Friday, May 02, 2008

Great review of Sefiros

And some criticism.

From Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on Crosscurrents

It is very exciting to have such a wonderful review.

I would also like to take the chance to respond to his critism of the book. He writes:

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.

Perhaps the last sentence was not written clearly (though having reread it many times I think it was), but it certainly does not mean what Rabbi Adlerstein thinks. Sefiros are not approximations or limited by human language. On the contrary, sefiros are defined by human language because they are how we perceive G-d in the world. They can be defined and examined minutely (as we have done in the book to a certain extent). Furthermore, in a sense (the kivayachol sense) they do describe G-d accurately. For the kabbalists (and certainly for the chasidim) the descriptions of G-d in this world are precise and accurate.

However, any words or language (or concepts or sefiros) only describe G-d as we perceive him from within the world. This is clear from the very beginning of the Etz Chaim where the Arizal tries to explain why G-d created the world (the Ramchal begins Derech Hashem in the same way). This question can only be answered from a post creation, human, viewpoint. It is clear that G-d exists outside of anything in the world, and there is nothing we can say about him at all. The only thing we have his the name (Hashem - the four letter name of G-d) which somehow describes His essence. Every other name of G-d is a description in human terms of how G-d relates to the world.

The Rambam (in Moreh Nevuchim) writes that we cannot ascribe any positive description to G-d. The kabbalists (and chasidim) do exactly the opposite and describe G-d, and His actions, in detail. R' Tzadok (in Machsheves Charutz and other places) explicitly argues on this point of the Rambam.

The Leshem (in Biurim p. 4 from memory) reconciles the two opinions by explaining that the Rambam is speaking before tzimtzum and the Arizal is speaking of G-d after the tzimtztum. Thus we are speaking about G-d, while knowing that this is only G-d 'as we can understand Him'.

There are very real differences between Rambam's understanding of G-d and the post-Arizal understanding. The most obvious question is when standing in prayer, who am I addressing?

Rabbi Adlerstein continues:

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.

Although G-d isn't a person, the Torah definitely describes Him in human terms. Descriptions of G-d's arm, hand, legs, mouth etc. describe G-d as a person. The sefiros describe the personality of that person. Of course, most people understand that both the Torah and the sefiros are talking in metaphorical language. Furthermore, it is the kabbalists who give meaning to these human terms and give precise meanings to these metaphors.

I very much thank Rabbi Adlerstien for his review, and definitly agree with his concluding paragraph:

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!

We raise our children to think of G-d as a person, but instead of outgrowing such childishness, it is reinforced with every Jewish periodical and book which talks of hashgacha pratis miracles and such like. There are very few people who try to learn Moreh Nevuchim, and even fewer who understand it. Hashkafa has been replaced with short stories and pithy sayings. Unfortunately changing that attitude will take a lot more than one book.