Reconstructing the Great Chain

© Natalia Kadish
© Natalia Kadish

The man of simple faith had always believed that the G‑d to whom he prayed was to be found in the plainest details of daily life. The philosophers had always found that preposterous. If G‑d was the Primal Cause, He was to be found at the top of a Great Chain, infinitely distant from the mundanities of earthly life.

Now Rabbi Schneur Zalman had gone back, re-examined the dynamics of creating a world out of nothing, and demonstrated that the simple man’s view was indeed more rational than the philosopher’s. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, G‑d was everywhere, in everything. For if He would withdraw His presence for but a moment, “everything would cease to exist, as though it had never been.”1

And what of the Great Chain? The new paradigm would seem to have it on the chopping block—quite apropos to a time when royal heads were rolling in the streets of Paris and the populace were demanding equality for all. So too here, if G‑d was to be found in everything and everywhere, which way was up and which was down—if any such concept could be said to exist at all?

But on the contrary, R. Schneur Zalman fortified it instead. Its dynamics and processes were the stuff from which his discourses to his students were made. Only the prime position of the Creator at the head of the chain was adjusted.No longer was the Creator found at the top, aloof from everyday life, but within every link of the chain. No longer was He found only at the very top, tipping the first domino of the cosmic order. Rather, now He stood at every degree along the way, creating each step in such a fashion that it followed the one before, like cars of a very long train, following one another, yet not by a hitch between them, but by the direction of a master engineer, driving them all in neat coordination.

In this way, the chain became all the more wondrous, all the more meaningful. On the chain, “higher” no longer meant “closer to G‑d.” It simply meant arriving at a plane where G‑d’s presence was more apparent. “Lower” meant G‑d’s presence was less apparent. More apparent, less apparent—but there, in all His essence, in every stage. One could even say—as R. Schneur Zalman began to state more and more in his later years—that the essence of G‑d is more accessible at the bottom of the chain, where the light of His presence does not distract from the essence.

This is true genius, to break the chain yet keep it whole.

As it turned out, the chain could be broken yet remain whole.

The Bridge Builders

In my preface, I discussed the term coined by Thomas Kuhn: the paradigm shift. Once the shift is made, Kuhn asserted, its adherents are incapable of looking back and seeing how anyone ever thought otherwise. Certainly that seems to have occurred here as well. Today, even those Jews who have never read the Tanya seem to believe that Jewish philosophy always had G‑d everywhere and in everything.

Yet, in those paradigm shifts that have caused true progress, there has always been some genius who was able to bridge the two paradigms, adroitly demonstrating how one was truly rooted in the other, and no conflict truly exists—while simultaneously breaking open a radical new future.

Here’s an example for you: When problems in the study of electromagnetic energy had reached a crisis point at the end of the nineteenth century, it was obvious that something had to dramatically change. The genius of a young patent clerk by the name of Albert Einstein was not so much in providing the new paradigm, as in providing it in such a way that the old Newtonian paradigm could be preserved. Relativity is a key element to understanding our universe, yet as a scientific theory, it a special case, applicable under special circumstances. Relativity itself explains why that is so.

Genius does not simply create new paradigms, it bridges them.

As with R. Schneur Zalman, it is doubtful that Einstein’s ideas could ever have been accepted had he presented it otherwise. The power of science, after all, and its distinguishing mark from philosophy, is that it is accumulative—it builds upon established truths, rather than forever spinning circles in the sand, as philosophy had done for ages. Einstein is today considered by many the greatest scientist to have lived, not so much for standing at the vanguard of the new physics, as for ensuring that science would continue to build upon past wisdom even as it forged bravely into strange new worlds.

Has anyone bridged the shift from Aristotle to Galileo? To a degree, Kuhn himself did just that. I suppose we’re still waiting for brave new thinkers to take it all the way.

Jewish Paradigm Shifts

I’ll provide another example: Moses. His people left one paradigm behind to establish a new one. In Egypt, they were the Children of Israel, a family of tribes, distinguished in their heritage from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were defined by family ties, and by a common narrative that established religious belief and identity. But now they were on their way to become a sovereign nation, establishing a territorial identity with a state and a king. Moses bridged the two paradigms, preserving the ancient heritage and carrying it into the new, by means of a covenant at Sinai. (I discussed this more at length in When History Began.)

When the Jewish People were forced to leave their land, and then to live as a vassal state within a new world of empires, tradition tells that it was the Men of the Great Assembly who established set prayers and rituals to hold the people together, also effectively bridging the paradigms of two worlds.

The greatest paradigm shift of Jewish history—something comparable to the Industrial Revolution for Europe—was undoubtedly close to two millennia ago. With the destruction of Jerusalem in the Roman era, Jews shifted from a principally agrarian society to a mercantile society. All the evidence points to a society where 80–90 percent of all Jews were farmers at the time of the Second Commonwealth, and that only about 10–20 percent of Jews were farmers a thousand years later. No other ethnic group underwent this same kind of occupational shift. It’s something similar to what happened to Europe and America in the nineteenth century, and is continuing to occur in Asia today. How did Jews preserve a Torah focused upon the obligations of the Promised Land and the Temple rites, while transitioning to a mobile lifestyle, spread over the four corners of the earth, focused on moving capital and creating value out of trade?

Historically, Jews have traversed many paradigms, while keeping them all on a single continuum.

The answer is accessible to anyone who has studied the Mishnah and the Talmud. As the Bible provided a bridge for the ancient Hebrews from the patriarchal era to sovereign monarchy, so the Talmud provided a bridge over the chasm of history from a landed agrarian society to a mercantile society on ever-shifting ground. Many biblical institutions were well-suited for a landed people with stable inheritances of orchards, fields and flocks, but shackled a society built around fluid capital. The sages of the Talmud found ways to not only preserve those institutions, but make them into a benefit rather than a hindrance.

The prohibition against the charging of interest comes first to mind. When this was principally a matter of lending seed to a neighboring farmer, it was an important institution to ensure a sustainable, landed community. When buying and selling merchandise, it made no sense at all. The elders instituted a heter iska—a form of partnership that introduced the idea of investing in another person’s business ventures, thereby jumping forward while preserving the Biblical law—indeed, due to efforts to preserve that law.

And here again, through R. Schneur Zalman’s ideas, the Great Chain gained new, deeper meaning. Such is the power of truly constructive thought: as in a well-planned city, or a smartly renovated home, every new addition adds value to that which it builds upon. Indeed, this has been the signature pattern of Jewish tradition throughout history, the divine hand from beyond time that guides our destiny, creating history by transcending its borders.

Rejecting Absurdity

Now back to the story:

The tables now turned, the problem remained: So a perfect Creator is generating every detail of an imperfect, finite, fractured world. It must be so, for if not, nothing could be. So why, then, is He not affected? How does He remain a oneness while found in multiplicity? How does He remain atemporal while generating each increment of time?

The simple solution would be to say, “He’s G‑d. He can do what He wants. He can do anything. He can be found within many and remain one.”

Why not just say that G‑d can do anything?

The Zohar could be mustered for support: “He rules over all, but none rule over Him. He grasps all, but none grasp Him.”2A cryptic phrase, and as the mystics say, “He who understands will understand.” As the Zohar also asserts, “Concealed beyond all concealments, no thought can possibly grasp You.”3

True, philosophers wouldn’t like that. Even Jewish philosophers who had challenged the classic premises of Aristotle had openly rejected the idea of a paradox within G‑d. R. Schneur Zalman could argue with that, as had Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, “Maharal of Prague,” over two centuries earlier. As a Creator, G‑d had created logic itself, including the binary notion of yes and no. Why should He not be permitted to disregard His own fictions?

Indeed, for that the Talmud itself could be brought as evidence. In a description of the chamber of King Solomon’s Temple that held the Holy Ark of the Covenant, the Talmud asserts, “The space of the ark is not measured.”4

Meaning: From the northern wall of the chamber to the side of the ark was 10 cubits. From the other side of the ark to the southern wall of the chamber was 10 cubits. The ark itself measured 2½ cubits by 1½ cubits. Yet from one wall to the other measured not 22½, but exactly 20 cubits. The ark both occupied space and did not occupy space. If the Talmudic sages had no problem with that paradox, why would they have a problem with an unchanging G‑d occupied with change?

But there was a more essential reason for R. Schneur Zalman not to take that route. He was not interested in intellectual games. His goal was not the mind at all, but the heart. And the only way to reach that heart, as he had taught, was through clarity of mind.

The goal was not simply to answer, but to achieve a clarity that would affect the heart as well.

R. Schneur Zalman was the first to agree that the mysteries of the Creator could never fit into the puny mind of the created, as Maharal had written clearly, and as Maimonides as well admitted. But He had allowed us some understanding, enough that we could come to revere and adore Him. If the understanding of G‑d is only superficial, R. Schneur Zalman believed, the reverence and adoration is nothing more than a fantasy. The path to G‑dly service demanded more than mystical epithets, allusions and riddles. It demanded depth.

A great irony appears: If no thought could have any grasp whatsoever of G‑d’s workings, then there is a place where G‑d is not—within the realm of thought. The ultimate unmystic, R. Schneur Zalman set out to suffuse that last frontier with G‑dliness—the frigid frontier of mind.

Next installment: Ray 001, Where Are You?