In the beginning, there was simple faith. The words of David’s psalms had long sung sweetly to the Jewish heart:

Where shall I go from Your spirit, and where shall I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to the heavens, there You are, and if I make my bed in the grave, behold, You are there.

If I take up the wings of dawn, if I dwell at the end of the west, there too, Your hand will lead me and Your right hand will grasp me.1

In every facet of life and in every detail of nature, David saw G‑d’s spirit:

He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, causes the mountains to sprout grass. He provides the animal its food, to the fledgling ravens that for which they cry.2

The rabbis of the Talmud echoed his sentiments when they said, “No one so much as stubs his toe if it is not decreed from above.”3 They also said, “All that G‑d has created in His world, He has made only for His glory.”4

The Jew of simple faith read those words and took them at face value: No matter how far I stray, even should I try to hide from G‑d, to “flee from His presence,” He is there with me nonetheless, leading me, grasping me. The Jew prayed to G‑d with innocent faith that as great as He was, He was also taking care that the children should be healthy, that the cow give milk, that the soup should not burn, and anything else that might be included in a simple Jew’s prayers.

Indeed, this appears to be the entire thrust of biblical thought, as Nachmanides writes in his preface to the Book of Genesis: to reveal G‑d within history, and within all human endeavor. The G‑d of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses was involved in human affairs,

It was not the heart of the Jew, but the mind of the philosopher that could not find place for such notions.

It was not the Jewish heart, but the minds of Jewish philosophers, that could not find place for a lofty G‑d inside such a lowly world. In the approximately 1500 years that Greek philosophy dominated the thinking mind west of the Indus, logic forced them to reinterpret these passages. To some haughty individuals who considered themselves students of these philosophers, the prayer of the simple Jew appeared puerile and foolish.

What exactly was the problem, rationally speaking? What was so terrible about letting G‑d into a direct relationship with the creatures and His universe? And what was it that the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples introduced that resolved that issue?

The Great Chain

Wherever you may travel amongst men and history, wherever human beings attempted to fathom the realm of the spirit, a Great Chain of Being rules supreme. Space has its geography; time has its cycle of seasons; so too was it universally understood that for our world to emerge into being there must be a chain of descent downward, from the ideal of eternal stillness to the netherworlds of the physical realm, all the way down to a world of corrupt forms, decay and darkness—and in this ontology there must also be structure and form.

One form of this great chain is presented in the paradigm of intellectual thought we today call Neoplatonism. To Arab, Jewish and Christian thinkers alike, it was called simply philosophia—the one way of thinking about anything, if you were going to think. Certainly, there was plenty of room for creativity, originality, and even dissension within the parameters of Neoplatonic thought. But basic assumptions remained unchallenged. Indeed, no one thought of them as assumptions, but rather, as obvious, self-evident facts.

The Great Chain of Being was one of those self-evident facts. Everything that existed emerged through cause and effect—higher worlds, lower worlds and the angels and souls that populated those worlds, all lay on a single continuum, neatly bumping its way down along a plane of antecedent and consequent, this-therefore-that. G‑d also fit tidily into this logarithm of events, at the very top, with the supreme title of Primal Cause—not necessarily where the buck ends, but certainly where it starts.

You’ll find the Great Chain inextricable from Western thought all the way until the social revolutions that began in the mid-seventeenth century. Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz take it as an assumption of fact; even the pantheists were unable to break loose from its spell. Eventually, the idea met its complete demise as the steamroller of nineteenth-century materialism flattened everything to measurable phenomena.

The Great Chain put the ultimate Mind at the very top, and the non-philosopher quite near the bottom.

So much could be explained within this model, so elegantly and so masterfully—and incidentally, much to the convenience of the philosophers who engaged in its pondering. Along the domino-line of cause and effect, the physical, mundane world lay at the very ground level—a dismal place for all but the philosopher, who cleverly abandoned all worldly matters to direct his mind a notch higher towards the world of thought. Intellect lay beyond Emotion—and so intellectuals were obviously superior to those driven by their passions. G‑d Himself was seen as the ultimate Primal Mind—there was nothing beyond. Kings and their nobility, as well, were able to justify their dominion over the masses as a form of imitatio dei, the lower world reflecting within itself the entire chain.

Locked Out

Yet here arose a problem:

What Newton was later to state in terms of physical motion was already well grasped in a metaphysical sense by the philosophers: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nothing can cause an event without being commensurately impacted by that event.

Intuitively, since this is such a prevalent condition in our experience, it seemed it would also have to include G‑d, the primal cause of all things. He too must be affected by the existence that He causes. But G‑d, to be sitting at the top, must be the ultimate in all things—beyond time, beyond space, beyond any sort of duality or number. How could this G‑d be causing the constant stream of life and death, movement and change, the multifarious universe that never rests, while simultaneously remaining an unchanging, eternal, perfect, simple oneness?

There was only one solution: to lock G‑d out of His own universe. He could sit up there, “knowing all that is through knowledge of His own self,” in a realm in which nothing else truly exists—other than that circular knowledge of His self. Allowances might be made for Him to be found in those realms which are as eternal and unchanging as His own transcendent being—even those of the planets, the stars, their constellations and orbits—for these were also considered to be locked into eternal, unchanging harmonious motion.

But this lowly realm where life is born, decays and then dies; nations fight wars, win and then lose; where commoners go about their daily business to eke out a morsel of bread, just as animals seek their prey in the forest; in this world so removed from the ideal of stillness and oneness—here, G‑d could have no interest, no involvement, no place whatsoever. It was unimaginable—how could He remain supreme while supervising the spider in its web, the rain in its cloud, the peasant and his plowing ox? He would know of this world—as we said, “through knowledge of Himself”—since, from His own self, all things arose. In that knowledge, all things were one, past, present and future, in perfect, harmonious stillness. But He could not be involved, reacting in any way, tangibly found in any sense that might lend this world significance. He could not be found within the experience of common human space. Indeed, within His reality, all of this is but a fleeting mirage.

G‑d then, became less of a mechanical force and something more like the sun that sits high up there doing its shining thing, oblivious to any effect its warm rays of light may have upon the chlorophyll of our world.

How, then did this-worldly space arise? How did multiplicity arise from oneness, change from stillness, form from formlessness?

The Great Chain was elegant, enabling, empowering and explained everything—almost.

Where there is a philosophical will, there is a philosophical way. The descent of light could be held to blame; just as light decreases in intensity as it radiates from its source, degrades in purity as it passes through the earth’s atmosphere, degrading yet further as it passes through many windows or is reflected off many media in its journey, so too G‑d’s emanations degraded as they extended all the way to this lowly world.

The “primal substance” from which all things but G‑d were formed could be held to blame, for many held that it was eternal as G‑d was eternal—and even if not, “substance” was a good scapegoat for all corruption along the chain.

Who, then, supervised the lowly realms? One philosopher might answer, “Nothing at all.” As the prophet decries, “They say G‑d has abandoned the earth and G‑d does not see us!”5 Another would discuss the supervising powers of the constellations, ministering angels, or—in the case of pagan philosophers—the pantheon of gods. As the sages of the Talmud point out, the polytheists never denied the existence of a Supreme Deity—they simply called Him “G‑d of the gods.”6 Whatever the intellectual cost, G‑d in all His glory must be kept out of this place.

The Jewish philosopher (or the Muslim or Christian, for that matter) had to struggle hard within the established paradigm to explain his beliefs. All these beliefs, after all, rest upon a doctrine of divine reward and retribution. If G‑d is not supervising, how could He punish or reward?

Maimonides, the indisputable prime master of philosophy for Jews, whose teachings deeply influenced Christian and Muslim thought as well, asserted that G‑d’s involvement extended beyond the realm of the stars and planets, and down into the realm of humankind.7 Yet, even then, it was only to those members of humankind who were drawn to His sublime will and bonded themselves in that way to His oneness. Indeed, it was not so much a matter of G‑d reaching down as humanity reaching upward. The Supreme Being remained in His supreme place; those who chose to come closer to Him became as the stars and the heavenly beings, touching the realm of the eternal and unchanging.

In Maimonides' thought, providence was less a matter of the Creator's concern and more a matter of the created's cleaving to Him.

Within Maimonides’ school of thought, the idea of G‑d concerning Himself with the banalities of human everyday pursuits was about as distant as His supervising a spider eating a fly. G‑d’s desire, indeed, was expressed in these matters as well—His desire that they proceed by chance and by their own natures by which He had them designed. Otherwise, His providence extended only to “general species,” since these were considered also to be everlasting.

This opinion, with varied nuances, remained that of virtually all major authors of philosophical works, until the time of the Baal Shem Tov.

The anonymous author of the Sefer Ha-Chinuch, a century later, writes, “There are sects among humankind who maintain that G‑d’s providence controls all the matters of this world . . . that when a leaf falls from a tree, He decreed that it would fall . . . This approach is far removed from reason.”8

Rabbi Yosef Albo, in his influential Sefer Ha-Ikarim (fifteenth-century Spain), writes in the same vein:

We are forced to say that His knowledge encompasses every entity found in the world and every event that takes place. Nothing, neither small nor great, is beyond Him.

Nevertheless, He does not watch over animals to grant them reward or punishment for their deeds. Rather, He watches over their particulars only as much as they are part of a greater whole, protecting the species from extinction, but nothing beyond that.9

Neither did the Kabbalists who broke with the Aristotelian axioms free themselves of these same notions. Rabbi Yosef Ergas (late seventeenth century) sums up their views near the end of his popular work, Shomer Emunim:

Nothing occurs by accident. Nothing occurs without a divine intent and without divine supervision. This we can see from the verse, “So I will treat them haphazardly.” The implication is that even the modality of haphazard events is to be traced back to Him, may He be blessed. For all is from Him, as He supervises every detail.

At first, this seems to break from the view of the philosophers presented above. But then we find ourselves disappointed:

The specifics of this supervision, however . . . as I have found in the literature of the Kabbalists, especially in Sefer Elimah (of Rabbi Moses Cordovero) . . . the creatures in this world for which reward and punishment is not relevant, these being the three classes of animals, plants and inert matter . . . these are supervised by the supernal officers appointed over each species . . . who direct the species as a whole. However, detailed supervision—for instance, whether a particular ox should live or die—the supernal officer does not have the capacity to deal with this.

So all the animals—and obviously, the plants and inert matter as well—are not supervised to such a fine degree, since whatever is intended to be achieved through them can be achieved by supervising their species as a whole. There is simply no need to supervise each individual.

Therefore, whatever happens with each individual of these classes is entirely haphazard and not by divine decree—unless somehow this would affect the supervision of a human being.

. . . So it cannot be said that G‑d decrees upon the fish, for example, that they should die or live . . . Rather, He decrees upon a person how this person should receive his sustenance . . . Along the same lines, the supervision of a human being touches upon his animals. For example, whether his ox should fatten . . . whether his jug should shatter . . .10

Yes, G‑d’s providence extends to all things. To some, it extends directly—those that are close to Him. To others, it extends only as they are a detail in the whole. And to those details, G‑d’s providence comes in the form of “haphazardness”—meaning, His desire that these events should occur by laws of nature and chance, somewhat as a programmer may write a random function to guide events in an electronic game.

Or as one medieval commentator wrote,11 certain factors “are not in the hands of heaven, because G‑d does not desire to change the course of nature.”

Which sums up as: His providence is everywhere—in some way or other. But He—meaning His being, His presence, G‑d Himself—remains mostly out of the picture.

Could the Creator be let back into His creation without breaking the chain that had kept Him out?

And now comes along the Baal Shem Tov and declares G‑d immediately accessible to every man, woman and child; that the pirouettes of a leaf falling from a tree, every turn and every nuance, is directly guided by the hand of G‑d—how much more so the events of the everyman’s everyday life. Just as the simple words of the Psalms imply.

Yet the Baal Shem Tov was not speaking to the simple man of faith alone. He spoke to great scholars, as he was their teacher. He couched his thoughts within the dialectic of the Lurianic Kabbalah that was the scholarly vogue of those times. Something new was in the air. The great chain of being was rattling, posed to snap.


Next installment: Plugged Back In.