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.