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I'm currently reading Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's wonderful book The Thirteen Petalled Rose.  Steinsaltz is a Talmudic scholar with a real knack for rendering complex Kabbalistic concepts understandable.  Although I have really just begun this study, I recommend his work, among with that of others such as Daniel Matt, to anyone with an interest in Kabbalah.

The Thirteen Petalled Rose is a relatively short book of just under 200 pages.  It's content is divided into ten sections:  Worlds, Divine Manifestation, The Soul Man, Holiness, Torah, The Way of Choice, The Human Image, Repentance, The Search for Oneself, and Mitzvot (commandments).  It is the author's presentation of the so-called four worlds of Kabbalah or spiritual and non-spiritual worlds and the nature of the beings which inhabit them that I want to address in this post.

Traditional Kabbalistic sources describe four known spiritual realms called, from higher to lower, Atzilut (emanation), Beriah (creation), Yetzirah (formation) and Assiyah (action).  Steinsaltz expands on these traditional divisions quite clearly noting that there are many levels within each of the known spiritual realms as well as other lower realms not thought of as part of the four worlds as listed above. 

Steinsaltz begins with our world, the world of action, explaining that this observed world is a part of a vast array of worlds, most of which are spiritual.  He points out that these worlds do not exist somewhere else but in another dimension and describes a dynamic relationship between worlds with a very real exchange of influence occurring.  A point he makes quite clearly is that occurrences in our world impact on other worlds and can affect significant change in the spiritual realms.  This is an important point for anyone concerned with the state of our current reality in my opinion.

The terms higher and lower worlds are explained in terms of nearer and farther or degrees of transparency to the divine light.  According to Steinsaltz, as one descends through the worlds materiality becomes greater and with it a sense of independence is felt with an increasing intensity.  This blocks the divine light and obscures, per the author, the unchanging essence that lurks beneath the personality.

In the world of emanation (Atzilut or the uppermost world) Steinsaltz describes a condition of absolute clarity and transparency where no concealment is possible.  There are no separate selves in this world.  Unity with divinity is complete.  This is what Steinsaltz and others call the Godhead and is ultimately indescribable.  Time, space and the soul do not exist in this world in the same way that they exist in our world or subsequent worlds if they can exist at all in the face of the eternal.

The second world, Beriah or the world of creation, is called by the author, the world of pure mind, though I think in this case the use of the word mind can be misleading.  The mind is  here defined here as creator as well as that which registers and absorbs the knowledge.  It is also a world of feeling and emotion though not human emotion.  This is the abode of the higher angels or seraphs and the realm of Ezekiel's vision.  There is a separation of souls in this world but not in the sense of the lower worlds.  Time is an abstraction.  Space is not place (as it is in our world) and I wonder if this makes it possible for spiritual beings to appear in multiple places simultaneously.

The third world is called Yetzirah or the world of formation.  Time remains abstract in this world and there is a greater distinction between beings. This is the domain of angels and the author does a wonderful job of describing these divine beings saying that the fundamental quality of an angel is not spatial separation but an impulse or drive such as an inclination toward love or pity, what I would term a quality.  There are many divisions of these qualities as expressed by a multitude of angelic beings but each angel individually possesses only one quality implying a sort of single-mindedness, if you will, not found in humans. 

While existing as whole integral spiritual beings, says Saltzman, an angel is a total manifestation of a single emotion.  He explains the difference between men and angels, not as a physical difference but as a spiritual one - on the level of the soul.  An angel as defined by author and per my own experience is a pure, undivided being of light (though angels of darkness exist as well) while man is complex and diverse, possessing both a divine spark, the ability to distinguish between good and evil and the ability to both backslide and rise to great heights.

According to Steinsaltz, an angel may be revealed both to a person on the highest level (a seer, prophet or holy man) or to an ordinary person privileged to receive an isolated act of apprehension.  He also relates that an angel may appear in an ordinary form manifesting as normal phenomena subject to the laws of this world or operating in a sort of vacuum between the worlds. 

It is Steinsaltz's explanation of the fourth world, our world, Assiyah, the world of action that is perhaps most interesting.  The author contends that this world contains not only a physical world but a large number of spiritual worlds.  He describes domains of spirit that issue from wisdom and creativity (such as philosophy, mathematics or art) as well as domains with "a certain gnostic significance" and different value system having the potential for a positive or negative spirituality.  Space is defined here in terms of place and time is essentially movement which is not the case in the higher realms.

When discussing the worlds the author also discusses mitzvot (commandments of God) at length.  There are many mitzvot listed in the Hebrew bible bible in addition to the ten well known commandments, including not only acts of charity but sacred study and prayer. The act of performing a mitzvah, per Steinsaltz, extends beyond this world and influences the world above creating primary and significant transformation.  He here explains the peculiarly Kabbalaist concept of angels as a by-product of human actions which is something which is not quite understandable to me personally.

The author goes on to say that just as there is the potential for physical and spirit functioning which raises man and the world to higher levels there is also the potential for descent and he describes these lower realms not only as evil but as fundamentally inward and spiritual, saying that they can be revealed by way of vision.  These worlds are the realm of subversive angels.

I find Steinsaltz's understanding of divinity, angels, humans and the reality we inhabit fascinating.  I imagine a reality of not four but almost innumerable levels with good deeds and sacred actions radiating upward and outward, expanding and elevating, and ultimately touching  the divinity to which we are all connected.   I also feel that I have come away from this reading with a clearer understanding of the nature of spiritual beings and the very fundamental differences between angels and man. Additionally I found the text validating on a personal level as it is my deep-seated belief that there are many largely imperceptible dimensions beyond our own limited understanding of what is.  To a degree I believe that some of this may someday be confirmed in a scientific sense but we are not there yet in my opinion.

I hope I have done a fair summary here of this small part of Steinsaltz's book and would encourage anyone interested in this topic to read The Thirteen Petalled Rose as well.  I hope to address other sections of the book at some point in the future.

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  1. I concur Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's wonderful book The Thirteen Petalled Rose is a wonderful primer toward genuine Jewish mystical insight. I especially recommend his 3 volume commentary on the Tanya. Likutei Amarim Tanya in Hebrew of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi including English traslation (Kehot Publication Society) Because the Tanya is considered a 'written Torah' by Chabad Hassidim it requires, in every generation, an 'oral Torah' to accompany it and to serve as an usher and guide.
    Written by the great Hasidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the late eighteenth century, the Tanya is considered to be one of the most extraordinary books of moral mystical teachings ever written. A seminal document in the study of Kabbalah, the Tanya explores and solves the dilemmas of the human soul by arriving at the root causes of its struggles. Though it is a classic Jewish spiritual text, the Tanya and its commentary take a broad and comprehensive approach that is neither specific to Judaism nor tied to a particular personality type or time or point of view. As relevant today as it was when it was first written more than two hundred years ago, the Tanya helps us to see the many thousands of complexities, doubts, and drives within us as expressions of a single basic problem, the struggle between our Godly soul and our animal soul. The volume is competently translated but should be read within a commentarial tradition because some elements read like gentile bashing and special pleading for an oppressed people. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s commentaries tend to lean more toward generous interpretations and are well grounded in Talmudic norms of the community.
    Daniel Matt who will go down in posterity as the great interpreter of the Zohar is an authentic mystic who brings great learning and devotion to his critical studies. I know him from the 80s. see http://www.sup.org/zohar/
    One thing Barbara is that Tarot appropriation of Kabbalah is derivative of christian kabbalah through the renaissance magical tradition and not the living trunk of Jewish piety and devotional study.
    One way as I see it is Tarot kabbalah is sort of like a borrowed plumbing design that does not quite work with tarot. The water of divine grace or shekinah flows more freely when used to refresh the soul in worship and works than in out guessing destiny. Perhaps this is not quite fair to tarot reader’s intensions, but the point is important. With such fine work available about Jewish Kabbalah now it might be time to seriously revamp the tarot graft to make it serve a greater vitality than housing paths and Spheres?

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  2. Hi Paul.

    I just noticed your thoughtful comments on my blog and wanted to thank you for taking the time to comment. I haven't read the Tanya or R. Steinsaltz’s commentaries on same but am a big fan of Daniel Matt having read The Essential multiple times and chipped my way somewhat into his translation of the Zohar. One of my favorite books is Matt's God and the Big Bang - the later part of the book does not live up to the first half IMO but that first half is brilliant.

    I liked your borrowed plumbing analogy in regard to Tarot and Kabbalah. For me, Kabbalah is an extension, though that is probably not the right word, of religion and I find this particularly true of the Zohar. This is not to say that it can't stand alone in a spiritual sense, it obviously can as many non-Judaic-Christians connect with it. I do think that Kabbalistic concepts can loosely apply to Tarot but agree that it is not always a good fit.

    Having said that, I do a Tree of Life spread of my own devising when I read though not for predictive purposes. I try to stay away from predictions when reading (not always successfully) though I do believe that energetic forces can have a sort of momentum that may be thought of somewhat in terms of future.

    I am now curious about the Tanya even though I have already way too many books and not enough time to do them justice!

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