What is G-d?
Much time and effort has been devoted by Jewish thinkers to describing the
nature of G-d. Often, from the writings of a given thinker, there emerges a more
or less distinctive definition. For example, in Maimonides’ writings, G-d is
portrayed primarily as Supreme Intellect, or in the writings of Rabbi Chasdai
Crescas, as Supreme Love. The Kabbalistic and Chasidic literature has also
tended to highlight particular definitions of G-d—and Dirah Betachtonim has its
own particular emphasis. We shall attempt to outline the way G-d appears in this
thought system against the background of other viewpoints, both pre-Chasidic and
The Nature of G-d in Earlier Writings
The Torah states: “No man can see Me and live.” A great divide separates
man’s mind from G-d. G-d operates, as it were, on a totally different “operating
system,” beyond the frame of reference of human cognition. Maimonides (and
others) therefore emphasized that all terms employed by Scripture and the Sages
in describing G-d are not to be understood as positive descriptions of what G-d
is, but as negative representations of what He is not. For example, G-d is
called “wise” not in an attempt to define G-d’s character as possessing
the human trait of wisdom, but rather to portray Him as free of the opposite of
The transcendental nature of G-d—His being totally divorced from all human features, and His total unapproachability—reaches unique dimensions in the Chasidic literature. In Maimonides’ writings, for example, though G-d’s otherliness is accentuated, He is nevertheless predominantly viewed as Supreme Logic; in effect, He is still defined in terms meaningful within the human frame of reference, still regarded on a continuum with man. Man and G-d share the common feature of logic; the differences, however great, are a question of degree. But Chasidic writings underscore that G-d shares nothing with man. Logic itself in any form or degree is meaningless in relation to G-d Himself. Not only is it unreasonable, says Chasidut, to claim that the human mind can grasp G-d—it is likewise inappropriate to say that the human mind cannot grasp G-d. Much like it would be patently inappropriate to acclaim an idea as so profound it cannot be touched by hand. Touch and ideas are separated by a “quantum gap,” and hence, correlating touch to ideas in any fashion, positive or even negative, is nonsensical. Similarly, G-d and the human mind are separated by an unnegotiable chasm. In fact, says Chasidut, a divide infinitely greater than that separating human thought from human touch.
Moreover, it is not only human features that Chasidut views as inappropriate in reference to G-d, but features altogether. For G-d is not contained by parameters, however lofty and sublime. G-d is truly infinite, infinite not only in degree—like a mathematical infinity, which is infinite in degree, but yet all its components are of the same kind, numbers—but also infinite in kind, transcending the boundaries that set entities apart. Any definition is restrictive of G-d, compromising of His omnipresence. It implies that beyond the parameters of that definition He does not exist.
We have already learned of tzimtzum, the concept that Creation was in fact the end product of a quantum gap. This gap does not merely divide two entities which are remarkably differently defined, but rather separates the indefinable, featureless expansiveness of G-d from the emergence of features, categories and definitions altogether. Chasidut, as Kabbalah before it, emphasizes that even concepts such as G-d’s wisdom or love, however lofty and different from human wisdom and love, emerge only post tzimtzum, once G-d’s true infinity is no longer manifest.
Now it is true that in Chasidic literature as in Kabbalah, ten sefirot, that is, ten spheres each of a particular nature, are said to exist within the G-dhead. There is a sphere of Wisdom, a sphere of Kindness, a sphere of Leadership (logos), etc. In a sense, it is like the human personality which includes cognitive, emotional and other faculties. But nevertheless, though numerous references are indeed made to these Divine spheres and a great number of passages are spent describing their functions within the G-dhead, they are neither the totality nor the primary part of G-d. Even with the human, his cognitive and overt emotional faculties are merely at his disposal, not the totality nor the core of his psychological makeup. Similarly, and to a greater degree, G-d has these “faculties” at His availability, as it were, but He transcends them. Though these spheres, too, are infinite in a relative sense—infinite Wisdom, infinite Love—and though they are Divine, part of the G-dhead, they are nevertheless not G-d as He is in His transcendent Self. For it is only tzimtzum that introduces classifications, definitions and features; even G-dly features eventuate only post-tzimtzum, only where G-d enters into a relationship with reality and man. Prior to tzimtzum, there was only the vast infinity of G-d; “an undifferentiated supernal light filled all of existence.”
In short, then, according to the teachings of Chasidut, concerning the question of the nature of G-d we can say: G-dliness is antithetical to the finite, to the constrained and defined, not to mention the physical. More G-dly implies less finite, less constrained, less defined and definable; more spiritual, transcendent and abstract, more expansive, more infinite
Thus, a short answer to the question “What is G-d?” in light of the teachings of Chasidut would be—not Sovereignty, nor Wisdom as it is for Maimonides, nor Love as for Crescas—but expansiveness: Infinity; Omniscience, Omnipotence, Omnipresence.
G-d in Dirah Betachtonim
We have already seen above that in Dirah Betachtonim much of this is subject to a fundamental shift of emphasis. In the finite context of this chapter we shall elaborate upon three specific points: First, the nature of G-d is not seen in Dirah Betachtonim as the antithesis of the finite. Second, as for the makeup of the G-dhead, as it were, the prevalent distinction in Chasidic texts between the finite and the infinite, between features and featurelessness or pre-tzimtzum and post-tzimtzum, recedes to the background; whereas the forefront is occupied by a distinction between two other, more encompassing trends in the G-dhead. Third, the short answer to the question “What is G-d?” is quite different.
The Infinite-Finite Dichotomy
Previous chapters have spelled out that according to Dirah Betachtonim this reality enjoys a unique relationship with G-d. In this world in particular, the essence of reality relates to the Essence of G-d, and the very features of this reality such as physicality and finitude bespeak the Essence of G-d. It follows, that in Dirah Betachtonim the nature of G-d cannot be seen primarily as the antithesis of the finite.
In addition to this principal insight based on the prominence of essence in the Dirah Betachtonim system, there are other important ideas that reduce the G-d-finite dichotomy (though not to the same extent) that have their origins in Chasidic and even pre-Chasidic literature.
As we saw earlier, it is an axiom of Judaism that G-d is not confined to greatness, rather, His far reach and compatibility extend to the entire range of existing things, no matter how seemingly trivial. As it were, the rays of the spotlight shine with an unlimited range. This was referred to as G-d’s infinity. (Subsequently, we went on to see that Infinity, too, is merely an attribute of G-d and our attention turned to the Essence.)
Now it is of course normally assumed that infinity and finitude are mutually exclusive, that the very notion of infinity represents the antithesis of the finite. In truth, however, it can be shown that an absolute infinity would not exclude the finite. The work Avodat Hakodesh states concerning G-d: “The Infinite is perfect completeness with no detraction; if you say He has power with the unrestricted, but does not have power with the restricted, you are detracting from his perfect completeness.” True infinity is a state that incorporates the complete range of possibilities—paradoxically, including finitude. Accordingly, G-d, truly expansive, truly boundless, incorporates all states, including the finite.
This paradox that a superior state (such as infinity as ordinarily conceived) is not necessarily the optimum state, but is in fact complemented by its inferior antipode (such as finitude), can be clarified by way of analogy.
A 4.5-volt electric source that provides just enough power to operate a small tape-recorder is evidently inferior to a standard 110 or 240 volt home outlet, and clearly incomparable to major cables emerging from a power plant where voltage is measured in the hundreds of thousands. Ironically, however, the small tape recorder will work properly only when supplied by the 4.5 volt source, whereas the superior power supply at the plant will blow its mechanisms.
In a sense, then, much as the 4.5 volt socket is constrained by its particular range, unable to provide for machines with different voltage requirements, the plant cables are also constrained by their particular range. The lowest rung, as it were, is confined to the lowest part of the ladder unable to relate to the highest part; but the highest part is also confined to its own position at the top of the ladder—unable to relate to the lower rungs. An ultimate power source would be one which provides a single outlet fit for the provision of both hundreds of thousands of volts as well as a meager 4.5 volts for puny appliances.
There are, then, three levels to our electrical hierarchy: Inferior sockets that provide but a few volts; middle level sources—that is, paradoxically, superior blow-away power supplies providing hundreds of thousands of volts; and the optimum source—that can cater for the high as well as for the low.
Or, consider on the one hand a kindergarten assistant playing with blocks with his charges on the kindergarten floor, and on the other hand, a professor lecturing to post-graduate students on educational theory. Many would consider the professor and his lecture far superior to the kindergarten assistant and his games. Indeed, the professor had to climb the numerous rungs of the educational ladder, further and further away from his first days in kindergarten, and even from the days he would have considered himself fit for playing with kindergarten children, to reach his position. And not only are kindergarten children unable to grasp the profundity of this professor’s scholarship, but also high school graduates and indeed senior university students could not entertain following his classes.
But this illustrious scholar has his shortcomings too. He might, in fact, be so absentminded that he cannot carry on a conversation with his wife, never mind the kindergarten children. In his rarefied lecture theater with his postgraduate students he performs unapproachably—but hardly anywhere else, certainly not in a kindergarten room. The kindergarten children cannot rise up to understand his lectures, but neither can he and his ideas stoop to relate to them.
But then there is the prime expert in educational theory who has succeeded in translating his profoundest thoughts, the most innovative and subtle educational theories, into a game of blocks. This scholar then actually goes to the kindergarten and plays with the children.
Again, there are three levels: the kindergarten aide, the superior “absentminded” professor, and the optimum scholar who can relate to the entire “ladder,” to post-graduate students as well as to small children.
The optimum state, then, is not necessarily the superior state, but rather one which is in fact complemented by the inferior antipode.
Avodat Hakodesh made a similar point concerning the Divine—and all the more applicable in his context of infinity. G-d’s infinity is not merely superior, but optimum: His infinite ability is totally versatile, all-encompassing. As it were, He is a power source supplying both vast quantities of energy as well as minute handouts; He both commands subtle theory as well as relates to child’s play. G-d is able to relate to the infinite but also to the finite—if you say otherwise, “you are detracting from his perfect completeness.”
Thus, to return to our previous discussion on the question of the nature of G-d, it follows, that even if the defining feature of G-d is indeed infinity, He is not antithetical to, not in a dichotomy with, the finite. He can relate to the finite, and the finite can relate to Him—for true infinity incorporates all possibilities, including the finite.
Put more technically, even prior to tzimtzum where the primordial light “filled all of existence,” i.e. where G-d’s expansive infinity was manifest, the finite was nevertheless compatible with G-d as part of true infinity. Tzimtzum, then, was not in truth the creation of finitude, but the articulation of finitude at the fore.
To understand this let us return to our second analogy. Upon entering the kindergarten, you find two seemingly similar individuals sitting on the floor playing blocks with the children. You are inclined to group them together, as both participating in a rather simple and ordinary activity. But what a difference there is between them! What a difference in what the game means to each of them. The kindergarten assistant is indeed no more than playing blocks, but the educational scholar is in fact engaged in the sophisticated intellectual world of his most subtle theories, in the context of his vast resources of knowledge and highly perceptive insight. Indeed, for him, the blocks are “transparent”; all the subtleties of his advanced educational theories flow through them, though he plays appropriately in the simplest of ways.
The ordinary game, then, whilst remaining ordinary, can be of two meanings: an ordinary game, or part of the “infinity,” the unlimited reach of the professor’s theories.
The difference between pre-and post-tzimtzum is analogous to the difference between the scholar and the kindergarten assistant. Much as the educational scholar’s playing with blocks is an expression of his far reach, remaining in fact transparent to the intellectual world of his sublime theories, the place of finitude pre-tzimtzum was similarly an expression of the perfection, the total reach of G-d’s infinity, remaining transparent to that infinity. And much as the kindergarten assistant’s playing does not go beyond the limited context of an ordinary game of blocks, post-tzimtzum there is similarly nothing but the restrictions of finitude. Post-tzimtzum it is finitude qua finitude—but the finite was there before too.
Imagine what it would be like to perceive the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Visible human light would be part of that experience, but overwhelmed. Shutting out most of the spectrum permits the context of human vision whereby visible light emerges, with the restrictions, definitions and parameters of visible light. At tzimtzum, the infinite “light” of G-d was removed and the finite emerged in its distinctiveness—but it was there before as part of the original infinity.
Thus, to return once again to our original inquiry concerning the infinite-finite dichotomy, even without consideration for essence, but merely in terms of infinity, the notion that more G-dly represents more abstract and transcendent does not, paradoxically, mean that it represents the exclusion of, and the incompatibility with, finitude and restrictedness. The finite, too, is part of infinite G-d Himself.
But, of course, the notion that finitude is subsumed within G-d becomes reinforced from the vantage point of G-d’s Essence. Here, this reality, as this reality, is not something inherently different from but nevertheless within the far reach of infinite G-d—but is rather co-essential with G-d. And in fact, the very unG-dly feature of finitude, rather than the infinite, roots in the core, the restricted in-itself, of the essence.
In short: In the Dirah Betachtonim system the nature of G-d is not the antithesis of the finite, restricted and defined.
Two Trends—Essence and Manifestations
We now turn to the second point, to Dirah Betachtonim perceptions of the makeup, as it were, of the G-dhead. We have spoken of the distinction between the finite and the infinite, of pre-tzimtzum and post-tzimtzum. It is in fact very common in advanced Chasidic texts to classify various aspects and spheres of the G-dhead by these two broad categories, describing them as part of either the infinite or the “finite” dimension of the G-dhead. Dirah Betachtonim also divides the G-dhead (as well as reality) into two broad trends. But here the distinction between the finite and the infinite recedes: both of these become in fact subsumed under but one of Dirah Betachtonim’s categories. In Dirah Betachtonim, essence is brought into sharp focus and accordingly, the G-dhead is divided primarily into Essence on the one hand and all else—including Infinity—on the other.
Both characteristics of G-d, the finite and the infinite—the post-tzimtzum concentration of the Divine flow into specific defined features, spheres and forces, as well as the pre-tzimtzum expansiveness—are both but manifestations of G-d. And then there is G-d’s Essence, the Being, the substratum from which these features emanate. Even expansive infinity is merely an attribute, a feature of G-d. Beyond it lies G-d, whose feature this is. In fact, much like this finite world was produced by a creative act, a reaching out from G-d, and much like Divine attributes, such as Wisdom and Love, are the product of a creative act of G-d—the same is true, in a subtle sense, even for Divine expansiveness. This dimension of G-d, it is true, has not lost the indefinable, transcendent character of G-d, has not moved away from featurelessness to assume some specific definition, to be constrained by specific parameters; but it too is a reaching out—not the self, the Essence. There is G-d in Himself, as He stands prior to all emanations, and subsequently there is “illumination,” emanations of various sorts—including Infinity.
Accordingly, we realize that in a sense the greatest transition in the G-dhead, the greatest divide in the entire hierarchy of G-dliness—greater yet than the gulf that separates the infinite from the finite, i.e. the quantum leap of tzimtzum—is the line between G-d’s Essence and His manifestations, including the first and most subtle of these, the pre-tzimtzum expansiveness, the “undifferentiated supernal light” that filled all. Below this divide it is attributes, manifestations, emanations, creations; some infinite and some finite. G-d no longer in Himself but G-d in relation. Above this gulf is the Essence of G-d, G-d in Himself. These therefore are the two terms that are prominent in Dirah Betachtonim texts for classifying various dimensions of the G-dhead and reality: essence and manifestations—rather than infinite and finite.
Considering the two broader categories of essence and manifestations, rather than the two narrower categories of infinite and finite (both subsumed under manifestations), the evaluation and classification of various specific aspects of G-d and reality is drastically altered. From this vantage point, whenever two entities or activities are evaluated and it is noted that one is Divine in quality and the other not—this implies that the former is but of the manifestations trend in the Divine and the latter of the essence trend. Some spheres manifest the Divine, proclaim G-d, whereas some are self-contained, in themselves. These latter entities are, as it were, not radiant but blackhole-like, indicating their association with the non-radiant self-centeredness of the core of G-d. (In truth, more than blackhole-like: the darkness of black holes is relative to the outside; here there is “blackness” throughout—in-itself.)
This shift of classification in Dirah Betachtonim affects a number of Divine aspects, at a variety of stages of the G-dhead. As we have already noted in chapter six, when considering matters in terms of essence, tzimtzum is no longer a degeneration but rather a return to the character of containment and concealment, of being in-itself (or, of being, in-itself). Similarly, this physical reality which parades as self-substantial, which is not tellingly Divine but finite, constrained by defining contours and hard and fast, represents now a reality in which G-dliness (which is responsible for its existence) is in the restrictive in-itself, essence mode. And a similar change of classification applies to the performance of physical mitzvot in contrast to meditation or emotional devotion.
In short, in Dirah Betachtonim too, as in previous texts, the G-dhead is made up, as it were, of two trends, and there are two consistent classifications of cosmic reality, but here they are broader: one includes reaching out, radiating, processes and attributes—or manifestations; another involves passive, in-itself, essences.
And upon consideration it becomes clear that in fact not only have the two trends of the infinite and finite been supplanted in Dirah Betachtonim, but even the relative meanings of the infinite and finite categories themselves have been reversed. From this perspective, that which is finite rather than infinite, self-contained rather than expansive, roots deeper in G-d.
What is G-d?
Now to the short question “What is G-d?” In Dirah Betachtonim, G-d is not Wisdom nor Love; not Infinity, transcendence or featurelessness. In this system, in a word: G-d is Essence.
What features are G-dly in Dirah Betachtonim? Those associated with essence—not in-relation-to, but in-itself; being. Not expansiveness but self-centeredness; not abstractness nor transcendence but “hardness and fastness”; not infinite but “finite.”