Defining Devekut - Attaining Oneness with God

דבקות (devekut). n. (abstract): 1) adhesion, 2) devotion, 3) allegiance

The idea of devekut, best translated here perhaps as 'adhesion,' is one that gets thrown around an awful lot in liberal Jewish circles which claim to be informed by Kabbalah. So called, 'Neo-Hasidut' advocates the attainment of this state of undefined mystical unity with God, often without a great deal of clarity on how said enlightened stasis is to be achieved. On the other end of the spectrum, scholars of Jewish mysticism find no greater pastime then debating whether devekut is truly the sort unio mystica practice which has such cross-cultural resonance, or whether it represents a unique outgrowth of the Jewish spiritual mind. In all my years of studying and learning Kabbalah, no one has even managed to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what devekut is, how it should be maintained, and what it says about the relationship between God and humanity. That is, until I found Rav Yehuda Ashlag's take on it, which (I think) successfully answers all three questions. 

1. What is it?

To understand the way Rav Ashlag defines devekut, we first have to accept some things about his theological worldview. In Ashlag's system, God is primarily an expression of ratson lehashpia, the will to give, and humanity is an expression of its opposite, ratson lekabel, the will to take. This polarity is more than a matter of degrees - God cannot possibly contain any element of the will to take - for from whom would God take? Similarly, we as humans are defined by the fact that we relate to the world almost exclusively by taking. From the birth of an infant to the corporate governance of a multibillion dollar corporation, we operate by taking. Even when we do summon the divine will to give, it is usually only for a specific reward (ie. we give charity for recognition or to feel good) and thus, it is itself another form of the will to take (just cleverly hidden behind an appearance of generosity). This essential difference between the human and divine leaves an apparently unbridgeable chasm between the two, which begs the question, how can we traverse the trenches of materiality to reach God at all? 

The answer comes in understanding that both the human soul and God are spiritual entities. Each is made up not of matter but of form. The relationship between forms is also different than it would be for physical matter. In the physical world, things are made distinct and separate by their physical location - if I wish to take two identical coins and fly one halfway around the world, we can reasonably say that the two coins are very far from one another. This is not true in the spiritual world - there is no component of physical space to operate under. Instead, the closeness or distance of two things is defined by how similar their forms are. Thus, we are spiritually distant from God because our form is the will to take and God's is the will to give. Yet, we can attain true devekut (adhesion, attachment) to the divine, meaning that we can bring ourselves close (spiritually, speaking) to God by making our form like God's form. That is, devekut is a process of equalizing the form of our soul to the form of God, transmuting our will to take into a will to give. 

2. Okay, but How Do We Do that?

So if we understand the goal of spiritual life to be the attainment of devekut, of this level of spiritual enlightenment which equivalizes our form to the Divine one, then the question remains as to how we effect such a change. We, who are built to take, are asked to make our form like God's, purely giving. Rav Ashlag, in answering this question, quotes a famous sugya from the Talmud:

“What does the verse, ‘And you shall walk after Hashem, your God,’ mean? Is it really possible for a person to walk after the Shekhinah? For hasn’t it already said to us, ‘for Hashem your God is an all-consuming fire?!’ Rather, it means to walk after the attributes of the Holy Blessed One: just as God clothes the naked, so too you should clothe the naked, just as God visits the sick, so to you should visit the sick.”  [BT Sotah 14a]

Rav Ashlag brings this text to point out that we have already been shown how it is we should make ourselves like God - we need to live up to the statement of Bereshit that we were made in the 'image and likeness,' of God and the direction of the prophet Mikhah when he tells us, "You have already been told, mortal, what it is God requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." (6:8) Here we see a similar statement - that to make our form (will to take) like God's form (will to give) and thus effect devekut, we have to imitate the ways in which God demonstrates that will to give. 

Rav Ashlag supports this idea by a creative reading of a key Hebrew word, אדם (adam). The typical etymology given for this label which means 'human' is that it is connected to the word for Earth/ground (adamah). In fact, Bereshit itself tells us of this connection. Yet, Rav Ashlag sees a difference source for our collective appellation, in the word adameh, 'I will imitate.' What it means, according to this, to be human is to always strive to imitate God, to make ourselves like God, to equalize our forms, and through the decreasing spiritual distance afforded by the equivalence of form, to achieve devekut.

3. What It Says about Us

This version and vision of devekut, in which we make ourselves as similar as possible to our Divine source, can inform a great deal about how we live our lives. In one way, it encourages to us think and act with an eye always toward what could be done in a given situation that would empower the will to give and diminish the will to take. The more we can eliminate the self-interest and self-love that is fueled by our desire to take, the more our form can imitate God's, and the closer we get to devekut.

Moreover, if devekut truly is the goal of the spiritual life, then Kabbalah has something to offer which other traditions fail to give. Many mysticisms around the world advocate that the end goal of the spiritual life is total indistinct oneness with God, 'to be lost in the sea of God,' 'to be reabsorbed in the Divine Light,' etc. No loss of individual identity is entailed here - the goal is not to destroy ourselves so as to be reintegrated into Divinity, the goal is to change ourselves so that we can adhere and attach to the Divine. The language itself of adhesion and attachment implies not the blending of distinct things into a homogenous oneness, but rather the embrace of two distinctly individual elements, here, united by a common form.

Thus, the vision of devekut described here doesn't require asceticism or self-destruction. One can be adhered to the Divine in the smallest aspects of day to day life - if we succeed in suppressing our will to take and instead cultivate our will to give, we can imitate God in everything we do, and attain a whole and holy devekut in all aspects of life. In that, I'll leave you with the words of Rav Ashlag as chizuk (encouragement): 

"One who is able to transmute their will to take into a will to give, and to take what they receive and use it only for the benefit of others, only they will be able to obtain perfection and pleasure in the things they acquire. They will achieve equity of form with their Creator, and in doing so, will find true enlightenment (devekut amitit)." [Talmud Eser haSefirot, S1, HP, C21]

Against Authority - JTS Senior Sermon

The English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, is best known today for the fact that his mummified body is still on display today at University College London, bizarrely watching over his old stomping grounds. Yet, before he was a tacky tourist stop - prone to nearly two centuries of student pranks - Bentham was notable for proposing several inventive solutions to the social problems of the mid-19th century. One of those solutions was a creative plan for a new prison, which he termed the, ‘Panopticon.’ The panopticon, as its name entails, was a prison which would enable all the inmates to be watched, twenty-four hours a day, by a single individual sitting in a central tower. The cells would be built in a circular structure around this central point and would include a system of lights that would purposefully confuse the inmates - making them unable to discern when they were being observed by the central guard and when they weren’t. Bentham believed this would make for more efficient discipline, and described his project as, a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

According to our tradition, Bentham wasn’t the first to propose such an artifice - used to observe and control mass amounts of people. Many Sages have read the story of the Tower of Babel in precisely the same spirit - they have read the motives of the tower’s builders as being the establishment of unquestioned authority of the few over the many. We read in the beginning of Genesis Chapter 11, that after the flood was over, after human society had regrouped, a group came together to build a massive tower, with its head in Heaven. This project apparently offends God, who steps in to destroy the tower and spread the people across the face of the Earth. The Torah gives this story as an etiology for why there are many languages, but perhaps more than a linguistics lesson lurks behind this story.

The episode of migdal Bavel is so commonly explained as being about creating one language, or trying to encourage a society in which all people would creatively cooperate in building a monument. We often tell ourselves that the sin of the tower’s builders was hubris vis-a-vis Heaven - that they attempted to reach God, prompting divine intervention - but we can read this misguided construction project just like Bentham’s Panopticon, in fact - many Sages have. As we will see, our tradition has repeatedly affirmed that the sin of the tower’s builders was to attempt to establish the control by a small group over the populace, through power and through surveillance.


Genesis 11:4 tells us a bit about the builders’ motives:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.

"And they said: Come, let’s build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in Heaven, and we’ll make ourselves a name - lest we be spread over the face of the Earth.”

It would seem from this that the motivation of the tower’s construction is to create communal unity - to gather all people together under the banner of a massive project. Yet, many of the commenters on this verse read the builders as having more nefarious plans in mind. Ovadia Seforno, in his comment on this verse says: that the builders sought not to create one language, but to install Nimrod as king over the entire human species. Seforno explains that Nimrod sought to “reign over all of humanity so that he could seek out all of them.”

A later commenter, the Netziv in his, haEmek haDavar, tells us that the purpose of the tower’s builders was to construct an edifice that would enable the rulers of it to observe all the people of the world, and to prevent them from moving to far away lands. Their project was one that would ensure that dissidents could not set up separate communities - by watching them from this great tower the builders would make themselves like God, able to see the hearts of every person, and thereby constrict their liberty. So, surveillance, basically.

Some are even more explicit, such as the modern R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He tells us what he believes the motives of the builders to be  “[They said:] It is upon us to arrange a new order for the world, it is upon us to control a new society. It is upon us to rule over the cosmos, and to organize new principles of the Heavenly kingdom. [They did this] in order to realize their ideal, the subjugation of the whole world; to command everyone how to live and what to do; to separate families; to destroy the freedom of the individual and all values by which people live.” He tells us, referencing a famous story in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (24) that, “the values by which people were measured were not their spiritual merit, but rather only the number of bricks which they could bring to construct the tower.” Then, in a surprisingly modern twist, Rav Soloveitchik says, “Those evil ones, the generation of the Tower, were like Mao Tse Tung or Krushchev...they wanted to show their ability to overpower the meaning of the individual.”

Arguably, Soloveitchik’s vision has come to life today. In many ways, we live in our own kind of Panopticon - security cameras, biotechnology, facial recognition software, and ubiquitous government surveillance mean that we are essentially faced with the same dilemma of Bentham’s inmates - we can assume we could be watched at any time, but we can’t tell when we are being observed and when we are not. Brave souls have stepped forward to expose the level of casual surveillance which has become commonplace in today’s society, and whistleblowers have fought to show the degree to which we are living victims of Bentham’s utilitarian designs.

Yet, long before contemporary society awoke to the severity of our own surveillance, our Torah and our tradition has warned us against the power of ‘mind over mind,’ which Bentham proposed. These readings of the Tower of Babel story should grab our attention -- could it be that this story which we so often attribute simply to human hubris, belies something much deeper.

Perhaps the tower which reached to Heaven had little to do with Heaven - but is instead a cautionary tale about the desire of the few to impose their will upon the many. Perhaps God intervened not because God’s liberty was threatened, but because human liberty was. Perhaps this tower of terror is a call to affirm individual freedom and spirituality, and to resist the authority of those who want to ‘overpower the meaning of the individual?’


In my own struggles, I have often felt like Judaism cares little for the individual - that the needs and priorities of the community always usurp the private path to religion. I came to my faith, and to this building - on my own. Neither the family of my birth nor my community put me here - I walked the lonely path of the spiritual seeker. More than ever, we are faced with the reality that there are innumerable individuals who are seeking a religious life outside of the bounds of the ‘organized community.’ Chancellor Eisen has termed this the search for the ‘sovereign self,’ - something somewhat foreign to many Jewish organizations.

Moreover, rather than make room for them to find their way to God, more often than not we have only doubled down on our institutions, our dogmas, our doctrines, and our endless claims of authority.

Many of my colleagues, and many of you here, have been shocked to find that I don’t particularly care for hasidut. After learning that I study and teach Kabbalah, they often conclude that I must also love Hassidism. Actually, I don’t - and the reason is simple: the idea of the tsaddik, the idea of a person who has the right to dictate the beliefs of others, is utterly abhorrent to me. I do not want a human being to tell me what to do or what to believe - God has already done that. The hubris of believing that we can make ourselves authorities over one another - that we can set ourselves up like the guard in the center of Bentham’s Panopticon, is tearing us apart.

So, how can I be a rabbi who rejects the authority of one over the many - who reads the story of the Tower of Babel as a caution against authoritarianism and an affirmation of individualism? After all, I will leave here at the end of this year and go out and be a Mara deAtra, an authority for the community and people I serve. Yet I do so with the caution of migdal Bavel, with an awareness of the pitfalls and dangers of attempting to tell others how to live their lives. I do so knowing that I don’t wish my community to be a Panopticon, nor one which leaves out the spiritual path of the individual.

When I came for my admissions interview for JTS, I had the same anxieties and worries as most - fear that the Seminary would see how little skill I had, how little knowledge of Hebrew or Judaism I was coming in with, and of course ... the legendary fear that I would be asked to make a berakhah over the glass of water put in front of me. But amidst the fog of nervous memory from that day I remember one thing in particular, that Dahlia Bernstein was assigned to sit with me before I went in to meet with the committee - I think mostly to make sure I didn’t run away.

Dahlia asked me, ‘So, what kind of rabbi do you want to be?’ I answered, ‘Pulpit, I think,’ and she, who I was so lucky to have as a companion that day said, ‘No, I mean, what do you want your rabbinate to look like?’ I didn’t have an answer then. But two years ago just before Yom Kippur, when Dahlia made a Facebook post which asked her friends to describe themselves in only six words, I found what I had wanted to say years before, that I would be a, ‘Tour guide to the spiritual self.’

That is in fact what I wish to be. We talk a lot here at the Seminary about ‘pastoral authority,’ but to me - that phrase is largely a contradiction in-terms. Truly being a pastor, guiding the lost sheep and caring for the flock, does not depend on authority - it depends on our ability to make room for the individual in the midst of the community, to resist the pressures of peers, society, and even our own institutions in order to accept the radical independence of the individual.


I take the caution of the Tower of Babel story to heart - it is too easy for us to make ourselves an authority, to use power and privilege to set ourselves up inside a Panopticon, proscribing others behavior and beliefs. I don’t know if I want to be a mara deAtra, I think I’d rather be a moreh derekh, to teach the path that I have walked to others - not to build towers but to build roads - to clear the overgrown trails which lead into the heart of Judaism and to show the solitary seeker the paths presented before them.