The Tanya: Transcendental and Immanent
What is God?
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If somebody were to ask the question, ‘Where is God’ - how would we answer? Saying that God is ‘outside’ runs into the problem of God not being ‘inside’. This is the route of deism. Saying that God is ‘inside’ runs into the problem of God not being ‘outside’. This is the route of pantheism. Both sides have their advantages and their disadvantages, in terms of fitting into tradition, making logical sense, and creating an image that is accessible and inspirational. So which is it?
We already know an answer to this question that avoids all the problems of choosing one side or the other. This answer is our old friend panentheism. While not exactly a household word, for us veterans at images of God it is something that we are certainly familiar with. To refresh everybody’s memory, it means ‘everything (pan) is in (en) God (theos). Hence the belief itself is called panentheism. An alternative interpretation is ‘God is within everything’. While not an exact translation, this interpretation includes the pantheistic element of panentheism, an absolute essential in the Jewish version. Jewish panentheism includes pantheism, but pantheism does not include Jewish panentheism. This was stated very succinctly by Moshe Cordovero: ‘God is all existence, but all existence is not God’.
The group that probably best incorporated panentheism as a theology was the Hasidim. Starting with the Baal Shem Tov, the paradoxical notion of God being transcendent (beyond everything) and immanent (inside everything) was at the forefront of their belief. The Baal Shem Tov himself unquestionably stressed the immanent side of this paradox, being as the thrust of his message was to sense God’s presence in all of existence. This lent his theology a pantheist emphasis, is as commonly observed about Hasidut in general. However this does not tell the whole story. The Baal Shem Tov also stressed the hidden aspect of God – God’s unknowable essence. Thus we have the classic makings of Jewish panentheism.
The Hasidic Rebbe who, perhaps more than any other formulated this panentheist doctrine in words was Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidut. The Tanya, arguably one of the best-known works in all of Judaism, was his major theological work, and the one for which he is most famous.
The Tanya covers many subjects. Among them is a subsection called the Gate of Unity and Faith. It is extremely deep - going into the most profound aspects of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. Jewish panentheism is explained there based on two statements of the Zoharic literature. The first contains the statement: ‘There is no place devoid of Him, in the upper worlds or in the lower worlds’. The latter states: ‘He grasps all and none can grasp him… He surrounds all the worlds…He fills all the worlds…’ The contribution of the Tanya to all this is to explain and resolve the contradictory nature of these two final concepts:
‘Even though He ‘fills all the worlds’, He is not like the soul of man within the body which is grasped within the body so that it is affected and changed by the changes in the body and by the physical or from pain or from cold or heat of a fire or similar things; but the Holy One is not affected by any changes in this world…because He is not grasped at all within the worlds even though He fills them…
This is the meaning of ‘He surrounds all worlds’…When a man contemplates some intellectual matter with his mind or some physical thing with his thoughts, his mind and thought encompass the thing through the image in his thoughts or his mind, but they do not really encompass the thing in actuality. But the Holy One…His thoughts and His knowledge which knows all of creation, encompasses every creation because He is its source of existence from nothingness into reality…
‘He fills all worlds’ refers to the source of existence within the created being which is greatly contracted (Tzimtzum) inside it according to the essence of that creation which is finite in dimension and in ability…’
‘There is no place devoid of Him’ is a one of the most commonly quoted mystical statements in Hasidic thought. God is to be found everywhere and within everything. This is in clear distinction to the rather distant image of the philosophers. God is the most basic, most fundamental aspect of our being. It is who and what we are.
In contrast to this is the statement, ‘He grasps all and none can grasp Him’. In spite of God’s being a fundamental aspect of our being, we cannot grasp God’s essence at all. It is totally hidden from us. How could something that is ‘us’ be hidden from us? This does seem impossible, until we consider that we really can only ‘grasp’ those things that are within our ability to ‘grasp’. The things that can be encompassed by the mind are those things that can be measured and felt and sensed. They are within our grasp. Things that are purely spiritual or imaginary cannot really be grasped by the human mind. God is the epitome of such a thing. The soul is grasped by the body in being affected by the body in many ways. God is not grasped by creation in being totally unaffected by the changes that happen within creation. God is all of existence, but all of existence is not God.
This last idea is contained within the statement, ‘He surrounds all worlds’. This notion of God’s transcendence, of God being not ‘grasped’ by creation in any way, is what makes God utterly hidden from us. But contained within the idea of transcendence is the corollary that God encompasses everything. A person may completely envelop an idea or an image within the mind, but whatever was enveloped still exists independently of the mind. God’s envelopment of all of creation on the other hand, means that all of creation only exists because God brings it from nothingness into being.
Being brought into existence is something that we, the results of that process, cannot fathom. We cannot imagine our own non-existence. This is the reason that we cannot grasp God. This particular aspect of God – God’s transcendence – is what enables us to exist. Being as we cannot grasp our own non-existence, we also cannot grasp the power that brings us into existence. It surrounds us, it encompasses us, but it isn’t within us to grasp.
Nevertheless, ‘no place is devoid of Him’. God fills everything with the divine essence that is somehow distinct from the essence that makes those things exist to begin with. This second essence is the unique qualities that make each thing special. A rock is not dirt. Nor is it a plant or an animal or light or empty space. Time is not length; nor is it color or some property of numbers. Each person is different in some fundamental way, whether by gender or age or temperament or intelligence. Each experience makes each person even more different than they were before. God’s essence somehow fits into each thing to enable it to be the way that it is.
This essence is not what makes that thing exist – that belongs to the other aspect of God’s essence that surrounds all worlds and is unknowable. This is that aspect of God’s essence that fills all worlds and is extremely knowable. It is who and what we are. It is what makes a rock unique and limits the rock to being only a rock and not something else. This essence that fills everything can change with the changes that occur to each thing. For instance, if a rock breaks up or wears down, its essence may no longer be that of a rock. This potential was there all along but hadn’t yet come to take form in that rock. The same is true of a person. Each experience that changes who they are makes their essence a little bit different than it was before. It is not a change in God, but in the godly essence that exists within them.
This is Jewish panentheism at its most sublime. It contains Spinoza’s pantheism in that God is the essence that exists within each thing that makes that thing what it is. But it also contains the mystical idea of the En Sof that brings about the ungraspable and unimaginable process of nothingness to existence. One side of this surrounds us and the other is within us. One is graspable – the essence of what we can know about ourselves and our reality; the other is not graspable at all even though it enables us to be.
Panentheism is extremely deep. The panentheist God is intensely personal and yet awesomely distant. These two feelings may seem to be opposites and impossible to maintain at the same time, but they actually complement each other. Panentheism is not limited to a personal God, even though the panentheist image is as personal as anything could be. It includes an utterly impersonal image that cannot be sensed or understood or even imagined. These two images combine to make one image of which it can truly be said, ‘No place is devoid of Him’.
Perceiving the Image
To transcend means to be ‘beyond’. That is exactly the way we perceive the first half of the panentheist image. We sense God’s transcendence, God’s ‘beyondness’, and understand that God is not within our grasp in any way conceivable. While this alone might leave God distant and remote, and may lead a person to deism and even atheism, it is an essential part of the mystery. It is essential because it provides the core component of mystery to our perception of God. We cannot ever hope to know this essence, but we can be aware of its existence. We can be aware of its existence precisely because we exist. That alone - that very pre-knowledge awareness - is our ticket to perceiving the unknowable essence of God’s transcendent image.
But this is only half of the panentheist image. The second half is supplied by the most knowable of all perceptions – the perception of who we are. We may not feel we have all that great a handle on who we really are. We may not understand what makes us do the things that we do or why we cannot change to be the way we would prefer to be. There are more basic things to contend with in life. Among them is the very sense that we are who we are, regardless of whom we would prefer to be. It is those essential qualities: the atoms and molecules and cells that make our physical body, the energy that flows inside us, the thoughts that we create and the emotions that we feel – these are who we are at this moment. They will change and we will change with them. But right now, they make up who we are and the essence that enables them to be that way is the immanent image of the panentheist God.
These two contrasting images combine to give us a complete image of the panentheist God. They may not be easy to hold together at the same time but they are both needed to complete the image. Knowable and unknowable; graspable and ungraspable; filling the world and surrounding the world; immanent and transcendent – God is both of them simultaneously, always. God is existence. God is beyond existence. Everything exists within God. God exists within everything. Panentheism.
So is this the ultimate Jewish image of God? Does it put all the others to rest once and for all? Is this image the future of Jewish belief?
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