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Is G-d an It, an I, or Nothing?

Is G-d an It, an I, or Nothing?

Or: G-d's Sticky Fingerprints

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Question:

I've always understood "G‑d" as the eternal no-thingness that is the ground of being, the universal self and the true oneness. I know that the Kabbalists refer to G‑d as the "Ein Sof"--the Endless. So I think, "Hey, maybe they're talking the same thing."

But then the cognitive dissonance kicks in: The Eternal Is-ness upon which I meditate just is. But in Jewish writings you have the Ein Sof with a full-blown personality, telling people "do this" and "don't do this" and "it really bugs me when you do that." How am I supposed to understand a perfect and infinite No-thingness that's just so, well, so down on earth?

Answer:

In typical Jewish fashion, I'm going to ask you a question back. A dirty question. Like when all the enlightened thinkers are playing in their sandbox, asking all the questions that fit the rules they set for their game—and then comes along some obnoxious little kid (or an adult with a little-kid brain) and asks an obvious question that everyone was subconsciously trying to avoid because it makes mud pie out of all their sand castles.

Now there are rules to dirty questions, too: The answer has to be as simple and straightforward as the question. Something you could tell a bright five-year old (or she could tell you).

So here's my dirty question: Please explain to me exactly what is the difference between this No-thingness with a capital N and vanilla nothing with a lower case n. What makes one Nothing G‑d and the other just nothing?

In case it's necessary—and even if it isn't, because it's fun anyways—let me illustrate with an example. Let's say I presented you my pet pink elephant. Only that you can't see this elephant, because it's invisible. And like most invisible stuff, it has no mass, so you can't touch it either. Elephants are usually pretty noisy, but this one doesn't make a peep. Elephants also usually smell a lot, but not this one. And, oh, did I say it was pink? Only because I didn't have any other color to call it—invisible things don't have color. It's actually not an elephant, either. I just had to call it something.

So, in truth, my pink elephant is neither pink nor an elephant nor anything at all. It has no measurements, no description and there is really nothing at all we can say about it. That's because, you see, it actually is nothing. Meaning, it does not exist.

Now let's talk about G‑d. Or as the Kabbalists call Him, the Ein Sof--That Which Has No End. Not only has the Ein Sof no end, it has no descriptors whatsoever. And since it is infinite, neither does it have any measurements.

You see, the Ein Sof is not just infinite. Infinite could apply to, say, infinite kiwis or infinite hotel rooms or an infinite number of words I could use to describe infinity. But those infinities provide useful information about themselves. Like, if I take out one kiwi from my infinite grocery store, I know that this infinity is at least partially made of kiwis. Sure, that kiwi is like nothing compared to the entire set of whatever else is in there—but it's not really nothing. Because, after all, if that kiwi is nothing, then what is the infinite grocery store other than infinite nothings—which equals to nothing.

Not so the Ein Sof. The Ein Sof isn't made of anything. No kiwis, no words, no parts whatsoever. That's why your nomenclature is so appropriate: It is truly No-Thing-ness—because there are no things there.

In truth, you can't even say that the Ein Sof exists. Well, maybe you can, but Maimonides didn't think so—and he isn't even considered a Kabbalist (most of the time). He wrote that one cannot say about G‑d that He is an existence, because then He would need a cause that brought Him into existence. So G‑d, he basically says, is a non-entity. He's responsible for everything else existing, but He Himself cannot be called an existence. Existence is just one of those great ideas He came up with one day.

Hey, next time you're in an argument with an atheist, tell him for me, "Yeah, we also believe that G‑d is not an existence." That'll send 'em reeling.

As for all these descriptions of kindness, wisdom, etc., Maimonides provides a simple answer. He says, look, you can't say that He isn't kind, right? Or that He isn't wise. Or that He doesn't have any particular quality. If He is infinite, He must have all of that, as well. That's called negative theology and a lot of philosophers, including Muslims and Christians, really got off on that idea. (For one thing, it answered that prickly issue of the big rock that even You-Know-Who can't lift.)

So back to our question (which is really the question of Rabbi Hasdai Crescas on Maimonides): If so, if G‑d, the Ein Sof or whatever we will call Him, has no descriptors and can't even be called an existence, then in what way is He/It any different than nothing at all?

Nothing, Something and Beyond

Just so you won't go off telling everyone that the Guadalajara Rebbe doesn't believe G‑d exists, I'll have to fill in the answer for you right here and now. It's actually very simple, but I'll make it a little more complex so all us adults won't feel embarrassed about not realizing it before:

Let's talk in terms of information: Nothing contains no information. Yes, you can read that two ways. Let's try again: Whatever you say about nothing just isn't true. That's basically what nothing is: A vacuum of information.

The Ein Sof, on the other hand, can provide you with oodles of information. In fact, infinite information. Like what? Like the fact that existence extends from it. And it extends through the medium of ten sefirot, four worlds and all that engineering stuff. Really all the information there is and ever could be. The caveat is that none of that information tells you anything about the Ein Sof.

So we have three, not two, categories:

  • Nothing provides no information.

  • Something provides a limited set of information, which accumulatively describes that something.

  • The Ein Sof provides unlimited information, which accumulatively gets you nowhere. It's information. It's information about the Ein Sof. But it never gets around to telling you what the Ein Sof is.

Like, say, a fingerprint. Get this: All of reality is nothing but G‑d's fingerprint. A fingerprint is information. It's a unique identifier that extends from one individual alone to point to only one place and tell you whodunit. But it tells you nothing about this person whodunit. Zilch. Just like any of those numbers they use to identify you in some privacy-intruding database: A number that points uniquely to you and only you, but says absolutely nothing about you (even if those bureaucrats believe that number is you). So the entire universe and all the higher ones, too, all the way up to the very first emanation, they all point to a single, ultimate Source of All Being—and tell you absolutely zilch about what that Whatever-It-Is is.

There's a crucial point at which this analogy breaks down: With a person, since most of us are somethings, there is real information we could put in that database that will tell us something about him or her. Big feet, Latino-Yiddish accent, persistent chillied breath, answers letters from confused Bujus... (that accumulated, didn't it?). Fingerprints just happen to be one of those things that don't seem to enhance other data when accumulated to tell you more about this person. With the Ein Sof, its an integral axiom that all information is fingerprints.

That's neat. Let's think some more about that. But first:

What's in a Name?

In the language of Kabbalah, this is what's called the Name. As in, "Before the world was created, there was just Him and His Name alone." A name, too, provides no intelligible information about a person. Two people with diametrically opposed personalities can share the same name. One character named Tzvi goes about posting unintelligible sci-fi fantasy nonsense on the internet while claiming that he writes my correspondence—and another with the exactly the same name minds his own business writing books of nice meditations. Proof that a name provides no character information.

BTW: The standard, Jewish name for the Ein Sof is not a three-letter but a four-letter one. Personally, I don't know what the word G‑d means, but I have some idea of what the four-letter name means. It's a conjugation of the verb to be. Only that it's not a verb and it doesn't mean to be. Rather, it could be (somewhat awkwardly) translated into modern-think as "That Which Causes Being."

Wrap your head around that one and you'll realize that it provides lots of information—and tells us less about Him than a fingerprint. What kind of being-ness is He into? How does He feel about being—or not being. What's it like to be beyond being, looking down on it and saying, "Hey, I made that!"

The name tells us nothing. Zilch. And in this case, that's because there's nothing there that can be said.

Yet that name is a unique identifier. After all, there can only be one source for being-ness. Being is a singularity. Other than a certain Jamaican sect, I don't know of anyone that has a plural form of the state of being.

That's part of the quality of a name. Like when you call a person's name and he turns around and comes—all of him. Not just his navel, not just his nose, not just his brain or his heart. All of him. If a person is in a faint, whisper his name in his ear and his eyes may open.

Which leads to our next, fascinating point: A name says nothing, but a name touches the essence.

We've Got His Number

Think again of those unique identifiers. Why do we use numbers like 4509HXB3580000001 to identify people? Wouldn't it be nicer to tell the computer, "The pleasant young lady who likes wearing purple dresses and is a little shorter than the receptionist's counter here in the office"? Well, for two reasons: Firstly, because any of that information could change. There's really very little internal information about you that isn't subject to change (your parents, place of birth and birth date are things you'd be hard set to change, but that's not information about you—just about your circumstances in getting here).

And then, there's another reason: None of that sort of information points uniquely to you. Somewhere in the world, there may be some other diminutive female with the same purple-dress pathology. Accumulative information tells you about the person, but doesn't always pull up the right person. A fingerprint gets you the jackpot every time.

So look at this: With information from the Ein Sof, you don't have who He is, but you have Him, 100%.

Think about it: From the Ein Sof extends a finite world—many finite worlds—with the parameters of time, space and consciousness. What does time, space and consciousness tell us about the Ein Sof? Nothing. Could have used something else altogether. What? We couldn't have any idea. The Ein Sof isn't married to time and space (or consciousness) any more than you are married to some alphanumeric sequence generated by a computer's random function.

The difference being that you didn't choose that alphanumeric jumble. Good chance you didn't choose your name, either. But G‑d chose to be expressed through ten attributes of Wisdom, Understanding, Knowing, Kindness, Might, Beauty, etcetera—from which extend time and space—and not in any other way. He is the one who picked that set of modalities out of an infinite set of possibilities. If so, that's where He is found. Not because that's Him—but because that is how He, in all His essence, chose to be found.

Wherever He Chooses To Be

Now you're going to say, "What's this business about the Ein Sof choosing? Isn't that just another anthropomorphism? Choosing is a temporal event. The Ein Sof just is. Or isn't. Or whatever."

This is what we mean by choosing: We mean that nothing that extends from the Ein Sof is necessary. Nothing has to be the way it is. So whatever does come out is a fingerprint—a fingerprint of a place that has no restrictive clauses whatsoever.

If you think about this, you'll realize that I'm telling you something that turns everything you know on its head: It turns out that there's something beyond the Ein Sof. Because the Ein Sof by the very fact that it is so unlimited has this limitation: That everything is the same for it.

So we're saying there's something beyond that. There's a point that is so free and unlimited that it can choose whatever set it wishes to choose out of the infinite possibilities of the Ein Sof and say, "I want to be this."1

Here's a down-to-earth illustration of what I mean, something we can all relate to—especially the five-year old:

This was in the times that Rabbi Yochanan was the pre-eminent sage of his time in the land of Israel (circa 240 CE). At some point, a difficult case came before the sages: A man had left a will that bequeathed all his property to his son, but only once his son would go insane.

The sages had no clue what to do. So they went to see Rabbi Yochanan. When they arrived at his home, they found him running around on all fours, neighing like a horse, with his little boy on his back. Respectfully, they waited until the rabbi was done, had brushed off his clothes and then sat with him to present the enigmatic will.

"Well, my colleagues," answered Rabbi Yochanan, "I believe you've already seen your answer when you arrived here. The man obviously meant to wait until his son would have children."

Nice story, but now let me ask you a simple question: Who had the real Rabbi Yochanan? The sages or his son?

The sages had Rabbi Yochanan the sage, what we called "accumulative information" of his persona. They could go away and describe to you Rabbi Yochanan, his wisdom, his demeanor, his personality.

The little boy had none of that. He has no clue of his father's wisdom or who his father really is. But he has his father.

Because his father decided, "I want to be down there with that little boy. And I will be whatever it takes to be there—even if it takes being a horse, even if it means acting insane in front of distinguished sages, even if it means wearing out the knees of my designer jeans. That's who I want to be with and where I want to be."

So that's where he is found.

So is G‑d Wisdom? Or Compassion? Or Love? Of course not. He is the Ein Sof, infinitely beyond any description. But if you want to find Him, you will study His wisdom, pray for His compassion and learn to love as He loves. And in that, as a small child has his father, you will have Him.

Listen to the Fingerprints

How do you get to that? How do you tune in to G‑d's wisdom, compassion, etc.? Thinking all day and night won't get you there—just more of your own wisdom, but not His. You're just spinning in circles.

Like we said, His wisdom is in those fingerprint articulations of the Ein Sof that generate a universe. Only that, on the way down, generating lower and lower worlds, the complexity approaches the chaos-point and noise overwhelms the signal. Information becomes gobbly-gook, i.e. our world. The whole thing begins to look like a Wikipedia article that went awry.

Fortunately, there have been certain clear minds in history, both Jewish and otherwise, that were capable of tuning in to the signal as it sounds above, before it begins all its convolutions on the way down. Not through pondering, philosophizing, demolishing competitive theses and getting published with Cambridge University Press—but by freeing their minds from the maddening noise of the material world and opening it up to the bright light of higher realms.2 Up there, you get a pure, clear signal. And if you are a truly fine-tuned receiver for that signal, it will come down into your mind, your thoughts and even your words, straight into this world for others to hear.

Now imagine one of those human signal-towers so tall, so finely tuned, so devoid of inner noise, the ultimate in super-conductivity because his ego presents zero friction to the transmission energy. Imagine that he picks up the core vibrations of the universe, straight from the original source. Imagine that he transmits that signal to a mass of diverse people in an intelligible form, even managing to amplify it so that all can tune into it directly. And then, to ensure that the signal is preserved for posterity, he spends forty years with his people wandering in the desert, drawing it even further down, into physical writing on leather parchment. His hand writes stories, cryptic instructions and tallies of numbers—all directly extended from that core signal, as first-level harmonics extend from string vibrations.

Then he provides the decrypting code to his students who utilize it for the next three and something thousand years to figure out what to do in every possible situation.

Of course, if someone were to come and tell me that some bearded gentleman had tuned into the inner vibrations of the cosmos and heard that I'm supposed to hang knotted threads from my four-cornered garments and avoid turning on light-switches on Saturdays at all costs, I would probably just return a kind smile. But we Jews have no choice but to believe. We were there at the time and saw it happen for ourselves. And if it didn't happen, then what on earth are we doing here today? That event is the only explanation we have of our existence that works.3

So that's what Jews believe: That in this Torah and in these mitzvahs are found the fingerprint of the Ein Sof, that which has no definition and can never be known. That this intangible No-thingness chooses to relate to us, to be found there in our profoundly finite, perhaps even childish dreams and aspirations, melodramas and concerns, the way we eat, sleep, love, quarrel and make a living—all this is found in G‑d's fingerprint, in this Torah of His. And that by absorbing this Torah—and allowing ourselves to be absorbed within it—we achieve perfect union with the Essence of All Things. We have Him, just like the little boy had his father. Him in all His essence. Or it. Or whatever.

Perhaps that's why small children have no trouble relating to G‑d—because they have no notions of who and what He is supposed to be. Perhaps that's all we really need to do: To think again like a naïve, simple five-year old and just say, "G‑d, I really want a bicycle."

And then all the questions slip away.


Perhaps, then, this was the whole purpose of your journey: That you should come to a deeper understanding of how utterly insane it is to be a Jew and believe you can talk to the Infinite as your best friend. Because it is. Just as it was insane for Rabbi Yochanan to be a horse. But for the child and the father to connect, as for the child to inherit the father, as for us to become one with the Ein Sof--none of that will be through intellect. It will be through that utterly insane point of freedom that lies at the core of every human being and of all things. Aka G‑d.4

Footnotes
1.
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axiom_of_choice. Even better, read The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity by Amir Aczel.
The Axiom of Choice basically says that there's always something outside of any set that can pick and choose from that set. Which means there must be something even beyond the infinite set of infinite sets.
In the words of a mad mathematician buddy of mine, "Guad, the Axiom of Choice is a proof of G‑d."
"But Abe," I responded. "You can't prove the Axiom of Choice!"
"So what, Guad? We use it every day in almost ever area of mathematics, science and computer programming!"
2.
More on prophecy here. See also: "What is Prophecy?"
3.
More on the Sinai event in "How Do We Know We Heard G‑d at Sinai?"
4.
For more on the madness of talking to G‑d like a person, see "Divine Madness."
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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Benzion Waldman Millburn,NJ January 22, 2017

Please explain? Dear Rabbi;

Please reconcile your contention that G-d is "N"o-thing is light of the following?

"We were slaves to a terrible tyrant in a powerful land, and our G‑d, Master of the Entire Universe, took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."

G-d is physical. The only thing is that they can only be conceptualized by Moshiach. Reply

Anonymous North Miami Beach December 4, 2013

frum teen girl trying to make sense of "isness" brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so much. still hanging on.... Reply

steveabe new york city May 20, 2013

the sound of one hand clapping etc. Saying statements like the sound of one hand clapping is like watching an old magician do slight of hand to fool his audience. By definition, you need two (2) hands to clap. There is no such a thing as one hand clapping, so asking to hear the sound of one hand clapping is just as disrespectful as a magician using slight of hand and asking you to believe he is really doing magic. Does using words and language improperly constitute real religion or philosophy? Or is this just a way to confuse people who are sincere in their desire to find meaning in their lives. This entire article is like this. You look at words and statements, that have different meanings depending on their usage, and then create ultimate meanings to words. Is it true that the words of the Torah are holy? If yes, then there need not be any deep meaning to them. They are holy just by existing. Trying to sit and figure out what this or that means is disrespectful, because someone else can posit a different meaning. Reply

Dan Waldron Rockford, Illinois May 15, 2013

Ein Sof I am impressed with this young rabbi's final statements that the Jews cannot ultimately in other words deny G-d, it is why Jews are Jews .And that is so important for the Nations as well."You are a light to the Nations" Why? Because the Creator shared some of His wonderful secrets with you, He chose you to give everyone on this planet His HOLY Name.

I love the way the Rabbi here shared the tidbit on how to state the reality of G-d to an atheist, very good. Oh how we need to hear more of such things. Glory,Praise and Honor to the Ein Sof, the Eternal I Am."Who is like Him?" Reply

Dr. Avraham ben Rafael May 27, 2012

Explain this to a suffering baby please... I congratulate Rabbi Freeman on a particularly encouraging view on the "Ein Sof"
As an adult with the experience and maturity of an eventful life the article resonates and can be integrated within my personal reality. However I challenge the Rabbi ( or anyone else) to explain this erudite concept to the 5 day old baby suffering from an agonizingly painful illness - for whom "Ein Sof" - and His attributes of compassion, kindness etc. , are NOT evident, and who will not benefit from a life of mature experience - because he/she dies in agony! Reply

shmuesn atlanta, ga May 17, 2012

article on"ein sof" Rabbi Freeman's article is thoughtful and entertaining. I thought it was forbidden to delve into the "nature" of G-d, the pursuit of which tells us more about our own natures. Reply

ted palo alto, ca December 12, 2011

There is nothing. Beyond that, it is a matter of faith, not philosophy. Reply

Anonymous mumbai November 2, 2011

great article This article is really complex. I understood what i read. In the end i realized that whatever i understood was beyond my understanding and hence i understood nothing. :)

Truly Mr Freeman and all others at chabad.org are genius to write about something so difficult to grasp.

Truly we don't have to understand everything to serve the almighty. if that was required then the understanding would be easily available rather than we having to go hunting. Actually it would be better to say that we should have blind faith or faith without a doubt or faith even without a bit of wavering in Him as only He is the one who truly deserves such a greatest level of faith ... faith in someone which requires no proof or seeing but the one ever ready to help us when we need Him. We may not see Him or feel His presence or even understand where and how has He helped but He is there and helping always. sometimes shielding us from suffering.. sometimes strengthening us to suffer. Reply

Steve Katz Melbourne, AU August 2, 2011

No god but perception. There's no god. Perception creates reality. Reply

Zero-Equals-Infinity Toronto, Canada June 18, 2011

Is Ein Sof virtual much the way that a Class is virtual in object oriented programming? A Class only becomes "real" when it is instantiated, but the Class is, and contains all of what the instantiation is able to be, even if instantiation never happens.

Think about that for a minute. Perhaps instantiation is illusory, as the Class is unchanging and sufficient. It always contains what is possible to be expressed. The Class is not created, it always is. It is not bound to time or space. It cannot be created or destroyed, and it is the basis or ground of being for anything which is expressible, necessary and contingent to it.

That is what I am alluding to by analogizing Ein Sof with a virtual Class. Reply

abram epstein new york, USA June 7, 2011

Nicely done. But... We do not become "one with God" as you relate in your last observation. The separateness from the Holy--reflected in the word Kadosh--and symbolized by the kippah and parochet--is what distinguishes Judaism from the Gnostic pursuit of joining and becoming the same as the Creator. Of course, Christianity has adopted that doxology in its Communion concept. Otherwise, not bad. Cordially Reply

steve abraham NYC, NY July 22, 2010

my ways are not your ways A patient of mine told me that the reason why G-d does not give information about himself is because of the statement of Our Sages that says, "My ways are not your ways." Reply

One Jew Clapping ny, ny June 15, 2010

If a Jew falls in love in the forest. . . . Bravo, excellent article! It touches on the eternal paradox of creation. Want to hear the sound of one Jew clapping? Here you go. Can anyone hear me? Oh yeah, I'm alone in the forest and there's no one around to hear me. Thank G-d for wireless! Reply

Michael Goldstein Marlton, NJ April 26, 2009

wow Great article. Very interesting and thought provoking. Reply

Steve Katz Melbourne, VIC/Australia February 23, 2008

Where dost thy get in non-definition land G-d is undefined or beyond definition. G-d is all and thus nothing specific; therefore, undefined or indefinite or infinite. You perceive definition where there is none. If you see the Buddha, kill him; for Buddha is no thing. If you see God, kill him; for G-d has no definition. We’re all nothings defining and redefining ourselves and the definition is reality and therefore there is no original reality for there was/is originally no definition. Infinite is unfinite as individual is undividual. Thus one and whole is undefined, all at once, no thing. In which we are, originally, nothing or all. [So, nothing and all are synonyms.] Reply

jason laguna beach, ca January 15, 2008

Holy... This is great. Finally a way into Chassidus for a bujew. Can I get up out of this lotus position now? If there's no self, who's aching butt is this? I for one am very grateful to Chabad for taking these questions seriously and answering in a way which, though a touch incomprehensible, is familiar to the like-minded :) If you don't get it, good for you. There's tons of other places for you to satisfy whatever it is you require satisfying. I'm hooked!! Reply

Robert Lloyd Chester, England January 4, 2008

is god an it or i or noyhing Is God a three or four letter word ? Hm !
Actually didnt he reply to Moses simply that 'I AM' - full stop. Thats three letters counting on my left hand. Reply

Rob W. Pittsburgh, PA / USA October 13, 2007

The Guy in the Sky This is some mind-blowing philosophy here. I'm kind of a simple guy, so it was hard to get all of it -- at least in one reading. When you made the analogy of the rabbi & his son, then it hit me; something so esoteric & intelectual suddenly became very personal & emotional. Gil should understand that some people need articles like this after having been told: "There's an Invisible Man who lives in the sky, and anytime He catches Jews eating pork, or anyone looking at dirty pictures, He gets ticked-off and throws lightening at people!" When people talk like that, I don't blame some of my firends for being atheists. Reply

Star June 16, 2007

Is G-d an It, an I, or Nothing. Fun, deep. Confusing n clearer, after I thought of it many times. I'd read it again.
Ever think of enabling us to forward the articles on this site to our friends? Reply

Anna Davenport, IA via chabadiowacity.com June 21, 2006

I enjoyed this one I just wanted to say, this article was fun to read and gave me plenty to think about. I do wish there was a high lights version that I could email my friends since I don't think they'd make it through something this long very easily. Reply

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