Azriel of Gerona (Azriel ben Menahem, also called “The Saint”) (ca. 1160-1238)
Azriel was a Spanish Jewish mystic (specifically, in the sect of Cabala/Kabbalah) considered to be the founder of “speculative Cabala” (the oral tradition’s first written record).
Born in Girona/Gerona, Spain, a Catalan town north of Barcelona, he travelled to southern France to become the student of Isaac the Blind, a celebrated scholar of Cabala; later becoming its great proponent and advocate throughout Spain, although the beginning of his writings on the Sefirot admit a certain failure in winning over the philosophers to his mysticism (“The philosophers believe in nothing that cannot be demonstrated logically,” he wrote). He returned, then, to Gerona and founded his own school on Cabala (notably becoming the teacher of the next great Jewish mystic philosopher, Nahmanides).
His philosophical work is deeply influenced by Solomon Ibn Gabriol’s “Mekor Hayyim.” Like Gabriol, he, too, is grounded in Neoplatonism. In Azriel’s work, the Greek “One” and Abrahamic “God” is “En Sof,” the “Endless One.” Also like many Neoplatonists, he utilizes apopthaticism (negative theology, a knowing via negativa) in his work, which is predominately centered on the sefirot (the ten emanations from En Sof—intermediaries that explain creation and permit a distinction between En Sof and the material), although also including mystical readings of the liturgy and aggadah (Judaism’s rabbinical literature that contains the homilies and non-legal exegesis of the Talmud and Midrash—etymologically, the term means the “telling,” and includes ideas of drawing out [ideas] and drawing in [readers]).
The “Explanation of the Ten Sefirot:”
(While likely not originally a piece of it, this selection was published as a prolegomenon to his Sefer Derekh Emunah in its eminent 1850 edition.)
FORM: As the title suggests, this piece is ‘explanation’—its form consists of a series of eleven questions and their answers. In a sense, this reads like a dialogue—note the connections we could draw to the pedagogic dimensions in Augustine’s Confessions (Augustine seeking to understand God’s incorporeality and the nature of evil, seeking teachers, using conversion stories as teachings and mimetic guides, posing his autobiography as a guide or teaching to others, etc.), Boethius’ Consolations (Lady Philosophy as physician tests his memory and re-teaches him the true meaning of happiness), and Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names (P-D poses himself as student of Paul and Hierotheus, and ‘teaches’ Timothy).
Question 1: “Who can compel me to believe that the world has a Ruler?” (89). Azriel’s Answer: after asserting everything has a ruler (ship a captain, world a ruler), he names the ruler to be eyn sof—God who is prior to the creative act, the origin, the “Endless One,” “no limit,” “Infinity;” importantly, the absolute originality here, the absolute limitlessness, also indicates that this One is beyond all possible comprehension or grasp, hence, can only be approached through negation, hence His ‘names’ or ‘attributes’ are all essentially negatives (e.g., “infinite,” the non-finite, that which is not that which we can grasp; “hidden,” that which we cannot find or see—compare to Pseudo-Dionysius’ denotation of God as unfathomable, etc., too). Also note the last, peculiar quote from Ecclesiastes 8:17: “Should the wise man can say that he knows, even he will not be able to find it”—in full and clearer: “then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (NIV)—setting aside your understanding of Ecclesiastes, how might we approach this quote in Azriel’s context? Is it proposing an inability to understand, or, perhaps, a sort of understanding that is not a grasping of something as a matter of understanding that one could express?
Question 2: “Who can compel me to believe in Eyn-Sof?” (89).
Note: Again, remember the ideas about the interplay of faith and understanding, of knowledge and belief, that we discussed with Augustine.
Azriel’s Answer: In a tone similar to Ecclesiastes, Azriel answers by diminishing to insignificance all that is visible, perceivable, or capable for us to comprehend—such are limited, hence, finite, hence insignificant. Eyn-Sof is the opposite.
“And if He is [truly] without limit, than nothing exists outside Him” (90)—all that is, is Eyn-Sof—“He is the essence of all that is concealed and revealed” (90)—in Pseudo-Dionysius’ terms, He is the source from which all comes, and is the subsistence (the ultimate unifying foundation beneath and through all that is)--and “But since He is hidden, He is both the root of faith and the root of rebelliousness” (90).
Note: consider here the perplexity of Pseudo-Dionysius’ fourth chapter, wherein non-being can be both that which turns away from God, but also that which, too, turns to God … or, how eros for Augustine turns us to sin, whereas it, for P-D, turns us to the One … or, if you are familiar with it, consider Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, wherein faith and doubt are equated or paralleled as the two tasks of a lifetime.
Azriel then moves to affirm that “that our perception of Him cannot be except by way of negative attribution” (90). So … what is it that we perceive? That which is; hence, “that which radiated forth from Eyn-Sof are the ten sefirot” (90). The sefirot are “emanations” from Eyn-Sof, they are intermediaries between Him and creation.
Note the last bracketed insertion: “[And this is sufficient for the enlightened.]” (90). What do you make of this? That this is all one needs to know for enlightenment, or that this is only enough for those who are enlightened?
Question 3: “By what necessity do you arrive at the assertion that the sefirot exist? I rather say that they do not exist and that there is only Eyn-Sof” (90).
Note: Recall Pseudo-Dionysius’ painful discussions of the trinity and overall mereology—the one and the many problems … P-D’s main concern was moving closer to Christian emphasis on the one God, and not sound too pagan with all the hypostases as gods or divinized beings.
Azriel’s Answer: If it is Eyn-Sof who creates directly, and any emanation from Him is less than Himself, then you are suggesting that He has imperfection within Him. Instead, He is absolute perfection (and, thereby has both infinite power and finite power).
“The limitation first existentiated from Him is the sefirot, for they are both a perfect power and an imperfect power” (90). Note the traditional emanation terminology of “flow” and ‘one and the many’ or ‘singularity and multiplicity,’ and the traditional use of the idea of participation—the sefirot participate (partake) in the abundant flow from Eyn-Sof; when the flow is stemmed (which is an unusual claim), then then have imperfect power. These powers—perfect and imperfect—permit differentiation.
This must be the case, or else one is saying Eyn-Sof is not perfect or that creation was random chance—neither can be the case. Hence, everything thing that is, is from Eyn-Sof, but most directly from the created sefirot from Eyn-Sof.
Question 4: “by what [argument] do you establish that they are ten and yet one power?” (91).
Note: this is mereology—the one and the many, wholes and parts.
Azriel’s Answer: The sefirot are the beginning and end of all that is limited, all that is bounded by substance and place. Substance and place are co-implicatory; and, within substance, there is a third force manifest in length, depth, and breadth: “Thus there are nine. … [and] the number is not complete regarding substance and place with anything less than ten” (91). (And then more puzzling math …)
The quotation “Thus it states: ‘ten and not nine’” (91) is from Sefer Yesirah 1:4—known as the “Book of Formation” or “Book of Creation” (hence, concerns creation and world), which is ascribed to Abraham, and is the earliest known book of Jewish mysticism—which writes on the “Ten Numbers,” the sefirot, before moving to a consideration of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are broken down into mathematical forms of three mother letters, seven double letters, and twelve simples, then further explores the three letters forming God’s name, the seven days of the week, the 12 tribes of Israel, numbers of parts of the body, etc., etc. … The key here being that God used various combinations of the ten sefirot and the 22 letters to create.
Question 5: “How can you say that the sefirot are emanated? I say that they were created like all the other created beings!” (91).
Azriel’s Answer: To preserve perfection of Eyn-Sof, the dynamism of emanation is a better form of creation in this case. Extensive emphasis here on the dynamic (compare to ‘movements’ in P-D, chapter three).
I do not know what is referred to in the sense of the ‘other creation,’ unless this means something more biological.
Question 6: “How can we possibly say that He is One and the multiplicity of ten unites within Him? By this we may preserve the truth in our hearts but certainly not in our statements” (92).
Azriel’s Answer: One is the foundation (subsistence), the dynamism of all the many; the metaphor for this is the fire, flame, sparks, and aura—all one essence, but different things and divisible into components.
Question 7: “… Why should I [not] ascribe to them measure, limit, and corporeality?” (92).
Azriel’s Answer: (note the repetition of “I have already informed you …”) Eny-Sof existentiated limits for the sefirot so that we can recognize His being able to existentiate limitation. By his limitlessness, He brought into being limits. Limits allow us to think things, see them, and say them.
Question 8: “… these sefirot, when did they come into existence? …” (93)—the point here, that if contemporaneous with creation of the world, why then; if eternally, then how different from Eyn-Sof?
Azriel’s Answer: Some existed in potentiality in Eyn-Sof before their actualization; some intelligible and then emanated; some perceived and some innate that emanated almost contemporaneously with the creation of the world. To address differentiation, he hearkens a candle—one can light many others; all come from the one which lit it, but are equal in comparison to the one.
Question 9: “What is the nature of [the Sefirot]?” (94).
Azriel’s Answer: “the synthesis of every thing and its opposite” (94). Synthesis generates energy. Thus, liken their nature to that of the will of the soul … the synthesis of all desires and thoughts.