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Cosmology / A Hierarchy of Realities

Cosmology / A Hierarchy of Realities


The Dirah Betachtonim system, outlined in brief in the previous section, amounts to a total revolution in religious thinking. It does not merely shed light on some difficult theological problem, nor only add extra emphasis to some particular religious issue—it leaves virtually nothing intact. Indeed, though firmly rooted in classic Chasidic teachings, though drawing its sustenance from probing the depths of Torah texts, Dirah Betachtonim does not proceed from within conventional methods of religious thinking and then depart at some significant point; but rather proceeds along its own premises and terms. It amounts to a more profound, more encompassing Torah perspective from which all details assume new light. In this section of the book we will attempt to bring to the fore the implications of this revolution, describing how many metaphysical subjects—such as cosmology, cosmic unity, the drama of Creation, the mystical experience, even theological language and basic Logic—assume totally new dimensions in this theological system.

We start with cosmology. First, we present a brief summary of the cosmology that emerges from Jewish writings in general, drawing in particular upon the mystical literature, namely Kabbalistic and Chasidic texts, and subsequently go on to note a striking change of perspective in the Dirah Betachtonim system.

Cosmology in Earlier Jewish thought

Our senses make us aware of the world of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Our minds introduce us to ideas and emotions. But according to Judaism, neither the world of sensual phenomena, nor the worlds of ideas and emotions represent all there is to reality. It is becoming increasingly evident to the modern mind that the human senses are not the final arbiter of what constitutes reality. Two hundred years ago it was universally held that in a silent room no music exists. Yet given today’s technology, this paradox indeed occurs, in the everyday reality of radio waves inaudible to human ears. Moreover, contemporary science has become increasingly aware that man not only does not know the outer parameters of reality but can never know them. Thus, a popular theme of science fiction is realities other than our own which operate on totally different ground rules, within totally different “operating systems.”

Jewish thinking has long proceeded along similar lines: it recognizes the existence of realities other than our own; but not physical realities—spiritual realities.

In the Bible itself we hear echoes from spheres beyond normal human access. We read of prophecy, of angels, of Heaven. In addition to all we read in Scripture, in the Sages’ writings we learn in considerable detail about life after this mortal life, we hear briefs of discussions from the Heavenly Court, we learn of mystical journeys into higher worlds. Our thinkers through the ages, notably Maimonides, have repeatedly emphasized that all these otherly entities and realms mentioned by Scripture and the Sages are not physical but spiritual. Speech, wings, eyes, as well as all other apparently human characteristics used in relation to heavenly beings, are all allegorical, metaphors. Angels, then, as well as all other similar phenomena, are beings that exist on a plane that spiritually transcends the plane of our existence.

Here an important note is in order. Stating that something is spiritual rather than physical need not detract from its reality. The fact that something is inaccessible to the human senses gives no reason to conclude it is not real (in the common sense of the term). Upon further consideration, we may realize that the opposite is in fact true. Take once again the example of radio waves—in contradistinction to audible sound. The words you utter in your room hardly travel beyond the room, and even traveling that distance takes a relatively long time. On the other hand, one can communicate with people on the moon via radio in a time period as brief as a second or so. In other words, the reality of audible sound, though readily available to the human senses, is restricted to a specific time and place, whereas the reality of inaudible radio waves persists (relatively) through the expansive reaches of time and space.

Or, take a simple abstract concept, 2 + 2 = 4, in contradistinction to a table which can be actually touched. The table can be broken and burned, it does not exist next door, it may not have existed one hundred years ago and in a hundred years time it may well no longer exist. But 2 + 2 = 4 existed one thousand years ago, as it will exist in a thousand years time, as it does on the moon. And it cannot be burned. In other words, the reality of the table is contingent, existing solely at the confluence of favorable conditions of temperature, space, time, etc.—vary the temperature, space or time, and the table is no longer. Whereas the reality of concepts, though imperceptible to human vision and touch, is (in a sense) absolute—existing independently of temperature, space and time, and the changes that occur in them.

What is true of radio waves and concepts is true of the spiritual worlds of which Jewish literature speaks (with relevant differences, of course). Their not being material does not detract from their reality; to the contrary, it makes for a more encompassing and persistent reality.

Spiritual and Physical Worlds

In the mystical literature, that is, in Kabbalistic and Chasidic texts, we are introduced to the topography, as it were, of the spiritual realities. We learn that, in general, all of reality is divided into four worlds. Each world, in turn, is made up of ten spheres. In greater detail, we are told, there are infinite numbers of worlds emanating from G‑d.

Since these worlds are spiritual, transcending time and space, spatial boundaries are meaningless. What, then, sets one world apart from another? Much as 2 + 2 = 4 is distinct from 3 x 3 = 9 in terms of their conceptual parameters, though spatial and temporal differences are immaterial, spiritual realities are similarly set apart by their respective spiritual parameters. Each world represents the embodiment of a particular spiritual characteristic. For example, one world is described as a “nest” for G‑d’s wisdom, another for His emotions. The worlds are also set apart in terms of their relative proximity or distance, as it were, from G‑d: each emanating world is progressively lower, less abstract and spiritual, embodying a lesser and lower manifestation of G‑d; each is less G‑d-aware than the former.

Where does our own reality fit into all of this? At the very bottom of the chain of worlds, where G‑dliness is totally obscured—our finite, physical reality eventually emerges. Here, no Divine wisdom or love permeate the atmosphere, the glory of G‑d has now totally disappeared; indeed, G‑d may appear altogether irrelevant in a world which seems to proceed independently, by its own G‑dforsaken rules.

The Emphasis of Jewish Mystical Cosmology

Let us stop for a moment to take in the emphasis of this multi-world cosmology. To what is attention drawn in these classic mystical descriptions of various realities? Doubtless, to the higher worlds, the worlds where the glory of G‑d is truly manifest. The didactic purpose of the discussions in the mystical texts is, in fact, to impress upon the human that no matter how natural his world seems, no matter how hard, fast and immutable it may appear to him, there exist higher, nobler, spiritual, worlds; that in fact, in the broader scheme of things, the human’s world with its pervasive physicality is quite an aberration. And hence, the human ought to strive to identify with those higher realities, to live a life that has meaning vis-à-vis the more spiritual, truer, worlds; even to try to transcend his own reality and tune in, as it were, to those lofty stations.

Time and again, throughout the literature, whether in the words of the Talmudic sages or of later mystics, the higher realities are lauded and our reality is played down. Time and again our world is contrasted with higher worlds to underscore the great value of those realms and the little import of our own.

As we have noted, what sets various worlds apart from each other is their relative awareness of G‑d—and our reality is that to which virtually no G‑dliness filters through. According to the mystical literature, a series of contractions and hidings of G‑d’s light occurs, as it were, as the Divine creative energy chains downwards, culminating in a major parsa, or “curtain,” separating this reality from all that is higher than it. This world is physical. It is finite. It is mundane. This is a world, we read, which is almost entirely bad, in which evil prospers and suffering abounds1; a world in which G‑d can be totally overlooked. The Divine presence cries, as it were, over its imprisonment in this reality—in “this lowly world, beneath which there is no lower2.”

Dirah Betachtonim Cosmology

Enters Dirah Betachtonim and all this is, as it were, turned upside down. This lowly world, maintains Dirah Betachtonim, indeed specifically “this lowly world, beneath which there is no lower,” is the most remarkable of all the worlds. It is specifically here that G‑d desired a dirah, a dwelling place. No need to transcend this world! It is here, here as nowhere else, that the human can fulfill his true spiritual potential, it is specifically here that the deepest recesses of the Divine can be reached.

True, argues Dirah Betachtonim, this world is not evidently G‑dly, but the G‑dliness available here is of greater quality than in all the spiritual worlds: for G‑d is not merely evident here, here He is.

True, in the higher worlds, G‑dliness is manifest. But what is the nature of the G‑dliness at those lofty stations? Wisdom and Knowledge; Awe and Splendor. One world is a “nest” for G‑d’s wisdom, another for His emotions; angels quiver in the love and awe of G‑d. But as we have seen earlier, all of these are not the Essence of G‑d; they are His manifestations, merely G‑dly qualities. It is specifically in our world which makes no G‑dly “statement,” where the essence prevails.

In fact, in higher realities where Divine majesty and awe are evident, where Divine qualities and characteristics—such as Wisdom, Love or Omnipotence—are manifest, the very Being of G‑d is overlooked. As it were, the “adjectives” hide the “noun” they describe. Where Divine meaning and significance are prominent, the fact that things exist goes unnoticed; where superimpositions, characteristics of the essence, are at the forefront, the essence itself is not seen. Thus, the most fundamental dimension of reality as well as the most fundamental dimension of G‑d—Essence—is ignored in the higher realms. Whereas in our physical reality which is devoid of all manifestations of G‑d, in our mundane world which represents nothing of metaphysical significance, in this lowly world which is bare of all Divine expressions and characteristics—the sole relationship with G‑d is that of the naked essence of reality with the unembellished, untainted Essence of G‑d.

Here, then, maintains Dirah Betachtonim, yes, our “lowly world, beneath which there is no lower,” is in fact the most remarkable of all worlds—the arena in which the most profound dimension of reality relates to the deepest recesses of the Divine.

Dirah Betachtonim, then, does not ignore normative mystical cosmology. The Dirah Betachtonim literature perpetually makes explicit reference to concepts such as those outlined earlier in this chapter concerning the greatness of other realities and the lowliness of our own, and its perspectives develop conceptually within the same metaphysical mappings of reality. But it asks us to go a step further, to look not merely at appearances, expressions, characteristics or values, but to probe the essence, the very being of reality. And in that realm, where being is of significance, rather than being something, it is this reality that assumes the greatest metaphysical value.

This system continues to highlight that in terms of spiritual significance this world is the lowest, that in terms of religious meaning this world is even obnoxious. There is however, maintains Dirah Betachtonim, a plane where significance and meaning are transcended—where this world alone manifests naked being, merged with the pure Being of G‑d. In higher realities it is G‑d’s glory, here it is His Essence; in higher worlds G‑d is manifest, here He is.

See Tanya, chapters 6 and 7.
A common expression in Chasidic literature, based on Tanya Chapter 36.
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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