The Development of Kabbalistic Thought Kabbalah: A System of Correspondences

After presenting his model of “the three Kabbalot,” Rabbi Isaac proceeds to suggest that the three stages themselves correspond to three basic and recurrent concepts found in the seminal work of Chassidic philosophy, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s Likutei Amarim, otherwise known as the Tanya. These three concepts are hishtalshelut (evolution), hitlavshut (enclothement) and hashra’ah (omnipresence).

Before explaining these terms and their correspondence to the three Kabbalot, it would benefit us to understand the significance attached in Kabbalah to the formulation of comparative hierarchical models, such as the one put forth by Rabbi Isaac.

This in fact can be accomplished by inquiring into the meaning of the word Kabbalah itself. Kabbalah is generally taken to mean “receiving,” as evident from its root in Hebrew k-b-l (kuf-beit-lamed), to “receive”. The term Kabbalah, which was first coined in the middle ages, was presumably chosen as descriptive of the process whereby the hidden wisdom of Torah was orally transmitted through the course of history, each generation of student “receiving” the tradition anew from its masters.

Nonetheless, an additional nuance of meaning can be derived from the association between the word Kabbalah and the first appearance of its root, k-b-l, in the Torah. In Exodus (26:5, 36:12), the root k-b-l (in the word makbilot)appears to imply a state of “corresponding” rather than “receiving.” It is used to describe the “corresponding loops” which, when clasped together, joined the two sections of the overhang covering the Tabernacle.

How did the grammatical root of “correspondence” later come to denote the act of “receiving”? The implicit message is that in order to fully receive some essence, there has to first be a proper calibration, or “correspondence,” between giver and receiver; otherwise what gets transmitted is not the essence, but tangential elements. Proper correspondence is what enables the receiver to fully assimilate the essence of the giver, in the sense implied by the Biblical expressionpanim b’fanim (“face to face”), describing the “correspondence” between God and Israel at the time when the Torah was given.

Although the expression panim b’fanim is generally translated as “face to face,” it literally reads “face in face,” thus suggesting that panim be understood in its alternate sense of “innerness,” implying the assimilation of God’s Essence (“innerness”) within the soul of Israel. Hence the first word of the Ten Commandments – Anochi (“I am”)–is interpreted in the sources as an acronym for ana nafshi ketavit yehavit, “I have written and given My Essence.”

In conclusion, we see that the word Kabbalah implies a capacity for establishing proper correspondences. For this reason, much of Kabbalistic discourse concerns itself with articulating various correspondences and parallelisms implicit within Creation. This mode of discourse constructively guides and disciplines one’s koach hamedameh, the “associative power” of consciousness responsible for intuiting hidden connections within reality.

This innate power possesses the tendency, if left unchecked, to invite fantasies and other distorted imaginings aimed solely at gratifying one’s senses and ego. Thus it is identified in Chassidic thought as the psychological root of man’s evil inclination. The study of Kabbalah helps rectify this power by guiding it in the direction of positive associations, those which express the harmony within Creation and eventually, at an even higher level, point to its Divine unity and oneness.

We are now better prepared to appreciate the approach of Rabbi Isaac and other Chassidic masters who expound their ideas through the use of parallel models. It is important to realize that whenever one attempts to articulate correspondences, there is either a conscious or unconscious frame of reference guiding one in the process.

The Torah itself provides us with the necessary prototypes for conceptually ordering our reality. These models differ according to the number of corresponding levels one is interested in articulating. For instance, should one wish to express four levels of correspondence, the classic frame of reference in Kabbalah is the ineffable four-letter Name of God (Havayah); ten levels always relate back to the ten Divine emanations (sefirot) within Creation; thirteen levels, to the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy; and so on. (The importance of such models as educational tools is hinted at in the Passover Haggadah, the essential Jewish primer, which concludes with a song entitled “Who knows one?” delineating in verse thirteen models of correspondence, ranging from one God to the thirteen attributes of His mercy.)

By suggesting a correspondence between the “three Kabbalot” and the following three concepts from the Tanya, Rabbi Isaac hopes to transplant the essence of the first model into the second, thus enriching it and giving birth to a new and deeper understanding.

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