How Greek Philosophy Influenced Both Christian and Jewish Theology

A Common Link Between Christianity and Kabbalah

Powers of 10: For Jewish and Hellenistic philosophers, 10 is a very spiritual number.
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Powers of 10: For Jewish and Hellenistic philosophers, 10 is a very spiritual number.

By Philologos

Published June 02, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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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?

The great scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem was of the opinion that there was no connection. As he pointed out in a lengthy article, we first find the idea of the 10 sefirot in the Sefer ha-Yetsirah or “Book of Creation,” one of the most gnomically enigmatic of all Jewish texts.

Written, most probably in the third century C.E., by an anonymous author, the “Book of Creation” begins with the statement that God “engraved” the universe with “32 mystical paths of wisdom,” which are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and “10 sefirot of nothingness [b’limah].”

The Book of Creation links the word sefirot to the Hebrew verbs safar, “to enumerate,” and siper, “to tell” or “to narrate,” and also to the Hebrew noun sefer, “book,” saying: “He created His universe with three books [sefarim]: with text [sefer], with number [s’far], and with narration [sippur].”

Scholem suggested that the inspiration for this might have been the statement in the Mishnaic tractate of Ethics of the Fathers, “With 10 utterances [of God] the world was created.” Yet in the same article he wrote, “The sefirot [of the Book of Creation]… are merely the primordial numbers of the later Pythagoreans.”

The “later” or neo-Pythagoreans, who viewed themselves as the intellectual followers of the sixth-century-B.C.E. Pythagoras, depicted the universe as consisting of 10 sphaerae or spheres, which had both a numerical and an astronomical aspect. Numerically, 10 was the symbol of unity, being the sum of the basic building blocks of 1, 2, 3 and 4. Astronomically, there were 10 rotating cosmic orbs in the heavens, one for the sun, one for the moon, one for the seven planets and one for the fixed stars.

It’s certainly true that Hebrew was capable of generating the term sefirah by itself, without any help from Greek philosophy. But can it be a pure coincidence that the neo-Pythagoreans spoke of a world of 10 sphaerae and Jewish mysticism of one of 10 sefirot?

True again, these 10 were nothing like the sphaerae. They were, according to the “Book of Creation,” composed of five paired couples or “depths” — “a depth of beginning, a depth of end, a depth of good, a depth of evil, a depth of above, a depth of below, a depth of east, a depth of west, a depth of north, a depth of south,” which in medieval Kabbalism became Ḥokhmah (“Wisdom”), Binah (“Understanding”), Keter (“Crown”), Malkhut (“Kingship”), Netzaḥ (“Victory”), Hod (“Splendor”), Gevurah (“Strength”), Ḥesed (“Love”), Tiferet (“Beauty”) and Yesod (“Foundation”). They are, however, even less like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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