What is the Hindu view of God from a Jewish perspective? Social media is filled with those who speak with minimum knowledge of modern Hinduism. They might have once read a survey book on world religions that described the Vedic religion of ancient India 3000BCE and 200BCE and considered that minuscule amount of information about an ancient civilization as enough to address a modern religion. And they certainly do not consider how much that textbook reflects Protestant or Orientalist perspectives that make ritual less Protestantism as the pinnacle of religion.
I will state clearly and unambiguously that modern Hinduism from a Jewish perspective has a concept of One single God and has since approached this position since the Upanishads were written ~200BCE. In the Mahabharata Narayana is the highest personal God, is the Supreme Being. All the deities are said to have been created by Him and all other deities are, therefore, parts (angas) of that one great Being. Another verse of the Mahabharata offers the same explanation of Lord Vishnu. Thus it states: “Vishnu is the unique and unparalleled Deity; He is the Supreme Being (mahabhuta); He pervades all the three worlds and controls them but He Himself is untouched by their defects. “Their medieval scholastic thinkers refined the notion to One God with philosophic rigor. And modern movements have further presented the notion of One God in contemporary terms.
So the TL:DR of this post is that Jews should recognize that the Hindu religion is about one God.
This issue should have been settled years ago. Twenty-seven years ago, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote
Under the Noahide laws, it is possible to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentiles’ gate in heaven. Jewish law regards the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s great religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.
A similar conclusion was reached whenever Jews encountered modern Hinduism. Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, Moses Mendelssohn, Chief Rabbi JH Hertz, and others have all written similar sentiments. But the idea that Hindu conceptions of God are not AZ does not take hold even with repeated exposure and 40K Israelis traveling to India each year.
This post works with the assumptions of Rabbi Herzog about Christianity in which contemporary Christians are not AZ, it is just extending his reasoning to Hinduism. If you do not accept this, then this post is not for you. It also assumes that Jews cannot use images, statues, murti, stars, planets, or trees even if intended to serve one God. The golden calves of Jeroboam were monotheistic but still AZ.
In my book on a Jewish -Hindu encounter, I minimized direct normative statements. I was specifically waiting for Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber to publish his book on Hinduism and AZ, which he finished in 2012. I have a draft copy of his manuscript. But at this point, it does not seem to be coming out even with years of direct prodding.
Therefore, I was going to start working on a full statement. However, this past week there was a wonderful four-day academic conference broadcast n Zoom on God in Vaishnavism, which is the main Hindu denomination of more than half of Indian Hindus. Vaishnavism is the version with many manifestations of God in different forms and with thousands, if not millions, of gods to worship. This contrasts with second-largest denomination Shaivism with its singular focus on a unique high God. Vaishnavism is known for its devotionalism, its arts, and its temple rituals. In later posts, I will deal as needed with Shaivism, Smartism, Yoga, Tantra and Advaita Vedanta. Here I limit myself to Vaishnavism.
This four-day conference was so rich in analysis that it led me to this blog post to jump-start my larger statement. My writing allows me to turn observations into prose before I forget. In addition, it allows me to post it in sections and receive feedback. Nothing in this post is final and I will return and edit the page as I gain more feedback.
The important thing is that all the speakers and listeners assumed that Vaishnavism has a single supreme being that can be translated as God. The main question is how to relate the monotheistic and theistic formulations to the monistic formulation. But notice how the various answers fall into a range of God formulations, rather than questioning the premise that Vaishnava worship one God. 40 years ago, world religion textbooks presented a dichotomy, in which, Protestant Christianity had a transcendent theist God and Hinduism as a panentheism God. Today, the mystical and panentheistic is celebrated in Western religions- think of Hasidism, Neo-Hasidism, and Kabbalah. We see the personal and transcendent aspects of God in Hinduism and see the panentheistic in Judaism.
I write this post as a scholar of Jewish studies without any claim to philological or scholarly claims to knowledge of Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, or Malayalam. I will base this post on what I took from the lectures for my purposes. It will not summarize everything said at the conference or the content of any given paper. It is just my picking out various points useful to me. I may have missed many historic and philosophical subtleties. But it still proves my point.
Here are eight forms of Vaishnavism from the conference and one from my book.
(1) The Tamil devotional poets the Alvars, of the 5th to the 10th century have one single God Vishnu as a personal God with qualities and attributes. But at the same time, they say he has 1000 forms, which are all ultimately Vishnu. They are, according to the presenter monotheistic but use many forms to worship God. These forms are not just an expression of the Oneness behind them but have value unto themselves. The worshipper creates or craves these forms. The specifics of the forms are the means to serve the One monotheistic God. This is similar to the way Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz ZL saw Christianity, in that Christians do not think a cross, crucifix, or icon is a separate deity, rather they are thinking of one God.
(2) The Madhvacharya or Madhva was based on the 13th-century interpretation of the Vedanta into a dualistic interpretation of a chasm between the only true reality, the infinite God, and the human. This approach is still followed in India and in my own 21st century NJ. God is the one true ruler of the universe external from the subordinate material world of humans and matter. All names of the divine point to the one God. As in Kabbalah, every word, breath, and speech points to God. In addition, God is the immanent essence in all things. A person can call God any name since it all points to the infinite God.. God is the creator God in taking pre-existing microforms to create macro forms. The millions of devas are not God or gods but spiritual beings who are not God. The principle of each and every good quality in the world is God. (God is pure love, pure justice, pure compassion)
(3) The God in Puṣṭimārga is a God of giving grace. This approach founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531 CE), also known as Vallabha is a devotion path directed towards Kṛṣṇa’s early life and ‘divine play’ (līlā) among the gopīs in Vṛndāvana. Everything is grounded on the grace (puṣṭi) of Kṛṣṇa, as is eventual liberation. The Lord is accessible only through His own grace. God is visualized via descriptions in texts. The Lord cannot be attained by a given formula or ritual done by humans. He is attainable only if He wants to be attained. (Think of George Harrisons’ song My Sweet Lord where he appeals to a personal God to show )
This approach is more panentheistic and less Biblical theism because god is everywhere and manifests everywhere and everything can be used to serve God. This approach combines God as celestial, God as monotheistic Lord, and Divine as the spark in all things. The higher primordial aspect of the divine, Brahman is the monistic source and cause of all that is in the Universe, Everything is imbibed with the spirit of the Lord and as the Lord is eternally perfect, everything is perfect just the way it is.
(4) In the Bhagavad Gita, the classic analysis is that it contains two views of God. As a transcendent Lord, infinite God over all and also God as immanent in the cosmos. A tension between immanence and transcendence and a tension within the immanence of God pervaded by God or cosmos identified with God.
(5) In the Pancaratra texts, there is an emanation from an unknown divine to supernal manifestations to manifestations in this world. In one example, Jayakhya Samhita God is Lord as a person. He is also the cause of the cosmos. He is also revealed in hierarchical decent forms as avatars.
(6) The presenter on the Bhagavata Purana discussed the tension between the theist God and the non-dualism in the book. But most of all, he stressed the need for God to become manifest in which the hidden truth reveals itself in beauty. God must be beautiful and God must be a form. Therefore, one creates one’s personal image of God in one’s mind. Statutes and images are the mind’s form of God.
As a side point, it came up that Vaishnava rarely cite the Rig Veda, the text of ancient India (written 1500-1000BCE), which is the most taught in Western textbooks.
(7) The Nimbarka Sampradaya , is the text of one of the four major Vaiṣṇava subdivisions, which was founded by Nimbarka in the 12th-13th centuries. It is a dualistic non-dualism- humans are both different and non-different from Isvara, God or Supreme Being. Specifically, this Sampradaya is a part of Krishnaism—Krishna-centric traditions.
This was a popular break away from the more Orthodox rule-centered Mimamsa approach to Hinduism. Here, meditation on self without symbols of God can reach liberation Under Mimamsa – only some can study Vedanta, for example, women are excluded. Here it is open to all.
It this approach Brahman as – non-creator, without beginning or end. But Krsna is identified with Brahman. Brahma is theistic but can also not be non-theistic because people have different tastes in spiritual life Worshiping without symbols is non-theistic, with symbols is theistic. It is only by surrender to Radha-Krishna (not through one’s own efforts) could they attain the grace necessary for liberation from rebirth; then, at death, the physical body would drop away. Thus Nimbarka stressed bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion, self-surrender, and faith.
(8) The Concept of God in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Tradition is more complex than the others presented. This tradition is the tradition of devotional attachment to Krsna, most associate this approach with one of its offshoots Iskcon. For them, God is polyvalent as three perspectives-Brahman, paramatma and bhagwan, they are attributes on some level. Brahman is the transcendent, paamatma is God in action who converts potential to actual, the transcendent acts in the world via paramatra. And Bhagwan is the local personal deity. These three aspects of God can contradict each other in action.
As an aside in the conference, someone brought up the use of images to worship God. One person said they were only a reminder, a symbol to serve as a reminder of God, another person said they have an actual spark of God, another person said that the entire infinity of the Lord is in the image, and the fourth answer was that everything points to the Lord but under different names, in a way similar to Frege’s explanation of the morning and evening star as bother referring o Venus
(9) From my book- Swaminarayan Hinduism, also known as the Swaminarayan or BAPS sect, is a modern Vaishnava spiritual tradition, worships a form of Supreme deity Para-brahman. For many Americans, this is the Hinduism that they will encounter in a visit to their new marble Temples. Even among rabbis, this becomes one of the reference points. In 2007, the Chief Rabbi of Israel visited the vast temple complex of the Akshardem Temple in New Delhi, which, unlike traditional temples, this temple has a museum on the history of the movement, a theater showing movies about Hinduism, and even a Disney- style boat ride through Hindu themes., It also has a large restaurant and a park for the family.
In BAPS, most deities are accepted but they are not given statues rather they are included among the hundreds of gods and devas carved into the decorations of the building and its pillars. Even home worship (puja), central to Hindu life, has been reworked for decorum. They perform it as a visualization of offering rather than an actual offering of fruit and flowers. The traditional offering of flowers and foods is only in one’s mind.
These modern temples are as monotheistic as other Americans are. Yet, those who belong to these modern temples are told in the press by non-Hindus that they are polytheists and their children are told in school textbooks that they are polytheists. The vast historical phenomena of Hinduism has many conceptions of God from theist, monist, panentheist, polytheist, henotheist, and others. However, they do not want Westerners deciding for them what they believe and how to label it.
The correct term for the monotheism of these groups in Hindu terms is Para Brahman (Supreme Being) or Suayam Bhagwan (Lord Himself), but if they translate it as monotheism, it is not for the outsider to reject it. Para Brahman is the Highest Brahman; that is beyond all descriptions and conceptualizations. “He is the prime eternal among all eternals. He is the supreme living entity of all living entities, and He alone is maintaining all life.” (Katha Upanishad 2.2.13.). In the Bhagavad Gita, the Suayam Bhagwan (Lord Himself) intones: “There is no truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread” (Bhagavad Gita 7.7)
Yet, often Westerners reject these self-understandings as apologetic, cliché, and only said for show. Westerners, including Jews who have visited India, are willing to declare as definitive that any elementary school Jewish child knows that Hinduism presents the same Biblical idols.
Many Hindus that I met assumed that Judaism is still the ancient book of Leviticus and commented that they thought our synagogues without sacrificial altars are not true Judaism. If you heard this, you would want to correct them. So too here. My advice is to talk to Hindus themselves and trust their own explanations.
Is the Lurianic concept of God’s contraction (tzimzum) a metaphor or to be taken literally? The thinker who formulated the approach that treats it as a metaphor and that the divine still fills all space was Rabbi Joseph Ergas (1685–1730), an Italian rabbi, kabbalist, and halakhist. Ergas wrote a short 57 double-sided page book called Shomer Emunim which is a basic defense and introduction to Lurianic Kabbalah.
Avinoam Fraenkel did the English-speaking world a service by translating the work in a new volume, which spun the original 100 pages, as flax into thread, into an 1100-page work. The volume has two parts, a translation with introduction and footnotes, and an original exposition of Lurianic by Fraenkel. If you have never read Shomer Emunin then buy it and read it. The book Shomer Emunim (Urim 2021) Amazon.
Fraenkel is a veteran hi-tech professional working as a product manager for business management software solutions. He also has Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rabbi Chaim Perlmutter. He translated Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Hahayim which we highlighted with an interview when it came out.
Joseph ben Emanuel Ergas studied halakhah under Samuel of Fez and Kabbalah under Benjamin Ha-Kohen Vitale of Reggio. (Vitale also taught Rabbi Isaiah Bassan who became Ramchal’s teacher) Ergas briefly taught in his yeshiva in Pisa, however, he spent most of his career as rabbi in Livorno.
Italian Jewish culture shifted from the rationalism and skepticism of Quattrocento and 16th century to a 17th century kabbalistic infused worldview. Ergas’ writings reflect the intellectual currents of this era. His Kabbalistic writings have three motivations.
First, there were still many defenders of the rationalist tradition. Rabbi Leon Modena criticized Kabbalah to which there were many responses. Just between 1727 and 1736, Benjamin Kohen Vitale, Joseph Ergas, and Aviad Sar Shalom Basilea all published semipolemical treatises on the supremacy of Kabbalah.
Second, the Sabbatian Kabbalist Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun (ca. 1650 – ca. 1730) is his work Oz LeElokhim was using Lurianic Kabbalah for Sabbatian theology. Ergas became famous for his anti Hayyun pamphlet Tokhaḥat Megullah as well as a sequel Ha-Ẓad Naḥash (London, 1715).
Third, to explain Lurianic Kabbalah in an Italian Platonic Renaissance understanding.
Shomer Emunim brings these themes together. The work that is sometimes referred to as “the earlier edition/Shomer Emunim HaKadmon,” to distinguish it from the Toldot Aharon Hasidic work of the same name.
Shomer Emunim is structured as two short dialogues. The first defends kabbalah and the second gives Ergas’ understanding of Lurianic emanation. The short work is structured as a dialogue between two fictional characters “Shealtiel,” and “Yehoyada”. The first, named “Shealtiel,” “the one inquiring about God,” assumes the role of a skeptical Talmudist needing to learn the importance of Kabbalah. The second protagonist named “the one who knows God,” is a presentation from an experienced Kabbalist.
The two debates gradually ease the reader into Kabbalistic terminology and concepts, often contrasting Kabbalistic ideas with ideas from Jewish philosophy, especially Ergas’ rejection of Aristotelian and Maimonidean categories. They elaborate on key concepts such as: Kabbalah’s authenticity and the importance of its study; God’s Unity; Relating to God through Kabbalistic worlds and Sefirot; the nature of God’s Essence; Tzimtzum; Prayer; and Providence.
Returning to tzimtzum, what does it mean? Does God literally contract? Hasidut and most 19th-century works treated tzimtzum (the divine contraction), as a metaphor. God did not really contract. The source for the later thinkers to treat it as a metaphor is Ergas’ work. However, the actual creator of the idea Rabbi Abraham de Herrera’s Spanish kabbalistic work Puerta del Cielo. Herrera was held in deep respect by Amsterdam’s Rabbinic leadership. His Puerta del Cielo was paraphrased/translated by Isaac Aboab da Fonseca as Shaar Hashamayim, which is what Ergas read. Herrara’s work read Kabbalah in terms of Renaissance Platonism and Florentine academy. It also read Kabbalah as an unfolding cosmology and temporal infinite expansion, rejecting the medieval closed universe.
Ergas is also known as one of those who questioned Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. In one letter, Ergas wrote to Bassan, Luzzatto’s teacher about whether the Ramchal was a legitimate kabbalist. Ergas wrote that he heard from others that while the Ramchal was learned in kabbalistic teachings, he did not consider him pious since he was not married and he was not careful to immerse in the mikveh on erev Shabbat, and he cut his beard even with scissors. Elsewhere, Ergas was worried that the yihudim practiced by Luzzatto brought down an impure spirit and not the divine. Paradoxically, Luzzatto was deeply influenced by Ergas and Luzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom is a similar reading of Lurianic Kabbalah to that of Ergas.
The second half of Avinoam Fraenkel’s edition is his own Kabbalah Overview. Fraenkel considers that the interesting contemporary material is in the Kabbalah Overview – and therefore the primary focus of his interview with me is on the details of the Kabbalah Overview. Fraenkel tells us that the Overview presents key ideas of the Arizal’s Kabbalah, explained in the context of contemporary science and technology, providing “insight into the dramatic transformations taking place, and about to take place, in the world around us.”
For Fraenkel, the Overview “sets out a clear framework of understanding as to how we can relate to the remarkable ongoing advancements in the technological world around us within the context of the larger Kabbalistic vision of the Messianic process and beyond. There is nothing touchy feely in this book, it is fully grounded in authoritative Kabbalistic and scientific sources.”
Here is number ten on messianism where Fraenkel has discovered that the messianic age is an age of the new emergence of science, technology, and information. The messianic age is our collective consciousness in an age of emergent information systems. I am amazed about the convergence between this messianic vision of emergence and the emergence vision of the main pavilion Alif of EXPO 2020 in Dubai.
In his own words, the unfolding of messianism “is through cycles of emergence that relative underlying states of separation, uncertainty, shattered tohu [chaos] and reduction are transformed into ever higher partzufim [metaphorical figures of human likeness] of relative states of tighter integration, certainty and tikkun.
Fraenkel contrasts the reductionists, in which all laws of nature follow the rules of the behavior of the smallest subatomic particles, to his own emergent model that argues that the atomic world and the visible world can operate using different rules. Prior attempts at combining science and mysticism such as The Tao of Physics or the Dancing Wu LI Masters worked at the level of the reductionist.
Since this book is 1100 pages, (did I mention that already?) it is the largest book that I own, if I ever used this in a classroom I would take an X-Act-O knife and cut the volume into usable units.
The volume will make a contribution to English-Language Judaica. The translation is basically correct and it has copious notes and an introduction. Fraenkel’s introduction and notes contextualize Ergas in 18th-20th issues of the Leshem, Tanya, Ben Ish Hai, and Nefesh Hahayim, but not in the Italian milieu of Ergas himself. Fraenkel rejects Rabbi Yihya Qafih (1850-1931) for critiquing the kabbalah but not Kabbalah’s 17th century detractors.
The footnotes properly acknowledge the role that the writings of Rabbi Moses Cordovero play in Ergas’ understanding of Luria as well as the role of the writings Rabbi Yehudah Hayyat from the 15th century. This is important because Fraenkel regrettably denied the vast Cordovero influence in his edition of Nefesh HaHayyim.
For a historical contextualization, you can start with Alessandro Guetta, Italian Jewry in the Early Modern Era: Essays in Intellectual History or one of Moshe Idel’s essays such as “Conceptualizations of Tzimtzum in Baroque Italian Kabbalah.”
For those looking to enter the world of the later post-Lurianic Kabbalah, there is no better book to start with than that of Ergas. In addition, Fraenkel’s introductions and notes are a gold mine of information that will steer the beginner in the right direction of further books to master. For the second half of this tome, Fraenkel reminds us of the need for Jewish thought to start engaging more with the current cosmologies of emergence, transhumanism, Anthropocene, posthumanism, and singularity, Overall, a solid volume and a major accomplishment. And definitely worth buying for those interested in Kabbalah.
If Shomer Emunim is an introduction to Kabbalah, why did you write such an extensive Kabbalah Overview?
Shomer Emunim very ably communicates several key Kabbalah concepts, however, in places it touches on some deeper ideas without elaborating and requires its reader to simply accept them. This led to the birth of the appended “Kabbalah Overview” which, in effect, is a book in its own right.
Short footnote explanations did not lend themselves to the frequent appearance of these ideas scattered across Shomer Emunim, and it was necessary to build a central repository of these ideas to serve as a reference point for them. Before I knew it, building significantly on the fine platform set out in Shomer Emunim, the Kabbalah Overview transformed into a systematic presentation of the most important basic concepts of the Arizal’s Kabbalah.
Very significantly, in addition to this, these concepts have been presented in the Kabbalah Overview in the context of contemporary science and technology. In particular, the primary concept of the Arizal’s Kabbalah known as “Partzufim” has now been properly explained for the first time, using the up-and-coming framework of scientific understanding known as “Emergence.” With this explanation, I believe that the nature of the radical technological changes we are all witnessing in the world, together with the general future trajectory of these changes, become clearly understood.
2. What made you decide to integrate analogies and explanations based on contemporary science and technology into the Kabbalah Overview?
Kabbalah works have historically always been richly illuminated and tightly integrated with analogies from the contemporary science prevalent at the time of writing.
A simple example of this is Kabbalah’s deep integration of the ancient concept of the 4 elements (earth, water, air, and fire). There are several such examples and most derive from Greek philosophy which broadly prevailed as the mainstream scientific understanding of the universe for the best part of two millennia. As such, it is entirely understandable that these analogies were borrowed and assumed as the established truth throughout the corpus of Kabbalah writings.
However, it is important to bear in mind that even though some Kabbalah texts might come across as indicating otherwise, at the end of the day these are all just analogies, and if the analogies are based on what we now understand to be false assumptions, that does not invalidate the underlying idea any particular analogy was being used to explain. The Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the Ramchal), a contemporary of Rabbi Yosef Ergas, highlighted this in his essay Maamar Al HaHaggadot,when explaining that Kabbalistic concepts are encoded in the Talmud’s story narrative (Aggadah). He stated that a “concept could have been presented differently in the context of what is well-known in other generations, and the author of the [Aggadah] statement would do so himself were he to express it in those generations.”
Therefore, now that many ancient scientific concepts are no longer considered true and we have a more sophisticated understanding of the universe around us, we are able to far more effectively communicate the age-old Kabbalistc concepts, using the language and conceptual toolset of contemporary science and technology.
More than this, as was already explained in Nefesh HaTzimtzum, the Zohar explicitly refers to the opening of the wellsprings of Kabbalistic and scientific knowledge in our times and that as we edge closer to the times of the Messiah, these ideas will become increasingly accessible to all, and even children will be able to relate to them. The Vilna Gaon goes further and highlights that it is specifically the new scientific knowledge that will provide us with an ability to properly understand the depths of Kabbalah, the depths of Torah.
3. In focusing your Kabbalah Overview on rational scientific explanations don’t you lose the mystical side of Kabbalah?
It is unfortunate that Kabbalah is associated with the “mystical,” because when properly understood Kabbalah is entirely rational and totally grounded. It is only its history of restricted highly cryptic transmission through a few elite individuals in each generation, together with its association with having deep explanations of reality, that has led many to build up a mystical culture around it.
Kabbalah provides a remarkable framework to understand the Torah and the world around us. With very recent advancements in science, we now have the tools and language to begin to tap into and publicly express the Kabbalah’s and therefore the Torah’s deeper and highly rational meaning, as applied to the reality of the world around us.
Just as it is with science, which currently only explains a tiny part of the workings of the world around us, there are also huge unexplained aspects of Kabbalah. However, just as no-one calls the many unknowns in science “mystical,” so too it is a mistake to refer to the unknowns in Kabbalah as “mystical.” Therefore, in providing rational scientific explanations for the basic concepts of Kabbalah, I intentionally removed the word “mystical” from my book. I even went so far as to ask permission from one Rabbi who had initially referred to Kabbalah as “mystical” in his approbation published in the book, if I could remove the word. He kindly agreed.
4. How can contemporary science help us to relate to the concept of Kabbalistic Worlds?
It is common knowledge that the physical world around us is filled with things that are made of smaller entities. A simple piece of paper is made of paper molecules. Those molecules are comprised of atoms, which in turn are made of protons, neutrons, etc. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks and quarks are theorized to be made of strings. So, what is the reality of the piece of paper, is it paper or perhaps atoms, maybe its protons and neutrons, or perhaps quarks or possibly strings. The truth is that the piece of paper is comprised of all these things, and all are simultaneously true. However, the way we see the paper depends on our perspective. If we just look at it, we see the paper. If we look through an electron microscope, we will see shadows of atoms and if we use a Hadron Collider, we might infer the existence of traces of quarks.
Kabbalah explains that there are an infinite number of what it calls “worlds” that are all tightly interconnected, cascading down in a chain from the Essence of God all the way down to us in our physical world. Rabbi Ergas explains that the meaning of a “Kabbalistic World” is a level of perception. All these worlds occupy the same larger environment (although this is not what we would call a physical environment), and they are analogous to the simultaneous existence of strings, quarks, protons and neutrons, atoms, and molecules within every physical entity. In the paper analogy, each of these levels can be viewed as being like different physical worlds with the lowest “world” in this example being the strings and the highest “world” being the piece of paper.
Each higher Kabbalistic world above us is defined to be a higher dimension of existence that is associated with a higher level of perception that a lower world simply cannot relate to. With our paper example, there are properties at each higher level of perception of the reality of the paper that don’t exist at the lower levels. So, the piece of paper itself is seen under normal circumstances to be highly stable and used for drawing or writing on. In stark contrast, quarks are seen to be subject to uncertainty, and it is inconceivable that they can be used to communicate information by drawing or writing on them. Each higher level within the paper has an additional dimension of existence that cannot be related to from the lower relative level.
There is a Kabbalistic principle that no entity in any particular world level can perceive anything higher than that world level. Therefore, we can relate to the paper and all the levels below it, but we cannot even imagine what it means to live in a higher dimensional existence. This is just beyond our comprehension.
The Kabbalists explain that our physical world is a cut down, dramatically limited experience of an unimaginable multi-dimensional reality of worlds. They broadly categorize the world levels into 5 general levels of world groupings and we, in our physical world, inhabit the lowest world of the lowest world grouping. There is nothing physical about any world above ours. A key point resulting from this understanding is that even though we are totally unaware of it and only relate to our physical world, we simultaneously exist within all levels and Kabbalistic worlds above it, and ultimately, within the Essence of God Who permeates throughout all existence.
5) Is our physical world real or an illusion?
Often those first engaging in Kabbalah study question the reality of our physical world around us.
A Kabbalah beginner will learn about the world levels, he will also learn about the Kabbalistic axiom that the creation of any lower world level does not change any higher world levels and also does not change the Creator in any way. When first encountering the idea that our physical reality is embedded within all the higher “worlds” and within an unchanged Creator, it is all too easy to conclude that while we don’t perceive the higher “worlds,” nevertheless all the higher “worlds” and ultimately our unchanged Creator, are ever present, and therefore our physical world must just be an illusion.
This is a fundamental error! Although paradoxical to us and requiring more detailed explanation, Kabbalah explains that notwithstanding our Creator being unchanged by the Creation, our physical world is still very real.
More than that, the Torah was given by the Creator to the Jewish People, and it defines how to live in our physical world and as a result, how to get closer to the Creator all around us. It prescribes commandments (Mitzvot) that must be performed within the very specific limits of physical space and time. If the physical world is to be related to as an illusion, then the Torah, God’s instruction as to how to live in this physical world, could be seen to be meaningless.
6. Can you share a scientific insight in relation to the Sefirot?
The Sefirot are generally associated with the process stages of the creation of every lower world/entity from a higher world/entity. The essence of the Sefirot is the creation of the other, and therefore of separation, where a newly created lower entity sees itself as separate from the higher entity that creates it. A useful way of remembering this key point is that the Hebrew word “Sefirot,” has the same consonants “s-p-r-t,” as the English word “separate.”
There is much to discuss about the Sefirot, but to home in on one central aspect of them, the Sefirot process stages occur through relationships between at least pairs of Sefirot. At a deeper level every relationship between a pair of Sefirot can be understood in terms of a relationship between what are called “Chasadim” and “Gevurot.” In contemporary terms we can relate to “Chasadim” as being “energy,” and “Gevurot” as being a “constraint” of that energy. For anything to happen in this world, there must be an interaction between both “energy” and a “constraint.”
For example, when walking along a floor, energy is provided by a person’s leg. The floor in turn provides a constraint of resistance and friction that prevents the foot from slipping and allows the foot to push against the floor and thus the energy in the leg propels the person forward. However, if a person tries to walk on ice, there is no constraint, there is no friction. There is nothing for the energy of the foot to push against, so the foot slips backwards, the person falls and goes nowhere. Without the constraint, energy cannot have any impact and simply dissipates.
Everything in the world, whether the development of an abstract idea, the generation of movement or the production of an entity can be understood as being a relationship between some type of supply of energy, Chasadim, and its constraint, Gevurot.
7. What is the Tree of Life and how does it relate to the Sefirot and the Arizal’s concept of Partzufim?
The Tree of Life is a well-known diagrammatic presentation of the Sefirot, represented as circles, connected to each other with various lines (e.g., see the website logo and also the image of the flashlight shedding light on a Tree of Life on my website homepage screen here).
Many who describe Kabbalah, only talk about the Sefirot and unfortunately don’t refer to Partzufim. However, while it is true that the Tree of Life contains Sefirot, most are entirely unaware that it depicts what is called a “Partzuf” (the singular of “Partzufim”), an entity formed by the integration of the underlying Sefirot into a larger “Whole,” that is much more significant than the Sefirot it contains.
8. Using science, the Kabbalah Overview innovates an entirely new understanding of Partzufim. Can you briefly explain this?
It is only with an up and coming relatively recently understood framework of scientific understanding of the world called “Emergence,” that we now have the tools and language to talk about Partzufim in a truly meaningful and relatable way.
In a nutshell, Emergence relates to new properties that arise specifically from the integration and combination of underlying separate “parts,” (i.e., Sefirot,) into a greater “whole,” (i.e., Partzuf), where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the human brain, which is comprised of a very specific configuration of some 80+ billion neurons. No-one would ever say that a single neuron can think or have consciousness. However, it is the specific configuration of the individual separate neurons (the Sefirot) into a larger whole of the brain (the Partzuf) that results in the emergence of conscious thought. The key point about Emergence is that the emerging properties of the whole (the Partzuf) simply cannot even be predicted from a complete knowledge of everything about the separate parts (the Sefirot).
The framework of Emergence, although still in its infancy, seriously challenges the mainstream understanding of science and turns it on its head. It challenges the common scientific understanding of “Reductionism” that posits that if we can reduce all of existence down to its smallest underlying separate component parts, say quarks or strings, and then build a grand theory of precisely how those separate parts work, then we can not only know everything about the parts, but can also know everything about the “whole” of the world that is built from an integration of these parts.
The framework of Emergence counters this from the consistent observation of real-life systems across many areas of science, highlighting that even when none of the separate system parts have changed, it is the specific integration of these parts into a larger whole that causes new unpredictable properties, such as conscious thought, to emerge. At the same time, it should be emphasized that this framework is simply a different perspective of the same scientific facts that are evident in the world around us and does not challenge the validity of those facts.
What is becoming increasingly clear from many independent scientific disciplines, is that in stark contrast to Reductionism, it is specifically Emergence that is a key factor required to properly understand those disciplines. For example, in chemistry it is well-known that graphite and diamonds are both comprised of the identical underlying parts, i.e., carbon atoms. Configure the carbon atoms in one combination and they become soft and pliable graphite, a black substance that conducts electricity well and is perfect for use in pencils. Integrate the same carbon atoms in another combination and we end up with clear diamonds, one of the hardest materials known to man, an electrical insulator. The diverse macroscopic properties of graphite and diamond cannot be understood solely from the carbon atoms in isolation. It is therefore specifically Emergence that causes the field of chemistry to exist and that the reductive knowledge of the physics of single atoms in isolation is not enough on its own to infer the field of chemistry from physics.
It is similarly true that biology, psychology, and economics are disciplines that ultimately emerge, are independently relevant and cannot be predicted from a knowledge of physics.
When properly analyzing the texts of the Arizal’s Kabbalah written hundreds of years ago, it is remarkable that the concepts of Reductionism and Emergence directly parallel the concepts of Sefirot (the underlying reduced parts) and Partzufim (the larger emerging wholes) respectively. Both concepts are valid and necessary to understand the world around us.
The concept of Emergence and Partzufim, which is the dominant factor, is very much the primary teaching of the Arizal’s Kabbalah. When deeply looking at the Arizal’s Kabbalah in the context of the contemporary understanding of Emergence, there is a clear “emerging” understanding of the trajectory of the accelerating pace of change in the world around us through science and technology. On a personal level, every time I reflect on this, it never ceases to astonish me.
9. Your way of connecting science to Kabbalah is different from others. Why do you think you are right?
There are many who have a simplified understanding of the process of the cascading down of Kabbalistic Worlds from higher to lower world levels. They understand this process to be a straightforward top-down creation process. With this simplified understanding it becomes tempting to look at our understanding of our world, and to suggest that the greater the level of Reduction, the higher the level, and therefore the higher the Kabbalistic World/level.
So, using the piece of paper example mentioned earlier, they would say that the piece of paper itself is the lowest Kabbalistic level and the molecules, and then atoms, then protons and neutrons are all increasingly higher levels, ultimately reaching the highest levels of quarks and then strings. They therefore associate quantum mechanics and quantum uncertainty with higher relative Kabbalistic levels.
In all honesty, before I delved more deeply into Kabbalah study, I used to also think this way. However, this pure top-down approach to understand Kabbalistic Worlds is not the whole story. While the worlds are indeed created with an overall top-down cascading of higher world levels to lower world levels, nevertheless, within each individual world level there is a bottom-up building up of that individual world. So, every lower world is created by the higher world first creating the lowest level underlying components of the lower world. These components are then built up within the lower world on a bottom-up basis. Therefore, using the piece of paper example, the lowest levels that we are aware of within our physical world are the strings and quarks. Then, ascending the levels we reach protons and neutrons, and then atoms and then molecules, it is only then that we reach the highest level in this example, of the piece of paper.
Therefore, according to this more refined understanding of Kabbalah, quantum mechanics and quantum uncertainty and all that goes with them, do not relate to higher Kabbalistic levels, but rather, relate to lowest Kabbalistic levels. Therefore, all the theories assuming a juxtaposition of quantum mechanics with higher Kabbalistic levels are misleading! It is only by appreciating the bottom-up creation process within each Kabbalistic world level that we can properly relate science to Kabbalah, and when doing so it becomes abundantly clear that this bottom-up process is entirely synonymous with the concept of Emergence.
10.How is your explanation of the interplay of Sefirot and Partzufim related to what the Talmud calls “Maaseh Bereishit” and “Maaseh Merkava,” and what does this tell us about future times?
The Talmud (Chagiga 11b) refers to the deepest understanding of Torah in terms of two areas of knowledge that it calls “Maaseh Bereishit/the Act of Creation” and “Maaseh Merkava/the Act of Merkava.”
In Shomer Emunim, R. Ergas explains that the Maimonidean understanding of these terms, as described in detail in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chaps. 1–4, is simply wrong. While R. Ergas highly respects Maimonides’ teachings and frequently quotes from them, at the end of the day, he demonstrates that Maimonides was not part of the chain of illustrious rabbis through whom the Kabbalah was passed down the generations.
In contrast, the Arizal explains Maaseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkava as being the essence of what Kabbalah is about.
The Arizal, in effect explains that Maaseh Bereishit is about reduction and the Sefirot. In contrast he relates the word “Merkava” to “Harkava,” meaning “grafting” or “integration,” and that therefore Maaseh Merkava is about emergence, integration and the Partzufim.
Once we properly understand the interplay between Maaseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkava, as between reduction and emergence, between the Sefirot and Partzufim, then, and only then, can we begin to properly understand the Kabbalah and the astonishing trajectory of the accelerating scientific and technological processes in the world around us.
Perhaps the most amazing thing though, is that once we have a clear understanding of the Arizal’s teachings of Maaseh Merkava, Emergence and Partzufim, then the precise identity of the Messiah (Mashiach ben David) becomes utterly obvious. It is likely to be very different to who and what you might think. It is the collective consciousness, the larger Partzuf whole, that will ultimately emerge from the specific integration of all the separate Sefirot parts of humankind and the world around us!
The blog will return after a hiatus of the better portion of a year. Look forward in the coming weeks to my own essays and to interviews with various visiting authors.
I was busy with new administrative activities as director of graduate studies. I was busy preparing for my month-long return to India and I was busy with having to prepare asynchronous online classes. But now I am back.
Blogging, for me, is a sign that I am writing. In fact, I have a two contract deal from Fortress Press for two books (1) One on a Jewish theology of religious diversity, and (2) one on a Jewish Theology of the Trinity. Yay! But it does mean that my blog will have more interfaith material than usual. Actual book titles are yet t be determined.
In the coming months, you will hear about my return to India, my visit to Jewish-Sufi shrine, my speaking to experts in Tantra, the relationship between kabbalah and tantra, some Jewish-Buddhist interfaith encounter in Sri Lanka, and many new books that have come out in Jewish theology.
The activity that kept me busy was making our Master’s program into an online MA
ONLINE MA in Jewish-Christian Studies or Certificate in Jewish -Christian Studies or a Certificate in Interfaith As of Fall 2022, our graduate programs will have both asynchronous online courses and hybrid courses with students who are both in-class and ZOOM. The entire degree will be available online. There are full scholarships from our Sister Rose Thering Fund for anyone who can, however loosely, present themselves as an educator The program is $100 for two courses for 65 & over
Finally, as I say every year. If you enjoy these posts, then the best way to show appreciation is to repost them on social media, discuss them on social media, and give credit.