As human beings we are constantly confronted by
the mind-body problem. On the one hand we have physical bodies, complete with
arms, legs, a heart and a brain. On the other hand we have mental states, we
think, we become emotional, we desire things, we understand things, we enjoy
sunsets and the scent of flowers. This led the 17th century René Descartes to a
conclusion that schisms the mind from the body. He postulated that there is a
mental substance, res cogitans, and a
physical substance, res extensa. He understood
G‑d to be a third substance that is neither mental nor physical, and which
chooses to make these created substances exist.
From a philosophical point of view Descartes’
position, known as dualism, is deeply problematic. If mind and body exist independently
of each other, if the mental and the physical are in fact two completely
different substances, how do they interact with one another? How does the
brain, a physical lump of grey meat, apprehend ethereal mental concepts?How does the
brain, a physical lump of grey meat, apprehend ethereal mental concepts?
The question of how the mind, or the soul, and
the body, relate to each other has concerned philosophers from ancient times
till today. But Descartes’ dualism has often been rejected, usually in favour
of monistic theories positing that mental and physical phenomena actually consist
of the same substance. There is physicalism,
claiming that all is matter. There is idealism,
claiming all is mind. There is neutral
monism, which suggests that all is
neither one nor the other, but a third, unified substance that is the
combination of both.
Today, many people assume that everything is
physical, that there is no mental state independent of the physical brain.
Accordingly, there is no mind and no soul, and hence no mind-body problem. But
rather than solving the mind-body problem, this simply replaces it with a
problem of a different name. A leading contemporary philosopher thinking about
this new conundrum is David Chalmers, and he calls it the “hard” problem of
consciousness: Chalmers wants to understand how and why we have subjective
A computer, for example, processes large
quantities of information—apparently without having any mental awareness or
subjective experience of those processes. But when humans process information
something happens besides the physical, electronic or chemical changes
happening in the body and in the brain: We experience these processes
subjectively, there is a feeling of “what it is like.” Philosophers call these
subjective experiences qualia.
undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of
how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is
it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory
information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of
deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something
it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is
widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good
explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give
rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it
should, and yet it does.
This line of thinking has led Chalmers away
from physicalism and persuaded him to consider the view that all physical
substance—including rocks and electrons—fundamentally possesses some kind of
Today this line of thinking is seen as innovative and controversial, but in
truth it is one of the most ancient and persistent ideas in the history of
philosophy. Similar theories can be found both among early Greek thinkers, and
in the Jewish philosophical, kabbalistic and midrashic traditions. Philosophers
refer to this as panpsychism, which means that everything (pan) has a mind or a soul (psyche).
It is important to note, however, that not all
panpsychic theories are the same. As with other complex philosophical
questions, we should realize that different thinkers often fit similar ideas
into vastly different systems of thought, and we should always be weary of
false equivalences and conflations.
Chabad: A Parallel Conceptual
As a counterpoint to the prevalent assumption
that everything is physical, the Chabad view is that everything is divine.
The Chabad intellectual tradition might be
described as a conceptual universe that runs parallel to the Western one. It
engages with many of the questions raised in the western philosophical
tradition to which Descartes, Chalmers and their interlocutors belong, but brings
a different set of concepts, assumptions and goals, and a different terminology
to the table. This is true of the mind-body problem and the “hard” problem of
consciousness, The Chabad intellectual tradition might be described as a conceptual universe that runs parallel to the Western one…and it is true of many other philosophical quandaries as well.
In Chabad thought these questions are made all
the more problematic because we are not simply talking about the interface of
the mind—or the soul—and the body, but also about the interface of G‑d and the
world. As the Talmudic sages put it, “just as the soul fills the body, so G‑d
fills the world.”
This is taken to a whole new level of difficulty when we consider that G‑d is
infinite and the world seems to be composed of finite matter. How can the
finitude of creation possibly be filled with infinite divinity?
The crucial point for the present discussion is
that in Chabad thought these paradoxes are all resolved by what can be
described as a panentheistic false-dualism: Chabad does not subscribe to a
monistic idealism (“everything is ideas”) according to which our experience of
the physical is some kind of mirage. The physical is at least as real as the
spiritual. But both physicality and spirituality are refractions of singular
divinity. From this perspective, the designation of the physical realm as a
“world of falsehood” (עלמא דשיקרא) should not be
understood as a denial of the reality of its existence. The falsehood lies in
the impression that the utter singularity of all-encompassing divinity is
compromised by the dual modes of divine manifestation.
The unavoidable reality of the physical
universe is emphasized in an oft cited discourse by the fourth rebbe of
Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (“Maharash,” 1834-1888):
The existence of the world, and all that is
created, is a reality… For if we say it is only that it so appears to us, if so
what is the meaning of the verse “In the beginning of G‑d’s creation” (Genesis
1:1)? Did not no creation occur at all, but rather it was made to appear to us
as if it was so? Therefore we must say that the world does exist as a
substantive reality (yesh ve-davar)…
In the same breath, R. Shmuel also emphasizes
that the physical reality of creation is not something other than G‑d:
there is no physical existence other than divinity, for in truth the capacity
for concealment is also divinity like the capacity for revelation… All the
physical things that are created are themselves literally divinity.
Even more radical than the equation of
physicality with divinity is a phrase oft repeated by the seventh rebbe of
Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, which
emphasizes that physical existence is ultimately a deeper expression of divine
reality and truth than spirituality: “The created being is itself [an
unmediated manifestation of] the true being [of G‑d]…” For the most part,
however, this truth remains concealed by the very facade of otherness and
duality that most gives it expression. It is only “through the work in this
world to remove the concealments and veils…” that “it will be revealed in the
created being that it itself is [an unmediated manifestation of] the true
As will be further explained
below, it is precisely in the most abject sphere of cosmic being—or more precisely, in the
transformation of the abject into the exalted—that the greatest expression of
divine transcendence is found.
There are many relevant texts that could be cited
as examples of the different ways in which Chabad teachings approach the
problem, its solution, and various resulting implications. Already in the first
generation of Chabad we find that panpsychism was an issue of particular
interest and controversy. One early chassidic work, titled “Testament of the
Baal Shem Tov” records the following “major principle:” “In everything that
exists in the world there are holy sparks, there is nothing empty of the
sparks, even wood and stones, and even all the actions that a person executes…”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi similarly cites the Lurianic teaching that “even
in the literally inanimate—like stones, dust and water—there is a soul and
spiritual life… which enlivens and creates the inanimate, All reality is divine thought thinking itself.that it may emerge as
an existence from nothing…”
In a direct attack on this concept, Rabbi
Eliyahu—the famed gaon of Vilna— wrote that the chassidim “proclaim of every
stick and every stone, ‘These are your gods, Israel!’” By borrowing a phrase
from the biblical episode of the golden calf, he equated chassidism with
Judaism’s worst example of public idolatry.
The Gaon apparently sought to uphold a dualistic schism between the spiritual
and the physical, between G‑d and the world. Elsewhere, he explicitly argued
that G‑d transcends the world, and that it is only divine knowledge and
superintendence that extends into the created realm.
The Gaon’s attack was countered by R. Schneur
Zalman with a sharp argument proving that divine superintendence could not be
accounted for without resort to a form of divine panpsychism. Following the
Maimonidean principle that divine knowledge is self-knowledge—G‑d being the
knower, the subject of knowledge, and the knowledge itself—R.
Schneur Zalman concludes that G‑d’s knowledge of the world entails that the
world itself is not in any way separate from G‑d. Implicitly referring to those
who shared the Gaon’s position, he wrote:
they believe that G‑d knows all created beings in this lowly world and
superintends them, they are compelled to accept that His knowledge of them does
not add to Him any plurality or novelty, for He knows all through knowing His
self. It as if His being and essence and knowledge are all one.
Aristotle famously described G‑d as “thought thinking itself.” But
the Maimonidean view, as interpreted by R. Schneur Zalman, is that all reality is divine thought thinking
itself. In technical philosophical terminology the complexity of the Chabad
position might be captured with the designation “theological panpsychic
false-dualism.” But even as we speak of panpsychism we must also recall that
“G‑d’s thoughts are not as our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). G‑d’s thoughts extend
beyond the realm of ideas to animate and encompass physical reality as well.
We must also recall that G‑d ultimately transcends the category of thought
However central the principle of divine panpsychism is to the Chabad system of
thought, it must always be considered in terms of what Elliot Wolfson has
designated “the logic inherent” to Chabad thought: “a way of thinking that
begets an annihilation of thinking.”
The Mitzvah: Fusing Body and Soul
From the Chabad perspective there is no “hard”
problem of consciousness. Consciousness is not an anomalous product of the
physical universe. Rather, the physical universe is an anomalous product of
divine consciousness. The “hard” problem of Chabad thought is: How does the
finite universe exist without compromising the infinite singularity of G‑d?
Rather than an outright rejection of dualism,
Chabad teachings constantly affirm that G‑d at once fills the finite realm
immanently (memale kol almin) and
infinitely transcends it (sovev kol almin).
Yet G‑d’s essential being (atzmuto
u-mahuto) is neither finite nor infinite. Nor can G‑d’s essential being
simply be reduced to that which encompasses those poles. G‑d is instead
understood to transcend all definable categories and limitations, and can
therefore be equally manifest in the finite and the physical as in the infinite
and the spiritual. The result of this false-duality is the impression that the
finite world is something other than the infinite G‑d. The limbs of the person’s body that are performing the mitzvah… become a literal vehicle for the supernal will.But the truth is that
G‑d is the immanent core of all reality.
Moving from the cosmic to the microcosmic, a
similar model of false dualism—or more precisely, false multiplicity—is applied
to the relationship between the soul and the body. In the second chapter of Likutei Amarim—Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman
describes a hierarchy of souls, but emphasizes that “all of them, from the
beginning of all levels to the end of all levels… are drawn from the supernal
mind [of G‑d].” The difference between one soul and another is only in the
degree to which they openly reveal G‑dliness
in their own lives and actions, and in the world around them. But all souls are
fundamentally bound up in the circle of divine consciousness. Here too, R.
Schneur Zalman cites Maimonides’ principle that G‑d is the knower, the subject
of knowledge, and knowledge itself.
The divine quality of the soul extends to the
physical body as well, but it only becomes overtly revealed therein through the
performance of mitzvot, divinely mandated commandments. In Likutei Amarim—Tanya, chapter twenty-three, R. Schneur Zalman
explains that when a person performs a commandment “the lowest faculty of their
divine soul (levush ha-hitzon shel nefesh
ha-elokit), which is its capacity for action, is vested in the animation of
that mitzvah performance… Therefore, also the limbs of the person’s body that
are performing the mitzvah… become a literal vehicle for the supernal will [of
G‑d]. By way of example, the hand that distributes charity to the poor… the
feet that walk in the cause of a mitzvah, and likewise the mouth that speaks
words of Torah, and the brain that thinks of Torah matters, fear of heaven, and
the greatness of G‑d.” Body and soul function as one, yet mirror the false-duality of the cosmic singularity.These limbs and organs, R. Schneur Zalman explains, are
themselves “sanctified” because they have become transparent to their divine
The divine nature of the body can only be
openly revealed through mitzvah observance and Torah study. But in truth, the
Baal Shem Tov taught, even the body’s most mundane cravings are identical with
the cravings of the soul. “Hungry as well as thirsty, their soul enwraps itself
within them” (Psalms, 107:5). In its original context this is a poetic image
describing wanderers lost in the desert, whose souls contract as their hunger
and thirst intensifies. But the Baal Shem Tov decontextualized the verse and
reinterpreted it to mean that the divine soul is enwrapped within the hunger
and thirst of the physical body. Externally the body’s cravings seem mundane,
even crass, but in truth they stem from the soul’s craving to raise up the
divine sparks that are concealed throughout all reality. Not only is the body
not the enemy of the soul, on the contrary, the body and the soul are actually
in sync. They function as one, yet mirror the false-duality of the cosmic singularity.
The soul’s mission on earth, accordingly, is to make the body—and all aspects
of earthly life—transparent to the divine core of all reality.
Yehidah: The Singular Substance of
The above passages allude to another oft
discussed theme in Chabad teachings. Drawing on earlier rabbinic sources, each
individual soul is understood to have five general levels.
The lowest, nefesh, corresponds to
the soul’s capacity for action, which is channeled through the body to have
transformative impact in the physical world. The highest is referred to as yehidah, meaning singularity, because it
is utterly bound up with the singular essence of G‑d. The yehidah transcends the false dualism that distinguishes between the
physical and the spiritual, and therefore cannot even be associated with the
loftiest of spiritual soul faculties. Yet it is precisely the transcendence of
the yehidah that is the immanent core
of all levels of soul expression, including the lowest, Once the essence is revealed it illuminates all faculties of the soul and all aspects of reality.which animates the
actions of the body.
Though the yehidah
is discussed in many Chabad teachings, its significance is most fully
articulated and emphasized in a treatise by the seventh rebbe of
Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory. In this
treatise, On the Essence of Chassidus,
the essential core of divine being and the essential core of the soul are
described in precisely the same terms. In both cases, the disclosure of the
essence is synonymous with the dissolution of the false opposition between
spirituality and physicality, light and darkness, good and evil:
[spiritual] revelations, even the very loftiest, are bound in the category of
light and revelation… Consequently, the existence of evil… is in opposition to
them, and it is therefore not in their power to transform it to good (only to
battle with it till it is effaced). Only the essence of G‑d… which is
uncontained by any form and which can have nothing in opposition to it… has the
power to transform it to good.
The essential transcendence of G‑d, in other
words, is such that spirituality and physicality alike—and even good and
evil—are equally inadequate to give it expression. It is axiomatic that the
physical realm conceals the all-encompassing presence of G‑d. But here it
emerges that the same is true of the spiritual realm, of spiritual experience
and activity as well. The only way in which the essence can be tangibly
disclosed is in the overcoming of binaries, through transforming evil into
good, through infusing physical reality with the spirit of divinity.
Paradoxically, Chabad’s radical conception of
divine transcendence leads us to find the greatest expression of that
transcendence in the most abject sphere of cosmic being, or more precisely, in
the transformation of the abject into the exalted. The same applies on the
microcosmic plane—the essential potency of the soul is only expressed in
transformative activities that overcome the divide between body and soul,
revealing the G‑dly core even of physical existence. But once the essence is revealed
it illuminates all faculties of the soul and all aspects of reality:
when the [soul] faculties come to refine a physical object beyond the
individual self… (using it for the sake of heaven)—specifically then is the yehidah revealed in them.
In the final paragraph of his treatise on yehidah—which he also associates with
the essence of chassidic teaching itself—the Rebbe cites the messianic vision
articulated by R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi in Tanya, chapters thirty-six and thirty-seven:
physicality of the body and the world will be purified… as it is written ‘all
flesh [shall see] together etc.’ ‘all dwellers of your universe’… This ultimate
wholeness of the messianic era… is dependent on our actions and work throughout
the era of exile…
In philosophical language we might say that the
ultimate goal of all human endeavor is to overcome the false sense of dualism
that leads us to the mind-body problem in the first place.
We achieve this through Torah study and mitzvah observance, through serving G‑d
in all aspects of earthly life, and through transforming evil into good.
We are not simply bodies, nor are we minds, nor do we merely combine the two.
Ultimately, there is but one single substance, uncompromised by the mind-body
duality. The multiple dimensions of existence are real. Yet they are all
refractions of the singular substance of G‑d.