Cordovero sfirot

פנימיות התורה היא חיים לפנימיות הגוף שהוא הנפש

“The inner part of Torah gives life
to the inner part of the body — the soul.”


What is the “inner part of Torah?” One might automatically assume that the Vilna Gaon means “kabbalah.” But only a few lines earlier, the GRA (an acronym for {the} Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu {which name begins in Hebrew with a/aleph}) condemns the study of “practical kabbalah” — קבלה מעשית — the kabbalah that one “does,” as sinful. What is “practical kabbalah?” It’s the body of what Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg called “Jewish magic”: amulets, incantations, etc. So, the GRA might then mean, instead, “theoretical kabbalah” — קבלה עיונית — the major theme of which is the “Seder Hishtalshelut” — סדר השתלשלות — the emanation within the Infinite of all that exists.

“Theoretical kabbalists are…searching and striving to become closer to G-d and understand the workings of His universe. They work at a higher level of religious experience, and often occupy themselves with finding hidden meanings in the Torah, meditation, scholarship, prayer, and intense pietism…Throughout history, many great rabbis, teachers, sages, leaders, and philosophers have also been theoretical Kabbalists.” [2

In my beginning years of learning, I thought that the BeShT — the founder of Hasidut as a movement — was the “mystic” and the GRA was the “rationalist.” This was profoundly incorrect. Both were actually “mystics;” both learned Kabbalah and had their own personal experiences. The Gaon’s chief disciple, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin, was himself a kabbalist; his major text, “Nefesh Ha-Chayim,” while written as a response to the Alter Rebbe’s “Tanya,” reflects kabbalistic teaching and the need to reflect on it (albeit to a more limited extent than in Hasidut). Rav Kook, too, although influenced to some extent by Hasidut, was really in the GRA’s lineage. Of contemplating “emanation” — the Infinite Source of all that is — he wrote:

“How beautiful is the mystical conception of the divine emanation as the source of all existence, all life, all beauty, all power, all justice, all good, all order, all progress. How great is the influence of this true conception on all the ways of life, how profound is its logic, what a noble basis for morality. The basis for the formation of higher, holy, mighty and pure souls is embodied in it.
The divine emanation, by its being, engenders everything. It is unlimited in its freedom, there is no end to its unity, to its riches, to its perfection, to its splendor, and the influence of its potency and its diverse manifestations. All the oceans of song, all the diverse torrents of perception, all the force of life, all the laughter, the joyous delights — everything flows from it. Into everything it releases the influence of its soul force. Its influence, its honor, its deliverance reaches to the lowest depths. [i.e. It is “in” everything, yet unchanging]
The innocent and luminous will of man has already embraced some of its splendor. He continues to ascend, and he elevates everything with him. Everything proclaims G-d’s glory: ‘The grandeur of Your Holiness fills Your creation; (yet) You are forevermore, L-rd’ [3].” [4]

Does learning Kabbalah actually enliven the soul of everyone who learns it?


For example, Gershom Scholem, who founded the literary/historical school of research into the sources of Kabbalah, was famously not a “mystic.” Ironically, in the ’70’s and early ’80’s, if I went to a Jewish bookstore to look for materials on “Jewish mysticism,” Scholem’s “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” was one of the few books I’d find. I once saw him speak at SAJ (The Society for the Advancement of Judaism) in New York City. Someone asked him how he could write about Kabbalah without being a kabbalist. In response, he quipped something like: “I can study geometry without being a triangle.” Scholem’s intention in reading and studying kabbalistic texts was to understand how the themes and language of Kabbalah had evolved over centuries. Contemporary writers like Mosheh Idel continue in this not-unvaluable field of research. Scholem was not at all concerned with having ecstatic experience himself.

What, then, distinguishes the cognitive response to the study of kabbalistic texts by a kabbalist from that of an academic scholar? Intention, perhaps. But I also think that the kabbalist learning the “Seder Hishtalshelut,” especially from a “master,” simultaneously envisions it as a reality in his/her mind. It’s rather like the difference, before Columbus, between researching the sources of the idea that the world is round, versus envisioning its “roundness” and considering the exciting implications of that.

Although not a kabbalist, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein certainly intended something similar in the opening statement of his text, “Jewish Science and Health”:

“The Mind that called everything into existence is G-d, and His dwelling place is in the world He created.” [5]

In modern parlance, one might describe it as the difference between studying Kabbalah with a “left-brain/logical” approach versus a “right-brain/imaginative” approach. Both have a place in Jewish learning, but the latter more truly fulfills the traditional purpose.

The Talmud makes a similar point for the study of aggadah (imaginative anecdotes about G-d) along with halachah (logically deduced laws):

‘If you wish to recognize ‘The-One-Who-spoke-and-the-world-came-into-being,’ study aggadah, for by this you will recognize ‘The-One-Who-spoke-and-the-world-came-into-being’ and cling to His ways.” [6]

To facilitate this, Rabbi Yisrael Konowitz, z”l, compiled an anthology of aggadot, the English title of which is “The G-d Idea in Jewish Tradition.” That title has a rather “left-brain” sound for such a “right-brain” field of study. But Rabbi Konowitz was a master educator and intended this book as a kind of “textbook” to be studied systematically, albeit for ultimately devotional purposes.

We see, then, that “inner Torah” can mean “Theoretical Kabbalah” or aggadah, qualified by the way in which we learn these.

In either case, imagination takes the prominent place otherwise occupied by logic.

Properly understood, the GRA’s comment opens up vistas for Jewish education that might not be being fully explored at this time.


[1Gaon of Vilna; Even Sheleimah (8:27); © 1994 by (Rabbi) Yaakov Singer; Targum Press, pub.; Feldheim Publishers, dist.; English p. 62, Hebrew p. מ–מא


[3] Tehillim/Ps. 93:5

[4] Bokser, Rabbi Ben Zion, trans. and ed.; The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook; Paulist Press, p. 165; quoting Orot Hakodesh, vol. 1, p. 361

[5] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; © 1925 by (Rabbi) Morris Lichtenstein; p. 7

[6] Sifre Deuteronomy # 49. Translation taken from Reuven Hammer, Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy; New Haven: Yale University Press, © 1986), p. 106