Excerpt from “Path of Kabbalah” by David Sheinkin, M.D.
1. Two things that are similar are the same.
There is no space, no division, in the spiritual realm. Space is in the physical plane, where two similar things are ultimately different. But on the spiritual plane, similar things are the same. Example: Similar Angels are the same. Thus, on one level-the spiritual one-all people are the same. On the physical plane, physical barriers are required to separate similar things from one another. Example: All water in the ocean is one; however a glass is needed to separate some of the water.
2. Things that are different cannot meet, join, or link.
3. Spiritual distance is measured by similarity and difference. Example distance from God is measured by how similar one is to God’s prescribed life for man.
4. Nothing can be destroyed on the spiritual plane.
Once something exists on the spiritual plane, it will always exist by God’s will. That divine will is perfect, continuous, eternal. God’s memory is perfect. Therefore, once thought of by God, an object is not forgotten. All things in the universe exist in God’s mind. Consequently all things are eternal.
5. Spiritual matters are dependent on physical aspects to allow them to be distinguished, to exist as separate entities. Therefore spiritual forces are dependent on the physical universe. Which came first? They are interdependent. The Sefirot (The ten energy essences that are said to be in constant interplay and underlie all of the universe) are intermediaries. The planes are physical, spiritual, and-the highest -beyond.
6. The Ain Sof is not bound by rules of logic; it is as different from the spiritual as it is from the physical. God is beyond all classification and planes.
The House of Man : The dynamics of the sefiroth can be applied to any organism, system or transaction. In this 17th-century print, the design of a house and human anatomy are interpreted according to the principles of the tree of life.
Jewish sages have long taught that creation was not an event that happened once in the unimaginable past and then ended. They have argued that the universe exists at this very moment-and at every moment-because the Holy One wills that celestial flow to continue. God’s inconceivable energy creates the cosmos anew at every tiniest billionth-to-the billionth of a second. If God for one second withdrew His Being from our universe, everything-from the greatest galaxies to the smallest sub-atomic particles-would cease to exist. All would revert back to the Ain Sof. From this compelling concept it follows that the creating flow described in Genesis 1 did not end in the distant past but continues at this moment. Kabbalists declare that the bridge between God and Men still exists in the creative flow emanating from the Ain Sof at every instant. Therefore by attuning ourselves to this heavenly flow we can bring ourselves closer to God.
“Man’s future will indeed come, in which he will evolve to such a sound spiritual state, that not only will every profession not hide another, but every science and every sentiment will reflect the entire scientific sea and the entire emotional depth, as this matter really is in the actual reality.”
-Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook
One of the deepest teachings of Kabbalah is also one of the simplest: that the world is not what it seems. As we have already explored, that which we experience as the world is actually a veil for the Infinite Oneness, the only thing that really is. Refracted through the various lenses of the sefirot, this “light” is the true structure of what is happening right now.
But what about what seems to be happening right now? A computer, a table, a person reading — are these illusion, maya in the words of another religious tradition?
In the Kabbalah’s understanding, the manifest world is also Divine, but it is — using the mythic language of the theosophical Kabbalah — in exile; in a state of apparent separation; in need of unity.
There’s a wise teaching that while the mind may know that all is one, the heart still experiences two. You and me; here and there; now and later — or before. And so the heart experiences a yearning which is sometimes sweet, oftentimes holy, and other times bitter and tinged with pain.
This yearning is also part of our reality. Our experience of separateness is part of our reality. And that which is present is not mere illusion: it is the Presence of the Divine, the shechinah, the tenth sefirah, also known as malchut, sovereignty.
Malchut completes the chain of the sefirot. If we imagine the first three sefirot to be an idea arising in the mind, the second three to be the stirrings in the heart as it weighs and evaluates it, and the third three to be the qualities of action that bring it into being, then malchut is its actual being; its manifestation. Yesod has gathered together all of the energies of creation — and then it creates. Malchut is the result.
In human terms, your malchut aspect corresponds to the fruits of your labor: that which actually happens out there in the world, once you’re finished willing and deciding and creating. In Jewish ethics, unlike in some other systems, malchut is the most important part; actions, not intentions, define moral character.
In Divine terms, malchut is the world that we experience, which is filled with the Shechinah, the Divine presence. Malchut is that aspect of the Divine which is totally immanent, absolutely here and now, closer to you even than your concept of “you.”
Consequently, malchut is also that aspect of God which — as expressed poetically, and in ways that would horrify some rationalist philosophers — experiences what we experience. When we experience joy, malchut experiences joy; when we experience sadness, malchut experiences sadness. Most radically, when people are oppressed, enslaved, or even exterminated — this is malchut’s experience as well.
Malchut is not merely an abstract quality in the Kabbalah, however. It is also Shechinah, Presence, the revealed Divine face — and the Divine feminine. It is Shechinah who never leaves us, the Divine Feminine — in other systems understood as the Goddess — who is with us always and who is, like us sometimes, exiled from her Divine lover, the Holy One. Sefirotically, the Divine name “Holy One, Blessed be He” refers to Tiferet as expressed through Yesod — the active masculine principle, the “sky god” in primitive theology. Erotically, the great motion of the universe is the reunification of the masculine principle and the feminine one — yichud kudsha brich hu v’schechintei.
We will explore these themes in more depth later, but you can already see how scandalous Kabbalistic theology can sometimes seem. How different is this dynamic of Holy One and Shechinah from the ancient wedding of god and goddess, precisely the practices about which our ancestors were so concerned? And the more you know, the more “troubling” the situation becomes. Mystics are exhorted to experience this union sexually — with their wives, on Friday night in particular. Poems and prayers are composed to the Shechinah itself — for example, the many references to “Sabbath Queen” and “Sabbath Bride.” (Who do we think we are addressing in those prayers, anyway?) And the imagery of the Shechinah is, unabashedly, goddess-imagery: She is the Earth mating with the sky through the conduits of rain, She is the spirit in the trees, She is the ever-renewing cyclical flow of natural times and seasons.
Indeed, all this is very “troubling” if you have a fixed notion that God is male, or “genderless,” and that spirit and sex should be separate. But the Kabbalists do not have such notions. The Divine is male, and female. It is experienced through spirit and body — and also heart and mind. It is immanent and transcendent; perfect but also, from our perspective, constantly changing. Those faces of God with which we may be familiar from childhood — the angry judge, the man of war — are real faces. But so are the faces which have been suppressed for much of our history: the nurturing womb, the embracing All.
In order to understand this, I’d invite you to query just what polytheists and pagans think they’re doing anyway. Have you ever wondered? Let’s imagine a hypothetical member of a pre-industrial, perhaps even pre-literate society, someone who worships multiple gods and has a rich mythology of nature spirits, angels, demons, and so on. What is going on? Is this person just gravely mistaken? Deluded? Well, what about the hundreds of different religions around today? Are women who venerate the Virgin Mary wrong? Confused? Are over a billion Hindus, devoted to any number of different Divine beings (or manifestations) really worshipping something completely devoid of any reality?
Surely this cannot be the case experientially. A religion which offers no connection to spirit does not survive — as many religions are, indeed, failing to survive in some communities today. Clearly, the “primitive” person, the Kabbalist, and the devotees of different religions are experiencing something. We might disagree as to how that experience is interpreted and mythologized. Or we might not even disagree — we might see the language of myth and interpretation as precisely that: a means to conceptualize and frame into words that which is known but not articulated.
Some texts of the Kabbalah take precisely this view, even if it may strike us as surprisingly pluralistic. The Zohar, for example, understands even the despised idolatries of Ancient Canaan as merely imprecise in terminology. Asherah-worship, for example, is basically worship of the Shechinah — only with the mistaken notion that Asherah is really a separate being. Indeed, in one of the most shocking passages in the Zohar (brought to my attention by Rabbi Jill Hammer), Asherah is even a future name of Shechinah herself.
If the radical nature of these ideas is not resonating with you, imagine something closer to home. Imagine a text which says that Jesus Christ is but another name for Tiferet, or that Ganesh is just a name for Hod. Everyone’s on the right track, so to speak; it’s just in some of the theological details that they get confused.
Those texts, to my knowledge, do not exist. But the Zohar’s embrace of ancient paganism as being truthful, but subtly mistaken is equally radical. And, I think, much more plausible than any alternative I can think of. There are billions of people on the planet, all having authentic religious experiences in different religious language. Do we really believe that only the rationalist philosophers are accessing the truth of Being? Or can we open to the possibility that these non-rational, even pre-rational, modes of religious life are accessing something deep, primal, and true?
To be sure, the Kabbalah is not — as some would have us believe — a pagan practice of magic, myth, and sorcery. Until the last hundred years, it is only in the rarest, most heretical cases that Kabbalistic practice included colorful sexual rites, or syncretistic God/Goddess language. The Kabbalah may be aware of these energies, and honor them far more than does any other part of Judaism, but it is also conservative in nature. Traditional Kabbalah does not set aside the mitzvot, or Torah study, or the life of the pious. It remains a nomian, conservative Jewish phenomenon.
But if we are speaking of the Presence of God, then we are speaking of God as experienced — and that includes the gendered and eroticized images of Earth Goddess, princess, and bride. Across thousands of years and wide geographical expanses, peoples around the world have experienced the Divine as feminine. And the more some traditions have sought to erase Her, the more slyly She has persisted — sometimes in “Christmas Trees” or “Easter Eggs” (historically, both pagan symbols of the Goddess), sometimes even more subtly, as, for example, the object who sits behind a veil in every synagogue, wearing all her finery (silver crown, velvet dress), and then, at a certain point, she is undressed, and her two parchment legs are parted to reveal the secrets within. The Goddess is a nearly universal human experience, it would seem, and She remains in monotheism as a part of the unified One — albeit a part which is sometime in exile from the whole, and in need of unification.
(Incidentally, some critics have suggested that the Shechinah doctrine is itself historically connected to the cult of the Virgin in medieval Christianity. Most critics see this as the silly over-simplification that it is. If any sefirah is the Mother of God, it is Binah, not Shechinah — the “Higher Mother” which gives birth to the sefirotic Godhead. The concept of the Divine feminine is far larger than any particular manifestation of it.)
Malchut is probably the most important of the ten sefirot — remember, what’s higher on a Kabbalistic hierarchy is not more important than what is below — because She is closest to us. The great Kabbalistic project to restore unity and harmony in the Divine begins with unifying the immanent and the transcendent, or shamayim and aretz. We might also see that project as the essential work of traditional Judaism as a whole: bringing together the actual world in which we live with our ideal notions of truth, justice, and God. That project entails both an upward-pointing spiritual awareness, and a downward-pointing practical orientation; one aspect without the other is incomplete. And so we begin, and end, where we are.
This very short guided tour of the sefirot is only one of many which could have been offered. Consult another Kabbalah site, or book, and you will receive a completely different perspective. Such is the nature of the Kabbalah and its symbolism: expansive, open to interpretation, and rooted in a thousand years of polysemous texts. I have focused on the mythical, psychological and theosophical aspects of the sefirot. But I might just as well have focused on the astrological, or even the magical. Of course, another fundamental teaching of the Kabbalah is that interpretation is infinite. We are grounded in sacred text, in this exploration, and hopefully the roots of the tree are strong; but the branches extend far up and away.
The tree of the sefirot itself is only one of many symbolic structures in the Kabbalah, and to learn Kabbalah in an authentic way requires a serious playfulness, a willingness to delve deeper and deeper into these fascinating images and myths, to see where both the historical and personal truths reside. We will do a little of that work here.
In our look at the sefirot so far, we have spoken primarily of forces that act within the individual, be that individual a human being like you or me, or the Divine Godhead itself. Hochmah, Binah, and Daat’s reflection of Keter are aspects within the mind. Hesed, gevurah, and Tiferet are forces within the heart. And Keter itself points upward to our true unity with the One. But what about the body? What are the processes which convert our will, through our thoughts and our emotions, into actions?
These are the next triad of sefirot: netzach, hod, and yesod. Many sources say these are the hardest sefirot to understand, and I assure you that the explanation I give here, though grounded in Cordovero and in Hasidic thought, is not the only one. You’ll easily find others which contradict it. Remember, there is no central authority patrolling the dogma of Kabbalah. It’s a bit like Tibetan Buddhism, with multiple lineages, and respect among them, so long as the conduct and intention of teachers is known to be upright.
Netzach means “eternity;” it is the aspect of revelation which stretches horizontally for all time, and the attribute of endurance within the Divine — in the sense both of “God’s mercy endures forever” and the more common usage of endurance through difficult times. Hod, its complement, means “splendor.” It is the aspect of revelation which exists vertically, as a peak experience, or contact with that which is transcendence. It is the source of what Heschel called the experience of radical amazement: the shattering encounter with the numinous that engenders the birth of wonder.
On the more mundane planes, we can (borrowing from Thomas Edison) understand hod as inspiration, and netzach as perspiration. Hod are those moments of insight at which we sing and shout “awwww!” Netzach are the rest of the times. Hod are, in relationship, those perfect evenings on tropical islands, where the sun sets over the water and the night is filled with love. Netzach are the times you pick your lover up at the airport. To paraphrase Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, hod is like a Ferrari; netzach like a Jeep. To paraphrase Jack Kornfield, hod is the ecstasy; netzach is the laundry.
In our culture, there is often a tendency to flee from netzach and embrace only the hod. Ours is an escapist popular culture, grounded in an economic system which endures precisely by providing lots of moments of mini-hod to distract us from our netzach reality. Consequently, since netzach becomes seen as the boring day-to-day and hod (even in bastardized, miniaturized forms like aggressive pastimes or cheap thrills) is the fun part, netzach becomes that which is merely to be endured. Mysticism is about ecstasy, not laundry; love is about passion, not reliability. Even as most Americans live safe lives in the suburbs (netzach), their advertising-based cultural discourse tells them their car is born to be wild (hod).
As you know by now, if you have been reading this site linearly, this is not at all the Kabbalistic approach. We never want to value one sefirah over the other; we want to value the balance and dynamism between them. Sometimes netzach, sometimes hod; both are necessary to unite in yesod, which is the foundation of generativity and productivity. When you are working with netzach, know that you’re working with netzach; be mindful of whether you might be out of balance, but do not denigrate one sefirah in favor of another. Likewise, when you are experiencing an expansive moment of hod, know that you’re experiencing hod; don’t imagine it will last forever, but don’t blow it off as merely a “high” either. Hod moments give us the juice to keep going on; netzach is the going on itself.
Again to draw a parallel from relationships, a partnership that lacks hod is a partnership without spice, without a spark. It will ultimately (one might even say hopefully) be unsatisfying. Likewise, a partnership without netzach is a partnership without stability. Great sex, sure; but where is s/he in the morning?
In the Kabbalistic schema, netzach and hod balance into yesod. If tiferet is the heart center, bringing together the various emotional energies to the core of inner balance, yesod is the sexual organ, bringing together the various productive energies to the place of generativity. Recall that all sefirot have anatomical correspondences: hesed, gevurah and tiferet are right arm, left arm and heart-center; netzach, hod, and yesod are right leg, left leg, and sex organ.
In some charts of the sefirot, yesod is simply the phallus, and in many Kabbalistic texts, it does function in this way. But the situation is actually more complicated. Sexually, yesod is the conduit between male and female energy, and as such includes both male and female genitalia. Think of it in terms of generation and procreation. Yesod is where the energies come together — the Kabbalists did not have an idea of “genetic material” as we do, though it maps on quite well — and are united into manifestation, which is malchut — the last sefirah which we’ll get to next. For a man, this can be understood as bringing together all the energies and projecting them out into the world. For a woman, it might be understood as bringing together all the energies so that their manifestation can be birthed.
Hopefully, it is clear that this sexual imagery is both metaphorical and actual. We use generative language in our common speech all the time: “the idea is gestating,” for example. And certainly, that applies to yesod as well. Yet microcosm reflects macrocosm; our experience of union reflects the structure of the universe.
Incidentally, this is true regardless of how we experience sexuality. Though the Kabbalistic system is obviously heteronormative, it also includes a variety of gender permutations: between two female sefirot, between a male figure who is gendered female and a Divine energy that is gendered male, and so on. In other places, I have gone into these aspects of the Kabbalah in greater detail. Still, for some, it may not be useful to see that which is produced as “female” and that which produces as “male,” or, reflecting back on hesed and gevurah, to see that which expands as “male” and that which receives as “female.” Some may see this sort of language as reinforcing hierarchies and stereotypes, and it would be unwise to try to shade or apologize for this aspect of the Kabbalah by pretending it is other than what it is. But it would be a shame to lose the experiential aspect of theosophical Kabbalah: the eroticization of experience itself, the deep knowing of all reality to be the Divine lovemaking.
Inspiration, determination, and action: the two condition the third, sustain it, and allow what was once merely a thought to manifest into actualization. Now let’s finish our tour of the sefirot with malchut, the Divine feminine as manifested in the world.