer to the sefirot, not to Ein Sof. The sefirot, not Ein Sof, is the God of the Bible. Therefore, a Kabbalist can justifiably claim that, “Ein Sof is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.” The Bible refers only to the sefirot, the knowable God, not the hidden God.

The theory of the sefirot is an attempt to explain how the infinite God can have a relationship with the finite world and how an unknowable God can be known by man. The relationship of Ein Sof to the sefirot can be illustrated by drawing an analogy between the soul and the body. The soul, which is invisible and unknowable, dwells within the body. Although there is only one soul in each body, the soul acts through a variety of physical organs. The soul is, therefore, the essence that uses the “instruments” of the body for its activity. The manner in which the soul is connected to the body is still a mystery. Nonetheless, we claim to know that there is a soul even if it remains inscrutable because of its incorporeal nature. Likewise, Ein Sof dwells within the sefirot, which are the instruments by which God relates to the world.

Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from  What Do Jews Believe?.

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