Anthropomorphism in Kabbalah

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Kabbalah, the central system in Jewish mysticism, uses anthropomorphic mythic symbols to metaphorically describe manifestations of God in Judaism. Based on the verses "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27)[1] and "from my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26),[2] Kabbalah uses the form of the human body to describe the structure of the human soul, and the nature of supernal Divine emanations. A particular concern of Kabbalah is sexual unity between male and female potencies in Divinity on high, depicted as interaction of the two sides in the sephirot (Divine Anthropos), between archetypal partzufim (Divine personas), and the redemption of the exiled Shekhinah (feminine Divine Presence) from captivity among the impure forces below.

Kabbalists repeatedly warn and stress the need to divest their subtle notions from any corporeality, dualism, plurality, or spatial and temporal connotations. All divine emanations are only from the spiritual perception of creation, nullifying from the Divine view into the Ohr Ein Sof (Infinite light). As "the Torah speaks in the language of Man",[3] the empirical terms are necessarily imposed upon man's experience in this world. Once the analogy is described, its dialectical limitations are then related to, stripping the kernel of its husk, to arrive at a truer conception. Nonetheless, Kabbalists believe their mythic symbols are not arbitrary, but carefully chosen terminologies that mystically point beyond their own limits of language to denote subtle connotations and profound relationships in the Divine spiritual influences. More accurately, as they describe the emanation of the Material world from the Spiritual realms, the analogous anthropomorphisms and material metaphors themselves derive through cause and effect from their precise root analogies on High.

Due to the danger of idolatrous material analogy, Kabbalists historically restricted esoteric oral transmission to close circles, with pure motives, advanced learning and elite preparation. At various times in history, however, they sought wide public dissemination for Kabbalistic mysticism or popular ethical literature based on Kabbalah, to further Messianic preparation. Understanding Kabbalah through its unity with mainstream Talmudic, Halachic and philosophical proficiency was a traditional prerequisite to avert fallacies. Rabbinic Kabbalists attributed the 17th-18th century Sabbatean antinomian mystical heresies to false corporeal interpretations of Kabbalah through impure motives. Later Hasidic thought saw its devotional popularisation of Kabbalah as a safeguard against esoteric corporeality, by its internalisation of Jewish mysticism through the psychological spiritual experience of man.[4]


Philosophical versus Kabbalist interpretations of classic rabbinic Aggadah[edit]

Talmudic era classic Rabbinic Judaism of the early centuries CE comprised legal Halakha, and imaginative theological and narrative Aggada. Alongside references to early Rabbinic Jewish mysticism, unsystematised philosophical thought was expressed in the Aggada, as well as highly anthropomorphic narrative depictions accentuating the Personal God of the Hebrew Bible in vivid loving relationship with the Jewish people in Rabbinic Judaism. Among such visual metaphors in the Talmud and Midrash, God is said to wear Tefillin, embody the lover seeking for Israel's bride in the Song of Songs, suffer with Israel's suffering, accompany them in exile as the Shekhina Divine Presence, appear as a warrior at the Reed Sea and a wise elder at Sinai. Jacob Neusner shows the chronologically developing anthropomorphism in classic Rabbinic literature, culminating in the personal, poetically embodied, relational, familiar "God we know and love" in the Babylonian Talmud.[5] Gershom Scholem describes the Aggadah as "Giving original expression to the deepest motive-powers of the religious Jew, a quality which helps to make it an excellent and genuine approach to the essentials of Judaism"[6]

The Middle Ages saw the development of systematic theology in Judaism in Jewish philosophy and in Kabbalah, both reinterpreting classic rabbinic Aggadah according to their differing views of metaphysics. Kabbalah emerged in the 12th-14th centuries parallel to, and soon after, the rationalist tradition in Medieval Jewish philosophy. Maimonides articulated normative Jewish theology in his philosophical stress against any idolatrous corporeal interpretation of references to God in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, encapsulated in his 3rd principle of faith[7] and legal codification of Monotheism. He formulated the philosophical transcendence of God through negative theology, allegorising all anthropomorphic references as metaphors of action, and polemicising against literal interpretation of imaginative myth. Kabbalists accepted the Hidden Godhead, reinterpreting it in mystical experience and speculation as the transcendent Ayin "Nothing". However, seeking the personal living God of the Hebrew Bible and classic rabbinic Aggadah imagination, they formulated an opposite approach, articulating an inner dynamic life among Divine immanent theosophical emanations in the spiritual realms. These involved Medieval Zoharic notions of Divine attributes and male–female powers, recast in 16th century Lurianism as cosmic withdrawal, exile–redemption and Divine personas. Lurianic Kabbalah further emphasised the need to divest its heightened personification from corporeality, while lending its messianic mysticism to popular social appeal which became dominant in early-modern Judaism.[8]

Views of Kabbalists[edit]


Lurianic Kabbalah[edit]



The consciousness of Atzilut[edit]

The Man metaphor[edit]

Sexual metaphors and the Shekinah[edit]

Divine Names and prayer through sephirot[edit]

From sephirot to interactive partzufim[edit]

Literal and metaphoric views of tzimtzum[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Talmud Berachot 31b and other sources in Chazal
  4. ^ The Great Maggid - The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Dovber of Mezhirech, Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Kehot 1990, pages 116-118, footnote 17
  5. ^ The Foundations of the Theology of Judaism: Volume 1 God, Jacob Neusner, Aronson 1991. Seminal application of systematic theology to uncover classic Rabbinic development
  6. ^ Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Schocken 1995, p 30-32
  7. ^ "I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever," Maimonides' 3rd principle of faith
  8. ^ "The Lurianic Kabbalah was the last religious movement in Judaism the influence of which became preponderant among all sections of Jewish people and in every country of the Diaspora, without exception." Gershom Scholem Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism 3rd edition 1955, Thames & Hudson, pages 285-6

General references[edit]

  • Mystical Concepts in Chassidism: An Introduction to Kabbalistic Concepts and Doctrines, Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Kehot 1998. Also printed at back of bilingual English Tanya. Chapter 1: Anthropomorphism and metaphors

External links[edit]

  • True Monotheism Kabbalistic understanding of the absolute Unity of Divine manifestations, from