Gates of Light on the Divine Names and the Nations

Gates of Light on the Divine Names and the Nations

I am currently in the middle of reading Shaarei Orah, שערי אורה, Gates of Light, a kabbalistic treatise on the divine names by Rabbi Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (b. 1248 – d. after 1305). It is a guide to an interlocutor who has asked to know which names of God he should use on which occasions to obtain which favors. Warning his reader against a mindless and talismanic use of divine names, Gikatilla seeks to ground the names of God in their use in the Hebrew scriptures. Furthermore, he divides the names into ten “gates,” corresponding to the ten divine emanations much discussed in Kabbalah, the ten “sfirot” (sg. sfira).

The book touches on the subject matter of at least two posts of mine. More recently, I argued that there might be an agreement between the kabbalistic search for the Unity of God in the multitude of His Names and the pagan philosophical project of seeking the unity of the first principle amongst the many gods. Gikatilla is undoubtedly an author that in his language, presents the Unity of God as something that Israel must realize by bringing together his names and the emanations connected to them, an aspect of his thought I hope to return to.

Furthermore, my very first post on this blog was a roadmap for reconstructing Proclus’ account of “Theomachy.” Part of that was to “show where the many different levels of divine activity (intelligible, intellectual, hypercosmic, etc.…) described by Proclus might be found within the Scriptural description of God’s creative activity.” Gates of Light is an invaluable resource since it maps divine names and scriptural passages (often in very associative ways, it is true) onto a system of emanation where different levels are responsible, broadly speaking, for various divine activities. However, Gikatilla does not map the emanations as a naïve reader might expect by dividing being into different regions and attributing responsibility for each to one set of divine names. Instead, already the first gate announces that the name that it deals with “Adonay,” אדונ “י, “Lord,” is responsible for all of creation, a refrain that returns in successive gates. Thus, one deals with different emanations connected to distinct universal structural features of creation, much like Proclus’ divine orders.

The nature of divine unity as something to be accomplished and the emanative system located in Scripture in Gates of Light are subjects I hope to return to in future posts. In this one, I want to raise an issue that I hope to gain some insight into from the book, namely the translation of Greek philosophy into Hebrew.

I am currently working on a Hebrew-language introduction to Proclus, but I first faced this problem a year ago, when I taught Plotinus’ Ennead VI.9 at the Hebrew University and elected to start my course by discussing the question “What is at stake in doing Greek philosophy in Hebrew, both for a native speaker, such as most of my students were, and for a newcomer to the language?”. At the time, I gave my students five reasons for the exercise: first off, one cannot do philosophy in an Esperanto, as English is for most students; second, philosophy should not be conducted in a technical language divorced from everyday language by too wide a gap, third, doing philosophy in a foreign language is to participate in discussions that started in foreign countries focused on their questions, not one’s own; fourth, to introduce into one’s language contents from another culture is to expand the possibility of that language, and fifth, to enter into a new language and to host contents from outside is an exercise in cosmopolitanism.

My concern then was primarily to explain why I was not teaching in English, as a presumed universal language fitted to philosophy’s universal pretensions. Later on, I encountered doubts about universalism from another corner, a lecture by Rabbi Uri Sherki on Hannukah ( (Much of what Sherki teaches goes back to Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, and this may be the case for what is in this lecture) Sherki draws a strong contrast between philosophy qua universal wisdom and prophecy, God’s particular addressing of Israel. He illustrates his point with the rabbinic condemnation of the Septuagint translation, which would be a profaning of scripture by turning it into “Jewish wisdom,” the particular Jewish contribution to “universal wisdom.” What would it mean from this perspective to translate Greek philosophy into Hebrew, moving from the supposedly universal to the particular medium, from the human construction to the divine address? To put Plotinus into words God used?

The question becomes more interesting when one recalls, of course, that Greek philosophy is itself embedded into a particular, polytheistic context and is not from the beginning rootless universal wisdom. What then does it mean to bring this from a specific theological context to another? What does it mean to carry something from a language of gods to a language of God? What is at stake, and how is it to be done? Furthermore, Rabbi Sherki himself often speaks of the need of Israel to discover its universal identity and vocation, to clearly state its universal message to the nations. Greek philosophy is therefore not just universal, and prophecy is not just particular. Indeed, as I explained to my students by translating Plotinus into Hebrew, Nathan Spiegel expanded the Hebrew language and made it more universal and cosmopolitan. We ourselves were continuing this process by learning with his translation and discussing it in class. Indeed, translation is between particularities and between universalities.

I was reminded of these problems again last week when I was preparing for a class on Parmenides. I found Yehuda Liebes reflecting in his introduction to his translation on how to translate names of divinities that also have some abstract content: Does one translate Dike as Justice, for instance, or does one preserve the gentile name in translation? Recently on Twitter, I happened upon an infelicitous decision in this regard, Lloyd Gerson translating the Enneads and electing to render Eros as Love, but Aphrodite as Aphrodite, resulting in a somewhat garbled passage.

It is precisely concerning the translation of divine names that Gates of Light seems promising. It unfolds the abundance of divine designations in the bible and shows their different nuances and possibilities. Thus, for instance, concerning Dike, it is interesting to find in the first gate, on the name אדונ “י, that צדק, justice is an epithet associated with this name. Epithet here translates כינוי, which is actually a broader term (the problematic English translation uses “cognomen”). כינוי in Gates of Light appears to mean any word that can designate God without being a divine name. Thus, not only epithets but also symbols or sometimes more abstract words such as “Thus” (כה) and “This” (זאת) are called כינויים of אדונ “י.

However, more than just discussing different divine names, Gikatilla also has a theory or perhaps a myth about the connection between the holy names and the gods of the nations. This is what is most interesting, a framework for thinking through translation. I do not know exactly all the consequences that are to be drawn from this myth for translation if one accepts it. But it is undoubtedly “good to think with.”

The background for Gikatilla’s account is scriptural: the scattering of humanity into different nations and languages at Babel, the distribution of the peoples to angels, (cf. Deut. 32:8) references to “the angel of a nation,” such as in the Book of Daniel. Here, therefore, we already have a beginning of a myth about linguistic and religious diversity. But not yet a connection with Hebrew and the names of God. Gikatilla first discusses his view in the fifth gate dedicated to the holiest divine name, the tetragrammaton. This name is not the first one he discusses, which is Adonay, the name closest to us, nor is it the last one, Ehyeh, which is as it were the root of all the divine names, but it is the central name, the one that combines with the other divine names and contains all of them within itself. Significantly, Gikatilla discusses this general account of divine names and their connection with the gods of the gentiles here because this chapter, which should be about one divine name and its epithets, ends up being about all of the divine names and their unity. The book reminds me of the graphic novel Asterios Polyp with its giant crater in the middle of the book and Montaigne’s Essays. In the latter, the “On Friendship” is at the center, and initially, it would have been accompanied by poems of Montaigne’s dear friend, but it was ultimately was published alone, the friend himself hidden. The reader learns in previous chapters that the four-letter name is associated with the emanation Tiferet, Beauty, and he arrives at the chapter with the expectation that it will be an associative investigation into the name and its place in the bible and its attributes, such as beauty and truth. Although the reader does learn some things about the emanation itself, most of the chapter is about the whole system. Indeed, at one point, Gikatilla tells us that the entire Torah interprets the four-letter name. This chapter is thus the fitting chapter for a myth that talks about divine names in general, as it is not about a particular name at all but a name that includes every other name.

Indeed, the myth is first mentioned when discussing the opposition between epithets and names. One distinction between the two is that names should not be erased once written down, whereas epithets may be erased. Gikatilla then explains:

“Know that the names of the sacred that are not to be erased, such as אהי “ה , אלוהי “ם , א “ל , אלו “ה , שד “י, etc. are conjoined to the Name, may He be blessed, and they are close to Him, as the chain of High Rulers is conjoined to them. And the rest of the epithets, which can be erased, such as merciful, gracious, kind, forgiving, and similar ones, are like the instruments or vessels for the names of the sacred, and these epithets are a support for the seventy nations that are beneath the government of the seventy rulers. And as the seventy rulers are joined to the other names of the sacred, except אהי “ה and יהו “ה, thus do the nations of those rulers cleave to the epithets that come after the holy names.” (P.199, translation my own)

We have here an incredible honor for the gods of the nations: they are conjoined to the divine names. Indeed, only two divine names belong solely to Israel, whereas the rest are shared with the nations. Furthermore, the nations are said to be cojoined to the epithets. This strongly suggests that one might be able to use the other divine names in the translation of non-Jewish religious texts. Any application will have to suspend or overlook certain features of the myth. For instance, here, there is one ruler for each nation, as opposed to a pantheon, and the number is fixed at seventy. But there might be ways to do that. There is obviously a symbolic value to the number seventy that can be unpacked. Furthermore, one can make allowances for the Jewish text, imagining other nations each having their own God as Israel has its own God. But in any case, there is much more of the myth to present before one considers possible applications.

Later on, Gikatilla returns to an allegory he had presented previously. Earlier, he had given an allegory of the tetragrammaton as a King, in order to explain “how He conducts the whole world with his great power, how all the sacred names hold on to Him, and how all the other epithets in the Torah… are like clothes that the king wears.” Clothes are not, Gikatilla observes, part of the King’s essence, but instruments and armor that he uses. In times of peace and plenty, the King uses royal, beautiful, majestic clothes in the company of his servants. In times of war, he armors himself, and all his servants stand at the ready until his wrath passes and his enemies are defeated. At other times he is at home and only with the members of his family and thus dresses in a lighter way, not with all the pomp of peace nor ready for battle. And then finally, he strips entirely when he is with his wife, the queen, alone in their chamber.

When the allegory is first introduced, Gikatilla simply uses it to make the point that epithets are like clothes and clothes are not essential but situation-specific, and there are even situations where they are not used at all. Later on, he explains what the situations are supposed to be analogous to:

“Know that when the Name, may He be blessed, shows himself before the nations he is like the King that stands before his ministers and all his servants, and who stands vested in vestments of royalty or vestments of war, as we explained above, and he is not seen before them but in his vestments and his stratagems. And accordingly, the Name is not seen at all by the star-worshippers, as the multitude of the epithets and vestments cover him and hide him from them. And when the Name, may He be blessed, stands before the assembly (קהל) of Israel obviously he stands with them as the King with the children of his house, and he removes from himself some of his clothing, as is the King’s custom to remove some of his clothing when he finds himself with the children of his house, … Israel sees the truth of the name יהו “ה may it be ever blessed, more than any of the nations, and nonetheless, He still wears some of his vestments and epithets. And the reason is this, that the whole mass of spectators are not to arrive at the truth of the name יהו “ה and they cannot know the totality of his essence but when the Name, may He be blessed, communes himself with the just and the pious, … then he removes from himself all the epithets and is sublimely exalted יהו” ה alone, and the name יהו “ה, may He be blessed, stands with the people of Israel as the king that stripped all his garments and joins with his wife” (p.205-206, translation own)

Here we have a surprising statement – the King appears to the nations! And how does he appear? In his full attire, at his most majestic or his most warriorlike! It is this most complete, indeed, superabundant manifestation that actually hides him from them. The nations cannot see the God behind the theophany. Israel knows him because he manifests himself with less extravagance to it, in a simpler manner. And the just know him in all simplicity, stripped of his theophanic names. So here, one should not expect other nations to know nothing of God – on the contrary, they will know too much of him somehow! The passage above is connected with the first passage quoted by the word שרים which in one case I rendered the rulers of the nations, but in the context of the allegory as the ministers of the King. And indeed, this explains why it is when the King is in court that he appears before the nations: because that is where he is with his ministers, i.e., the rulers of the nations, who are also there as his servants. Indeed, the rulers do have a positive function of channeling good things and blessings to the nations from God. The court is opposed to the family situation where the King is with his children, Israel. We find here a quaint family drama of the King pulled in two different directions, one his public life, the other his family life.

This drama is further brought out in how Gikatilla develops the allegory and its interpretation. He turns from the scene of the intimate union of the just with God to the reproachful verses of Song of Songs 5:3 “I had taken off my robe – was I to don it again? I had bathed my feet – was I to soil them again?”. He takes this as God reproaching Israel: I stripped myself of my epithets to manifest myself to you, but you through your sin want me to put them back on and hide myself from you, “so that the rulers of the idol-worshippers should hold on to them [my names] and should reign over them [Israel] in exile.” Here a new element is added: the rulers hold on to God, by holding on to his names that they are conjoined with. Indeed, when Israel sins and is sent into exile, the rulers, by their being conjoined to God, draw down to themselves and to their nations the blessings that God would have given to Israel. Gikatilla makes reference to the Babylonian exile, but it is easy here to think of Christianity and Islam with their different brands of supersessionism as existential appropriations of the Jewish people’s relationship to God by the nations. Indeed, it is only the sin of Israel that makes the rulers of the nations into something like “demons,” for only then do they come between Israel and God in order to steal the divine influence that would rightly go to the Jews. There is perhaps a more profound meaning to this insofar as it is only Christianity that condemns all the gods as demons, and Christianity is understood by Gikatilla as an instrument of God to punish the Jews through exile and thus to help them atone for their sins. Thus, in a way, it is only the sins of the Jews that give rise also to the demonization of the gods in this myth.

What this adds to the linguistic picture is precisely that God’s added epithets are epithets through which he can be grasped by the nations and their rulers. Through them, he is present to them as the King in court or in camp. Now some might say that this is depreciative of the gods of the nations, for they are here mere ministers of the King, and they draw their sustenance from him, from the blessing and divine influence that proceed from him. However, here it is important to remember the limits of the analogy and the transcendent character of the divine unity. It is not to be excluded that the divine unity is akin to the Neoplatonist tó hén, the principle of individuation that is itself no individual. It is certainly no object of rational speculation or simply the unity required of being for its intelligibility, the unity of nous. On the contrary, Gikatilla and other kabbalistic authors underscore that divine unity is a matter of faith and revelation. This is not, then, reducing the divine multiplicity to the monadic strictures of the intellect, but rather the revelation of a unity uniting even the highest multitude, the multitude of the gods. Were it not for revelation, one would rightly think that Elohim, and Adonai and Shadai and El Elyon, and Adonai Elohim Sabaoth were all distinct gods. And indeed, according to Gikatilla, they are all conjoined with distinct gods (and to say that a god is conjoined with a name is no mean thing when God Himself is referred to as “the Name”). And now, in the period of exile, they do not possess their true unity; there is a fissure in the divine that must be healed. Thus, to say that the divine influence is received by the rulers may be no different than saying that all the gods are gods thanks to tó hén, in some mysterious, perhaps Heideggerian sense of “thanks to.”

But Gikatilla does not only consider the state of exile. He also discusses in connection with the divine names and the rulers of the nations the future state of redemption. And it is here that the distinction between names and epithets, that names cannot be erased, whereas epithets can, and that the former are conjoined with rulers, whereas the latter are conjoined with nations, comes into play. For, unlike in a Christian eschatology where the rulers of the nations are demons that shall be cast off into hell, the rulers of the nations will continue to exist in the state of redemption, ministering to God and worshipping him. Israel will be within, with God, and will know him solely through his unique name יהו” ה, but outside shall stand the ministers of the nations all gathered round as part of God’s entourage and around them all the peoples. But there will be no more separate nations, just as the epithets will whither away. There will be one united humanity, and their rulers will be united in their service to God, one united pantheon around the Total Divinity. It is impressive how this is the inverse of the Christian eschatology, where the rulers of the nations are banished, and yet the nations persevere: you must abandon your gods, but you can keep your “culture,” your “mythology.” Yet what would it mean then for there to be gods but no longer any culture, no longer any common epithets? Probably that all relations become personalized, individualized.

What I believe one has, therefore, in this extravagant account of GIkatilla, which still has more details that I could not share, is perhaps the basis for an interpretatio hebraica of pagan deities into Jewish sacred names. This does not aim, however, to say that beneath the gods of the pagans there is actually some other god, of the same level as them, but masquerading as them, a god with many masks, but rather God Himself, who is beyond any individual god, whose unity is still not seen and still not comprehended. A reality of entirely different and incomparable level.

Header image credit: Gikatilla, 'Portae lucis', 1516 - title page showing kabbalist holding the ten sefirot


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