The Tanya: Transcendental and Immanent ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 30

			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? ‎
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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’. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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: ‎
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‎‘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… ‎
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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… ‎
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‎‘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…’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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‎‘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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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’. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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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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