General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

The Text Defeats Me

Recently, I’ve been doing more “spiritual” stuff. You know, classically spiritual, like meditation and text study. Which is all well and good. But one of the “texts” I’ve been studying is Sefer Yetzirah. Now, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation) is considered esoteric, complex, even difficult. But I’m a rabbi. I have six years of graduate education in this stuff. If I slow down enough, I should be able to work with it.

And I can. Sort of. I’m even working with a translation and commentary. And therein lies the heart of my problem. I’m beginning to think that the translator/commentator (Aryeh Kaplan), while clearly brilliant, may be, umm, shall we say, “less than correct” in rendering the author’s original intention. It’s not that I think he’s all wrong. It’s just that I think he’s gotten so hung up on the tradition which came before him, and so hung up on his own knowledge of physics, that it’s getting in the way of his (or at the very least, my) mysticism.

The clearest example of this I’ve run across today is from his “clarifying” note explaining how the ends of various lines will always meet at the same point at infinity (note 149 to chapter 1):

To prove that they all meet at a single point, we can imagine the three-dimensional continuum as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. When the hypersphere becomes infinitely large, the continuum becomes flat. Still, all outgoing line, making “great circles” on the hypersphere, meet on its opposite side. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the curved space of general relativity, since the entire discussion here assumes an idealized flat space.

Now, I hear you saying, why don’t you just skip over that detail and continue on with his main argument. The issue is that, if I’m understanding him correctly, the point where all of these points meet is God. Which point, by the way, is both infinitesimally large and small simultaneously. And regardless of the dating of the text, I’m pretty sure the original author was not working from a vantage point that included non-euclidean geometry.

And then Aryeh Kaplan continues to build on this theory. And some of what he says makes sense, and some of it seems like it only works if you were following the argument about the ends of lines. These lines, by the way, are continua labeled Up and Down; East and West; North and South; Before and After; and the problematic one: Good and Bad. So the argument runs, that at the ultimate edge of “Good”, where it meets the ultimate edge of “Bad”, at that point we find God.

All of which goes to say, I’m feeling a bit like the text may have won this round. But then, if there is no struggle with the text, you’re not doing it right.

3 replies on “The Text Defeats Me”

That 4-d hypersphere is of course just a mathematical construct right? Not a physical one. (I don’t get a lot of context from Google Books’ Sefer Yetzirah and I don’t have a real copy.)

Is your beef that Kaplan is making a real-world claim about the reality of space-time constituting a 4-d hypersphere?

My beef is less that Kaplan is making a claim about the physical nature of the universe, and more that he is using mathematical techniques which were not available to the original author of the text to attempt to derive meaning from that text which the author would not have understood, while at the same time claiming that this is what the author intended. It’s a little bit like claiming that shakespear makes more sense if read through the lens of Joyce’s Ulysses. It may be an interesting reading, but clearly it isn’t what Shakespear meant, given that Ulysses wasn’t written for another 300 years.

Just a thought from a late reader …. and neither a mathematician nor a rabbi, but the rabbi I studied quite a bit with, and my son are both mathematicians 🙂

If we take the first 3 dimensions to be the usual (height, width, depth) and the 4th to be simply TIME, perhaps this begins to make sense?

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