We started this series by asking how could R. Eliezer say that before the world was created there was only Hashem and His Great Name? Isn't it again the principle of total unity of God? Some thinkers who considered this question responded that it is not; all depends on what is Unity and how you understand it.
Before we launch into this question, we must briefly consider an important issue in early Kabbalah – Is Keser counted as one of the 10 sefiros?
To take a step back, the process of emanation consisted of 10 steps or stations, called sefiros. The first one was Keser, followed by Chochma, Bina, Gevura, Chessed, Tiferes, Hod, Netsach, Yesod and Malchus. Our passage in Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer is understood as saying that Keser is not a part of the 10 but rather above the 10. As such, it is a part of the Ain Sof. What takes its place within the 10 sefiros? It is Daas, or according to the Gr"o in the first chapter of Sefer Yetsira, it is the Malchus of Ain Sof. Those who hold the position that Keser is not incldued in the 10 sefiros, base themselves primarily on this passage in Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer (or at least, Pardes 3:1 says so).
The process of emanation then begins from Chochma, and in fact Targum Yerushalmi translates, "In the beginning God created" as "With Chochma God created". This and the various proofs from Sefer Yetzira, Zohar and Tikkunim are discussed in Pardes Shaar 3, Sefer Hoemunos, ch. 4 and Avodas Hakodesh of R. Meir Gabbai 1: 2 and 1:12. There is much more to say about the subject but that is really not our focus at this time.
How can Keser be is eternally preexistent within the Ain Sof and yet G-d be One? One way to understand it is how R. Meir Gabbay explains it. He says that the possibility of future creation was always existing within the Ain Sof. This possibility is called the "Name " or Keser. Being a potential and not an actuality, it does not detract from Unity. He then goes further and says that all 10 sefiros were always preexistent and coiled within Keser, ready to spring forth and develop.
To understand why this does not contradict God's Unity it is necessary to appreciate that the Unity of these Kabbalists is not the same as the Unity of Rambam. Maimonidean Unity is unique and unlike anything that exists or can be imagined by human beings. It is Nothing like anything we know. Kabbalistic Unity, on the other hand, is Everything that ever existed or can potentially exist. Rambam believes in creation; Kabbalists believe in emanation. According to Kabbalists, Ain Sof is infinite because it contains everything and more. The finite is also a part of the infinite, just like any finite set of numbers is a part of the infinite set of numbers, without detracting from the Infinite itself. Imagine the Infinite Hotel - there are an infinite number of rooms in this hotel and each room is occupied. If ten more people come to check in, the clerk will tell everyone to move over ten rooms so as to make room for these ten new guests. So now the discreet number, ten, is at the same time both finite in itself and a part of the infinite set. This demonstrates that finite and infinite are not so far apart and that the finite can be a part of the infinite, while remaining limited in itself, much like a mathematical line is made up of an infinite amount of finite dots. Such is the mystery of the infinite and the finite in which we all simultaneously live and operate. Seen this way, what R. Eliezer is saying is that everything emanated was present with an infinite number of other "things" within the Ain Sof before it was emanated. This everything is called "His Great Name". At the end of chapter 4, Avodas Hakodesh expresses an almost Chabad- like idea that everything that was to be created was always present within the Ain Sof the only difference between before creation and after the creation is our newly existent inability after creation to see Hashem's Essence (he does not use this term) as it is.
The position that Keser is not a part of the 10 but is rather present in the Ain Sof is not the only possible position. Two other positions are found among the early Kabbalists. One is that Keser, as the first of the Ten, is radically separate and different from Ain Sof (this became the prevailing thinking in subsequent Kabbalistic thought, on the authority of Pardes) and the other that Keser actually is Ain Sof. While these are fascinating topics, it is not for our consideration right now. We will discuss how the former position might explain the statement of R. Eliezer in the next post. After all, if Keser is not a part of the Ain Sof but is simply the first and the most important of the 10 sefiros, what is this Great Name that R. Eliezer says was in existence before the world was created? We will consider answers that proponents of this position gave to this question, God willing in the next post in this series, after we discuss the views of the Geonim.