Lecture #11: Letter 44, Section E ֠Theology

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #11:

Letter 44, Section E – Theology



Before reading this lecture, I recommend rereading the letter again, especially section E, as well as the appendix about Kant and his epistemology, which Rav Kook addresses in his letter.


            We have arrived at Rav Kook’s writings about epistemology and theology. The primary idea of this section is the similarity of Kantian epistemology and kabbalistic epistemology. The main point of similarity is the identification of the category of reason, which determines the shape of our consciousness according to Kant, with the sefira of Malkhut – an identification that implies the common recognition by Kant and the kabbala that our knowledge is subjective. As I noted in the explanation of the section, this does not mean that knowledge is individual or relative; all people grasp at least parts of reality in precisely the same manner. But the apprehension of reality – consciousness – is subject to fixed and a priori patterns (that precede and are completely independent of experience) of reason (place, time, causality) and of the senses.


            Based on this, Kant concluded – and Rav Kook states that this corroborates the ancient position of Jewish mysticism – that all of our descriptions of reality do not relate to reality as such, to true reality (the noumena), but only to the way that it appears and reveals itself to us through the forms we can comprehend, the world of phenomena.


Kant went so far as to claim that we do not – and cannot – have any positive knowledge about the nature of the true world, which lies outside of the patterns of consciousness, aside from the knowledge of its existence. On this last point, there is a significant gulf between him and Jewish mysticism, as will be addressed below.


Introduction: On the Table of Sefirot and its Meaning


In order to understand the connection between Kantian epistemology and kabbala, we must first address several fundamental concepts of the Doctrine of Emanations (Atzilut) and the emergence (hishtalshelut) of worlds in kabbala, especially as it relates to the doctrine of sefirot. It is advisable for one who is familiar with the rudimentary kabbalistic worldview to skip down to the discussion of the writings of the Alter Rebbe. I have chosen to expand on this now due to the fundamental importance of these ideas in themselves, as well as for understanding the Torah of Rav Kook (this will aid us in our understanding of other issues as well).


You have certainly encountered the following scheme in a siddur, a work of art, or in the course of your studies:


This is a typical illustration of the table of sefirot. What does it mean?




Kabbalists explain that this drawing essentially portrays a complete personality-physiology structure that is similar to the structure of the human body. With a bit of imagination, we can see a head, heart, hands, feet, mouth, and member (the drawing is not necessarily flat; it has a third dimension as well).


This personality breaks down into ten components. Its various aspects include more sublime elements (Chokhma and Bina) and lower elements (Yesod and Malkhut), as well as opposition between right (Chokhma, Chased, Netzach, and to a lesser degree Yesod) and left (Bina, Din, Hod, and to a lesser degree Malkhut) with Keter, Tiferet, Yesod, and Malkhut in between.


It is important to understand that even though each element of the personality, which we are accustomed to calling a sefira, is an independent aspect, it cannot be understood except through the set of internal connections between all of the sefirot. Here we arrive at a second crucial point: the portrait that we are contemplating is a complete and total portrait. But a personality is not constructed like that. In truth, each aspect-sefira emanates-emerges from those above it (with Keter at the beginning). Oppositions are created in this process as well. For example, the root of Din (the sefira of Gevura) is in Chesed. It is thus clear that all of the aspects are connected and intertwined with each other.


This personality structure is the basis of both the theology and ontology of Jewish mysticism. The philosophers did not speak positively about the Divine; they said that as He is Infinite, He cannot be grasped by humans. Kabbalists admit that the Infinite is beyond consciousness; we cannot define the aspect of Keter (which is identical with the Infinite or with the beginning of its emergence) or relate to it specifically. Yet creation is not just some paradoxical leap from the Infinite to finite being; being is not created out of nothing. Rather, it flows from the Infinite, and this flow is gradual – each phase is more distinct and concrete than its predecessor. This flow of Divinity is essentially a process of contraction (tzimtzum) and limitation, which is the foundation for all existence. It is true that we cannot relate to what preceded this emanation, but we can comprehend these limited emanations (i.e., the sefirot). The table of sefirot is the concise and accurate description of the Divine emanation within defined and delimited entities, and it thereby gives us both the order and structure of the emanations. This is the theological aspect of the doctrine of sefirot.


The kabbalists added that the table of sefirot contains an even broader meaning. It is not only about the Divine; the basic structure of revelation is also the basic structure of all being. The sefirot are essentially the archetypes of all phenomena in the world. All phenomena and entities that we encounter can be related to as representations, embodiments, of the basic emanated archetypes, of the sefirot. This is the meaning of the kabbalistic concept of “names” and “epithets.” Each sefira is represented by one of God’s Names; the various Names correspond to various aspects of God’s multifaceted revelation. The epithets are characteristic representations of the serifiotic archetypes in the world of objects and phenomena. The representation can be by man, an object, a place, or an idea that is rooted and fundamentally related to that sefira. The following is a characteristic table of the sefirot and their epithets:This table focuses on attributes, of which the sefirot constitute archetypes, and the patriarchs, each of whom perfectly represents one attribute. But this line of thinking extends to many various fields, to the point that even trivial objects – a stone, water, a stick, and the like – represent one of the emanated sefirot.




Right line:

The pillar of kindness

Middle line:

The pillar of Torah

Left line:

The pillar of prayer

D. Chesed








F. Tiferet




G. Netzach




H. Hod




I. Yesod





J. Malkhut






We cannot elaborate on the essence of each sefira here. The kabbalistic appendix to the previous shiur gives a concise and characteristic summary of the essence of each of the seven lower sefirot, from Chesed to Malkhut.


For our purposes, it is especially important to understand the role of the sefira of Malkhut in the scheme of emanation. As explained, the table of sefirot describes a process of contraction, beginning with the Infinite Divine, Who cannot be known, and culminating in our world, which is definable and subject to real comprehension. The first sefirot (Chokhma and Bina) are the beginning of this process, and they more or less correspond to desire (Chokhma) and planned, detailed thought (Bina), which are the beginning of any process of coming into being. Then come the sefirot of building (the emotional sefirot), the dominant of which are Chesed, Gevura-Din, and Rachamim. These sefirot essentially represent God’s modus operandi in the world, but from an immanent perspective they are also the basic forms of movement and influence within the world. Chesed is expansion, unlimited giving, connection, love, etc.; Gevura is limitation, conquest, law, restriction, etc.; and Tiferet is the element that merges the other two on various planes – compassion, truth (in the sense of a total, all-embracing vision), etc.


We continue thus until Yesod. Yesod is not a distinct mode of operation or a defined entity. Rather, it is the aspect in which the various elements of the personality become creative and obtain the power to influence. For this reason, it is associated particularly with the male sexual organ, the source of existence and continuity. And of course, the resulting influence expresses the personality that was shaped at the higher levels.


The fact that Yesod, the ninth and penultimate sefira, is already oriented outward from the personality raises a question. What, then, is the meaning of the sefira of Malkhut? The kabbalists answer with various comparisons and metaphors, the common denominator of which is the perception of Malkhut as something external to the personality, something that has an independent status even though it flows from within it – just as a child originates from his father’s power and is imbued with his father’s personality (“when one exhales, he breathes out from within himself”), yet the child still has an independent existence. Thus, for example, they explain that Malkhut is the aspect of this world, and in the emanation of four worlds it is the place where the lower world was created, outside of the emanation; and so forth.


Another major description of the sefira of Malkhut is that it is the female aspect. The female is the other-than-male, an independent personality, even though she was crafted from man’s rib. In other words, here the personality encounters its other side, which has an independent ontic status. In sefiriotic terminology, the kabbalistic description of God’s merging with His Shekhina means the merging of Tiferet (God – the male aspect, through Yesod) with Malkhut (Shekhina - the female aspect). This merging appears to be the unification of two things, but it is really a singularity – the recombination of two entities that are rooted in a single unity – since Malkhut-Shekhina is itself an aspect of the Divine.


Rav Kook’s discussion of the sefira of Malkhut is also premised on this fundamental problem. What is the aspect through which the personality, as it were, erupts out of itself, breaks free of the simple state of unity, and creates a different reality? The relationship of child to father or woman to man allegorizes and concretizes this reality, but does not yet reach its philosophical roots.


Malkhut in the Teaching of the Ba’al Ha-Tanya


In order to understand Rav Kook’s explanation, we will first turn to his source (cited by Rav Kook himself) – the treatment by R. Shneur Zalman (henceforth RSZ) of Liadi, Chabad’s Alter Rebbe, in the Sha’ar Ha-Yichud Ve-Ha’emuna of the Tanya. (Paragraph breaks and parenthetical remarks are my own; explanation follows the quote):


With the above in mind, we may now understand the statement in the holy Zohar that the verse "Shema Yisrael" is higher-level unity and "Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed" is lower- level unity. For "va-ed" is equivalent to "echad" through the substitution of letters. The cause and reason for this contraction and concealment through which God obscured and hid the life force of the world is so that the world would appear as an independently existing entity.


It is known to all that the purpose of the creation of the world is the revelation of God's sovereignty, for "there is no king without a nation." The word "am" (nation) is related etymologically to the word "omemot" (dimmed, extinguished), for they are separate entities, distinct and distant from the level of the king; for even if he had very many children, the term "kingship" would not apply to them, nor to the ministers alone, for precisely "in a multitude of people is the glory of the king." The Name that indicates the attribute of His Malkhut is the Name of Lordship (Adnut), for He is "Lord of the whole universe." Thus, it is this attribute and this Name which bring the world into existence and sustain it so that it should be as it is now - a completely independent and separate entity, and not absolutely nullified, for with the withdrawal of this attribute and this Name from the world, God forbid, the world would revert to its source in the word of God and the breath of His mouth, where it would be completely nullified, and the name "world" could not be applied to it at all.

The term "world" can only be applied to that which possesses the dimensions of space and time. The dimension of space is east and west, north and south, above and below, and the dimension of time is past, present, and future. All these dimensions have no relation to the holy, sublime attributes; only regarding the attribute of His Malkhut is it possible to say that He is King above without end and below without limit, as well as over the four directions. The same applies to the dimension of time: "God reigns, God reigned, God will reign forever." Thus, the life-force of space and time, and their coming into being from nothingness, and their existence for as long as they exist is from the attribute of His Malkhut and the Name of Adnut.


Now, since His attribute of Malkhut is united with His Essence and Being in an absolute union, as will be explained, space and time are therefore also really nullified in relation to His Essence and Being, just as sunlight is nullified in the sun. And this is the intertwining of the Name of Adnut with the Name of Havaya (being), for the name Havaya indicates that He transcends time, that He "is, was, and will be" at the same moment, as they say [Zohar, Raya Mehemna on Parashat Pinchas], and He is also above space, for He continuously brings into existence all dimensions of all space – up and down and all four directions. Yet although He transcends space and time, He nevertheless is within space and time, that is, He unites with His attribute of Malkhut from which space and time were derived and come into existence. This is "lower unity" [i.e., the intertwining of the Name of Havaya with the name of Adnut], i.e., His essence and being, which are called the Infinite, completely fill the whole world temporally and spatially… (Tanya, Sha’ar Ha-Yichud Ve-Emuna, ch. 7).


Below we will examine the Alter Rebbe’s words and see how Rav Kook builds his metaphysics on their basis.


RSZ speaks here about the relationship between two of God’s names: The Name of Havaya (the Tetragrammaton) and the Name of Adnut (A-dondai). In sefiriotic terms, Havaya corresponds to Tiferet, the central sefira, specifically, and more generally it includes all of the various aspects of the emanation in a unified manner – under the name “echad” (one). Adnut corresponds to Malkhut, since the epithet A-donai expresses subjection, the acceptance of a yoke – as to royalty.


We declare the Divine unity through the verse “Shema Yisrael YKVK Elokeibu YKVK echad”: we read the Name YKVK but pronounce the Name A-donai.[1] After the verse of "Shema…" we add the sentence "Barukh Shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed”, which relates, according to the Zohar, to lower unification. In terms of Lurianic kabbala, lower unity is between what is called “partzuf ze’eir anpin” (the “small face”, corresponding to Tiferet and, more generally, to the six sefirot from Chesed on down) and the female aspect (i.e., Malkhut). In other words, even in the statement “Barukh Shem…” we again speak of the connection between Tiferet and Malkhut, between Havaya and Adnut.


The paradox that we must understand is the "duality which is unity": how are Malkhut and Tiferet two things and one thing simultaneously? The Alter Rebbe understood that the explanation begins with the known name of the sefiraMalkhut, that is, in the attribute of Kingship and what it expresses. In contrast to the other sefirot, which are independent traits, different aspects of the "personality" that are not dependent on the connection to anything else – Malkhut is meaningless outside of the context of Master-subject. As the common aphorism states, "there is no king without subjects." In other words, the attribute of Malkhut is indeed one of God’s distinct traits, but it presupposes the existence of others and exists in relation to them.[2] The implications of this understanding are far-reaching: in order for the Divine emanations to reach their completion – in order for all of the essential traits of the Divine personality to be expressed – there must be an existence outside of the Divine, for if not, the Divine Malkhut simply could not be. RSZ explains that this is central idea of the doctrine of tzimtzum:[3] God contracts His existence in order to make space for another existence, over which He may reign.


From here the Alter Rebbe goes one step further and claims that Malkhut as a trait is only meaningful when there is a reality that is completely other than it. A king cannot rule over his sons or even his ministers; their connection is too close and conditional. RSZ expounds that the word "am" derives etymologically from "omemut," meaning: this is a place in which Malkhut is completely dimmed, a reality with an independent stature that is completely other than the king – and his kingship is thus upheld in relation to it.


What existence can be completely other than the Supreme King of Kings? Here the opposition between the Names of Havaya and Adnut becomes clear. Havaya, which represents the interior essence of the Divine, expresses the existence that is beyond time and space: "He was, is, and will be… without beginning, without end." This is existence beyond any real limitation. Adnut, on the other hand, relates to time and space. Malkhut is concrete, directed at space and time – even if all time and all space, it remains subject to these categories. Reality that is completely other than the Divine is subject to time and space; all concrete existence is defined by two dimensions that are irrelevant to Divinity Itself.


RSZ’s conclusion is that Malkhut, the final attribute of the table of sefirot, is the essential source of all substance that is independent with regard to the absolute Divine existence:


Thus, it is this attribute and this Name which bring the world into existence and sustain it so that it should be as it is now - a completely independent and separate entity, and not absolutely nullified, for with the withdrawal of this attribute and this Name from the world, God forbid, the world would revert to its source.


We have now arrived at the essence of the paradox: Malkhut, which is part of the Divine essence, constitutes the source of "the other existence." The independence and alterity of existence vis-א-vis the Divine, that is, its subjection to time and space, stems perforce from the Divine trait of Malkhut. In other words, Divine unity can be perfected only through the creation of an existence that is other than it.


According to RSZ, the resolution of the paradox is not on the theoretical plane but on the religious-existential plane - by recognizing the Divine unity and the nullification of the subjects to the King, existence returns to the Divinity from which it erupted. Thus, the simple religious act of accepting the yoke of Heaven and of nullifying our will to His will obtains far-reaching religious-mystic significance in that it is the act that catalyzes Divine unity. This is also the explanation of the significance of accepting the yoke of Heaven and stating “Barukh Shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed,” since our coronation of Him is the unification of the Names of Havaya and Adnut, the unification of God (YKVK) and His Shekhina (Malkhut).


(Translated by Elli Fischer)

[1] In this context it is worth recalling the difference between the calling out of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy by YKVK as He passed before Moshe and Moshe’s later petition – “And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, A-donai, may it please A-donai to travel among us” (see Shemot 34:5-9).

[2] One of the best-known passages of The Little Prince describes an unfortunate king who has no subjects and who wants the Prince to do his bidding. Of course, that is but a parody of kingship.

[3] RSZ understood tzimtzum not as an act of withdrawal or evacuation to create an empty space for creation (the literal meaning of tzimtzum – contraction), but as a concealing and dimming of the Divine light, that is: its expression through diminution and concealment (a non-literal, metaphoric meaning of tzimtzum).