The Kabbalah of Pluralism

The rift between different groups of Jews has turned ugly.  Prominent Rabbis of one denomination have publicly accused rabbis of another of being “clowns,” and of making a mockery of the faith.  Yet other leaders have accused ideological opponents of lacking “a scintilla of moral worth.” And some rabbis accuse the synagogues of other denominations of spiritual deadness, interested only in catering to the rich and powerful.  Some lay exclusive claim to the tradition, others insist that only their theology is sophisticated or spiritual. Across the spectrum, triumphalism is rampant, and it is metastasizing.

Denigrating other forms of Judaims isn’t just an expression of malice: often it emerges from a commendable love of one’s own Jewish way. It is a small step from feeling passionately about one’s own path within Judaism to the conviction that it is optimal for every Jew. It is an all-too human temptation to project our own filter of temperament and preferences onto the world at large.

Placing our own perspective at the center, and finding ourselves under attack from Jews who don’t see Judaism the same way we do, it’s easy to surrender to  accusing their form of Judaism of being a sham, a disgrace, an aberration.  From every wing of Jewish expression — left, center, and right — triumphalism is a dominant, discordant voice. And it is killing us.  It is hard to be a passionate Jew of any kind; our faith hardly lacks opponents. Materialism, secularism, despotism, indifference, and the seductions of wealth and power all threaten the survival of our ancient sacred covenant. 

We hardly lack for antagonists to Judaism, what we need are allies. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, all Jews depend on each other. Our wellbeing requires every form of Judaism that meets the spiritual needs of its adherents, that elevates moral discourse, enhancing the divine image found in all people and the wonder of all creation. Recognizing, in the words of the Tanya of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi that “not all intellects and minds are alike, and the intellect of one person is not affected and excited by what affects the intellect of another” we need to remind ourselves that the Judaism that works best for one Jew may not be the right fit for another, that we will need many ways to be Jewish if we hope to retain the loyalty of many Jews. What we need is a theology of difference: let a hundred Judaism’s blossom! A theological basis for pluralism might remind us that our personal religious temperament is not shared by all other Jews. Such a vigorous pluralism would assert that it is the Holy Blessing One who properly ought to occupy the center; as we and our communities take our distinctive places around that common core.

In the pursuit of a theology of multiple Judaisms for multiple personalities,  Lurianic Kabbalah offers a wonderful image.  Posing the question of how a God that is beyond all comprehension, beyond all description, and hence beyond all relationship, could have fashioned a finite world, the Kabbalists articulate the image of the Sefirot, ten emanations of God that each reflect a different aspect of God’s involvement in the world. Ein Sof (God beyond all description) withdraws into a single, dense point, exploding out into material reality, into the Sefirot.  Those Sefirot are, therefore, a map both of God’s involvement and of creation itself.  Indeed, since humanity is made in God’s image, the Sefirot are also found in each and every human being. The Sefirot are the emblem of God, creation, and humanity.

According to Kabbalah, each neshamah, each human soul, originates in one or another of the Sefirot.  This accounts for the staggering array of human temperaments and personalities, since each Sefirah has its own emphasis and dominant emotion: Asking why the Torah refers to God in the plural in Hebrew, as “Elohim Hayim, the living God,” the Alte Rebbe responds that the plural form reminds us that God is “the Source of Life for the souls of Israel, which are generally divided into three categories — right, left, and center— namely chesed (kindness), gevurah (might), and so on.”   Each soul comes from a different Sefirah, and reflects the attributes of its unique source. “The souls, whose root originates in the category of chesed, are likewise inclined towards kindness in the leniency of their decisions, and so forth.”

Some Jews are more driven by a spirituality of compassion. Some are drawn to social justice; others to cultivating an inner stillness. They come from different Sefirot. For some Jews, their passion is learning traditional texts and for others, a life of mitzvot is their highest aspiration.  Some are punctilious, others more lax. Some are more tranquil; others, passionate. Rather than saying which is better, or that some other Jewish community ought to adopt our own community’s agenda and perspective, might we not all do better to recognize that each comes from its own Sefirah; each temperament reveals a different aspect of godliness in the world.  All originate in the Holy One, and each can illumine the other. At the same time, they might not always be able to live together: Chesed Jews should fashion communities true to their Sefirah, and gevurah Jews ought to do likewise.

Temperament,  no less than intellect, may drive denominational differences. But if each are understood as emerging from different Sefirot, then we can all affirm that other Jewish communities and denominations are rooted in God no less than our own.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President, and the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).