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What’s the Difference Between Buddhist Nothingness and Jewish Nothingness?

What’s the Difference Between Buddhist Nothingness and Jewish Nothingness?

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Hey Rabbi:

The Daily Dose often mentions “becoming a nothingness.” That sounds very Buddhist. Is there a distinction? How does Buddhist nothingness differ from Jewish nothingness?

Hey Reader:

Buddhism comes in many shapes and flavors, each with its own teachers who have their own ways of expressing things. And the Jewish smorgasbord of ideologies isn’t any less varied. So rather than chasing a thousand wild geese and catching none of them, let me present you with one idea that I think will be of use to you in your own life.

In Chabad thought, we often discuss bittul bim’tziut. I can’t translate that, but I’m foolish enough to try: It means an entity of nothingness.

This paradoxical state of somethingness/nothingness is presented as an ultimate goal. And not just for your own ego, but for the entire world in which you live. Somehow, the very earth we touch must become acutely aware of its absolute nothingness while remaining a complete something. And you and I are given the responsibility to accomplish that.

To explain that, I need to tell you a core teaching of the master of Kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He described the World of Tohu, a realm that preceded our world, and was really much higher. But it was incapable of fulfilling its purpose, and shattered from its own intensity.

The problem with Tohu was that everything was absolute. Everything felt itself and its meaning in an absolute sense, exclusive of anything else. The fragments of Tohu fell to our world, and our egos are one of its most exquisite artifacts. But then, the very physicality of this world is also an artifact of Tohu: the phenomenon that no two things can occupy the same space.

Our souls are here to reassemble those Tohu fragments into a world of Tikkun. Tikkun means “repair.” The World of Tikkun is one in which opposites coincide and balance one another in perfect harmony.

Rabbi Shalom Dovber was the fifth rebbe of Lubavitch. He had an amazing way of relating Kabbalistic teachings to common psychological issues. Here is how he did that with Tohu and bitul bim’tziut:

A Tohu person, he wrote, is one who has yet to repair his ego. As such, he either feels he absolutely exists, or he feels he does not exist at all. He’s either all there is, or totally absent and meaningless. And there can’t be any compromise between the two extremes.

A Tikkun person, on the other hand, is one who has repaired and harmonized everything in his life. And that includes the very opposites of being and not-being.

After all, a person is here to get something done—to learn, to pray, to change the world. Which means being a something. How much can you change the world if you feel you’re not really here?

That itself is the key to blending these opposites—that idea of purpose: When a person feels “I am not here just because I am here. I emerge out of my Creator’s desire for my purpose”—then he has harmonized both being and not-being into a single melody.

When he taxes every power of his mind to understand an idea in Torah, he says, “I am granted a mind, because my Creator desires understanding.”

When he prays to G‑d for his needs with all his heart, he says, “I exist out of my Creator’s desire to give love and be loved”—for that is the meaning of prayer.

When he goes out of his way to help another, or exerts every fiber of his body to do a mitzvah, he says, “I exist because my Creator desires kindness and beauty.”

And then he feels, “I haven’t attained even an iota of what I could have achieved in any of the above, but my Creator still has the love to sustain my existence!” So that the nothingness fuels his passion to become a something even more.

In each thing, he both is and is not at once.

After all, the ultimate paradox is G‑d, the Creator. He doesn’t just create stuff out of other stuff. He generates the very concept of being—and of not-being. If so, He contains the capacity for both, yet is neither.

It comes out that by us fulfilling this harmonization of opposites, we fulfill our purpose: to be an exquisite expression of that ultimate paradox of the Creator, who stands beyond being and not-being, for He creates both.

Further Reading: Be Something

Sources: See Hemshech 5672, p. 562; Bachodesh Hashlishi, 5729.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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alba papa sorrento December 4, 2017

the fundamental question of metaphysics I would like to ask a rabbi if the metaphysical question of the West: Wy is there being rather than nothing?, which pretends to doubt everything that exists, has a sense for Judaism. I believe that the world of juaism is so strictly intertwined with its creator that this question does not make sense in the judaic tradition. Am I correct? Reply

Doug Schulek-Miller Ottawa, Canada August 25, 2013

excellent explanation As this is done for Him, not for the leftover Tohu that alternatively controls the me that doesn't want it to control me. Does that make sense?

The same thing has me looking at the "post anonymously" box, thinking is it for me that I put my name or for why? If not for me, then for whom? Reply

Anonymous July 15, 2013

Growing up in a bi-cultural home and a mainly Buddhist country I can attest that there is indeed a distinction. The concept of the nothingness of the 'I' is similar, but since in Judaism a person is part of G-d's life force (if I may describe it this way) we have dignity and hope. In Buddhism there is nothing out there. Life is all to do with suffering hence one is supposed to rid of all attachment in this world so that we never have to come back to this world. In Judaism, and in particular Chassidism our life is meaningful because we are given a purpose or a mission, and are here for a reason. The removing of the " I " in Judaism is so that we do not become an impediment to G_d's will for us on this planet , so that we can bring his holiness down to this material world. For me personally this distinction has given me the hope and motivation to make a difference, even if it is very small , and thankful to Chabad because I was able to learn this very important lesson. Reply

LRoche NY October 4, 2012

The meaning of words As per Mati :
Buddhism awareness that nothing is permanent: detachment, the entrance to levels of thinking beyond the material world.

Kabbalah to "repair" the world by the laws of the creator through the laws of mitzvoth.
(Lots of questions arise with this concept)

As per Einstein: Universal Nothingness is a "place" where non-matter becomes matter.

As per Ancient Cosmology it was about the science of the creation of matter. The knowledge of the power of the mind.

How is it that a mere act of perception can cause the wave like behaviour of matter to turn into particles, but scientists do not know. Reply

Tzvi Freeman September 13, 2012

For Mati Thank you for a clear and succinct comparison. I find it very difficult to distinguish between traditional Buddhism and that which is presented to me by contemporary westernizers. Is there no concept of an ontological insignificance of the material world within Buddhist thought? What I mean is the idea that, relative to higher planes of reality, this world is lowly and corrupt—somewhat as in the Platonic view? Reply

Mati Schwarcz Maleh Shomron, Israel September 12, 2012

Buddhist vs Kabbalistic concept of Bitul There is a sharp difference between the Buddhist idea of "nothingness" and the Kabbalistic idea of "bitul". The Buddhist idea is derived from the awareness that nothing is permanent -- since everything is in a constant state of change, like a flowing stream whose waters are never the same, in some sense, nothing is "real". The Buddhist idea is to realize that becoming attached to anything in this world is futile since nothing has any permanence. The Kabbalistic idea seems to be that everything derives from an omnipotent, and omniscient Creator -- and therefore has existence only insofar as it manifests the will of the Creator. By nullifying ourselves, we subject our will to that of the Creator through the performance of Mizvoth -- and hence attain true existence. So for the Buddhist the ideal is to avoid attachment to this world; for the Kabbalist it is to "repair" the world by performing the commands of the Creator. Reply

Anonymous September 11, 2012

... arising from the meditation cushion ... and out into the greater cosmos?

very interesting discussion. Buddhism has lent the 21st c. a full hand of quality insights: research into the ability of the human mind to realize possibilities of distant healing, documenting the raising of wave packets of brain waves to new levels. Not only a religion, its also a science of the mind, as Buddha tried to attain enlightenment.

Whereas, just to differ the two 'disciplines', kabbala takes us into the 21st century by linking micro to the macro-cosmic worlds. In the worlds of Tohu doesn't the Divine Essence eventually emerge? Kabbalistic teachings are a great support to intelligent, responsible research in science & aerospace engineering. Especially in the extremely important aspects of space travel - where we should depend - by all means - on a strong judeo-christian ethic of respect for all life forms.
If the angels & man are charged with the responsibliliy of safeguarding the Divine Image of Man, then we must do our part. Reply

Anonymous Knoxville, TN September 9, 2012

Same thing Well said L. Roche.

I have studied the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of "emptiness" and the nature of mind for over a decade now. I have also studied Kabbalah some. There is much overlap here between the Kabbalistic description of "nothingness" and the Buddhist's "emptiness." Different language and approach but essentially pointing toward the same truth. After all the Truth is the Truth. Reply

Henry Brown Miami Beach, FL September 5, 2012

Buddhist vs Jewish nothingnes Rv. This is an enormous topic (paradoxical for "nothingness"). If we have (or do not have nothingness, does it have a "religious" label?
Maybe nothingness is just that? Reply

L.Roche August 29, 2012

"Buddhism comes in many shapes and flavors, each with its own teachers who have their own ways of expressing things" As such was the philosophy of ancient Judahide. Judaism is a product of Rabbinism. Nottingness is universal and has no religious colors. Einstein describes Nothingness as a state of mind of understanding that Matter is simply an illusion born within Nothingness. "A human being is part of the whole called by us universe , a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty...We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive. Einstein. Bless. Reply

Michelle England UK August 27, 2012

WOW this was truely helpful... having experienced a Bhuddist Retreat recently it also answers a question raised here and equally a question my Mother posed! i thank G-d that He made us different and each for a purpose so that together we could learn something from EVEryone! G-d bless you more in His continued service love Reply

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