On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies welcomed Dr. Tzahi Weiss, associate professor of Jewish mysticism and Hebrew literature at the Open University of Israel, to speak about “Rethinking Kabbalah.”
In his lecture, Dr. Weiss posited that the development of a theosophy of ten sefirot [emanations], an attempt to systematize attributes of the Jewish God, was actually a conservative rabbinic measure. He explains that in the early 13th century, there were popular Jewish beliefs that the rabbis felt were problematic and even heretical. These beliefs included veneration of angels and upholding a binitarian belief system wherein God is conceived of having an upper part (ilat ha’ilot or sibat ha’sibot) and a lower part (metatron). By outlining a sefirotic theosophy while simultaneously emphasizing the unity of God and the necessity of praying to the one God himself, early kabbalists were trying to counter the problematic trends of their time.
Dr. Weiss’ understanding of the emergence of kabbalah differs from that of the standard understanding that treats kabbalah as a revolutionary new development rather than a conservative rabbinic response. In support of his understanding, Dr. Weiss noted that there are no early texts which criticize the system of the sefirot, per se.
Dr. Weiss details this theory in his book, Cutting the Shoots: The Worship of the Shechina in World of Early Kabbalistic Literature.