My fellow columnist at the Forward, the estimable J.J. Goldberg, has written a blog post about my May 19 column, “Could the Holy Ghost be Jewish?” In his blog, he respectfully takes exception to my statement that “neither biblical nor rabbinic Judaism has anything like the Christian Trinity in its thinking about God,” and goes on to say:
“Actually, rabbinic Judaism has something very much like the Trinity in its thinking about God. It’s called the Sefirot, the Kabbalah’s 10 Emanations or Manifestations of God’s presence. And no, it wasn’t a Jewish concept that found its way into Christianity. On the contrary, it’s a Christian idea that found its way into the heart of normative Judaism.”
With equal respect, I beg to differ, starting with the assertion that Kabbalah represents “the heart of normative Judaism.” Despite Kabbalah’s enormous impact on Judaism, various rabbinical circles always opposed granting it normative status, which it never unequivocally attained and which it was denied in modern times more than ever.
This is perhaps a quibble. More to the point is the fact that both Kabbalah and Christian theology were greatly influenced, though not always in the same ways, by another body of thought that Goldberg fails to mention: The Hellenistic philosophical schools of the early centuries of the Common Era, and particularly, the two related currents of neo-Platonism and neo-Pythagoreanism.
Any resemblance between the triune God of Christianity and the 10 sefirot of the God of Kabbalah almost certainly derives from this influence rather than from the workings of Christianity on Judaism. While the concept of the sefirot is non-Unitarian, dividing — as did neo-Platonism and neo-Pythagoreanism — the oneness of the Divinity into a series of gradations descending from the ultimate Source of all things to the material world, it is not Trinitarian.
Yet if truth be told, so complex were the crosscurrents and interactions in the ancient world between Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and late Greek philosophy that it is often difficult to untangle them or to discern what came before what or what had an effect on what. The Hebrew word sefirot in its specific sense of divine emanations — sefirah in its singular form — is a good example. Does it come from the Greek sphaera, “sphere?” Does it have anything to do with it?