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The Behinnot: Dialectics In The Kabbalah of Moses Cordovero

Sanford L. Drob

Gershom Scholem, whose own interpretation of the Kabbalah was itself influenced by the philosophy of German idealism, once remarked that Moses Cordovero's doctrine of the behinnot exemplifies the application of dialectical thinking within a Kabbalistic framework. The behinnot doctrine, in brief, states that each of the Sefirot, the ten archetypes through which God emanates and structures the world, is composed of a number of aspects which relate it, in specific ways, to each of the others. In this paper I will examine the concept of the behinnot from a dialectical point of view, and attempt to show how this perspective can enable us to make rational sense of Kabbalistic theosophy in our own time.


The notion of "dialectic" is notoriously difficult to define. Originally the Greek term for the art of conversation [2], the term dialectic came to be used by philosophers to refer to a wide variety of indirect forms of reasoning whereby a give and take between two or more points of view leads to a new perspective upon the topic being considered. As I will use it here, "dialectic" refers to a species of thinking in which notions are found to imply other notions which they do not, strictly speaking, logically entail, but without which they would themselves have to be considered incomplete. In dialectical thinking, especially as understood by Hegel, the notions which are discovered by implication are often the apparent opposites or contradictories of the original notion, so that, for example, being is found to imply and, in fact, be dependent upon, non-being, affirmation is found to imply negation, good is found to imply evil, determinism to imply free will, truth to imply error, etc. Frequently in dialectical thought, two opposing but mutually dependent premises are said to imply a "third term" which integrates them and even reconciles their opposition, as in Hegel's famous triad of "nothingness", "being", and "becoming".

While dialectic is usually regarded to be a process of thinking, it is also regarded by Hegel (and by the ancient philosopher Heraclitus and the Neoplatonist Proclus as well) as a world process, as a development intrinsic to the cosmos itself [3].

The Interpenetration of the Sefirot

As we will see the concept of the behinnot is thoroughly dialectical in the sense I have just described. The notion of the behinnot is an extension and formaliztion of the early (and universally accepted) Kabbalistic doctrine of the interpenetration of the Sefirot, which held that each Sefirah contains within itself an element of each of the others, so that Chesed for example, is composed of the Chesed of Chesed (i.e., pure Chesed), the Gevurah of Chesed, the Tiferet of Chesed, the Netzach of Chesed, etc. [4]. This doctrine is expressed in the Zohar as follows:

all the celestial levels [the Sefirot] come, one after the other, to rest by the moon (Malchut), and to give it light. And each one of them shows the mystery of the ten, so that it amounts to one hundred, and when it stands in the mystery of one hundred, then everything is one [5].

Theologically, the doctrine of interpenetration meant that God's middot or traits were all integrally related. From a moral point of view it meant that the development of character in man must consist of work on all 49 possible combinations of the seven moral Sefirot (Chesed through Malchut).

Cosmologically, the doctrine of the interpenetration of the Sefirot took on major importance in the thought of the Spanish Kabbalist, R. Cordovero, who held that the Sefirot were not only divine traits or emanations, but were also the very structural elements of the created world. According to Cordovero, the nature of any created thing depends upon the manner in which the various Sefirot have been combined in its formation [6]. This view was also taken up by the Lurianists.

The Behinnot

Cordovero formulated his ideas regarding the interpenetration of the Sefirot in his notion of the behinnot, the infinite number of aspects contained within a given Sefirah [7]. According to Cordovero, these "aspects" are dependent upon the perspective of one who would discover them. This aspect of his doctrine anticipates Hegel in its formulation of an ontology that merges objective with subjective aspects of the world.

There are, according to Cordovero, six main behinnot, and these involve aspects which are both hidden and manifest within any given Sefirah, as well as properties that are both "essential" and "relational". Of particular significance are those behinnot that enable a given Sefirah to receive "light" from the Sefirah above it, and those which enable it to pass light onto the Sefirah below.

In order to make this doctrine more transparent it will be worth our while to consider how an indefinite number of aspects, dependent (at least in part) upon the perspective of one who would observe them, can be discerned within a particular Sefirah, for example, Chesed, or "loving kindness".

The Behinnot of "Chesed"

We can immediately observe that implicit within the notion of loving-kindness is an act of volition or will, for one who performs an act of kindness does so not by virtue of the act itself but by virtue of the good, loving, intentions that go into it. It is no act of kindness if the wind blows the money of a miserly scrooge into the hands of a pauper, or rather the kindness is credited to the "wind", or to "the hand of God", through whose providence the act was willed, and certainly not to the miser who had no will or intention in regard to the matter whatsoever. In this example, we see the dialectical relationship between love and will, and in Kabbalistic terms we have discovered the "Keter" of "Chesed".

That thought is equally an aspect of loving-kindness is apparent in the colloquial phrase "its the thought that counts" (which also implicitly assumes a relationship between thought and will). That acts of kindness must be rendered "thoughtfully", and informed with a certain wisdom as to both their long and short term consequences, further establishes an aspect of Chochmah in Chesed. Such a relationship is also evident from the obvious fact that there is a concept under which every act of kindness can be subsumed (e.g. hospitality, charity, community service, "kindness" itself).

The relationship between Chesed and the next Sefirah judgment (Din) is subject to lengthy treatment by the Kabbalists themselves. The Kabbalists held that kindness unrestrained by a judgment regarding the merit and capacity of the one who receives is no kindness but rather an arbitrary and even harmful discharge of action and emotion. Hence we have the Din of Chesed, that aspect of kindness which involves judgment of merit, capacity, etc. If one were here to object that what I have just described as the "judgment of kindness" is also, or better, conceived of as the "thought of kindness" then we would say that he was getting the behinnot idea, for there is also the Chochmah of Din, the "thought of judgment". The dialectical thinking involved in the doctrine of the behinnot is designed to break down barriers between concepts and values we initially thought to be separate and distinct. The relationship between Kindness and Judgment (Chesed and Din) is said to give rise to a third Sefirah, Rachamim (Compassion) which, according to the Kabbalists, provides a resolution of the tension between the first two. Compassion shows divine grace or mercy to be at work within the heart of judgment itself, and, as such, Compassion is a behinnah or aspect of both Kindness and Judgment.

Our procedure can be applied to all of the Sefirot in relation to Chesed. Not only does the notion of kindness contain hidden within itself aspects which can be described as will, thought, and judgment, but also aspects of understanding (Binah), knowledge (Da'at), compassion (Rachamim) or beauty (Tiferet), endurance (Netzach), majesty (Hod), foundation (Yesod), and kingship (Malchut). While the derivations of each of these relationships may be more obvious in some cases than in others, Cordovero assures us that by adopting an appropriate perspective it is possible to see not only the sefirotic notions essential to "kindness" but a vast array of subsidiary notions or aspects as well, so that Chesed indeed has within itself an indefinite if not infinite number of behinnot. Consider, for example, the role of "action", "creation", "expectation", "greatness", "wholeness", "peace", "truth", "strength", "weakness" or "vulnerability", "genuineness", "fairness", "courage", "concentration", "attention", etc. in the value we call "loving kindness". Indeed, it would appear that almost any "axiological" or even "psychological" term we can think of has a role in the notion or place in the Sefirah of Chesed. To take one example at random: What would Chesed be if the supposed giver fled from his benevolence and did not have the courage to bestow his gift of kindness in the face of potential hardship, ridicule, etc.

What's more, not only "loving-kindness" but any of the Sefirot, and, again, any axiological or psychological notion whatever can be shown to contain within itself virtually all of the others, in a vast network of relationships that threatens to bind everything to everything else in an absolute unity of all values and ideas. This "threat", of course, is perfectly consistent with Kabbalistic theory, which itself posits just such a unity. Our reading of Cordovero's theory of the behinnot explains, dialectically, the unity of the "one" and the "many" within the Sefirot doctrine.

The Wittgensteinian View

The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, having himself recognized such a boundless proliferation of relationships within the orbit of our mental life, argued that the apparent essential relations between the so-called referents of our mentalistic vocabulary say nothing about the order of "things", but are actually part of the order of "words"; it being part of the conventional definition of our terms that "thinking" requires so-called "mental acts" of intention, concentration, attention, expectation, memory, insight, comprehension, perception, recognition, interpretation, integration, etc., and, by extension, it is simply part of the linguistic system that "kindness" involves acts of will, thought, truth, fairness, judgment, and all of the other acts and values the Kabbalists thought were contained within it. To hold that these discoveries about the connections in our linguistic system are actually discoveries about the nature of values, mind and the world is one of the results of the "bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" which Wittgenstein held to be both the foundation for metaphysics and the main cause of philosophical error metaphysics.

I have considered the entire Wittgensteinian critique of metaphysics elsewhere at some length [8]. Suffice it to say that having once been held under its sway I have been moved in the direction of the sort of metaphysics one finds in the Kabbalah precisely because I can find no reasonable basis for distinguishing between discourse about the word "world" and discourse about the world. I don't know what it means to say, for example, that the word "kindness" has a linguistic relationship to the word "fairness" if this does not mean that part of kindness is to be fair.

The Order of Language and the Order of Things

The Kabbalists, of course, held that one cannot distinguish between the order of language and the order of things, precisely because the world itself is created and defined through language. Indeed this is the deep truth of their view, first expressed in Sefer Yetzirah, that the world is simultaneously composed of both the ten Sefirot and the twenty two letters of the holy tongue. For the Kabbalists, the fact that "kindness" requires "intention" (will), "thought", and "understanding" is not only about these words but is also about the very values which these words embody and represent. For the Kabbalists language and the world are two perspectives (two behinnot) upon the same reality.

A Metaphysics of "Perspectives"

On a deeper level, the Kabbalah leads us to the view that the ultimate constituents of the world are not the things presumably within it, but rather the perspectives we can take upon it; a theme which was later taken up in German Idealism. On this view, in order to comprehend the nature of things within the world, philosophers should ask what are the points of view under which the world can be seen. By examining the categories of human perception (the points of view or behinnot which man can take upon all things) the Kabbalists felt confident that they were exploring the dimensions of both the world and God.


1. G. Scholem, Kabbalah ( Jerusalem: Keter Publishing , 1974), 114-5

2. P. Edwards, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( New York: MacMillan, 1965), 2:385.

3. P. Edwards, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2:388

4. See Tikkunei Zohar 47:84a; 69:116b.

5. Zohar, II, 185b, cf. I, 123a, II, 127a.

6. G. Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 115.

7. G. Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 114, referring to M. Cordovero, Pardes Rimonim 5:5.

8. S. Drob, Are Mental Acts Myths? (Doctoral Dissertation, Boston University, 1981).



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