Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (The Ramak, 1522-1570) was a Sefardic Kabbalist from Spain who led a group of mekubalim (students of Kabbalah) in Tsfat. He is known for organizing Zoharic and Medieval Kabbalah into an encyclopaedic system, teaching many famous students, and being a saint (tzaddik) and mystic himself. He was also known for his stress on the teaching of panentheism- that all is God, and God is the only reality. His writings on how God could be found everywhere and in everything would later influence the Hasidic masters.
Tomer Devorah ("The Palm Tree of Deborah") is a guide to the practice- common to several faith traditions- of imitatio dei, or "the imitation of the behaviour of the divine." It is a wise, humble, and often very challenging and countercultural text (probably then as well as now). The Ramak is unique in the strength of his emphasis on radical forgiveness, universal love and compassion, and reverence for all the creatures of nature, even those people often treat with contempt.
The Tomer Devorah is also marked by its emphasis on the Kabbalistic teaching that humans partner with God in the bringing of blessing and healing into the world. When humans practice the virtues and intentions outlined in the Tomer Devorah, their behaviour is mirrored above in the Sefirot (divine energies) and they provoke tikkunim (repairs) which bring shefa (bounty, blessing) into the world. The study of the Tomer Devorah became very important in the Mussar (ethical self-discipline) movement and among Hasidim, and is believed to bring teshuvah (return to the divine) and protection. It is a custom among some to study the entire text in the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
The Tomer Devorah begins with a lengthy discussion of how to embody the highest Sefirah- Keter- by embodying Hashem's thirteen traits of compassion. The Ramak then suggests an interesting mantra-like practice that we can take up to help us transform into more divinely compassionate people. The Ramak will then go on to discuss the rest of the sefirot and how they can be embodied....
The Ramak will now focus on Keter beyond the traits of compassion. Ramak will explain Keter in its expressions of humility, self-nullification (bittul ha-yesh) or ego-transcendence, and universal love for all creatures. This will include some discussion of the mystery of the "shiur komah" or the symbolic "head" of divinity, including how to embody Hashem's forehead, eyes, nose, and mouth!
The Ramak will know begin moving beyond Keter to the sefirot most of us are more familiar with, beginning with Chochmah (wisdom, awareness) and moving on to Binah (understanding, intellect); Chesed (kindness), Gevurah (severity, justice, restraint), Tiferet (beauty, compassion), Netzach (Victory), Hod (Submission), Yesod (Foundation of the World, the bounty giving divine phallus) and Malchut (the kingdom, the immanent expression of divinity in the world and the womb which receives the seed of Yesod, grows it and births it into this world).
The Ramak will now begin a Kabbalistic discussion of teshuvah of particular relevance for the Yomim Nora'im (Days of Awe).
The Ramak will now look at ways of doing kindness to Hashem through doing kindness in the world, emphasizing the Kabbalistic teaching of the inter-relationship between divine and human action. While doing so the Ramak will begin to discuss Yesod and Malchut, and in doing so will discuss the role of sexuality in divine service, advocating a kind of Tantric Judaism which follows from the teachings of the Zohar. The gendered nature of Kabbalistic depictions of sefirot has posed challenges in this attempt to translate Tomer Devorah in a contemporary, egalitarian, gender-skeptical way. In some passages I have preserved the original gendered discussion as removing it would require radical revision of the Kabbalistic symbolism of the Holy One of Being and the Shechinah; in other places in the text I have made the language as gender-neutral as possible so as to bring out practical implications for any person who wants to apply the text regardless of their gender-identification.
In the chapter below the Ramak again returns to the discussion of sacred sexuality, as he will throughout the text.
The tikkun of Yesod has traditionally been associated with the restraint of male sexual desire and its expression in masturbation and nocturnal emissions (i.e. outside of sexual intercourse). Here the Ramak will take up this line, but I have revised the text in translation to imagine what his advice would look like if it was not androcentric. Many of us will still disagree with the Ramak's presentation of the classical Rabbinic view that ejaculatory orgasm should not happen outside of married sexual intercourse, but below I have neverthless tried to re-present that advice in a form which addresses both sexes as much as the text allows.
Ramak returns to sacred sexualiy below one more time. In this instance I've changed the language to be gender free and replaced references to the feminine "Shechinah" with the more neutral translation of the Divine Presence. Rabbinic tradition was quite critical of those who did not marry and have children, and the discussion below takes a negative view of the spiritual capacities of single people at the polar opposite of those spiritual traditions which value celibates above the romantically active. Maybe, to paraphrase Rumi, there's a beautiful field beyond such distinctions where we all can meet.