The World through the Prism of Kabbalah

Learn about the Kabbalistic outlook on the world and the way Jewish mysticism influenced the 20th-century ideas

Kabbalah is one of the most popular teachings of Jewish mysticism. But even though it's tightly tied with the Jewish religious tradition, any GentileGentile means non-Jewish person can also benefit from learning about its unusual ways of seeing the world. Its ideas are also sometimes key to understanding the writing of such authors as Jorge Luis Borges or Umberto Eco. In this article, I'd like to give a general overview of the Kabbalistic doctrine as given in the ZoharOne of the key texts in Kabbalah and studied in Gershom Scholem's influential book "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism".

Cabbalistic Magic
("Cabbalistic Magic" by Moshe Castel)

The first thing to understand about Kabbalah is its concept of God. For these mystics, God is something that lies beyond rational understanding. It has been said that "the religious world of the mystic can be expressed in terms applicable to rational knowledge only with the help of paradox". The aspect of God becomes paradoxical the moment it is put into words, as language imposes on us rational thinking. This idea is very succinctly expressed by the French "un Dieu défini serait un Dieu fini", which can be translated as "a defined God is a finished God", but can rather mean "a God ends where his rational definition begins".

Another quality of God in Kabbalah is that he is infinite. One of the names mystics give to God is "Ein Sof", i.e. "without end".

But even though he is infinite and unknowable, the Kabbalists admit that he does manifest himself through the so-called ten Sefirot, or "emanations" / "attributes". Each of the Sefirot corresponds to a certain aspect of God, such as wisdom or discipline. At the same time, each of the Sefirot represents a certain stage of Ein Sof's self-revealment and creation.


For example, Binah, or "Understanding" is the third Sefirah, the third stage of God's self-revealment. Binah is associated with God's manifestation where he appears as the eternal subject (in the grammatical sense), as the great Who, Mi (In Hebrew, the word MI means the question “Who?” as well as the preposition “from.”), who stands at the end of every question and every answer. In certain spheres of Divinity, questions can be asked and answers obtained, namely, in those attributes of God which the Zohar calls Eleh, i.e. the determinable world. In the end, however, meditation reaches a point where it is still possible to ask questions "who", but no longer to get an answer; rather does the question itself constitute an answer.

The existence of Sefirot means that Kabbalah differentiates between two worlds: the hidden, infinite, and unknowable world of God, and the external, definable and finite world of its manifestations.

According to the Zohar, the external creation mirrors the inner movements of the divine life. In all the worlds, even the hidden ones, there is the same rhythm. This idea was the basis for Borges' famous phrase - "one man is two men".

Another related concept is that all creation is interrelated and interconnected. Cordovero, a Spanish Kabbalist wrote:

In everyone there is something of his fellow man. Therefore, whoever sins, injures not only himself but also that part of himself which belongs to another

Among Those Who Stood There painting
("Among Those Who Stood There" by Abraham Rattner)

Lastly, it's important to speak about the attitude of the Kabbalists towards language. In the Middle Ages, a predominant view on language was that it is simply a means of imparting ideas and it has a purely conventional nature. For Kabbalists, Hebrew reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the of the world, the creative language of God himself. Even all creation is an expression of God's language.

In Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, along with the ten Sefirot, represent the "mysterious forces whose convergence has produced the various combinations observable throughout the whole of creation"; “they are the “thirty-two secret paths of wisdom,” through which God has created all that exists". In this, you can find something similar to the 20th-century concept of "world as text".

The approach of the Kabbalists towards the Torah is also interesting. It is seen not merely as a collection of chapters, books, and words, but rather as an infinite ray of divine wisdom. Just as the thoughts of God are of infinite depth, it is also impossible to fully grasp the Torah with human intellect or give it one final decisive interpretation. This impossibility of a plain understanding leads to the divergence of the Scripture from its originally intended meaning. The text has an after-life which is to be discovered by future generations, an idea that sounds strikingly similar to the concept of "the death of the author" by Roland Barthes.

(Header image - "Place of Darkness" by Abraham Rattner)