Creating Jewish programs through Kabbalah
We have a recent phenomenon in Judaism of often running Jewish event programming that is missing a feeling of enough connection to Judaism. For example, at a Sukkot or Hanukkah gathering, from a random sample of people, a significant number feel like they did not have a deep feeling of connection with the event. If we want Jews to connect with Torah and Judaism in new, pleasurable ways, we need to do so with more care. Torah is essential to Judaism, and finding new ways to incorporate it into our lives and events is exciting! As a model for doing this and creating spiritual spaces, I suggest using the structure of the sefirot from Kabbalah. The sefirot have been studied and used by rabbis and even academic disciplines to improve different types of relationships. I suggest reflecting on the sefirot structure to create spiritual intentionality before and during the event. The process of organizing an event can feel stressful without this sefirotic order. The sefirot can already be found in our most holy activities, from our core prayer, the Amidah, to our holiday observance. Utilizing it would mean the process of engaging people intellectually, emotionally and their imagination, as we make the experience authentic for them.
I have been inspired thanks to my academic background in logic and psychology. Also, thanks to almost fifteen years of experience developing Jewish programs and related in the New York area, Europe, and remotely. I feel like I have some unique insights in this area, questions and have personally felt like there must be something in our vast heritage that would guide us in making this experience more complete. For example, Pirkei Avot, stresses the importance of embedding Torah study in our lives as much as possible, and utilizing the sefirot can help with that. The reasoning and details of the schema I propose are involved, and so I have provided a simplified reference guide for event planning as an appendix, in addition to the full explanation.
I found part of my answer in what is traditionally considered the Jewish book of creation and formation: the Sefer Yetzirah, an ancient esoteric text originally transmitted orally and later written in several manuscripts and more recently into books. From something so obscure as the Sefer Yetzirah, people are finding connections to sciences such as superstring theory and cybernetics in how systems work. In one of the more comprehensive books in recent decades on, the Sefer Yetzirah from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, we learn about some of the various interpretations of the sefirot. According to Kaplan, everything in the universe was emanated (from the higher worlds). The sefirot can be thought of as energy and structure that rippled into all parts of creation. The sefirot is reflected throughout the workings of our universe from the functionality of the human body, to being used to help create our first spiritual space, the Mishkan (portable sanctuary in the wilderness). Sometimes the Hebrew letters are also used but as of today, I have not found a personal application in developing programming. Kaplan also suggests that the Sefer Yetzirah wisdom was originally passed down from Abraham, who used this wisdom to bring people closer to G!d and so perhaps we can do the same in our time.
Lurianic Kabbalah which originated in the 16th century suggests that at the beginning of time, like the Big Bang theory, the energy of G!d was originally in “vessels” that shattered because G!d wanted to create diversity in creation. Not all the vessels broke, but the ones that did are the ones connected to emotions. By connecting to feelings in the following structured way, we make a “fix” (tikkun) of the shattered sefirot so that the pieces can be reconnected with G!d. According to Lurianic Kabbalah, one of the purposes of the Jewish people is tikkun olam (fixing the world).
The sefirot manifest themselves in many ways, including values already part of our Jewish core, from holidays to specific biblical characters which happen to be male and so perhaps including their wives. I have been studying and reflecting on the sefirot and contemplating the patterns and connections with psychology, planning programs and more. I will give you a summary of my best understanding of the sefirot, as of today, in relation to using them in the creation of a Jewish program.
I believe the sefirot, in the following order, must be present to create a spiritually collective experience. Particularly interesting to me is how perfectly they are connected to how human motivation works. I have felt that in Jewish programming, we can support better human motivation, as well as two other qualities for which I felt a thirst and tried to make more present: the Jewish value of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah to glorify G!d) and a desire for sensitivity to concepts of sustainability. According to Rabbi Elisheva Brenner, historically we have referred to sustainability in all three senses: economically, environmentally and socially, as qualities of holiness (kedusha).
Each of the ten sefirot inspire us to ask important questions that help us consider elements that are important spiritually, psychologically, and practically when planning a program. Below, we iterate through the sefirot and their planning questions in order of their emanation from each other. The order itself allows the questions to build upon each other in a useful way. In the most successful program development processes, and in Judaism in general, we ask each other many questions. Each sefirah has many meanings – more than just the ones I am writing about. Because in our actions, we are supposed to mirror the divine we can interpret the sefirot as our own attributes as well. Within each sefirah is all of the sefirot because these are values that ripple onto each other.
We start by connecting to Keter, meaning crown, but most commonly understood as “will.” Out of all the sefirot, it is the one most connected to the higher worlds and most esoteric. Hasidic interpretation suggests several different uses of this sefirah. It says it is also connected to pleasure. We remember that our programs need to fundamentally be pleasurable and communicate that in little ways such as how we talk. For example, we prefer to listen to someone who talks with passion and grace than one who doesn’t but shares more information. 2. There is the human psychological need for autonomy in Kater. This means that while designing the program, each of us must have the feeling that his/her opinions matter, that he/she can shape the event and that it can reflect qualities of his/her individuality. 3. We want to create trust with each other and the system. We can make positive changes in little details like including the larger community in deciding dates for an event and being welcoming to novelty. It is about having emunah (faith and trust). We want to create the structure for other people to feel the same. According to Rabbi Chemouel Elharar, emunah is the essential process for having and maintaining communication with G!d and perhaps we can say the same about our relationship with people.
Once we have connected with Keter, we can connect to Chokhmah, literally meaning “wisdom”, which also encompasses having inspiration and ideas. Before we design programs, people need to be intellectually stimulated. We need to remind people of our traditions. We want to communicate that “We encourage novelty, but let’s keep it grounded in tradition.” We encourage people to get inspired with some ideas from the Torah connected to the current period time such as the Talmud page of the day ( Daf Yomi), Torah portion of the week, commentaries, readings of the month and other readings attributed to the particular calendar. In the creative process, we call this divergent thinking, which, in this case, is just coming up with inspiration and ideas without judgment.
Chokhmah is shaped by Binah, known as understanding, signifying receiving and shaping the intellect. Binah crystalizes raw ideas that we have from the stage of Chokhmah. In psychological terms, this is convergent thinking, brainstorming, and refining ideas. This sefirah develops and expands the idea in breadth and in-depth. Binah and Chokhmah help each other interactively as mates, back and forth, like the sexual tension between male and female. In the psychological creative process, we go back and forth with divergent and convergent thinking.
These two sefirot together create Da’at, knowledge. There is a difference of opinion as to whether Da’at is to be considered a sefirah or not. Chassidic interpretations consider Da’at a sefirah instead of Keter or use them interchangeably. They consider Da’at a sefirah because it connects the intellectual sefirot to the emotional sefirot and so is essential to keep. Other interpretations do not consider Da’at a sefirah because we have to remember that in this world, we cannot access our ideal state of knowledge. I give favor to the latter interpretation in this case
because I see each sefirah as embodying essential Jewish values. Not including Da’at as a sefirah embodies an important fundamental Jewish value of questioning and continuing to ask “why?”, never being too confident to think we are like G!d and completely understand how this world works.
These initial three sefirot, Keter, Chokhmah, and Binah, are also called the “intellectual sefirot”. According to Lurianic Kabbalah, these sefirot are the vessels that were not shattered and easily accessible in life and do not need to be fixed through sharing emotions. The vessels that were shattered and must be fixed are called the “emotional sefirot” or middot (meaning “qualities”, in this case) and can be found anywhere.
Once we have the three intellectual sefirot, we can connect to the emotional sefirot, starting with Chesed. Chesed is the sefirah of lovingkindness, represented by the patriarch Abraham who was hospitable and sincerely cared about. We traditionally try to follow the literal translation of: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”( Leviticus 19:9-18). It is connected to the human psychological need of relatedness. This is the need to feel cared for and understood by others. We do so by creating a nurturing loving space and by giving people the opportunity to express feelings. People feel understood and understand each other reciprocally, back and forth. In a community where everyone knows each other, this sense of relatedness comes more naturally. When we are meeting people from other communities or who have been estranged from Judaism, we need to find other ways to create “lovingkindness” that is more than just feeding people. We want to get to the core of authentic emotions and so we ask more questions about what is in a person’s heart because we genuinely want to know.
Chesed’s counterpart (mate) sefirah is Gevurah, which is strength and represents law and judgment. It shapes the endless love from Chesed through constraint and discipline which build inner strength. Gevurah can also be considered to encompass halakhah which guides us on how to shape something in a holy way, like building a sukkah and laws of kashrut. We create the inner structure for more kedushah.. Gevurah is connected to fear because sometimes that is what we need to keep Jewish law, and consequently, Jewish law creates strength in us. Gevurah is represented by Isaac because he was tested emotionally when he realized he was being sacrificed to honor G!d. That is why we fix this broken vessel through mindfulness and refinement of our behavior both when planning and executing a program.
Chesed and Gevurah work together back and forth and next we meditate on the sefirah Tiferet. It’s biblical character is Jacob because when he saw Rachels special beauty, he was given the gift of prophecy. Prophecy is more the just seeing the future but seeing the world through the eyes of G!d. He became compassionate and expanded of heart, which Kabalist attribute to prophecy from, “I will remove the heart of stone.” (Ezekiel,11:19). Tiferet is the embodiment of harmony, punctiliousness, beauty and art. It is also expressed in the Jewish value of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the performance of a commandment. Hiddur mitzvah is traditionally derived from the verse “This is my God and I will glorify Him” from the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:2). We connect to this sefirah by praising G!d in acts. For example, we make our chanukkiah or sukkah beautiful with things that touch our heart. We want our creative expressions to reflect our feelings. Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair teaches that mitzvot are also about the power of precision, refining our sensitivity to the world around us. We find ways to make our “creation” beautiful with little details, like using specific colors or creating various types of art and recipes pertinent to the time of the year.
We have next comes Netzach: persistence and having the determination to continue the project in the face of obstacles. It reflects the human psychological need of competence, which is the feeling that will give us the ability to overcome internal and external problems. When designing and executing a program, we can connect to competence by making sure we have the necessary tools and by refining our knowledge and skills. This sefirah is sometimes personified as Moses. He had to be persistent and skilled with Pharaoh and the Israelites. The best example I have of this was at a type of event where the main purpose was to create solutions to real-world problems. The event felt spiritual also because of how perfectly well human motivation was supported. Everyone in the event lacked some skill and knowledge, but we felt the confidence of Netzach because we felt like we had all the resources needed.
Just as Moses’ brother Aaron kept him humble in their journey, Hod is the mate of Netzach, who keeps him humble, focused, and devoted. It shapes Netzach to be accommodating, submissive and thankful so that Netzach can keep enduring. Only in moments of gratitude do we take a moment of rest, reflect on the present, and see the splendor of our effort. When connecting and sharing our feelings, we need to find a way to be grateful during the planning process and during the program. Gratitude is one of the most powerful psychological feelings for maintaining well-being, having energy, and maintaining relationships.
After the two forces of Netzach and Hod, we have the sefirah Yesod. This is the sefirah that holds all the previous sefirot in a foundation. Yesod is focused on others, it is righteousness, bond, and loyalty. It represents Joseph because regardless of how he was treated by his brothers, he brings his family back together and saves them and other people from poverty. Our ability as Jewish people to endure is because we keep remembering where we come from regardless of how hard our past was. The sefirah of Yesod is what holds and funnels the other sefirot. Perhaps more generally, to be sustainable in its facets: environmentally, economically, and socially, we need to be careful in our actions towards each other, discuss how we can think of the world at large, and stay future thinking.
Last, but not least, there is Malkhut, also known as mirroring the Shechinah, which is the presence of G!d as a guest in our location. This sefirah can be compared to the light of the moon in its functioning. It does not generate light like the sun, but like a moon, reflects other light to make its presence known. Nevertheless, we also access and fix this sefirah through emotions. It funnels all the other sefirot in the creation. The sefirah Malkhut is represented by King David who had to embody as many positive values as he could to his subjects. Although he made many mistakes as a king, nevertheless, when in study for example, he was able to reflect the values of Torah to those around him. According to Rabbi Yitzach Ginsburgh, King David shares the energy of the Messianic Age, and according to Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, because of the contrasts in his personality of considerably less desirable qualities to very desirable. Malkhut is about effective communication, achieving learning, and demonstrating our Jewish values to the world. We can also tackle the matters of antisemitism and the self-hating Jew by showing the world that we as Jews share many similar feelings and values among each other.
Coming together in a Jewish program is a very special time that can have a strong positive impression on people. It is a time in which we remember our heritage, connect with each other, and build memories. Our ability to “remember” is what has helped us to survive as a people for so long. We need to remember that as Jews we are fundamentally spiritual people, connected in many ways and to many values. We ideally want to be mindful in our actions so that our good deeds send ripples out into the world and cause a chain reaction of tikkun. We aspire to make the sefirot present in both the program creation and execution, ripples peace of mind with the order, communication and goodness. Doing this research and writing this paper felt like a very spiritual experience. My research was only qualitative and not very methodological. I plan on doing more rigorous research and delving into more applications from history and other academic domains.
- Keter (כתר) –“crown”, will, autonomy
How can we organically signal that the event is a dynamic, collaborative program?
How can we give people a sense of autonomy and pleasure?
- Chokhmah (חכמה) – “wisdom”, inspiration, ideas
Based on what you know about the time on the Jewish calendar (for instance, the parsha of the week) and the significance of the month and or holiday, what does that inspire you to do with the program?
- Binah (בינה)- “understanding”, intuition:
Brainstorming and understanding what each other want, let’s refine ideas in breadth and depth.
Make sure that there is an intellectual part to the program and connection to Torah.
4. Chesed (חסד)- “Lovingkindness”, sharing feelings, relatedness:
Showing honest care to one another.
How can we create a space where people feel like they can express feelings and be understood?
- Gevurah (גבורה)- “Strength”, discipline, restraint:
How does Jewish law suggest we shape our current ideas?
Are there mitzvot we can add to the program (e.g. teaching Torah or giving tzedakah)?
- Tiferet (תפארת)- “Glory”, art, beauty, harmony, hiddur mitzvah :
How can we glorify G!d with hiddur mitzvah and make what we are doing more appealing to the five senses?
7.Netzach (נצח)- “Eternity”, determination, persistence, competence:
How do we make sure people feel like they have the resources and materials necessary like Torah source-sheets, food and other? This would include making a list of things needed and assigning responsibilities.
8. Hod (הוד)- “Splendor”- acknowledgment, gratitude, humbleness, being devoted, accommodating:
In a general sense, are we making sure there is an expression of gratitude, e.g. brachot and acknowledging each other’s efforts?
9.Yesod (יסוד)- “Foundation”, righteousness, sustainability, loyalty:
How can we be future-oriented and sustainable socially, economically and environmentally?
10.Malkhut (מלכוט)- “Kingship”, effective communication, achieving learning, showing values, service:
How are we communicating Jewish values?
Are we using effective teaching methods to communicate the meaning of the program?
If we want to make all of this even more simple to explain, here is a case scenario:
Let’s say that you want to do a program and there isn’t a Jewish holiday coming up in the near future. We can still read the Torah portion with a few people for inspiration, come up with something to make like cookies made with grain because the Torah portion talks about grain… Have more discussion around how to make it a fun event and find a way for individuals to share their individual heritage, Polish, Ukrainian, Italkim (Jews from Rome) etc… Find a way to make sure the program is connected to Jewish law and mitzvot. Next, make it beautiful! Make the program with persistence, gratitude, sustainability thinking of the future, and that all the Jewish values you want to communicate are clear.
I thank the many people who anonymously let me test these ideas. Also, thank you to Rabbi Meir Lubeki for checking my knowledge and suggesting readings, and thanks to Rabbi Aaron Marsh for fact-checking and reviewing the above. I did this research independently and what I share is my idea.
If you have questions or would like to collaborate, reach out to me at giuliaoraparisgmail