I recently returned from a six-week stay in Jerusalem, where I had the pleasure of serving as a faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. Founded in 1987, this unique program offers 26 incoming high-school seniors from the United States and Canada intensive study in various dimensions of Jewish life and thought, both ancient and modern. The North American fellows also have the opportunity for substantive interaction with the 20 Israeli youth selected for the sister program, Amitei Bronfman (founded in 1998).
Like Hebrew College, BYFI is a pluralistic Jewish educational initiative that includes participants and educators from a wide range of perspectives. Respectful and impassioned dialogue is at the heart of the fellowship experience. The teens are invited to explore their values and ideals in the company of fellow Jewish seekers, who view diversity as a vital source for the creation of a thoughtful and engaging community.
In my role as an educator on the BYFI program, I taught a course on Jewish theology entitled The God(s) of Judaism. As the name suggests, the aim of the class was to explore the various ways in which Jewish thinkers have articulated their conceptions of God throughout the ages. While Judaism is widely regarded as the first great monotheistic religion, it has always been a multivocal tradition with differing religious ideals and visions.
The goal of the course was to invite the fellows into a meaningful historical and theological conversation in which they could learn about the beliefs, questions and yearnings of past writers and artists, and add their own voices to this ongoing discussion. As I said to the fellows, I believe that whether one is a theist, agnostic or atheist (or none of the above), it is important to understand the contours of Jewish religious thought and to consider if and how these ideas might be helpful in living a meaningful and responsible life today.
One poignant moment in our learning came when we visited the historic city of Tsfat in Galilee and had the opportunity to see several important sites from the 16th century. As we sat on a patch of grass overlooking the rambling graveyard where many of the great Jewish mystics from the period are buried, we read the following words from one of the leaders of this renowned Kabbalistic community, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (d. 1570):
In the beginning, Ein Sof emanated ten “sefirot,” which are all of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot.
With these coded words (inherited from earlier Jewish mystics), Cordovero attempts to articulate his understanding of the relationship between the Infinite (Ein Sof) and the 10 primary divine emanations, known as the sefirot. According to this vision of ultimate reality, God both transcends all of life and is simultaneously manifest through these different potencies. Each sefirah represents a different attribute or aspect of the One who is beyond all naming or description. It is through this process of emanation — a journey from hiddenness to revelation — that all of life comes to be. In sharing this teaching, Cordovero insists that we hold the tension of “the one and the many,” understanding that they forever coexist.
To help the reader absorb this mystical precept, our teacher offers the following illustration:
… Imagine water flowing through vessels of different colors: white, red, green and so forth. As the water spreads through those vessels it appears to change into the colors of the vessels, although the water is devoid of all color. … So it is with the sefirot. They are vessels, known for example as Hesed (love and grace), Gevurah (power, judgment, rigor), and Tif’eret (beauty and harmony), each colored according to its function, white, red, and green, respectively, while the light of the emanator — their essence — is the water, having no color at all. This essence does not change; it only appears to change as it flows through the vessels.
In unpacking this text with the Bronfman fellows, we discussed the daring use of imagery and symbolism (and its dangers) by Cordovero and his mystical companions, how this cosmic mapping helped these Kabbalists develop a compelling worldview for themselves, bringing an added sense of focus and purpose to their lives. As the contemporary scholar and translator Daniel Matt writes, “The mystic climbs and probes, discovering dimensions of being. Spiritual and psychological wholeness is achieved by meditating on the qualities of each sefirah, by imitating and integrating the attributes of God” (“The Essential Kabbalah,” p. 10).
We also discussed how Cordovero and his disciples embedded their spiritual vision within the framework of traditional Jewish religious praxis (Torah study, prayer, food rituals, etc.), created a corresponding body of mystical ethical literature (Cordovero’s “Tomer Devorah” is but one example), and sought to share elements of these esoteric teachings with others beyond their inner circle. Finally, we talked about the importance of fellowship in the Tsfat mystical circles and their belief in the transformative power of intentional community.
Reading and reflecting on the ideas of this great Jewish thinker while walking through the cobblestone streets of this storied city helped us internalize the teachings in an embodied manner, as we contemplated together what these words might mean to us, all of these generations later.
One of the great joys for me as a Bronfman educator (as at Hebrew College) was participating with the staff and fellows in the creation of a “kehilah kedoshah” (sacred community) in which we were given the opportunity for personal and communal introspection and growth and were urged to see that our efforts are bound up in the fate of the global Jewish community and the world at large — the “one and the many.”