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Diversity and Unity

Diversity and Unity


Integral to Kabbalistic and Chasidic teachings is the belief that beneath the myriad individual and diverse entities that meet the eye lies one unifying cosmic reality. Chairs and tables, fields and meadows, oceans and mountains, animals and stars, are in essence one. For beyond the outer shell, is a Divine reality which unites all.

It appears, that this monistic perception of reality reaches its maturity specifically in the Dirah Betachtonim system. It is from the perspective of this world-outlook that the superficial plurality and diversity of reality is ultimately negated, by permitting the underlying unifying reality totally unrestricted scope.

This argument will be developed during the course of this chapter, and further clarified in the following two chapters. This chapter begins with a closer look at the notion of cosmic unity as it occurs in the Kabbalah and classic Chasidic writings1, and subsequently returns to Dirah Betachtonim.

Unity in Kabbalah

According to the Kabbalah, all of reality is studded with Divine “sparks.” At the outset of Creation, relates the Kabbalah, a great cosmic “accident” occurred. A world was created with a measure of G‑dliness too great for it to contain. Something like an explosion occurred, and sparks of holiness scattered throughout reality that was then emerging. Our mundane world too, at the furthest extreme from the Source, became implanted with holy sparks. Accordingly, the human mission in life is to redeem these Divine sparks from their fall, to free them from their imprisonment in this mundane world, and permit them to reunite with their Source. This is achieved through the fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvot. Each holy act performed with materials of this world, releases their latent Divine sparks. The ultimate goal of humankind, which will be realized at the end of time, is to effect the release of all these sparks and their return to G‑d.

From a Kabbalistic perspective, then, each physical object encountered is not to be regarded as a distinct, isolated, entity. For from the perspective of the spiritual makeup and destiny of all reality, there is something beneath the surface common to all reality, namely the Divine sparks. Similarly, a mitzvah is, therefore, not an isolated spiritual act—a specific, personal act performed by an individual, separately ordered by G‑d—but part of a cosmic project. All apparently individual entities and religious acts are part of a large mosaic; in a sense, it is all one unified cosmos.

It does not take much to note, that despite the unity described by the Kabbalah, individual entities are still granted considerable distinctiveness and individuality, and conversely, the underlying Divine reality cannot be said to truly penetrate and permeate all.

If science were to determine that water molecules can be found in every object we see, this would break down barriers between individual objects, providing community between all the diverse entities which comprise our reality. But the community among them would not be total. In some objects the water molecules would be a large part, in others a miniscule part—they would not represent the totality of each object. Water would be the ever-present ambassador of a universal network, as it were; a reality to be found universally, but not universal reality. Outside the common water molecules, each individual entity would retain its particular nature and identity.

Similarly, though according to Kabbalah Divine sparks are prevalent throughout reality, they do not amount to all of reality. Hence, all of reality cannot be said to be truly one.

Unity in Chasidut

According to Chasidut, the Divine is present not only by way of a specific Divine element found throughout a reality that is primarily something else, existing inherently independently of that element; but rather, because the presence of the Divine is the very basis of the existence of all of reality. Indeed, as we shall see in the following chapter, Chasidut regards all of reality—the mountains as the seas, the humans as the trees—as nothing but G‑d.

Thus, the inherent unity of reality in Chasidut goes far beyond that of the Kabbalah. In this system, individual entities are granted no independence, no detached individuality, and concomitantly, the Divine unifying reality is barred from nowhere. For here, all individual entities are in fact considered as but manifestations of the same unifying reality. The chair and table do not only both contain a spark of G‑dliness: the very substance of their wood, steel or plastic is G‑d, the One (as will be further clarified in the next chapter).

And accordingly, mitzvot, spiritual acts, are neither distinct personal acts, nor merely a group of acts all focused upon one common—but nevertheless distinct—entity, namely, the Divine sparks. Rather, the unifying purpose of all spiritual endeavor is to effect the revelation of the inherent all-pervasive Divine nature of reality. Performing a holy act with materials of this world represents penetrating to, and uncovering the underlying all-encompassing character of these materials—holiness, or G‑dliness. The ultimate human goal, to be realized at the end of time, is to peel away the superficial diversity of all of reality and lay bare a cosmos inherently unified in the oneness of G‑d.

Can this be taken any further? Indeed it can. Analogies from modern science will both provide comparisons to unity as it occurs in Chasidut as outlined above, as well as enable us to understand where this conception of unity falls short.

Modern physics reveals that all the differences we commonly note in reality are but illusionary. Wood, glass and dolphins, ice, stars and worms, trees, clouds and stones, are not in truth fundamentally distinctive entities, each with its own disparate makeup. On the surface, each may have its own different texture, form and character; its own particular finite properties that circumscribe and delineate its contours, and set it apart from other things. Each has its own sets of uses, its own ways in which it is typically viewed and related to, its own distinct categories and criteria by which it is classified and assessed. But from a more profound perspective, all of these distinctions are immaterial. For in truth, all of reality is composed of the same subatomic components and all differences amount merely to variation occurring in an inherently unitary sub-microscopic world, governed by the same rules, approachable with the same tools and yardsticks. Beneath the superficial variety and differences the true nature of all reality is one.

Why, then, do we not realize this? Why do we perceive things as essentially diverse and inherently different and apart? Because our natural endowment of crude human senses is inefficient, unable to perceive the more sophisticated and embracing dimension of reality.

The spiritual cosmic unity described by Chasidut is quite similar: all of reality is inherently nothing but G‑d; it is merely our imperfect senses that confine us to a world of plurality and diversity.

Upon closer analysis of the scientific analogy it will become evident that despite the common subatomic substratum, the unity of reality is not complete. True, it may be merely inefficiency on our part that obscures the underlying unity—but this inability on our part is itself an indication that the objective unity of reality is not total. After all is said and done, chairs and tables, dolphins and trees—not only protons and electrons—defiantly persist. Natural uncultivated perceptions may be ill informed, but they are not non-existent. And into this frame of reference of uninterpreted human reality the subatomic oneness cannot intrude. True, from a better informed vantage point this same naive (in the sense of natural, uninterpreted) world is nothing but atoms and molecules or protons and electrons; but from a parallel vantage point—an existing human vantage point—atoms and molecules are immaterial. There is, then, a dimension where specific entities retain their diversity, individuality and independence—the universality of the subatomic substratum cannot be said to be truly all-encompassing.

Similarly, modern science quantifies experience. Color as well as music are reduced to wave-lengths. All of matter, all forms of energy, all forces, are reduced to numbers and equations. But nevertheless, naive (i.e. natural, uninterpreted) realities and experiences, of color and music for example, defy these numbers, continuing to exist independently, unexplained, unreached by the mathematician’s computations. Humans can choose to adopt the enlightened vantage point where all is numbers—but at the cost of renouncing the familiar sensations of outer reality. The world of numbers itself does not penetrate the outer shell; it is not all pervasive.

The same is true concerning the Chasidic notion of unity outlined above. Despite the insistence of Chasidic teachings that from a true perspective all is but the Divine, natural human reality continues to persist. Tables and chairs continue to exist; their distinct finite contours and their mundane character not bespeaking an infinite, ephemeral all-encompassing substratum. The human is indeed told2 that “would the [human] eye be permitted to see” it would actually behold an all-encompassing cosmic oneness. But we have not been granted this privilege, and where we stand, that ultimate reality does not intrude. In natural, familiar human reality, trees are not agglomerates of molecules, visual masterpieces are not fluctuations in strings of numbers—nor are tables and chairs Divine spirit. Physical, finite trees, paintings and tables continue to exist as ordinary, independent and fully differentiated entities.

Is the unity of G‑d then all pervasive? No it is not. Yes, the human is called upon to shed his natural perceptions and adopt the enlightened Divine vantage point from which all is in fact Divine; but until one assumes that vantage point, one exists within a frame of reference wherein the Divine does not intrude with its unity.

Thus, unity as typically taught in Chasidut, though far more encompassing than that taught in the Kabbalah (the doctrine of the Divine sparks), is not all-pervasive: individual entities retain—on an existing plane—their variety and individuality; Divine omnipresence is not total.

Unity in Dirah Betachtonim

As seen in previous chapters, the Dirah Betachtonim theological system emphasizes that our finite reality—as we know it—relates to G‑d. G‑d is not to be found only by transcending our world and its spiritual constraints. Ordinary, finite objects enjoy a relationship with the Divine. Indeed, that which is uninspiring, indifferent to G‑dliness, enjoys a unique relationship with G‑d, specifically in its indifference, mundaneness and finitude; for where there are no overt Divine features, no qualities of the Divine, there is Essence. In other words, natural, uninterpreted reality itself, whereby the human as human relates to tables and chairs as tables and chairs, is associated with G‑d.

(As we shall find in the following chapters, when dovetailed with the general Chasidic view that all of reality is in truth nothing but G‑d, this means that naive (natural, uninterpreted) reality, with all its mundaneness—indeed the very G‑dforsaken nature of this reality itself—represents a world of essence that is co-essential with the Essence of G‑d.)

Accordingly, one is not told in Dirah Betachtonim that one can assume a vantage point where all is Divine, that one must climb out of one’s human self to be part of that frame of reference in which all is G‑d. There is no overriding emphasis on the notion that “if the eye were permitted to see...” it would see the dissolution of naive multifaceted reality in an all-pervasive unified spirituality. Rather, reality as it presents naturally to human perceptions, circumscribed by mundane and finite contours as it prima facie is, is regarded as nothing but G‑d. According to this system, performing a mitzvah with materials of this world does not aim to penetrate the cover of these materials and reach the underlying spiritual substratum—for the cover itself, physical and finite as it is, is nothing but the Essence of G‑d.

As portrayed typically in Chasidic texts, natural human reality cannot be redeemed; the unifying Oneness does not reach there—for the diverse, physical and finite on the one hand and all-encompassing spiritual unity on the other, are inherently mutually exclusive. Hence the requirement to shed one vantage point and assume another; as it were, to behold subatomic structure rather than wood and steel, to understand and know mathematical equations rather than hear music and see color—to experience all-pervasive spirituality rather than finite physicality. Whereas Dirah Betachtonim is unique in the way it permits man to retain his natural reality—introducing the Divine even there. The human need not transcend a vantage point: this self-same reality, with its familiar finite contours and parameters, can be recognized as G‑dly. For, from the vantage point of essence, finitude and physicality themselves and the perceptions thereof are no less Divine than infinity and spirituality. Indeed, it is specifically they that relate to the Essence of G‑d.

And thus in Dirah Betachtonim the fundamental Jewish principle of the unity of G‑d, much discussed, refined and elucidated in Kabbalah and Chasidut, reaches its true maturity. According to Dirah Betachtonim, not only do all phenomena share a common component, the Divine sparks (as in Kabbalah), nor only are all superficially distinct entities one beneath the surface (as in classic Chasidic thought)—but even the surface itself, in its very naive state, as well as the very perception thereof, partake of the true unified cosmic reality. Not only all parts of reality across the board horizontally, as it were, but also the entire depth of each entity from the shell inward, as it presents at all levels of perception, is embraced by the all-encompassing unity—for the naive shell too is nothing but G‑d.

Natural unG‑dly reality, too, is now no longer beyond the pale, but redeemed: the unity of all of reality in G‑d’s Omnipresence is complete.

All of this requires further clarification. In particular, what does it mean that reality not merely relates to or reflects G‑d, but is actually nothing but G‑d? We take this up in the following chapter, a chapter which should add new understanding to all we have seen in this and earlier chapters.

The presentation here is evidently brief and not without generalizations. In particular, the borders between the Kabbalistic and Chasidic systems are described in somewhat overly rigid terms for purposes of presentation.
Tanya / Shaar Hayichud Veha’emunah, 3.
Rabbi Faitel Levin, author of Halacha, Medical Science and Technology and founding editor of The Australian Journal of Torah Thought, is Australia's most sought after lecturer on Halachic issues. Presently, Rabbi Levin is rabbi of the Brighton Hebrew Congregation in Melbourne.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 31, 2011

the paradox of unity within, diversity It is difficult for us to get our heads around this concept unless we take a profound journey of soul and then perceive the truth of this unity, and it is then very clear that all is G_d, and yet, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. But yes, there is a distinct unifying principle to all life, and that can be seen, as in the branching tree, the tributaries, within us, veins from the river, that same vein of gold...and then, we see it, as the budding off the Hebrew letters themselves, as branches, as stems, and so it does appear all creation arose out of the letters. To meditate deeply, to perceive this. Metaphoric connects!

Macro unity is mirrored in micro unity: all is one: in words, appears this unity, & opposites do fold together, & they do this, in words, too, within the aural connects & within the recombinations of letters as on a wheel. Words build from within. Like DNA the building blocks of life: also a language.

Systemic: apart & a part. Alone & all one. Reply