The Great Disputation: Mochin vs. Trinity

This week’s parasha concludes the Ten Plagues of Egypt by describing the final three plagues, as alluded to in the name of the parasha, Bo (בא), which has a numerical value of three. One would think that the parashas would be divided in such a way that all the plagues appear in one portion. Yet, we see the first seven in one, and the final three in another. The mystical reason for this is to mirror the Sefirot, which are divided into the seven lower middot, and the three higher mochin, “mental” or “intellectual” faculties.

The Sefirot of mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The mochin are the three Sefirot of Keter (or Ratzon, God’s “Will”); Chokhmah, “Wisdom”; and Binah, “Understanding”. They are on a higher level than the lower seven Sefirot. In fact, in this physical world we find most things mirror the seven, including the seven discernible colours of the rainbow, the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven visible “luminaries” in the sky, and the seven days of the week. The mochin, meanwhile, represent the upper worlds, and correspond to more ethereal things like the three primordial elements of Creation (air, water, and fire, as per Sefer Yetzirah) and the three realms of space, time, and soul (in mystical texts referred to by the acronym ‘ashan, עשן, standing for olam, shanah, nefesh). (For a detailed explanation of this, see here.)

Recall that the Sefirot represent the ten major aspects of God, and are primarily meant to help us relate to, and understand, the Infinite One. As such, the mochin represent the highest aspects of God. That there are specifically three of them is significant. The number three is central to Judaism, and God has a particular affinity for this number, as the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) tells us:

Blessed is the All-Merciful One, Who gave the three-fold Torah [ie. the Tanakh, composed of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim] to the three-fold nation [Kohen, Levi, Israel] by means of a third-born [Moses] on the third day, in the third month [Sivan].

While this teaching is well-known, what isn’t so well known is in whose name it is brought down. The Talmud introduces it as a teaching “of that Galilean”. Who is this anonymous Galilean? Why does the Talmud use a seemingly-derogatory term for him, avoiding his name?

As summarized by Rabbi Dr. Hoshea Rabinovitch, the mysterious Galilean appears a total of five times in the Talmud. Another time is when the Talmud discusses the Mishnah (Bameh Madlikin) regarding three spiritual reasons for why a woman might die in childbirth, God forbid (Shabbat 20b). A third is when the Talmud teaches that there are three special Heavenly “keys”: that of childbirth, the rains, and the resurrection of the dead (Sanhedrin 113a). The remaining two are both passages describing instances of God’s anger with His people (Makkot 23a and Bava Kamma 52a).

Altogether, a careful reading of the evidence confirms that the Galilean was a Jew who had become an apostate—hence the excision of his name. More specifically, the evidence suggest he had become a Christian: Three of his teachings focus on the number three (central to the Christian “Trinity”) and the other two are about God being angry at Israel. Two teachings relate to childbirth and another deals directly with the resurrection of the dead—key themes of Christianity. That he is called a “Galilean” is the biggest clue, since the Galilee was the site of Jesus’ “ministry” and where he and his disciples came from. The term “Galilean” was often used in those days to refer to the early Christians.

Why would the Talmud cite an apostate? In its quest for honesty and truth, the Talmud records the opinions of all kinds of voices, including Greek philosophers, Zoroastrians, and, yes, even apostates. The most famous of the apostates is Elisha ben Avuyah, who continued to be cited but without being named, instead being referred to as Acher, “the other one”. When the Talmud cites “that Galilean”, it is undoubtedly referring to an apostate as well, and based on his teachings it is evident he became a Christian.

The crux of Christianity (pardon the pun) is that God impregnated a mortal woman, gave birth to Himself, then had Himself killed, returning Himself to Heaven. If this sounds more like something Zeus would do in a Greek myth, that’s because it probably is. As history has shown, Jews didn’t care very much for the Christian message, and few followed that path. The Christians had far more success proselytizing in the non-Jewish world, particularly to those Greeks and Romans who were already used to stories of gods impregnating humans and giving birth to demi-gods.

Still, Christianity tried very hard to base itself on the Torah and on traditional Jewish ideas, to give it legitimacy. That central notion of the “Trinity” needed a Jewish explanation, too. In short, the Trinity is that God “the Father” begat “the Son” through the “Holy Spirit” that impregnated Mary. To explain this in a Jewish way, the Christians resorted to the mystical concept with which we began above: the mochin. They argued that the Trinity refers to the same three aspects we call the mochin, those supernal Sefirot. In fact, this played a central role in the Great Disputation at Barcelona involving the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, “Nahmanides”, 1194-1270).

Recall that in 1263, the Ramban was forced into a debate with the Christians regarding which religion was correct, and whether Jesus was the messiah or not. It was not the first such disputation, though certainly the most famous, and the one we know most about since both sides wrote detailed accounts of what happened. Although the Ramban was promised no retribution for participating (or winning) the debate—King James I of Aragon gave him a personal guarantee—nonetheless, the Dominicans that debated him were so scarred that they went after him anyway, and the Ramban was exiled. The leader of the Dominicans was (sadly) another apostate Jew, one Pablo Christiani. (Much of what follows, minus the Kabbalistic terminology, is drawn from Hyam Maccoby’s excellent analysis, Judaism on Trial: Judeo-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages.)

The last episode of the Disputation took place in Barcelona’s synagogue, where the Dominicans (accompanied by King James) made one last direct attempt to get the Jews to convert. One of their arguments was that the Trinity was the same as God’s attributes of “will, wisdom, and power”, ie. the mochin. (Keep in mind that at that time, Kabbalah was making big waves in Spain, and the Ramban himself was among the great Kabbalists of the day.) The Ramban replied by explaining a key misconception of the Sefirot: that they are somehow distinct aspects of God. This is not the case at all, for Kabbalah always insists that God is totally One, and the Sefirot are attributes to help us relate to God. Maccoby summarizes the Ramban’s argument:

any attempt to explain the Trinity in terms of attributes must fail, since this would destroy the separateness of the three Persons of the Trinity and reduce them to one Person with attributes. And, continued Nahmanides, even if one were to overlook this point, why should one stop at three attributes? Why should wisdom, will and power be regarded as the only candidates for the position of important attributes of God? (pg. 64)

In other words, what about the other Sefirot? All ten are key aspects of God! Besides, they are only aspects, not distinct entities like the supposed “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Either way, the Ramban argued that the whole notion of a Trinity is totally irrational: “The doctrine in which you believe, the foundation of your faith, cannot be accepted by reason, nature affords no grounds for it, nor have the prophets ever expressed it.” Maccoby continues:

Only life-long indoctrination, Nahmanides tells the king in a personal address, could induce any rational person to believe such a doctrine: namely, that God Himself was born from a human womb, lived on earth and was executed, and then ‘returned to His original place’… The real point of difference between Judaism and Christianity, as Nahmanides here seems to say, is a question of idolatry. The worship of Jesus as the Incarnation of God was, to the Jews, a clear infringement of the First Commandment. (pg. 54)

It is interesting to point out that the Dominicans referred to the three higher aspects of God as “will, wisdom, and power” whereas the authentic Jewish teaching is will, wisdom, and understanding. Fittingly, the Christians sought (intentionally or not) to emphasize power whereas the Jews emphasize understanding. It says much about the core differences between the two. In fact, the Ramban himself said in the Disputation that he was not impressed by the might and power of Christianity (one of their arguments), which he said was little more than a continuation of the might of the Roman Empire. The old Caesar in Rome was simply replaced by the new Pope in Rome. Beneath the surface, it was the same old Rome!

The Secret of Three

So, why does the three play such a big number in Judaism? Three is a perfect number because it represents balance. In all matters, there is one side (the “thesis”), the opposite side (“antithesis”), and the middle harmony between the two (“synthesis”). This is expressed most clearly and frequently in the three pillars of the Sefirot: the right side being Chessed—positivity, kindness, and abundance; the left side being Gevurah—negativity, severity, and restraint; and the middle being Tiferet—balance, “beauty”, and truth. Truth is embedded in the third, Tiferet. This is the Sefirah which Israel is rooted in, and from which the Torah emerges. This is why the Torah was brought down specifically “by the third-born” Moses.

The Jewish way has always been the path of balance and moderation. Jewish spirituality does not require ascetism, celibacy, or extremism. It is about balancing body and soul, intellect and emotion, the outside world and the inside. This is summarized well by Rabbi Yehuda haNasi: “Which is the straight path that a person should go by? One which is tiferet for he who fulfils it, and brings tiferet for him from others.” (Avot 2:1)

A person should build their life around balance, much like God built this universe on balance. God infused stable measures of Chessed and Gevurah to create a universe of Tiferet. In fact, the Kabbalists speak of “God’s Throne” as being established in Tiferet. (This is why, on the schematic Tree of Life, above Tiferet lies Keter, literally the “Crown”, below it lies Yesod, the “Foundation” or “Footstool” of the Throne, and beneath that Malkhut, the “Kingdom”.) God “rules” over this universe from Tiferet, the place of mercy and stability.

Star of David from the ancient Capernaum synagogue in the Galilee

And so, three is such an important number because it represents the balance of the cosmos. This is wonderfully reflected in geometry (and architecture) where the triangle is the strongest possible shape. Out of balance emerges strength, durability, stability. No wonder then that the Sefirot themselves are arranged in rows and columns of three, and that the very symbol of Judaism is a set of interlocking triangles.

Judaism began specifically with three forefathers, and the shortest verse in the Tanakh is three words long (I Chronicles 1:1). The Holy Land has three major regions, delineated by our Sages as Judah, Galilee, and the Transjordan (Shevi’it 9:2). A human body is made by three partners (God, father, and mother) and contains within it three levels of soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah). And each human mind possesses three faculties, the mochin of will, wisdom, and understanding. The three must be in harmony in order to grasp the truth. I believe this is the deeper meaning of what the Ramban was really saying in the Disputation: without that intellectual harmony, one will succumb to all sorts of absurd, irrational beliefs. Without a balanced mental trinity, one will easily be duped into believing in all sorts of false Trinities.

This is particularly important today, when our world is saturated with so much information, both good and bad. Never before have people been so polarized—politically, religiously, socially, even medically. The real struggle is for the mind of each person. This is the hidden war being waged behind the scenes. While technology has done wonders, it has also plugged each person into an endless stream of information and misinformation. It is easy to become “brainwashed” or, at least, “brain-trapped” in a particular vortex of voices and opinions. One should therefore never lose sight of balance, nor should one forget that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle.