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Love: A Kabbalistic Perspective
What happens when you really get it.
Dear readers! It’s with a dollop of trepidation that we present this essay. Not because it’s not fascinating (it is) or exceedingly well-written and structured (it’s that too) but rather because it requires the reader to really focus to savor its full import. It may require a careful first (and possibly second) reading. We’ve been toying with the tagline “a beautiful mind…must bend,” and this piece has the potential to beautify in spades. For those who like a little extra spice and have the requisite patience for the finer things—this is for you.
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1. The Phenomenon of Love
There is arguably nothing that captivates our attention and evokes our emotions and imagination more vigorously than the experience of love. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this phenomenon has been so often represented at the beating heart of the visual and performing arts, music, and literature throughout recorded history and in virtually every culture. In more recent times, attempts have been made to derive some understanding of love from a scientific point of view, focusing on one or other of its dizzying diversity of physiological, neuroendocrine, psychological, and behavioral aspects. The latter, of course, can only provide insight into the objective (or ‘third person’) attributes of the experience; the subjective or ‘first person’ qualities—what it is actually like to feel love—is inextricably linked with the frustratingly elusive concept of consciousness. So devilishly intractable is the nature of consciousness that for several hundred years until very recently, talk of it was largely expunged from neuroscientific discourse.
Subject to the prevailing reductive materialism/physicalism, many to this day consider consciousness and qualia, i.e., what it feels like to have a subjective experience such as tasting chocolate, seeing blue, or being stricken by love 1, as illusions or epiphenomena outside the bounds of natural law and thus incapable of impacting the (closed) physical world. At the end of the day, reductionists are left intellectually paralyzed by what philosopher David Chalmers calls the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness—how and why physical (neural) matter gives rise to non-material mental states 2.
The present essay challenges mainstream reductionist dogma by presenting a perspective on the metaphysics of consciousness and love based on principles of the Jewish mystical tradition—the Kabbalah. In order to ground the otherwise esoteric concepts of the (mainly Lurianic) Kabbalah in concrete terms, we will explore, step-wise, the spiritual dynamics underpinning a love relationship (romantic or platonic) maturing between two individuals—let’s call them Jacob and Rachel. Table 1 lists five principles of Jewish mystical thought that will be sequentially invoked to develop this theme. To appeal to modern audiences, many of the Kabbalistic principles considered here will be buttressed by contemporary scientific theory (mainly quantum mechanics and the physics of David Bohm), given the stunning convergence of ancient Jewish mystical thought with advances at the cutting edge of the physical sciences we are currently witnessing 3-5.
Table 1. Five Kabbalistic Principles
The Ten Sefirot
2. Jacob, Rachel, and the Ten Sefirot
Before we can begin to consider the spiritual nature of their relationship, we first need to understand who (or what) Jacob and Rachel are. The Kabbalah posits a hierarchy of layered spiritual domains which emanate from an unfathomable Godhead referred to as the Ein-Sof. These domains ‘descend’ progressively in sanctity through a system of ‘coarsening’ immaterial worlds and culminate in the establishment of the physical universe. This unfolding reality is based on a fractal-like (self-similar) network of interacting ‘Lights’ or spiritual forces (called Sefirot) which mediate causal, often reciprocating, associations among God, humanity, and the cosmos 3, 6. Although the Light (emanation) of the Ein-Sof is an undifferentiated unity, each of ten Sefirot acts as a ‘lens’ or ‘filter’ that transforms part of this Light into a particular attribute, force, action 7 or information packet 8 (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. A. The ten Sefirot (Da’at is included when Keter is not). B. Kabbalistic causal hierarchy. Bars indicate potential interactions among the Sefirot. Arrows denote the standard pathway for the descent of Divine influence. From 4, with permission.
Each Sefirah is composed of a Vessel (Keli) which imparts unique qualities to the portion of Light (Ohr) it contains. The Kabbalah construes everything in existence—including our friends Rachel and Jacob—as ultimately comprising admixtures of these ten ‘forces’ 3, 6, 9-11. A crucial point to apprehend here is that the Creation of Rachel and Jacob—and all we deem real—results from the withdrawal of the Ein-Sof’s infinite Light (a process termed Tzimtzum in Hebrew), ‘leaving behind’ precisely those configurations of Sefirot required to bring into being the unique Worlds (the Kabbalah acknowledges five Worlds which exhibit progressive levels of fragmentation/disunity as they recede from the Godhead), items and events specified by the Will of God. By analogy, think of the necessity of lowering the power of a trillion-Watt light bulb to, say, 100W in order to render perceptible the finite pieces of furniture in a room.
We intimated earlier that Jacob and Rachel’s love is rooted in consciousness. But where and how, according to the Kabbalah, does consciousness manifest itself in the Creation hierarchy? Is consciousness, and therefore the capacity to experience love, confined to human beings and possibly other higher organisms, or is consciousness more ubiquitously distributed throughout the cosmos? In the following section, we present an argument favoring the latter inasmuch as the Kabbalistic view of consciousness is decidedly ‘panpsychist’ in nature.
3. Kabbalistic Panpsychism
Panpsychism asserts that consciousness or mind is a primordial and ubiquitous feature of all things regardless of scale or complexity 12. Panpsychism dictates that all entities manifest an ‘exterior’ objective phase as well as an ‘interior’ experiential dimension 13. The latter does not imply that protons manifest human-like sentience but that they do contain a modicum of proto-consciousness, allowing them to ‘feel’ their existence at some rudimentary level 14. Panpsychism has been gaining in popularity, mainly because it resolves Chalmers’ ‘hard problem’ and the existence of qualia (see Section 1) by affirming consciousness as fundamental to all things extant in the universe alongside space-time, matter, and energy.
As mentioned in Section 2, each rung of the Kabbalistic infrastructure is composed of ten Sefirot. Moreover, each deca-Sefirotic system comprises ‘3-top’ consciousness-mediating Sefirot—Keter-Chochmah-Binah or Chochmah-Binah-Da’at which are collectively referred to as Mochin (‘brains’) or Gimel Rishonot (G”R, ‘first three’), and 7-bottom ‘unconscious’ Sefirot (Chesed-to-Malchut) termed Zayin Tachtonot (Z”T, ‘bottom seven’). Thus, the entire physical cosmos and its spiritual precursors are imbued with and regulated by an immense array of consciousnesses—hence, panpsychism— which together convey the Will of the Creator in hierarchical fashion. Not unlike justice meted out proportionately by a system of higher and lower courts, a point of consciousness ‘situated’ close to the Godhead (Ein-Sof) conveys sweeping influences which are progressively parsed, compartmentalized, and delegated to a network of lower-ranking Mochin for their implementation.
An understanding of the relationship among the rungs of the Kabbalistic ladder presupposes familiarity with the Principle of Enclothement (Hitlabshut התלבשות). An inverted telescope (see Fig. 2) can be a helpful metaphor to illustrate this principle. Enclothement connotes a system whereby the ‘bottom’ aspect of a ‘higher’ (more sublime) 10-Sefirah object is ‘ensheathed’ by the uppermost Sefirot of its immediately ‘inferior’ counterpart where it acts as the latter’s brain or consciousness.
Fig. 2. Enclothement. Analogized by a set of inverted telescopes. A. Reference configuration of the Kabbalistic superstructure. Joints of the telescope symbolize the degree of ‘overlap’ (enclothment) among Sefirot, Worlds, etc. B. Sins of humankind promote ‘descent’ of Creation into increasing apparent disunity and ‘distance’ from Ein-Sof. C. Seventh (Messianic) Millennium ushers in ‘ascent’ of Creation, i.e., progressive revelation of wholeness and the indivisible Light of Ein-Sof. Modified from http://www.gilai.com/images/items/1498_big.jpg and 4 with permission.
Each lower stratum, by virtue of the overlap, conceals from our direct perception the ‘higher’/‘inner’ domain while revealing by inference the latter’s existence and operations. As detailed elsewhere 4, 5, Enclothement has a compelling homologue in the physics of scientist and philosopher David Bohm (1917-1992). Where Bohm speaks of a ‘holomovement’ to describe Reality’s absolute wholeness from which all particulars spring and remain inextricably linked, the Kabbalah employs the corresponding concepts, Ohr Ein-Sof (Light of the Infinite) and Shlaymut or Klal (wholeness).
Bohm’s hidden or ‘implicate order’ can be readily understood as the ladder of spiritual domains ‘above’ the ‘lowest’ rung of the Kabbalistic hierarchy. Similarly, Bohm’s ‘explicate order’ is tantamount to the physical domain amenable to our perception at the very ‘bottom’ of the Kabbalistic infrastructure. Bohmian mechanics mandate that each domain of the holomovement arises from, clothes and is causally influenced by the layer immediately ‘implicate’ to it. And akin to the Kabbalistic concept of Ensheathment, Bohm viewed each deeper layer of Reality as more abstract than, but ultimately causative for, the dimension mapping immediately superficial to it, with the most proximate hidden layer giving rise to the ‘explicate order’ 4, 5.
Guided by the Principle of Enclothement, we can begin to appreciate how the Kabbalah construes the dissemination of consciousness in our Universe: Kabbalistic panpsychism is, like Einstein’s space-time, relativistic (Fig. 3): When a mineral is incorporated within plant matter, the conscious three top Sefirot of the mineral (informing form and substance) are compactified within the unconscious seven lower (‘bodily’) Sefirot of, for example, a tree. The tree, in turn, completes its own deca-Sefirotic structure by expression (revelation) of three consciousness-conferring Sefirot endowing novel properties of growth and reproduction denied to (remain latent within or are rendered ‘implicate’ in Bohmian terminology) the inanimate class.
An identical dynamic holds when ascending from vegetable to animal life: The entire deca-Sefirotic (three conscious-seven bodily) span of the plant is compressed as the seven bottom Sefirot of the animal while the latter exhibits (reveals) a new set of three top-Sefirot mediating unprecedented animal consciousness. The capacities for growth and reproduction empowered by the conscious Sefirot of the plant persist within the animal kingdom (which, after all, also manifests growth and reproduction) but are now subsumed within the latter’s unconscious bodily Sefirot. The three newly-revealed ‘mindful’ Sefirot confer sentience, emotion, and other neurological/behavioral features to the animal not observed in plants.
Transitioning from animals to humans, the ten Sefirot of the former are compressed as unconscious bodily Sefirot, endowing humankind with a broad spectrum of physiological and psychological functions necessary for our survival. Completing the deca-Sefirotic system in humankind is a triad of newly-revealed top-Sefirot conferring attributes of language, reason, self-consciousness, morality, free will, and creativity unique to our species. The ability to express love may represent the crowning achievement of consciousness but may not be limited to humankind (as many a dog owner will attest to).
In 1990, Bohm enunciated a strikingly parallel conviction that “each mental side (of every physical-mental dipole) becomes a physical side as we move in the direction of greater subtlety 15.” In this top-down manner, a primordial universal consciousness—the Mind of God— progressively reveals itself and, with it, the remarkable potential for love within the Creation hierarchy.
Fig. 3. Progressive revelation of transcendent consciousness (Ohr Makif) into immanent consciousness (Ohr Pnimi) by the G”R’s of the various domains of Creation. White denotes consciousness space. G”R = Gimel Rishonot (‘enminded’ three top Sefirot); Z”T = Zayin Tachtonot (‘unconscious’ seven bottom Sefirot). Modified after 5.
In order to gain a nuanced Kabbalistic perspective on the metaphysics of love, the Principle of Interinclusion must now be assimilated into our model of Reality.
Interinclusion (Hitkallelut התכללות) refers to the notion that the whole is recapitulated within each of its parts 16, 17. Thus are contained within each Sefirah and deca-Sefirotic assembly miniature versions of all the others (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Interinclusion. Represented as a deca-Sefirotic fractal. From 4 with permission.
We see instances of Interinclusion throughout the natural world, e.g., in the mathematics of fractal geometry, the recursive images of the Mandelbrot set,
in the construction of a laser hologram and in the genetic makeup of cellular nuclei 4. Kabbalistic Interinclusion is highly reminiscent of Bohm’s ‘Holographic Universe’—a revolutionary idea that is attracting considerable scientific attention of late on the basis of calculations regarding the distribution of information on the surfaces of celestial bodies called black holes 18, 19. Both the Jewish mystical tradition and Bohmian mechanics posit the mind-bending idea that embedded within each wave and particle is all of the energy and matter in the Universe; that the distant past and remote future are etched within every present moment; and that enfolded within each thought is the totality of human cognition and consciousness!
The seminal principle of Interinclusion explains why those who observe a single Mitzvah (commandment) to full capacity are rewarded as if they fulfilled all 613 Mitzvot of the Torah 20; why punishment meted out for each and every transgression effects atonement for the inhering sin of the Golden Calf 21, 22; why the saving of a single life is tantamount to rescuing the entire world 23; and why the statement “All of Israel are connected one to the other” 24-26 is as much a metaphysical truth as it is a moral imperative.
Although all is subsumed within all, the differential expression (revelation) of specific facets of the Creation within each object or event guarantees that the world we inhabit is richly textured with seemingly endless diversity and complexity. When the Kabbalah speaks of the ‘emergence’ of higher consciousness and love within the Creation hierarchy (Section 3), it does not imply unprecedented mental properties arising de novo; rather, it connotes the progressive revelation of mental attributes hitherto concealed within the very fabric of the Creation at its most fundamental (pre-physics) level. Here we again see close alignment of the Kabbalah with Bohmian thinking which construes the unfolding of consciousness as a primitive of the Implicate Order rendered explicate 27.
Before moving on, let’s for a moment take stock of what the Kabbalah has taught us about Jacob and Rachel as individuals: (i) Jacob and Rachel, akin to all the particulars of Creation, comprise 10 Sefirot of which the top three channel consciousness from the transcendent ‘Mind of God’ (Fig. 3) and the bottom seven are ‘bodily’. (ii) At the pinnacle of Creation, our couple’s ‘enminded’ Sefirot allow for the expression of love and other sublime traits which may be limited to but a handful of species. Rachel and Jacob also possess the ‘lower’ characteristics of animals, plants, and minerals but, as per the Principle of Enclothement, the latter remain compressed within the seven ‘unconscious’ or ‘bodily’ Sefirot.
(iii) According to the Principle of Interinclusion, embodied within Jacob is the entirety of Creation—all of space, time, matter, and energy—including, of course, a miniature version of Rachel. However, (iv) only those aspects of the Creation which we would at face value identify as ‘Jacob’ are in a state of revelation (equivalent to Bohm’s explicate order); the remainder of Creation, albeit holographically represented within Jacob, remains opaque to our senses and instrumentation (Bohm’s implicate order). With these concepts in mind, we are well-poised to explore the metaphysics of Rachel and Jacob’s relationship. But to do so successfully, we must consider the final principle listed in Table 1—Interpenetration.
Interpenetration (Hitkashrut התקשרות) connotes ‘connection’ ‘binding’ or ‘amalgamation.’ It is a mechanism that functions together with the Principle of Interinclusion to facilitate a grand underlying unification of the Creation. Interpenetration asserts that intimate bonds exist not merely among the ten Sefirot comprising any given item but also among ‘like’ Sefirot, e.g., Chesed (lovingkindness), across all of the cosmos’ individual parts. Interpenetration enables the Chesed (or any Sefirah) component of each and every part of the cosmos to be actualized by the Creator simultaneously, thereby circumventing the standard ‘domino effect’ behavior of the Kabbalistic hierarchy (Fig. 5A) 4, 5.
Fig. 5. Interpenetration. A. Simultaneous co-activation of like Sefirot (e.g., Chesed, dark ovals) within and among three of the Kabbalistic Worlds (Briah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah). From 4, with permission. B. Quantum entanglement. See text for details.
Kabbalistic Interpenetration may be the spiritual correlate or origin of the quantum mechanical principle of ‘entanglement’ (Fig. 5B)—the highly counterintuitive, non-local, and immediate behavioral synchrony of sister particles (subatomic particles derived from a common progenitor) irrespective of their degree of separation in space-time (the basis for the 2022 Nobel Prize award in physics) 5.
The implications of Interinclusion and Interpenetration for the esoteric Torah’s construal of consciousness and the metaphysics of love are profound. The Kabbalah intimates that when Rachel encounters, befriends, and eventually comes to love Jacob, she is, in fact, progressively revealing her bond (Interpenetration) with the mini-version of herself ensconced as a hidden fractal (Interinclusion) with the target of her affection. If Jacob responds in kind, then he similarly elucidates his connection with the mini-Jacob latent within Rachel (Fig. 6). On a spiritual plane, the result of this mutual interaction is an ‘exchange’ (Chiluf) of Rachel’s mini-Jacob for Jacob’s mini-Rachel, thereby ‘enlarging or enhancing the presence’ of both Jacob and Rachel 28.
Fig. 6. Bonding of Jacob and Rachel with mini-versions of themselves which lie latent within one another as hidden fractals (Pinterest, with modifications).
Superficially, Rachel is a circumscribed individual who, upon sharing positive experiences with Jacob, begins to identify with (reveals or ‘makes explicate’ in Bohmian terminology) the miniature version of herself latent within Jacob. The emphasis here is on the word ‘reveals’ because at deeper, more integrated levels of the Creation architecture, there never was nor can there be any interruption of her entanglement (Interpenetration) with the countless mini-Rachels disseminated as fractals throughout the entire cosmos (including her representation within Jacob). As in Bohm’s Implicate Order, Rachel is the sum total of all her scattered ‘selves,’ period.
As we shift towards our ‘standard’ view of Reality, there is first a semblance of differential bonding, with Rachel manifesting greater apparent Interpenetration with relatives and friends than with acquaintances and strangers, arriving finally at the mundane perspective of Rachel as an individual being physically isolated from the rest of Creation. Note how this metaphysic recapitulates the Creation process described in Section 2 whereby the indivisible Light of the Ein-Sof ‘descended’ through a system of progressively dis-unified spiritual Worlds culminating in the appearance of a ‘fractured’ physical Universe.
Importantly, and in compliance with the passage “I am the Lord, I do not change” 29, both the unified and the particularized dimensions of the Creation are co-extant and contingent more on shifts in conscious awareness than any re-alignment of the underlying metaphysics. Re-visiting our lightbulb analogy (Section 2), the drop in wattage necessary for us to perceive discrete furniture items is only true from our surface perspective—from God’s point of view (or in Bohm’s Holomovement), the bulb continues to blaze undiminished. Through acts of compassion and by adherence to the Torah’s commandments, we chip away at the darkness and assist in the revelation of this hidden Light.
6. Cosmic Love
We noted previously that as the relationship between Rachel and Jacob matures, they progressively and reciprocally identify the presence of (Interinclusion), and bond with (Interpenetration), mini-personas of themselves which lay latent within one another—interactions which reveal the inner dimensions and bring to light the deep unification of each party 28. What if Rachel and Jacob were to reiterate this ‘bonding’ display with their Creation-wide network of fractal counterparts? In accord with Kabbalistic reasoning, the revelation of such interconnectedness may be prerequisite to the attainment of a state of ‘cosmic consciousness’ predicted in Jewish writings to commence unfolding within the next 220 years or so with the advent of the Seventh or Messianic Millennium 5, 30.
Ponder an awareness of such Interpenetration sweeping across large swaths of humanity. Now extrapolate the Interpenetration process to the countless inter-included Sefirot, which give rise to all constituents of the cosmic hologram—be they galaxies, life forms, or quarks. Complete this exercise by mentally constructing a seamless ‘lattice’ of the revealed Mochin (‘brains’) stitched from the vast assemblage of Interpenetrated Sefirot and the utopian vision of a ‘cosmic consciousness’—a universe gradually ‘waking up’ to acknowledge its wondrous existence, extol its Source and experience love on the grandest of scales—begins to take shape 5.
Are we justified in dreaming along these lines? Proponents of Kabbalistic wisdom from time immemorial may well have lived by these truths, but they represent a miniscule fraction of humanity. In fulfillment of the Zohar’s prediction 31, the extraordinary conflation of ancient Kabbalistic insights with jaw-dropping developments at the leading edges of contemporary science may open the wellsprings of Jewish mysticism to wider audiences and help propel the human spirit to heights of meaning and rapture almost unimaginable today.
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20. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 111a.
21. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 102a.
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24. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b.
25. Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a.
26. Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37a.
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29. Malachi 3:6.
30. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 97a.
31. Zohar 1:117a.
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