Jewish Reflections On Trinitarian Thinking

Three Is Not Enough: Jewish Reflections on Trinitarian Thinking

Scriptural and Early Rabbinic God Language

In earlier times, people did not ask questions about God language; they just used it. Talking to God, directly, brought people close to the Lord of creation and history. Addressing God, in a straightforward manner, drew them into relationship with the Lord of life. Imagine the intensity of relatedness between God and the person who said (Psalm 139:1-12):

Lord, You have probed me and You know.
You know when I sit and when I stand.
You discern my yelling from afar.
You sift through my life path and my sexual patterns.
You have intimate knowledge of all my ways….
You encompass me, front and back….
Where can I run away from Your presence?
Where can I flee from Your Face?
If I go up to heaven, You are there.
If I descend below, You are there too.
If I fly with wings to the east, if I dwell on the western horizon, there, too, Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will grasp me.
If I say, “Let darkness envelope me and night be light for me,” even darkness cannot be dark for You, night will light up as the day, darkness and light are the same.

Or, imagine the intimate relationship with God of the person who said (Isaiah 66:13): “As a man is comforted by his mother, so shall I comfort you and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Or, imagine the imagination of the one who talked of God as follows (Psalm 78: 59-66):

God saw and got angry and He detested Israel greatly. He deserted His sanctuary in Shiloh, the tent He had set among humans…. He handed over His people to the sword and was angry with His inheritance. His young men were consumed by fire and His young women could not even wail. His priests fell by the sword and His widows could not even weep. But then the Lord woke up like one asleep, like a warrior intoxicated with wine.[1]

Even when trying to describe the ineffable nature of God, concrete language and real action were the rule (Isaiah 40:12-24):

Who measured the waters in the hollow of his hand? or meted out the heavens with a span? or contained the dust of the earth in a measure? or weighed the mountains in a scale and the hills in a balance? … He spreads the heavens as a curtain, stretching them out as a tent to dwell in. He makes princes as nothing and human judges as if they had done naught. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely are they sown, scarcely have their stocks taken root in the earth, then He blows on them and they are dried up, the storm carries them away as straw.

The tendency to personalist language in describing and addressing God, especially in Scripture, is well-known.[2] The question is, can it be improved upon? Pre-philosophic rabbinic thought said, No. The language of the midrash, therefore, continued the earlier personalist understanding and expression. The following passage is typical midrashic language about God:[3]

“God came down in a cloud and stood with him [Moses] there, and H/he called out in the name of God. God passed before him and H/he called, `Lord, Lord, God, merciful, and kind, of great patience, and full of grace, and truth. Who stores up grace for thousands, Who forgives purposeful sins, rebellious sins, and inadvertent sins, and Who cleanses…'” (Exodus 34:5-7) — Rabbi Yohanan said, “Were it not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say it: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a tallit like a shliah tsibbur [one who leads in prayer] and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said, `As long as Israel sins, they should follow this order of prayer before Me and I will forgive them…'”

Personalist language also remained the mode of understanding and expression for addressing God, that is, in rabbinic liturgy. “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You…. Our Father, our King, inscribe us in the book of life.” How else could one pray? Indeed, one might say that rabbinic Judaism intensified the personalist thrust of language about, and address to, God.

Crucifix Cross Christian Religion Vera


The Philosophic Challenge

Philosophic rabbinic Judaism, which begins in the ninth century, first raised the systematic question of God language. Which words, the philosophers asked, are to be taken literally — that is, which words have truth value as descriptors of, and modes of address to, God? And, which words are not to be taken literally — that is, which words are images and metaphors? Once raised, the question was, and still is, hotly debated. Some said that certain words are true while the rest are metaphors. These are the thinkers who taught the doctrine of “essential attributes.” Saadia Gaon, tenth century Iraq, claimed there were five words / ideas that truly applied to God; the rest was images. Some claimed more; some claimed fewer. But the solution was the same: There is a legitimate but limited God language; theology and, to a certain extent, liturgy must conform to that language.

Other philosophers said that no language at all is adequate to describe or address God. One can only advance in theological reflection by realizing how powerless human beings and the tradition are in describing and addressing God. These are the thinkers who taught the via negativa, the theology of negation, best represented by Maimonides, twelfth century Egypt. Many followed him, more or less systematically. But the solution was the same: One cannot describe, and therefore one cannot directly address, God. This theology, properly followed, leads to silence, to an acknowledgement of our inability to say anything coherent about, or to coherently address, God. Biblical and liturgical language is all metaphors and is to be used only with reservation.[4]

Each of these philosophical schools of thought led, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to a configuration of serious problems. The school of negative theology, which denied especially the personalist language of Scripture and liturgy, ran into the wall of spiritual experience. Even the most radical of negative theologians had some form of spiritual experience, sometimes rooted in the intellection of God and sometimes rooted in the love of God. This led to the paradox of denying all language about God but affirming God as intellect or God as love. This paradoxical affirmation, in turn, was rooted in a form of religious experience that can properly be called “philosophic” or “intellectualist mysticism,” which was a well-recognized form of spirituality in the Middle Ages.[5] The school of essentialist theology, which asserted some but not all language of God, ran into the wall of the unity of God. Even the most elegant essentialist theologian had some form of pluralism in his conception of God. God, in God’s essence, was limited, but always more than one.

It is in the context of essential attributes that Jews understood the problem of the trinity: Granted that God could, in God’s essential divinity, be three — or four, or five — how could God also be only one? A good question — for Jews, for Christians, and for Muslims.[6] Insofar, however, as the doctrine of the trinity claimed more than the identity of three dimensions within the essence of God, Jews did not, and do not, understand it. Jews simply denied, as a form of polytheism, that the persons of the trinity could be more than essential attributes of God. (The other problem Jews had with the trinity was its use as a tool for persecution, forced conversion, and religious murder. The trinity has not been experienced by Jews as the embodiment of God’s inalienable and grace-filled love.)

Non-philosophic Judaism took another tack on the matter of God language. Non-philosophic — and post-philosophic[7] — Judaism followed in the footsteps of the biblical and early rabbinic tradition and simply did not get tangled up in the question of when a word is true and when it becomes only an image, of when a phrase is real and when it becomes only a metaphor. This stream of the tradition adopted the doctrine that some words / ideas were more important than others, but rejected the conception that other words and images are somehow not valid expressions of, and address to, the divine. I think this was due, in the first instance, to a loyalty to the earlier, traditional language of Scripture, midrash, and liturgy which is, everyone agrees, personalist. I think, too, that the non-philosophic return to what Scholem called “mythic” language[8] was also due to a recognition of the limited affective range of philosophic Judaism. The rarified rational mysticism of the philosophic rabbis was not the favored cup of tea of everyone. Rather, these others found the expression for their own experience of God in the personalist language of the earlier tradition and built their theologies and liturgies in that language, rejecting the intellectualist, restrained speech of the philosophers.[9]

The Zoharic Response



Probably, the most imaginative, and powerful, non-philosophic response in the personalist tradition of thinking about and addressing God is to be found in the Zohar (end of the thirteenth century Spain) and in the tradition that developed from it.[10] This worldview became known as “The Kabbala,” which is a somewhat too restricted use of the term. It taught that God Godself is made up of ten dimensions, called sefirot (sing., sefira ). These sefirot are not extradeical hypostases, like the intellects of the neoaristotelian philosopher theologians. Nor are they attributes of God, quite like the essential or accidental attributes of the other philosopher theologians. Rather, the sefirot of the Zohar are extramental — that is, they are real and not just mental constructs of the human mind — and they are intradeical dimensions of God’s very being — that is, they are inside God, integral parts of God. Furthermore, the sefirot are not static; they interact with one another. Thus, God’s Hesed (grace) interacts with God’s Gevura (God’s power to draw lines, set standards, and make judgments). Thus, too, God’s Tiferet (compassion, mercy) draws on God’s Hesed and God’s Gevura. All three draw on God’s Hokhma (knowability) and God’s Bina (intuitive understanding), as well as upon God’s Keter (ineffability). God’s Malkhut (God’s ruling ability) is God’s Face to creation, God’s Name by which God is known. Malkhut is the point of contact between God and the world; it is where the spiritual energy of humanity and of God meet and interact.

This interactive and dynamic system of the dimensions of God can be graphically portrayed as a tree, as a human being, as well as in various more abstract representations. These representations are widely available and form the core of “kabbalistic art.” The clearest is given in Figure 1.[11] Further, the Zohar, unlike modern literature, is written in a style which regards multiple imagery as a fine art. Hence, each sefira is depicted with multiple metaphors and even with multiple meanings. An inkling of the complexity of this system is given in Figure 2.


The following text,[12] which uses the image of the common flame, best illustrates the dynamic and interactive quality of the sefirot: [13]

Rabbi Simeon began by saying: There are two verses [that contradict one another]. It is written, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24) and it is also written, “And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, to-day” (Deuteronomy 4:4). We have reconciled these verses in several places, but the [mystical] companions have a [deeper] understanding of them…. Whoever wishes to understand the wisdom of the holy unification, let him look at the flame that rises from a glowing coal, or from a burning lamp, for the flame rises only when it takes hold of some coarse matter.

Come and see. In the rising flame there are two lights: one is a radiant white light and one is a light that contains black or blue. The white light is above and it ascends in a direct line. Beneath it is the blue or black light and it is a throne for the white. The white light rests upon it and they are connected together, forming one whole. The black light, [that which has] blue color, is the throne of glory for the white. And this is the mystic significance of the blue.

This blue-black throne is joined to something else, below it, so that it can burn and this stimulates it to grasp the white light…. This [blue-black light] is connected on two sides. It is connected above to the white light and it is connected below to what is beneath it, to what has been prepared for it so that it might illuminate and grasp [that which is above it].

This [blue-black light] devours continuously and consumes whatever is placed beneath it; for the blue light consumes and devours whatever is attached to it below, whatever it rests upon, since it is its habit to consume and devour. Indeed, the destruction of all, the death of all, depends upon it and therefore it devours whatever is attached to it below. [But] the white light which rests upon it does not devour or consume at all, and its light does not change. Concerning this, Moses said, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire,” really devouring, devouring and consuming whatever rests beneath it…

Above the white light rests a concealed light which encompasses it. Here is a supernal mystery and you will find all in the ascending flame. The wisdom of the upper realms is in it.

The Zohar begins this passage in classical midrashic style by showing a contradiction between two verses, one of which speaks of God as a consuming fire while the other advocates cleaving to God. It, then, goes on to draw an analogy to the common flame which is attached to a dark coal, which it must consume in order to burn. The flame itself is composed of two parts — a blue-black center, which is attached to the wick or coal, and a white periphery which encompasses and rises above the blue-black center.

In this passage, the Zohar depicts the central sefira which is Tiferet as the white part of the flame. It rests upon the sefira which is the point of contact with creation, Malkhut, here depicted as the blue-black part of the flame. At the end of this passage, the Zohar calls attention to the invisible part of the flame — the zone of invisible heat which surrounds every fire — and interprets it as Keter (God’s ultimate ineffability).

Finally, the Zohar notes that the blue-black part of the flame, Malkhut (God’s ruling ability), consumes the coal or wick to which it is attached. The coal and wick are material; they depict creation, particularly humanity.

Having decoded the symbolism of the passage, we can address the theology.[14] The Zohar teaches here that God’s compassion (Tiferet, the white part of the flame) is interactive with God’s providence (Malkhut, the blue-black part of the flame) for, or governance of, creation. Energy flows from compassion to governance and also from governance to compassion. God is in discussion with Godself, so to speak, on the issue of how best to act in creation — just as there can be no flame without both a blue-black and a white light and the interaction between them. The Zohar also teaches here that God’s very energy depends on creation — just as, without the wick or coal, there can be no flame. This means that God’s providence is fed by human action and, further, that that energy is passed on even unto God’s inner being, God’s compassion. To put it differently, spiritual energy generated in creation rises up into God’s Self. This human-generated spiritual energy, according to the Zohar, actually sustains the dimensions of God’s very being, God’s providence, God’s compassion, and God’s ineffability — just as the wick or coal sustains the blue-black, the white, and even the invisible parts of the common flame.

Finally, the Zohar teaches that, for most of creation, this feeding of energy to the divine is consuming; that is, that it results in the death of created beings. This death-into-God is the purpose of most of creation. Death is not only a part of the natural action of God’s governance; it adds energy to God.

The text continues:[15]

Come and see. The only stimulus that causes the blue light to burn and to grasp the white light is that which comes from Israel, who cleave to it below.

Come and see. Although it is the way of the blue-black flame to consume whatever is attached to it beneath, Israel, who cleave to it beneath, survive as they are. This is the meaning of “And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive” — … to the blue-black light that devours and consumes whatever is attached to it beneath and yet you who cleave to it survive as is written, “alive, all of you, to-day.”

Here, the Zohar takes another theological step and identifies the stimulus that sustains the flame as being the Jewish people.[16] They, in their proper zoharic observance of the commandments, feed spiritual energy first into Malkhut and then into Tiferet. Performing the mitsvot with the proper zoharic intent allows the Jewish creature consciously to direct energy into God. It allows the Jew to interact directly with God, not just in dialogue but in inter-action, in a conscious directing of spiritual energy into God. This ability to feed spiritual energy back into God through the zoharic observance of God’s commandments is the height of interactivity with God. It is the purpose of Jewish existence. It gives life; hence, the verse from Deuteronomy 4:4 which contrasts with Deuteronomy 4:24 in which contact with the Godhead results in death.

The theology of the spiritual inter-action of humanity and the dimensions of God’s very being is repeated and extended in an important way in another passage:[17]

Rabbi Judah said: When the righteous increase in the world, the Assembly of Israel exudes a sweet perfume, and she is blessed by the Holy King and her face shines. But, when the wicked increase in the world, the Assembly of Israel does not exude sweet perfumes, so to speak, but she tastes of the bitter “other side.” Then is it written, “He has cast down earth from heaven” (Lamentations 2:1) and, then, her face is darkened.

To decode this passage, one must know that “Assembly of Israel” is not the Jewish people; rather, it is Malkhut (God’s Face to creation). Similarly, the “Holy King” is not God but is Tiferet (God’s compassion). To “exude sweet perfume” is to radiate positive spiritual energy. To have a “face shine” is to experience joy, bliss. Finally, “earth” is Malkhut and “heaven” is Tiferet. [18]

The theology of this passage is deceptively clear. It teaches that the righteous, by their righteousness — that is, by their zoharic observance of the commandments, especially prayer — consciously return energy into God; that is, the righteous return positive energy into Malkhut, the outward dimension of God that governs creation. Malkhut, then, radiates that positive spiritual energy into Tiferet, the more inward compassionate dimension of God’s being. With this positive unification of the outer and inner dimensions of God — that is, with the union of compassion and providence inside the Divine — God Godself experiences bliss! This understanding of the human-divine relationship in which humans help God unite Godself parallels that of the previous passage, with the addition that the Zohar teaches, here, that God Godself experiences bliss.

The really new idea in this passage is that, the wicked, by their wickedness — which includes, but is not limited to, their non-zoharic observance of the commandments — return negative energy into God. This, in turn, means that God (that is, Malkhut ) does not radiate positive spiritual energy into Tiferet, and God Godself does not experience bliss. In fact, the passage teaches that, when the wicked prosper, God is drawn toward the “other side,” the dark side, of God’s own being and, then, God Godself experiences darkness, which is absence-of-bliss, but is also anger and dangerous power. When the wicked prosper, God Godself is fragmented — as the passage says, “earth” is separated from “heaven”; that is, Malkhut is severed from Tiferet. To put it succinctly: When the righteous prosper, God’s governance and compassion act together, and God is in bliss. But, when the wicked are ascendant, God’s ability to govern is severed from God’s compassion, and God is subject to the dark side of God’s nature, and is depressed and dangerous. This is a remarkable double theological statement: first, that God is influenced by the actions of humans, for better but also for worse; that the human capacity consciously to direct energy into God can have bad, as well as good, consequences — not just in this world but also inside God.[19] Second, and perhaps more revolutionary, the passage is clear — and it is typical of zoharic thinking — that God has a “dark side”; that, within God Godself, is the capacity to act in ways that are wrong, evil, sinful.[20] It is passages like these that led me in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest to dare to use the term “abusing” of God, as reviewers familiar with the Zohar have noted.

The Zohar and the tradition that developed out of it, including Lurianic kabbalah, then, constitutes a reappropriation and a deepening of the personalist language of the biblical and earlier rabbinic tradition. It produces textual, spiritual, and theological insight into God in a very, very personalist mode. As Walter Brueggemann, in another context, has noted: “Thus, we need to consider not only mutations in the social processes, or mutations in the articulations of God which serve the social processes, but mutations that are said to be going on in the very person of God.” [21]

Interestingly, Christian theologians seem to have sensed this. When, in 1553, the (otherwise good) Franciscan brothers ordained the burning of all Jewish books in the Campo dei Fiori in the center of Rome, they specifically ordered copies of the Zohar to be removed from the pyre.[22] In a more constructive vein, counterreformation Catholic scholars developed a whole theological enterprise called “Christian Kabbala” which translated and commented upon the Zohar and related texts.[23] The reasons for this are quite direct: First, Christians easily found trinitarian allusions in the Zohar in the groupings Keter, Hokhma, Bina; or Hesed, Gevura, Tiferet; or Netsah, Hod, Yesod.

Second, there were zoharic texts that lent themselves easily to a trinitarian interpretation. One well-known rabbinic saying teaches that the world was created by ten acts of creative speech, each act corresponding to one occurrence of the Hebrew va-yomer, “And God said,” in the first chapter of Genesis. However, if one counts the occurrences of that word, there are only nine. The Zohar, along with other sources, takes the other creative word to be the first word of the Bible, bereshit, “In the beginning.” This yields the following rendering of the opening two words of Scripture, Bereshit bara’: The first-creative-speech-act created....' or, as Christians probably heard it,the Logos created….’ One zoharic text goes even further, understanding the second word of the Bible, bara’, “created,” in its Aramaic sense, bra, “son,” as follows:[24]

Bereshit bara’: Bereshit — is a saying [that is, a creative speech act]. Bara’ — is half a saying [that is, a second and partial creative speech act]. Father and Son (Heb., ‘av u-ven ); concealed and revealed.

To the author of the Zohar, “Father and Son” are the sefirot, Hokhma and Tiferet. To the Christian reader, the allusion was clearly trinitarian.[25]

Finally, I suspect that part of the Christian interest in the Zohar stemmed from the distinctly feminine character of Bina and Malkhut, as opposed to the distinctly masculine character of Hokhma, Tiferet, and Yesod. This leads to a theology which is trinitarian; perhaps, Marian.

Three is Not Enough

The historical interlude of the Christian reception of the Zohar in counterreformation Italy aside, it seems to me that a more profound theological question has arisen: If God can, indeed, have personalist dimensions as part of God’s own inner being, why should there be only three such dimensions? If God can, indeed, encompass different levels of being, all of which are equal within God’s inner-ness, why should there not be as many such levels as necessary? To put it clearly: If God’s being is plural, why only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Why not Ineffability, Knowability (Father), Intuition (Mother), Grace (male), Judgment (female), Compassion (Husband), Eternity, Awe, Fecundity (male), and Providence (Bride, Mother) — all of which are equally integral to the divine whole? To put it in declarative form: The zoharic dialogue with the trinity leads to the statement: Three is not enough! God, in God’s fullness, is more than three. God, in Whose Image humanity is created, has more than three dimensions. The awesome complexity of the human personality — in which Image humanity is created — suggests that there are many more than three basic dimensions to God’s personhood. Indeed, if we, humans, are more than trinitarian, certainly God is more than three.

Jewish readers of the Zohar and its related literature knew all this. The non-philosophers were struck by the very depth of its insight into God, and into humanity, and made the Zohar into a holy book, probably the third holiest in Judaism after the Bible and the Talmud.[26] Jewish rationalists of philosophic or halakhic bent were struck by the almost heretical pluralism within the divine and objected strenuously to teaching, publishing, and translating the Zohar. In fact, the charge of the Zohar being a book that aids and abets trinitarian thinking precisely because the sefirot are integral elements of God Godself, was first made by Jews[27] and it is surely one of the reasons why the Zohar may not be taught to Jews who are too young or uneducated, or to Christians.

Jewish rationalist hesitations notwithstanding, the question remains: If God’s being is plural, why only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Why not Ineffability, Knowability, Intuition, Grace, Judgment, Compassion, Eternity, Awe, Fecundity, and Providence — all of which are equally integral to the divine whole? If we, who are complex beyond three, are created in God’s Image, God must be complex beyond three.

I must admit that I am in sympathy with this question and with the theology it generates. There could, of course, be more than ten dimensions to divine, and hence to human, personhood. The choice of ten is an historical and exegetical artifact of the documents and culture which created this system, ten being an ideal number in late antique and medieval thinking. However, the personalist orientation of the system is, to my mind, right on the mark. It is biblical, midrashic, and liturgical, and it concords with our commonsensical experience and understanding of God. Furthermore, the subtlety of the understanding of personhood in this theology is remarkable. Each of us is many, and yet one. Each of us relates in many ways, and yet is somehow consistent in who she or he is. When we lose our oneness, we have multiple personality disorder and, when we lose our multipleness, we are too rigid to be fully in the world. God, too, according to the texts and according to our commonsense experience of the divine, is many and yet one. God, too, relates in many ways and is somehow consistent in who God is.[28] In a universe in which we are created in God’s Image, it cannot be otherwise. In a creation in which the Creator is present in Personhood, the most powerful and insightful understanding of personhood is the best theology.[29]

By David R. Blumenthal, Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies

This article is borrowed from Ethical Monotheism, Past and Present: Essays in Honor of Wendell S. Dietrich, ed. T. Vial and M. Hadley (Providence, RI, Brown Judaic Studies: 2001) 181-95.


[1] Heb., ke-gibbor mitronen mi-yayin.
[2] On the term “personalist,” see e.g., B. P. Bowne, Personalism (Boston, Houghton, Mifflin: 1908) and D. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993) at the Index, “Personality.”
[3] Talmud, Rosh haShana 17b.
[4] On these two schools of philosophic Judaism, see Facing, 6-31, 246-48 and D. Blumenthal, “Croyance et attributs essentiels dans la théologie juive médiévale et moderne,” Revue des études juives (1994) 152:415-23; also available on my website <>.
[5] On “philosophic mysticism,” see D. Blumenthal, “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism,” Prière, Mystique et Judaisme, ed. R. Goetschel (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France) 89-106; reprinted in Appproaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, ed. D. Blumenthal (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) 3:1-16; also available on my website (see n. 4); and D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism, vol. 2 (New York, Ktav Publishing: 1982) 3-86.
[6] H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Chuch Fathers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univesity Press: 1964) ch. 7-15; idem., Studies in the History of Religion and Philosophy, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 1973, 1977) at indexes.
[7] See for example, A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, 2 vols. (San Francisco, Harper and Row: 1962) and M. Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary: 1952), cited in Facing, 7, 12, 25-29.
[8] G. Scholem, “Kabbalah and Myth,” On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York, Shocken Books: 1969) ch. 3.
[9] Since I claim that the philosophers also had a form of mysticism, I cannot label the non-philosophers “mystics.” Further, the non-philosophers also include liturgists and halakhists who were not mystics in its narrow sense or philosophers. For a typology of Jewish mysticism, see Understanding Jewish Mysticism, 2 vols. (New York, Ktav Publishing: 1978, 1982).
[10] To call the Zohar “non-philosophic” is, technically, not quite correct. Part of the Zohar is rooted in Maimonidean philosophic concepts and terms (e.g., the use of “intellects”). Further, the doctrine of the sefirot is, in a way, a development of Saadia’s essential attributes. The picture is, thus, not black and white. However, the basic intradeical and dynamic conception of God envisioned by the Zohar, and in particular its view of evil, is surely contrary to both schools of philosophic theology; hence, the use of “non-philosophical.”
[11] See Understanding Jewish Mysticism, 1:116-18, for three diagrams. I proposed the third of those diagrams when I was first at Brown University with Wendell Dietrich, to whom this volume is dedicated. I have, however, much in Wendell’s tradition, continued to ponder these matters and have rethought the translations I used then. I, now, propose those in Figure 1.
Students of these sefirotic trees will note that sometimes Hesed is on the right and sometimes on the left. The rule is quite simple. Hesed is always on the left; the issue is the point of view of the reader. If the reader considers the representation to be a roadmap, then right on the image corresponds to the reader’s right and so with the left. If, however, the reader considers the representation to be a person, i.e., in face-to-face position, then left on the image corresponds to the reader’s right and vice versa. The latter form of representation is a mirror; the former a diagram.
[12] I first used these texts in “Confronting the Character of God: Text and Praxis,” God in the Fray: Divine Ambivalence in the Hebrew Bible, ed. T. Beal and T. Linafelt, forthcoming; also available on my website (see n. 4).
[13] Zohar 1:50b-51b, modified from F. Lachower and I. Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, transl. D. Goldstein (Oxford, The Littman Library and Oxford University Press: 1989) 1:319-20. The Zohar, although it exists in translation, is not comprehensible without an explication. Tishby’s three volumes do that. For a shorter presentation based on Tishby’s method, see Understanding Jewish Mysticism, 1 (1978) 101-91. For syllabi on teaching the Zohar, see my website (see n. 4).
[14] For a good explication of the difference between symbol decoding and theological interpretation, see Understanding Jewish Mysticism.
[15] Ibid.
[16] The Zohar did not envision non-Jews (and Jewish women) as participating in this process.
[17] Zohar 3:74a; Tishby, 1:364.
[18] Part of the great art of the Zohar is that most of its passages can be read on a simple midrashic level referring to God and the Jewish people. Texting by double-entendre is an art lost to contemporary theological writing.
[19] This passage does not spell it out but other passages draw a further conclusion — that, when the wicked prosper, God actually radiates negative spiritual energy to creation, with disastrous consequences.
[20] See Tishby, vol. 2, part 2..
[21] W. Brueggemann, “A Shape for Old Testament Theology,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 47:35, italics original.
[22] C. Roth, History of the Jews of Italy (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society: 1946) ch. 7; Tishby, 1:27-8.
[23] See Encyclopedia Judaica, 10:643ff; Tishby, 1:27-8, 33-8.
[24] Zohar, 2: 178b, “Sifra DeTsniuta”.
[25] Y. Liebes, Studies in the Zohar (Albany, NY, SUNY Press: 1993) ch. 3.
[26] D. Bakan, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (New York, Schocken Books: 1958, 1965) maintained that Freud had studied the Zohar. I find the suggestion intriguing but the evidence skimpy — the Zohar is almost impenetrable without direction, in addition to which Freud’s copy thereof has never been found.
[27] Tishby, 1:30, 35-8.
[28] Indeed, our most imaginative texts tell us that there are moments when even God loses God’s oneness or God’s multipleness, and then God is lost. On the relationship between multi-dimension and unity, see Facing, ch. 4-5.
[29] This theology which denies the perfection of God in favor of the multipleness of personhood has generated fierce resistance. For an analysis of this, see D. Blumenthal, “Theodicy: Dissonance in Theory and Praxis,” Concilium, 1 (1998) 95-106; also available on my website (see n. 4).

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