Binah and the Time of Our Freedom: Kabbala of a 60's Survivor

Ever since the late '60's, I have been drawn to teachings about the third of the Sefirot, Imma-Binah.  Just a year or so ago, I read in Sha'arei Orah that "through the quality of Binah, which is the secret of the Yovel, we got out of Egypt."  Thus, Binah has some connection with "the time of our freedom."

Let me start with a bit of review, whereby I should emphasize that I am not a person deeply learned in Kabbala, just a poet and '60's survivor with whom certain rumors from that mysterious world have resonated deeply and helped to shape a certain understanding of the world:

According to Kabbala, creation takes place through a series of ten emanations – Sefirot – from the Ein Sof (the Infinite).  The first Sefirah to emerge is Keter (crown), which is sometimes also called Ratzon (Will). Keter can be understood as the as-yet-undefined desire for creation.  After Keter comes Chokhmah (Wisdom), also called Abba, and after Chokhmah, Binah (Understanding).  I first read about the Sefirot (in 1968) in the work of Gershom Scholem, who describes the relationship between these two as follows:

Insofar as God appears through the manifestation of his Hokhmah, He is perceived as wise, and in His wisdom the ideal existence of all things is as it were enshrined; if still undeveloped and undifferentiated, the existence of all that exists is nevertheless derived from God’s Hokhmah[.]

In the following Sefirah [Binah], the point develops into a ‘palace’ or ‘building’ – an allusion to the idea that from this Sefirah, if it is externalized, the ‘building’ of the cosmos proceeds.  What was hidden and was as it were folded up in the point is now unfolded.  The name of this Sefirah, Binah, can be taken to signify now not only ‘intelligence’ but ‘that which divided between the things’ i.e. differentiation. [Note: all these interpretations of the name Binah are etymologically based, as this name can be derived from bin (to understand), beyn (between) or banah (build), though the first meaning is evidently primary. – E.C.]  What was previously undifferentiated in the divine wisdom exists in the womb of the Binah, the ‘supernal mother,’ as the ‘pure totality of all individuation.’  In it all forms are already preformed, but still preserved in the unity of the divine intellect which contemplates them in itself. [Italics mine – EC]

In  Binah there is individuation, differentiation, but not yet separation or conflict. The italicized sentence above comes back to me whenever someone voices the fantasy of putting the world together like a kind of jigsaw puzzle.  One of my favorite lines from the '60's is the Rolling Stones' "I'm just trying to do this jigsaw puzzle Before it rains anymore." 

It is said that all the souls of Israel have their roots in Binah.   Binah is the "supernal mother" (while Malkhut or Knesset Israel, the tenth and last Sefirah, is the "lower mother").  Binah is also called Teshuvah. Connecting to Binah, it appears, would mean rising above the world of separation and conflict and getting back to a primal harmony.  Binah is also called the "world to come" and the "river that flows forth from Eden."

This, it seems to me, is consonant with HaRav Kook's vision of teshuvah.  In Orot HaTeshuvah 7:5 he writes:  "True, the real world, as it is, is a divided world, in which all the arrangements fit together, but its root is the intellectual foundation, which includes and surrounds it and is higher and more exalted, and teshuvah raises the human being and his world into its world, in which all of reality stands in the clarity of its spiritual content, and that world with its spiritual might rules over our limited practical world."

This ascent from a divided world into a vision of wholeness is one meaning of the Psalm 118:5 "Out of confinement I called to God, G-d answered me with expansion."  Shaarei Orah invokes this verse with reference to Binah, and I also sensed it in a central statement by Paul Celan, the poet and Holocaust survivor whose work spliced me, a poet not born Jewish, into Israel's story. Thus, Binah is also called Cherut (freedom).  This is a bit surprising in the context of today's thinking, where freedom is often assumed to mean the individual going his or her own way, untrammeled by ties of community or relationship. Yet this "freedom" is actually restrictive, as the person is confined to the smallness of his or her ego and is also alone against an alien system. In English "friend" and "free" are etymologically related; in Hebrew chevruta and cherut share two letters.

Finally, in Shaarei Orah Binah is associated with universalism – not the self-hating "universalism" of  the "assimilated" Jew, but one in which Israel is the source of blessing for all peoples.  "When HaShem, blessed be He, awakens to gather the scattered of Israel, it is necessary to awaken upon them the quality that is above all the peoples, and that is the Sefirah of Binah."  This again is consonant with the universal aspect of HaRav Kook's teaching.

As said, I am a '60's survivor.  I was in Berkeley form 1964-1968.  Amid all that went on then, I felt stirred by the call to freedom and "mind-expansion" that went forth in the "psychedelic (soul-showing)" era.  Yet I also felt that this call was vitiated by chaotic forces that in the end only plunged society into a deeper servitude. Throughout the ensuing years I have tried to imagine how people could reconnect with the spirit of freedom in a constructive sense (Binah, as noted, also contains the idea of "building.")  In 1975 I wrote a poem that I have been repeating ever since like a broken record:

An Invitation


We gather here to see

faces from which we need not hide our face,

to hear the sound of honest speech, to share

what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,

what the still voice has said, when heavy hours

plunged us to regions of the mind and life

not mentioned in the marketplace: to find

and match the threads of common destinies,

designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --

A sanctuary for the common mind

we seek.  Not to compete, but to compare

what we have seen and learned, and to look back

from here upon that world where tangled minds

create the problems they attempt to solve

by doubting one another, doubting love,

the wise imagination, and the word.

For, looking back from here upon that world,

perhaps ways will appear to us, which when

we only struggled in it, did not take

counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;

perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech

of various disciplines that make careers,

we shall find out some speech by which to address

each sector of the world's fragmented truth

and bring news of the whole to every part.

We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.

To mend the mind, that is the task we set.

How many years?  How many lives?  We do not know;

but each shall bring a thread. [Emphasis added now.]


At the moment when I wrote that, I had not heard of HaRav Kook. My only source for Binah was the passage by Gershom Scholem quoted above, and I was not consciously thinking of that. I was simply trying to express what I felt the world needed.  I had put pen to paper to write a text for a poster advertising gatherings I was trying to organize. I'm still trying to organize them. 

Over the years, a plan has grown around the intention of this poem.  For Purim I formulated this plan as a game (  The plan (like any game) includes some hard-and-fast rules, which are intended to keep divisive forces at a distance and clear a space for communal thinking.  In the few trials which the idea has had, this has been a sticking point, as it goes against the present-day understanding of "freedom," as noted above. (In the '60's "structure" was a bad word.) But I think of it as something like poetic form, which, while apparently constraining the poet, in some mysterious way actually frees the imagination.  Perhaps because it gives a sense of security.  Finally, games are supposed to be fun!  I just learned from Rabbi Nachman's Hilchot Pesach that the world of freedom is also the world of simchah.  Perhaps the simchah associated with Binah is something like the playfulness of the inventor, and the problems of the world could be approach with something like that kind of playfulness, rather than in a spirit of contention.

Ever since 1970 (the end of the '60's, and also the tragic death of Paul Celan who seemed to me to have sensed the world more deeply than anyone else), I've had a feeling that the world was reverting to chaos.  That feeling has certainly not diminished in the past year.  But tohu vavohu can also be a starting point of creation.... In any case, perhaps the sense of helplessness would begin to lift, the unity which we all long for would have a greater chance of materializing, if people would meditate upon the Sefirah where both freedom and unity reside.      

 Esther Cameron