Knowledge Problems

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Unknowability of God In Jewish Mysticism, Part I

It is impossible to say exactly when the mystical approach within Judaism was inaugurated. There are mystical works dating from the Talmudic period (i.e., Sefer Yetzirah), and, as we saw above, Philo's own writings weave together Greek mysticism with Scriptural exegesis to create something which can only rightly be described as Jewish mysticism. In this connection, another unique figure who was heavily influenced by Greek mystical thought is the early medieval poet-philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol. In his long poem Keter Malchut, he expresses thoughts about God's remoteness and unknowability which would be by no means foreign to Philo:

(I) Thine is the might in whose mystery our thoughts can find no stay, so far art Thou beyond us.... Thine are the mysteries that transcend understanding and thought... (XXVI) Who can approach Thy seat? For beyond the sphere of Intelligence hast Thou established the thrown of Thy glory... Thus far reacheth Intelligence, but cometh here to a standstill, For higher still hast Thou mounted, and ascended Thy mighty thrown, "And no man may go up with Thee." (zangwill_23)

Again, we find the idea that God-in-Himself somehow exceeds the reach of man's intelligence, that although thought can embrace and measure many things, it cannot embrace and measure God. In another respect like Philo, ibn Gabirol remains an ambiguous figure in Jewish philosophy, not only because of his Scholastic alter-ego "Avicebron", but because he doesn't fit comfortably into a particular Jewish intellectual tradition. If nowadays he is perhaps seen as less of a mystic and more of a poet, this is probably due to the manner in which Jewish mysticism came to be exclusively identified with the system of thought known as the Kabbalah, thus leaving other Jewish mystics out in the cold.

At least since the Middle Ages, "Jewish mysticism" has indeed meant "Kabbalah." But the Kabbalah as we know it popularly today (much like rational theology as we know it popularly today) might be said to bear the marks of having been abandoned by serious scholars. Esoteric terms are thrown around with a wink and a nod and a hope that someone, somewhere, actually understands how it all works. While the abandonment of rational theology by scholars may be blamed on the advent of modernity — the sweeping vistas of natural philosophy and science luring contemplative thinkers away from the stodgy confines of Scholastically-shackled theological ponderations, in the case of the Kabbalah, Scholem sees the opposition of Jewish scholars to the Hasidic movement as a principle reason for the abandonment of the Kabbalah by serious scholarship. Guilt by association, as it were. And inevitably, says Scholem (1954,p.2), in place of scholarship came instead credulity and silliness: "The natural and obvious result of the antagonism of the great Jewish scholars was that, since the authorized guardians neglected this field, all manner of charlatans and dreamers came and treated it as their own property." One may be tempted to say that such a statement was probably never truer than it is today, when Kabbalah is associated in many people's imaginations with "myth and magic" of various varieties; however, a quick survey of the history of Jewish mysticism shows that Kabbalah always presented an irresistible attraction to individuals of questionable motivations and sanity (e.g., Nehemiah Hayyun, Judah Leib Prossnitz, Nathan of Gaza, etc.). In any event, here we will limit ourselves to what some of the classic kabbalistic sources say about the unknowability of God, and try as best we can to understand them.

While the evolution of the Kabbalah was probably fairly organic, the classic work that nevertheless stands at the center of this world is the Zohar, which was circulated and — in all likelihood — partially written by Moses de Leon in the 13th century. We will therefore begin our review of the mystical approach to God's unknowability with this key work. The Zohar on Exodus (scholem_49) says the following:

If one should ask: Is it not written, "For ye saw no manner of similitude" (Deuteronomy 4:15), the answer would be: Truly, it was granted us to behold him in a given similitude, for concerning Moses it is written, "and the similitude of the Lord doth he behold" (Numbers 12:8). Yet the Lord was revealed only in that similitude that Moses saw, and in none other, of any creation formed by his signs. Therefore it stands written: "To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?" (Isaiah 40:18). Also, even that similitude was a semblance of the Holy One, be blessed, not as he is in his very place which we know to be impenetrable, but as the King manifesting his might of dominion over his entire creation, and thus appearing to each one of his creatures as each can grasp him, as it is written: "And by the ministry of prophets have I used similitudes" (Hosea 12:11). Hence says He: Albeit in your own likeness do I represent myself, to whom will you compare me and make me comparable?

Because in the beginning, shape and form having not yet been created, He had neither form nor similitude. Hence is it forbidden to one apprehending him as he is before Creation to imagine him under any kind of form or shape, not even by his letters "hay" and "vav," not either by his complete holy Name, nor by letter or sign of any kind. Thus, "For ye saw no manner of similitude " means, You beheld nothing which could be imagined in form or shape, nothing which you could embody into a finite conception.

But when He had created the shape of supernal man, it was to him for a chariot, and on it he descended, to be known by the appellation YHVH, so as to be apprehended by his attributes and in each particular one, to be perceived. Hence it was he caused himself to be named El, Elohim, Shaddai, Zevaot and YHVH, of which each was a symbol among men of his several divine attributes, making manifest that the world is upheld by mercy and justice, in accordance with man's deeds. If the radiance of the glory of the Holy One, be blessed, had not been shed over his entire creation, how could even the wise have apprehended him? He would have continued to be unknowable, and the words could not be verily said, "The whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:3)

We can certainly see here echoes of Philo in the statement that God appears "to each one of his creatures as each can grasp him," but it remains entirely unclear what is meant by the notion of "grasping" in this context. It seems that we are referring here to some powers of the mind and some capacities of "conception" (or lack thereof), as indicated by the expression "nothing which you could embody into a finite conception." The passage goes on to suggest that God makes himself known to man through his "attributes," which provide an avenue of access without which God would have been utterly unknowable.

What begins to take shape here is the idea that God-as-He-is-in-Himself is utterly beyond mental conception, but that nevertheless there are some aspects of God which do fall within the realm of man's knowledge. In the kabbalistic system, the Divine comes to be regarded in terms of a remote unknowable component or essence referred to as En Sof or Ayin (Ayin may alternatively refer to the first Sefirah, if that is considered to be other than an aspect [scholem_74] or identity of En Sof [robinson_94,sherwin_06]. cf. Deus absconditus), along with a collection of Sefirot which represent aspects of God which are capable in some way of interacting with created world.

"Of God as He is in Himself — En Sof — nothing can be said at all, and no thought can reach there" (jacobs_73). En Sof itself is sometimes referred to as a realm of "pure Thought" (scholem_74), so as to detach it completely from any merely mortal variety of thought. The names En Sof and Ayin themselves (respectively, "Without End" and "Nothing"), and their other synonyms in the kabbalistic literature all are suggestive of the fact that nothing can be known about this entity — that it is beyond thought and exceeds human conceptual capacities (scholem_74).

In many ways, the kabbalistic stance of "mystical agnosticism" (scholem_74) regarding En Sof, inasmuch as En Sof is represented as transcending the "limits of human apprehension," is really no different than the stance taken by the Maimonides and the rationalists regarding the "infinite supreme eternal entity" (sherwin_06,dan_06), and is also very close to the Neoplatonic ideas of Philo and ibn Gabirol. Indeed, "the concept of an infinite, perfect supreme being that cannot change, a concept absent from Jewish thought in antiquity, is dominant in both philosophy and kabbalah" (dan_06). Certainly, to the extent that God-in-Himself is claimed by both rationalists and kabbalists to be utterly impervious to description, it is probably permissible to regard the En Sof of the kabbalists and the Divine Essence of the philosophers as the self-same (and empty) concept.

The unique idea of Kabbalah concerns the manner in which God interacts with the world and with humanity in particular, and this is by way of the Sefirot. Indeed, if there is one feature that most distinctly characterizes kabbalistic mysticism, it is the notion of Sefirot. However, what exactly the Sefirot are is difficult to say — not because there is a dearth of sources describing the Sefirot, but because there is an excess of sources describing them, and describing them in an excess of different ways (dan_06). In Cordovero's introduction to Kabbalah, the Sefirot appear to play the same role as God's "actions" does for Maimonides:

[The beginner] needs to know that Eyn Sof caused and emanated His sefirot, and His actions are [performed] through them. They constitute the ten "sayings" through which he acts. They serve him as vessels for the [34a] actions which derive from Him in the World of Separation and below. Truly His being and essence extend themselves in them... the [divine] names [themselves] are the sefirot, and the names are appellations of Eyn Sof according to His actions. (robinson_94)

However, there are disagreements as to whether the Sefirot actually represent actions or instruments of God, as above, or whether they are manifestations of divine attributes, aspects of the Divine essence, or something else (robinson_94, sherwin_06, scholem_74). In the later Kabbalah, the Sefirot are generally regarded as being both of the essence of God, and yet separate from Him (scholem_74). In this paper, we will not go into any details about how the Sefirot are hypothesized by various authors to function. Rather, when we later present a formal knowledge representation framework, we will try to show how it might map onto the kabbalistic ontology of En Sof and Sefirot, at least when these are conceived of in something like Cordovero's model. For the present, let us try to understand a little bit better — by considering some more sources — what is the nature of the peculiar limitation that places En Sof forever beyond the reach of human conception.


  • This is great keep it up. I am planning to write a short piece in the next few days about a way of looking rationally at the sefirot.

    You may also gain from reading about Abulafia and Gitkilla both kabbalist in the late 1200's who wrote commentaries on the moreh before writing their own stuff. Abulafia used to publically give shiurim in moreh. Moshe idel has a paper about these two kabbalist and other contemporaries who developed a new concept of Kabbalah. Rather than receiving through mesora, receiving it directly from God, in other words inspiration!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Nov 19, 2006, 10:06:00 AM  

  • Thanks David! I always look forward to your responses to my (infrequent) posts. I will eagerly await your post about the Sefirot. Should be fun! Can you please give me the Idel citation? In the past couple days, I've been tracking down some of his papers (only one of which I've been able to find online—shame! Thanks God for Interlibrary Loan!), but I don't think I saw the paper you mention, but it sounds like something I should read right away! Thanks.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Nov 19, 2006, 12:21:00 PM  

  • It is a Hebrew article printed in Da'at #48 entitled the window of opportunities 1270-1290. If you read Hebrew I can scan it and email it to you. You can email me .

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Nov 19, 2006, 5:34:00 PM  

  • Why don't you allow RSS on your comments?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Nov 19, 2006, 5:35:00 PM  

  • Thanks David. I would appreciate very much if you could email it to me. I will email you. (My brother can help me with the Hebrew). I'm not sure about RSS... let me check the settings...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Nov 19, 2006, 8:47:00 PM  

  • Kabbalah always presented an irresistible attraction to individuals of questionable motivations and sanity (e.g., Nehemiah Hayyun, Judah Leib Prossnitz, Nathan of Gaza, etc.).

    I think that it is wrong to label these heretics as having either negative motives or of being insane. Hayyun and Natan were most definitly not insane and their misuse of the kabbalah was from their perspective for the sake of heaven.

    I just think that there is potential antinomianism is kabbalah just as there is potential antinomianism in rationalist philosophy. Every once in a while, the conditions occur when an individual can and does abbuse this potential.

    regardin sefirot. I think that people make a mistake when they try to concieve of sefirot as being descriptive. I think that sefirot are much more a common language that kabbalists use to discuss various theological and cosmic topics. Thus you get competing systems of sefirot which are understood by those who endorse them but which describe different approaches to reality.

    I believe that this is what the Alter Rebbe ultimately is arguing in the Tanya when he concieved of each sefira including in it all other sefirot. In other words, each particular mystico-liguistic unit can contain in it an entire system of mystic thought. This gets into the concept of all ideas which exist being a manifistation of ein-Sof and thus the work of the mystic becomes to give structure to the overwhelming power of the Divine in all its manifistations.

    David, can you please also email me a copy of that article?


    By Blogger chardal, at Nov 20, 2006, 12:35:00 PM  

  • Hmmm. I'm not sure I completely understand what you're saying about the sefirot, Chardal. (Of course, I don't really understand what anyone is saying about the sefirot.) It's a code of some kind that kabbalists use to communicate with eachother? But if the Divine is completely unknowable, then what are kabbalists communicating about? I'm not sure I get it. Thanks.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Nov 20, 2006, 5:10:00 PM  

  • >It's a code of some kind that kabbalists use to communicate with eachother? But if the Divine is completely unknowable, then what are kabbalists communicating about?

    I didn't mean to say it has NO descriptive qualities. It does, but even before the mystic uses the system to describe, he defines the inter-relationship between the sefirot. You get many such debates such as "Is keter a sefira or not. if it is, are keter and hochma parralel or serial in the hierarchy? etc.

    The kabbalists start off from the position (unlike the rationalists) that Hashem's "Hochma" is an action and not an essential component of Ein Sof and thus CAN be grasped at some level by man (and sefirot are the system with which you grasp Hochma). Thus, much time is spent trying to understand Hashem's Hochma as an action and the way it operates in the world.

    The Maharal makes this very clear is several places - especial in the begining of the fifth chapter of Avot in Derech HaChaim.

    Thus the sefirot are not at all concerned with ein sof but rather with the sefirot as they express themselves from the Ohr HaYashar that comes into the world through the Reshimu.

    Thus the anser is that to the mystic, the Divine is not completely unkowable - only the essense or source of the Divine is unkowable. (this is one of the many reasons so many kabalists faught so hard against the 'Sod HaElokut' as formulated by the Sabbateans - especially by Hayyon and Cardozo - it tried to describe the ein Sof which is the root of all heresy according to mystic doctorine.

    By Blogger chardal, at Nov 20, 2006, 5:32:00 PM  

  • Thanks Chardal. I will look up the Maharal. When I finally get around to posting my "analysis" section, you'll probably have to tell me whether it can be made compatible at all with Kabbalistic approaches. I just don't know enough about them.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Nov 21, 2006, 10:29:00 AM  

  • Very interesting stuff !!

    I'm looking forward to the overall analysis !!!

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at Nov 21, 2006, 7:57:00 PM  

  • Me too. Creeping along...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Nov 21, 2006, 8:03:00 PM  

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