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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

4 Answers 4

The straightforward answer to this question is that whereas the Christians are discussing what Hashem is made up of, the Kabbalists are discussing the ways in which He chose to reveal Himself.

Just like we can understand that ה' ממית ומחיה is not reminiscent of trinity, since it is simply a reflection of what Hashem will do about different circumstances, the different specific behaviors which Hashem designated and designed for Himself to operate therewith are not in any way a statement about His composition — which is only one and endless.

It turns out to be quite the contrary. Kabbalah teaches that Hashem Himself does not have a specific character. Without the teachings of Sefiros, when we attribute titles to Hashem we might be running into the problem of applying plurality to Him who is One.

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+1 - you have a strong talent for expressing Kabbalistic ideas in simple English. I look forward to seeing more on the other mysticism-kabbalah questions around here. –  Yishai May 29 at 13:25

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 works sefiros will not be referred to as creations rather emanations. This is because creation (ברא) in Kabbalah is a specific term of art. 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).

Concerning this question, however the point is better made using the more commonly understood term of creation, which is how this answer should be understood. The Tzemach Tzedek also uses the word creation here (rather than the Kabbalistic sense) for the purpose of making that point clear.

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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, note the first paragraph of my answer: "he quotes the earlier Kabbalists who specifically speak to the Rambam's philosophy and argue with it." Not sure what makes the Rambam's Aristotilian-like philosophy "traditional[ly] Jewish" but kaballah not. The Ramban is less traditional than the Rambam? –  Yishai Feb 17 at 16:34
@Yellows, I think in Rishonim and generally in that era the reader was expected to do their homework and was not fed the words directly. But anyway, the money quote appears to be right before what you quoted: אלא הוא שׂכל בפֹעַל תמיד - מתחייב שיהיה הוא ואותו הדבר המושג דבר אחד, והוא עצמוּתו –  Yishai Mar 26 at 2:36

The Rivash in that responsum just after the line you quote about the Mikubalim and their belief in the ten, relates how he asked his good friend the Mikubal Don Yosef N' Sasson your question: if praying with intentions to different seffiros is not in fact idolatry. To which the answer was Chas ViShalom! Everyone believes in the one Hashem, but just like when you beseech before a king you don't ask the treasurer for a pardon, rather the judge, and just like when you want a present you don't ask the judge, you ask the treasurer, so too with Hashem and his attributes.

The Rivash was happy with this answer calling it very good.

So to clarify, according to what I understand the Rivash to have asked and the answer he presents, the question assumes the ten sefiros are subdivisions of Hashem, on par with the Christian trinity, but the answer is that they are not subdivisions of Him, but rather function as His emissaries, which is not a similar idea to the trinity.

An interesting side point is that along these lines the Rivash went on to quote an opinion equating the ten sefiros of the kabbalists with the ten levels of angels that the Rambam discusses, but the Rivash dismisses this idea.

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"The Rivash was happy with this answer." Umm.. that's an overstatement if I ever heard one. He finished off the letter with "This is all pretty weird. I guess maybe if you learn from someone you trust then it's ok. But even then only maybe." Whereby he decided not to involve himself in any of it. –  Double AA Mar 3 at 16:56
@Double i didn't say he accepted the kabala-sefiros and I didn't say he said you should even try to pray this way. But as an answer to the question of heresy, he was satisfied. He ended that paragraph by saying 'this is what was explained to me by the aforementioned chassid concerning the kavanos of the mikubalim and behold it is very good'. End quote. Still think it's an overstatement? –  user6591 Mar 3 at 17:03
The question was actually how is this different from Judaism's understanding of the Christian Trinity? So, how is it? –  Double AA Mar 3 at 17:20
Incidentally, not everyone seems to think that "the ten attributes are Hashem's tools/emissaries, not that they are Him." Consider in Yishai's answer quoting Lubavitch sources "Sefiros express G-d without any identity other than G-d". Sounds like they are Him, no? –  Double AA Mar 3 at 17:28
@Double I've edited the answer. Please, if you have any suggestions to clarify, let me know. –  user6591 Mar 3 at 19:24

This is a good question and answer but I wanted to give a shorter answer.

  1. According to the Arizal all sefirot and all of creation emanated from the Ein Sof - the infinite. The sefirot are not Ein Sof, they are not G-d himself, rather emanations. Everything in Kabbala describes emanations from G-d and not G-d himself since we cannot comprehend G-d himself

  2. Christianity considers a person to be G-d or part of G-d. Jewish scholars argued whether this would be considered idolatry (Rambam) or shituf (believing in both G-d and a partner to G-d, Tosfot) but all agree that this is forbidden in Jewish law and antithetical to Jewish belief.

Here is a translation of the ArizalOriginal Hebrew

Know that before anything was emanated or created there was a lofty simple light that filled all existence with no empty space rather all was filled with an infinite simple light with no beginning or end rather all an equal simple light, and this is the point of Ohr Ein Sof. And when G-d wanted to create the worlds and emanate the emanations, to bring to fruition his actions and names, which is the point of the creation of the worlds, he contracted himself, the infinite, into the middle point, the very middle point, and contracted the light ...

Here is what tosfot says:

It is permissible to [cause a gentile's oath through litigation with one's non-Jewish partner because] today all swear in the name of the saints to whom no divinity is ascribed. Even though they also mention God's name and have in mind another thing, in any event no idolatrous name is actually said, and they also have the Creator of the world in mind. Even though they associate (shituf) God's name with "something else", we do not find that it is forbidden to cause others to associate (shituf), and there is no issue of placing a stumbling block before the blind (see Leviticus 19:14) [by entering into litigation with the non-Jewish business partner, thereby causing him to take an oath] because Noachides were not warned about it.Wikipedia

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Right Tosfot says it's OK for a non-Jew to swear in God's name and someone else's name at the same time. (That's called Shittuf.) What that has to do with belief systems is beyond me. Of course it's Avoda Zara to believe in another God or part of God! Tosfot just says not to worry about his making an oath that would be forbidden for a Jew to make due to honoring God. –  Double AA Mar 4 at 15:29
You put "something else" in quotes, which shows that you understand Tosafos to be talking about trinity, but it isn't. He is going back to what he started with, about Shituf of שם השם and saints. His point about their beliefs is that, although they attribute to Hashem something which is Apikursus, nevertheless it is the same 'Creator of the Universe' which they are addressing. –  HaLeiVi May 28 at 23:56
Sefirot emanate from Ein Sof or the Or Ein Sof? –  EhevuTov May 29 at 20:59
@ HaLeivi I simply copied the translation from wikipedia as someone asked for it previously @EhevuTov I'll add a translation of the Arizal now –  ykay May 31 at 11:15

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