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How Real Is Stuff? Part III

How Real Is Stuff? Part III

The Mystery of Matter, a three-part series

Credit: Robert Barnes
Credit: Robert Barnes

This series began by asking why we haven’t all fallen through the floor. Or through planet Earth, for that matter. Matter—that’s the whole issue. It’s not just full of holes; it’s almost entirely empty space.

So I introduced a nice (almost) Jewish boy, Wolfgang Pauli, to explain that the wholeness and diversity of this universe is all a product of one simple principle: Every particle of matter has exclusive rights to its quantum state. Since one of those quantum states involves the space it occupies, chunks of matter necessarily occupy chunks of space.

How do the particles know their states and the states of every other particle in the universe? Pauli was convinced that the universe was one great psyche—and that glides along nicely with the way Jewish philosophers and mystics have dealt with it (as have many others, as well).

That explains matters in a rather abstract sense. It doesn’t explain what we might call the qualia of matter—our subjective experience of matter as the very substance of reality. If I were an immaterial being, such as an angel, from Pauli’s principle I would never have predicted this sensation of matter, which is so vital to the human experience.

So, in Part II, I introduced a bright Irishman, George Berkeley, who proposed that matter is an illusion, and all that really exists is “G‑d’s ideas.” G‑d has ideas such as apples, crocodiles and pit slime, each occupying its conceptual space, and our organs of perception sense those as material objects.

But what about the qualia of matter? How does G‑d get us to experience something that doesn’t exist?

Which still doesn’t explain that qualia thing. How does G‑d get us to experience something that doesn’t exist?

That’s where the explanation of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi comes in. He splices reality into the classic division of form and matter—and tells us that the form of things (including properties, etc.) are G‑d’s ideas. The matter of everything, on the other hand, is not just G‑d’s ideas—it’s an artifact of G‑d’s words. Words mean tsimtsum, meaning withdrawal of presence to make for an other. In other words, the creation of subjective experience.

Why Matter Really Matters

Truth be told, long before George Berkeley or R. Schneur Zalman, mystics of the East had already concluded that all sensation is illusory, including our sensation of a manifold reality and of self. Yes, there’s some similarity there. There are also vital distinctions.

Whereas the mystics of the East constructed a path to escape this illusory consciousness, R. Schneur Zalman embraced it.

For one thing, R. Schneur Zalman took this idea and ran with it in the opposite direction. Whereas the mystics of the East constructed a methodical path to escape this illusory consciousness, R. Schneur Zalman embraced it. In the experience of a material world, R. Schneur Zalman found not only an exquisite expression of the divine—but an expression of the divine on which matter has exclusive rights.

To explain that, let’s go back to that situation where you were attempting to create and sustain an other to talk with—and found you could not. But the Creator does just that. Why? Why is it that you and I cannot create a being that is other than us, and yet the Creator can? What’s the trick?

If I had a more powerful imagination, I could imagine an entire being, one very different from me, with his own life and own concerns, sitting right there on the desk in front of me. I’ll give him a tailored suit, shiny black shoes and a trim haircut. I’ll imagine he’s staring at me somewhat scornfully, wondering why this guy can’t get his act together and look as neat and spiffy as he does.

But I would never be able to truly suck myself out of there. It would always be me telling the story, dictating his words and thoughts, and carrying him through the script. Even if I could imagine this character making his own free choices, it would be entirely artificial. Not only would I know the choice is artificial, the character would certainly have no sense of his own that he is making a decision. After all, no matter how different this character may be from myself, his entire being is in truth nothing but my imagination. And I can’t be there (imagining him) and not there (allowing him sentience, subjective experience and choice) both at once.

So if it’s not a more powerful imagination that’s needed, what is it? What does it take to create otherness?

Basically, it takes isness. You have to have true isness to isify something other than you.

If you exist because something else is making you be, you don’t have real isness. You are a certain thing—a rock, a tree, a cloud or a human being—but you do not own your own isness. Your existence is something you are given, but it doesn’t belong to you.

When we talk about the Creator, however, we’re talking about the exclusive origin of all isness. Isness starts here. Look at this: The name the Torah gives Him is a conjugation of the verb “to be,” meaning just that: Isness. The Creator is not a particular entity that exists. The Creator is the origin of existence itself.

Maimonides puts it like this:

He is not a being in a state of existence—which would imply that existence is an additional factor to His being. Rather, since He is always the necessary existence, no event occurs to Him, nothing happens to make Him be. If so, we could say that He exists without existence.1

“Exists without existence.” Mysterious words. But think of it this way: If I exist in a certain place, I am going to have some sort of tangible presence there. I am going to exist as a certain being with some sort of definition. No matter how discreet and inconspicuous I attempt to be, if I’m there, it will not be without some sort of impact. Because I am, after all, not just a being, but a certain particular being.

The existence of the Creator, on the other hand, is raw isness, no definition needed. Therefore, He can be there, in the world of His characters, sustaining all that occurs within them, providing them their very existence, yet without any tangible presence whatsoever. Just as raw being.

There can only be one raw isness. And so, the Creator has exclusive rights on isness and isifying others.

Matter of Precedent

Shortly before his passing, R. Schneur Zalman composed perhaps his most radical essay, turning once and for all the tables on form and matter, the spiritual and the physical. All I’ve just written is contained in these words from that essay:

. . . the very being and core-essence of the Emanator, blessed be He, who exists from His own self and is not the result of any cause that preceded Him, heaven forfend—He alone is capable of creating something from absolute nothingness—and truly so—without any cause or other precedent to this somethingness . . . physicality represents that “the end-result of the act is first in intent.”2

The experience of matter is the experience of that which has no precedent. For one thing, the tangibility of matter does not inform you of any origin. It appears as a thing that is just here—and indeed, philosophers such as Aristotle felt that it must have always existed. And in truth, there is no precedent to the otherness of matter. One form emerges from another, one idea out of another idea, and a spiritual being could emerge out of a higher spiritual being. But matter does not emerge from anywhere. It is entirely sustained by its Creator’s non-presence.

So, why did the Creator create such a thing?

Because, in creating a world, the Creator desired the ultimate form of self-expression: that His absolute isness be expressed within His creation. By creating worlds filled with beings acutely aware of their source, like rays of sunlight that never lose their connection with the sun, He does not express that exclusive isness. As long as a creation feels itself as a creation, it cannot express the exclusive isness of its Creator.

Matter does not emerge from anywhere. It is entirely sustained by its Creator’s non-presence.

It’s in the creation of beings that feel autonomous, as though they are there without any need to justify their existence, as though they are the very stuff of existence—it’s in that experience that the Creator hits paydirt. That’s the experience of self, and of a material world.

This is where the exclusion principle fits in magnificently: Quantum physics has put the story under a microscope—and, what do you know, in every word the Author has signed His signature: As He is the exclusive true existence, so each particle of His universe reflects that in its exclusive state of being.

All that’s needed now is for these created beings (namely us) to recognize that, despite this inherent sense of self and matter, it’s totally ludicrous to imagine that we are actually the stuff of existence, because we quite obviously didn’t make this place and are not responsible for its perpetuation—and equally absurd to believe this matter stuff is just here because it’s here. And if so, our sense of absolute realism is nothing more than a symbol, a pointer to the true absolute existence, and a way that we may know Him within our world. We need to recognize the signature with the work of art.

A construct of the Creator is not an illusion. It is the way He tells His story.

A construct of the Creator is not an illusion. It is real. It has purpose and meaning. It is not to be escaped, but reframed. We must come to know that we are not conscious beings because we are conscious beings, but because that is the way the Creator can tell His story—and find Himself within that story.

Which brings us to R. Schneur Zalman’s conclusion from all the above: There is nothing greater than the deed, than mitzvahs that are performed with the physical world. Spiritual yearning, metaphysical enlightenment and divine ecstasy have their place. But the ultimate is in the practical deed of a mitzvah—even more, in discovering the divine within your everyday activities—because there, in the subjective and material world, is the ultimate expression of the divine. Practical, divine-oriented action is the strategy by which we reframe that experience and awaken it to its true meaning.

Which is why, concerning the time to come, the prophet says, “All flesh shall see that G‑d is speaking.”3 Not the soul alone, but the very physical meat and bones that comprise our bodies will perceive G‑d in its physical sensations.

Touch that table again. You are touching deep wisdom. Infinite wisdom of the one G‑d. You are touching the very core-essence of the divine.

Guide for the Perplexed 1:57. The original is in Arabic. Here is the Hebrew translation of Rabbi Yosef Kapach:
ידוע כי המציאות מקרה הוא שקרה לנמצא, ולפיכך היא ענין נוסף על מהות הנמצא. זהו הדבר הברור החיובי לכל מה שיש למציאותו סיבה, שמציאותו ענין נוסף על מהותו. אבל מה שאין סיבה למציאותו, והוא ה׳ יתהדר ויתרומם לבדו, כי זהו ענין אמרנו עליו יתעלה שהוא מחויב המציאות, הרי מציאותו עצמותו ואמיתתו, ועצמותו מציאותו, ואינו עצמות שקרה לה שנמצאת, שתהי׳ מציאותה ענין נוסף עלי׳, כיון שהוא מחויב המציאות תמיד, לא מאורע אירע לו ולא מקרה קרה לו. נמצא אפוא שהוא מצוי לא במציאות . . .
Iggeret HaKodesh 20.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, 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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Hilda Zeigler Gales Ferry January 13, 2016

Some mystics of the East, Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn for example, went in the same direction as R. Schneur Zalman in the practice of mindfulness. One must be fully present in the body or immanent physical realm and embrace the experience as a way to connect with the transcendent realm. Reply

Eliyahu North Carolina May 31, 2015

The bizarre nature of reality as laid out by quantum theory has survived another test, with scientists performing a famous experiment and proving that reality does not exist until it is measured.


Sigrid Haller November 8, 2013

I believe that spirit is always stronger than stuff or matter.
So: Aren´t sins or crimes commited on a spiritual level worse than sins comitted on a physical level?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman August 17, 2013

Re: Being Present David, you are right on. The Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Shalom DovBer, rebbe #5 of Chabad) wrote that the present--the now--is beyond time, because it is always being now, and in that now is the past and the future--and that is G-d's ineffable name.

See Hemshech 5772, volume 2, page 823. Reply

David Alan Fairman Shilo, Israel August 15, 2013

BEING PRESENT Notice that the Hebrew language has no form of the verb to be in the present tense, except... Haya - he was, Yihyeh - he will be - but there is no is, except for the ineffable Name of G-d, which suggests eternal now Being.
We live in time - the moment I say now now is gone, but Hashem is outside of time He created time, but G-d has eternal now. Reply

Golda V E Haberland (Leijonhufvud) August 14, 2013

Matter Just this morning around 10.30 over a late breakfast after working outside with our small group of livestock the subject of conversation, was matter! I brought up the common name used by Science, the 'Higgs Boson' enlarging this idea to all our archeological searches, and mathematical principles, which are searching for evidence of ancient Judaic civilizations and the 'Divine Intellect' bringing matter into being. I really enjoyed reading this and I feel now I can refer to the 'Divine Intellect' as the 'G-d Principle' with confidence. He will still stand by Israel and support her against her enemies. Reply

Brenda Toronto, Canada August 13, 2013

Behind the Stuff of Chemistry (RE: Steve Finson - Aug 13, 2013) As a chemist we have to see the forces that govern the stuff. These forces establish the laws how the elements interact.

So too, in our 'world' we need to attain higher levels of reality where we will attain access to learn how the forces behind our world govern us - (There is only One Force that enables his angels (forces) to implement His plan.)
His law of interaction is "love thy friend as thyself". To reveal His world we need to live by the Law of His world. Reply

Steve Finson West haven, CT August 12, 2013

I am a chemist, with a nice periodic table on the wall. Why can't you just say that the world as it exists is how G-d created it? Why pauli or Heisenberg and always quantum physics. I have seen a book on modern kashrut practice, and it is all chemistry. There is no quantum theory of kashrut! I love all that you write, but why can't the torah/science interface be about sugars and wine and copper, iron, and gold? Reply

Anonymous Montana August 12, 2013

Wow.. I feel like I could almost disappear. Reply

Sandra Greenbaum August 12, 2013

...."All flesh shall see that G_d is speaking".... I do not know quantum physics or string theory, but i remember in high school general chemistry (that was many years ago), i learned about atoms, and electrons, and neutrons (1960's), later on i learned these particles of matter were continuously moving through space, and aha, when one of them bumped into another of them the two bits of matter would collide and bounce off of each other.

in colliding they would connect and in an equal and opposite reaction, they would repel each other so they did not occupy the same space simultaneously.

nu shane?
in colliding, i.e. in coming together, which also involves Time, they meet, they connect, they form a nexus point where the past present and future are

also, it has come to me from my reading of Rabbi Freeman's "Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, Books I and II, that... we, us, ourselves are G_d's creation, His expression, and even more that our voices, what we think of as our voice, is really
hashems voice. Reply

Tzvi Freeman August 4, 2013

Re: String Theory Hi Doug, we did string theory already. It's at Cosmic Vibrations in this series. What we need to get to is non-locality. Reply

Anonymous August 4, 2013

String Theory I am also interested, thanks for your question/thoughts Doug. Reply

Doug Schulek-Miller Ottawa, Canada August 2, 2013

So? "So, when do we get to string theory", queried the reductionist, thinking that the ultimate expression of His contracted energy is the basis of everything we see, touch, smell, taste, breathe and experience - for all is He except for that spark of soul connected, we hope, to Him. Yet, in the end, that, too, is part of Him.

Being on a path of Teshuva, the replacement of "you only go around once" with "you and every thing else are only part of Him" takes a bit of time and work. Even with growing Emunah, it is a stretch to change your thinking from being at the centre of a personal universe to being a mere part of something much larger, infinite, and unknowable.

Also curious is the Alter Rebbe's points about spiritual energy enabling sight and hearing... until you consider some of the ramifications of His countenance and whether it is with you or not - and if such is realised at the molecular level and below, then the lesson is far more clear.

So, when do we get to string theory? Reply

Gerry Dorrian Cambridge, England August 1, 2013

sublime That was a sublime series of articles - thank you! I once studied philosophy, and it was so wonderful to see what I'd learnt be put into the context of what it's really all about. Reply

Brenda Toronto, Canada July 31, 2013

613 Mitzvahs to Unlock the Spiritual World Each of us has 613 mitzvahs, to perform. Spiritually, each Mitzvah is an egoistic desire - a faulty connection between us and another - to use or receive from another for self benefit, to harm another, to hate another, feel repulsion to other etc.
Our task is to recognize the evil in such connections and correct them by transforming the faulty connection to gain for self into receiving for self with the intention to give back unconditionally to other party and eventually to the Creator who desires to give abundance/Love (Light) to His Creation.

This recognition of our evil, together with reading the Kabbalistic texts will draw the Light that will transform our selfish nature to resemble the nature of the Creator.

More and more difficult mitzvahs to overcome our evil inclination is presented to us as we are given access to sense the spiritual world while still in this material world.

When we are cleansed of our egoistic nature Light will fill our vessels for eternity Reply

Anonymous July 30, 2013

Unexpected ending The last sentence that starts with "Touch that table again..." it got me all choked up and made my eyes tear, it was all of a sudden and unexpected, like something powerful & meaningful was nailed home. My reaction makes me wonder if we were at that point right now where "All flesh shall see that G-d is speaking".. would I be able to handle it? I can only hope so, and also that this will happen very very soon. Reply

Anonymous Israel July 29, 2013

It's like, those of us seeking Hashem from within the deepest of illusions (a place of darkness, loneliness and pain that seeks to highlight your utter differentiation from all else), you are right on the tip of the full 360 degrees of Hashem's will, to extend to the absolute depths of otherness.

I now think I understand more what it means when It is said that Hashem is especially close to the weak and vulnerable, as that is the place where you will find the "tip of His finger" on his outstretched arm when He desires to experience "otherness". Reply

Chavah Kwiatkowska July 26, 2013

Thank you very much for these three-part series and interesting analysis. Reply

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