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From the answers to this question it seems that most if not all Jewish sources treat Trinitarian Christianity (in particular, their doctrine of the Trinity) as either Shittuf or outright Avoda Zara, both of which (if there is a difference) are expressly forbidden for Jews to believe.

For background, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity explains the Godhead as: "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God" (in the Athanasian Creed) and therefore Christians would seem to be monotheists, except that God has parts or aspects which cannot be understood but together comprise God's unity (since the Trinity is classified as a 'mystery'). It is this doctrine which is problematic in Jewish sources (which were, of course, not written by Christian theologians but Jewish ones whose understanding of Christian doctrine was probably similar to the level I just presented).

In the Jewish Kabbalistic doctrine of Sefirot, there are 10 Sefirot which are often described as either parts of God's "body" (each corresponding to a different limb) or manifestations or emanations, which although separate, with unique properties and sometimes male or female associations, nevertheless somehow do not contradict that God remains unified and indivisible. His unity is also, in this sense somewhat mysterious.

The Rivash (Rabbi Isaac Ben Sheshet, 14th Century) famously wrote in a responsum, #157:

.וכל זה הוא דבר זר מאוד בעיני מי שאינו מקובל כמו הם; וחושבים, שזה אמונת שניות. וכבר שמעתי אחד מן המתפלספים מספר בגנות המקובלים, והיה אומר: הנוצרים מאמיני השילוש, והמקובלים מאמיני העשיריות
And all this is very foreign in my eyes, as someone who is not a Kabbalist such as myself; and they think is is dualist theology...and I heard one of the ones who philosophizes speaking to the detraction of the Kabbalists, saying: the Christians believe in 3 and the Kabbalists believe in 10.

If the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as understood by Jews is deemed Shittuf/Avoda Zara by them, is the Kabbalistic doctrine of Sefirot considered that as well?

Is there any reason to distinguish between the Christian divided/united God as understood by Jews (and deemed by them problematic) and the Kabbalistic one?

(Note that I am not interested in whether the doctrine of incarnation is problematic from a Jewish perspective. I would like to explore merely the question of a multipart Godhead and whether there is any reason to distinguish Christian and Jewish beliefs in that regard alone. Is there some difference in the perspective on the "parts"? Or a difference in the interpretation of the level of independence of the "parts"? Or a difference in regards their unification/unity? Or is there not fundamental difference aside from incarnation?)

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I have reformulated the question per avi's observation that the question should seek distinctions between the Kabbalistic understanding of Sefirot vis-a-vis the unity of God, and Jews' understanding of the Trinity vis-a-vis the unity of God. The question now seems on topic to me. If the OP does not reject my edits, I move that the question be reopened. If the community decides that it is now a dupe of this question's newer incarnation, I recommend merging those answers hither. –  Double AA Jun 7 '13 at 2:08
the sfirot are considered things god created and relates to the world through, like someone writing letters to express his thoughts, and therefore they arent a separate part of him with a different function. –  tryingToGetProgrammingStraight Aug 26 '13 at 16:58
I think that the quesrions should be merged. Not only the answers but the questions :) (the only relevent addition this question has is the Rivash) –  Shmuel Brin Aug 26 '13 at 19:38
Correction: וכל זה הוא דבר זר מאוד בעיני מי שאינו מקובל כמו הם translates as 'And all this is very foreign to the eyes of someone who is not a Kabbalist like them'. Rivash was trying to be objective and present both sides. –  Bar Uryan Nov 13 '13 at 12:21
an orthodox belief in the Trinity requires one to affirm that the "three persons" are in reality separate persons which is a problem from the Jewish standpoint even if one simultaneously affirms God's absolute oneness. Whatever conceptual similarities people find, all evidence I have seen is that Kabbalistic thought rejects that one can take any apparent lack of unity in God as literal. A "kabalistic" view of the Trinity would be a Christian heresy and vice versa. –  Yirmeyahu Dec 19 '13 at 16:35

1 Answer 1

I think the best way to understand the statement of the Rivash is to understand the disagreement that Mikubalim have with the Rambam's statement of הוא היודע הוא הידוע והוא הדיעה עצמה, (He is the knower, he is the known and He is the knowledge itself) where they qualify its applicability. This is explained somewhat at length in Mitvas Hemanas HaElokus in Derech Mitzvosecha from the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe), where he quotes the earlier Kabbalists who specifically speak to the Rambam's philosophy and argue with it. Although the statement of הוא היודע הוא הידוע והוא הדיעה עצמה is still accepted, it is qualified (see the link for details).

To those following the Rambam's philosophy, intellect is bound to the essence of G-d. (This is why those of that opinion regard G-d as doing something illogical as impossible, as it is part of the definition of Source of existence - such I heard from my teacher in Yeshiva). As the Alter Rebbe explains the kabbalistic view in Tanya (Part 2, Chapter 9 - referenced in the above work from the Tzemach Tzedek) intellect and logic are creations as far as G-d is concerned. Rather G-d is פשוט בתכלית הפשיטות - beyond all structure and definition.

However, we can understand that someone seeing these things through the Rambam's philosophical lens hears definitions of intellect divided into three parts and then additional emotional attributes, all attributed as being Divine, they associate the 10 Sefiros with the idea of the Christian belief, as they think all of these things are supposed to be as the Rambam describes intellect.

But the Rambam's whole definition is that this is not something specific, distinct, defining. The Rambam writes אבל הבורא--הוא ודעתו וחייו אחד, מכל צד ומכל פינה: שאלמלא היה חי בחיים ויודע בדעה, היו שם אלוהות הרבה--הוא וחייו ודעתו - However the creator, He and His knowledge and His life are one, from all sides and corner, because if he lived with the life of living things and knew with knowledge, there would be many gods - Him, His life and His knowledge. Rather the Rambam's whole idea is that this is something incomprehensible about G-d himself, and is specifically rejecting the idea of Divine attributes in G-d himself, as this would create multiple deities, ח"ו.

But when Kabbalists start talking about distinct attributes that are combined, creating unities, etc. they (the philosophers, as the kabbalists refer to them) still hear these as Divine attributes, as if Him, His life, His knowledge, and start making associations with Christians who say the same kinds of things about their three parts, but the Christians mean G-d Himself, ח"ו.

This all stems from the fundamental misunderstanding that Kabbalists are speaking in the same terms as the Rambam. They are not. Rather, as quoted from the Alter Rebbe above, these aspects of Sefiros are creations. The Tzemach Tzedek specifically uses this word in order to make the idea clear.

As a post script, I should add that in Kabbalistic terms, sefiros are not creations, they are emanations. Vis-a-vis what we are discussing, there is no distinction. That is why the Tzemach Tzedek uses the term creations in the above work. However, in Kabbalistic terminology, something created isn't just anything that G-d made, rather a creation is something with some distinct identity. The word ברא meaning something created as separate, something novel or different, whereas Sefiros express G-d without any identity other than G-d. They lack independence. This is why they are called emanations (נאצלים). However, sefiros are all things made after the Tzimtzum, forces that G-d makes as mediums to interact with the world, and for the world to relate to Him. They are as far from G-d as physical touch is to deep philosophical ideas, in fact infinitely further (see the Tanya quoted above).

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"But the Rambam's whole definition" Did you mean to write "the Kabbalist's whole definition"? I'm not sure I follow the end of that paragraph. In the next paragraph too, you write (IIUC) that the philosophers (to use your terminology) see the Sefirot and think of them as attributes, but don't seem to explain what the Kabbalists think they should be viewed as instead. –  Double AA Dec 4 '13 at 17:41
@DoubleAA, clearer now? –  Yishai Dec 4 '13 at 18:29
This implies that Rambam wouls have agreed to these teachings. Anyone who has learned Rambam or (Spanish and Provencal Rishonim in general) will understand that he opposed kabbalah wholeheartedly. In fact the only time I am aware of him referencing a kabbalah sefer is in saying that it is a heretical forgery that must be destroyed! Although not a proof see this article which notes that although the kabbalists didnt feel they were violating Maimonideic doctrine, Rambam himself certainly wouldn't agree. –  mevaqesh Feb 17 at 16:16
@mevaqesh, where did I imply that? What I said was that a Rambam-type philosopher, if he insists on interpreting everything he reads through that lens, would misunderstand the point, because the paradigm is different. –  Yishai Feb 17 at 16:20
"This all stems from the fundamental misunderstanding that Kabbalists are speaking in the same terms as the Rambam. They are not. Rather, as quoted from the Alter Rebbe above, these aspects of Sefiros are creations. The Tzemach Tzedek specifically uses this word in order to make the idea clear." This sure sounds like an attempt to reconcile the views. If that isnt your intent please clarify. –  mevaqesh Feb 17 at 16:21

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