In the first installment of this series, I was pondering why I can’t put my hand through the table, walk through the wall, or fall through planet Earth. After all, everything is made of mostly empty space.

The answer was provided by Wolfgang Pauli, who discovered a fundamental principle in quantum physics, known as the exclusion principle, which has a lot of similarities to baseball. Basically, the exclusion principle grants every particle of matter exclusive rights over its quantum state, just like the rules of baseball grant each player an exclusive role on the diamond. Merging two chunks of matter into the same space would inevitably involve many violations of those exclusivity rights—something like bringing two teams onto the same diamond. And so, it can’t happen.

I found a simile to this in halachah—since everything that exists in the world first exists in Torah. Every letter in a Torah scroll must be surrounded by white space, or else that Torah is not whole. Diversity is essential to wholeness. The same with the roles allotted to kohanim and levi’im in the Temple.

Pauli thought of the universe as a single, deep psyche. But how does a psyche become tangible stuff?

I noted that Pauli himself was mystified by all this (along with all the rest of quantum physics), as were many of his colleagues. How does every particle know its state and the state of every other particle in the universe? Pauli thought of the universe as a single, rather large, deep psyche. But even then, how does a psyche become tangible stuff?

To attempt to answer that, let’s first take a step back:

Does Matter Matter?

What does the exclusion principle really tell us that we didn’t already know? We all know that matter occupies space to the exclusivity of other matter. Now we’re just generalizing that, and expanding its scope somewhat. We’re saying that all of matter’s particles occupy a quantum state to the exclusivity of all others. What difference does it make, conceptually?

It makes a big difference. It means our world is not a hodgepodge world of many different things that somehow work together. Rather, the very diversity of the universe is itself dictated by a single principle.

In Do Jews Believe In Nature? I discussed the paradigm shift from the ancient idea of nature to our modern conception. The ancient Greeks thought of nature as the innate properties of each thing. In that way, their philosophy never left behind its polytheistic roots; the view of the universe they constructed always remained fractured, a universe built of bits and pieces. But modern science starts from the top down, considering universal laws or patterns. Newton et al began by considering G‑d’s creation to be a universe, a singularity—and so they discover it to be so.

Matter remains an exception. Matter is one ancient conception we cling to in desperation, as though releasing our grasp would drop our entire reality into a vast cosmic shredder. When it comes to matter, we continue thinking like Aristotle, even as we do science like Newton.

When it comes to matter, we continue thinking like Aristotle, even as we do science like Newton.

The Greeks took for granted that the world was made of some sort of stuff, though they weren’t quite sure whether it was water, air, fire or atoms. Aristotle finally gave matter its own name, hyle, which literally meant “a raw hunk of wood.” Together with some sort of form, matter had substance. Substance meant that it extended outward—meaning it takes up space.

Aristotle also held that this hyle was eternal. Maimonides famously dissented with that notion, and Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 13th century) wrote in his classic commentary on Genesis that hyle was the first creation—“and the earth was tohu and bohu”—tohu referring to hyle.

Whatever the stuff was and wherever it came from, nobody in the West questioned the basic proposition for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Irishman George Berkeley (pronounced Barklee, 1685–1753) proposed to trash the entire notion. Berkeley’s investigations into perception and illusion led him to believe that matter is nothing more than a subjective experience. The true reality, he claimed, is nothing but G‑d’s ideas. He didn’t deny that individual things exist. Apples, rocks, wind and water—these exist, he said, because they are ideas of the divine mind. The stuff we call matter, however, is nothing more than a construct, an epiphenomenon of the human mind.

Mostly, the notion was rejected offhand. Samuel Johnson responded by exclaiming, “I refute it thus!” while kicking a rock. No, I’m not sure I get that either. But the tangibility of matter, it seems, is so central an experience to the human subject that it renders it almost impervious to question. Berkeley’s “immaterialism,” as he called it (or “subjective idealism,” as others later referred to it), was most notable by the reaction it spurred. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century, two hundred years after his death, that a new generation of spiritual seekers found resonance in his view of reality.

Yet in a very different world a strikingly similar idea arose, and was embraced and developed over the generations.

Conservation of Matter

Kabbalists are principally concerned with what is going on in worlds beyond our own; R. Schneur Zalman’s principal concern is the material world here and now.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi established the Chabad school in the latter half of the 18th century, when Jewish theology was still mostly couched in Kabbalistic terms. But R. Schneur Zalman’s Kabbalah is different. Kabbalists are principally concerned with what is going on in worlds beyond our own, how our actions affect those worlds, and how to experience their supernal bliss. Rabbi Schneur Zalman discusses those matters as well, and in great detail. But his principal concern is not any higher world—it’s the material world here and now. Similarly, when it comes to theology, the concern of Rabbi Schneur Zalman is not “how do we know there is a G‑d?” but “how is it possible that there is a world?” Although firmly steeped in an ancient, living forest of tradition, in more ways than one R. Schneur Zalman’s thinking sits firmly within modernity.

I have no evidence that R. Schneur Zalman ever saw Berkeley’s work or heard discussion of it.1 But I do find it notable that his definitive treatment of the subject was delivered in a talk2 in 1810—exactly one hundred years after Berkeley had published his ideas on subjective reality for the first time.

Of course, there is a vast distinction: Berkeley, writing as a scholar of the Enlightenment, did not feel bound to a legacy of received wisdom. It sounds strange, but R. Schneur Zalman, as progressive and radical as he might have been, always remained nevertheless a traditionalist.

The same with that talk in 1810: Rather than introduce a new idea, he demonstrates how all that the philosophers troubled over and the Kabbalists described in mystic terms can be found in the simple words of the book of Genesis—and from there they are illuminated. Once you realize the concepts those words present, everything else becomes utterly transformed.

Everything Matters

R. Schneur Zalman had explored the concept of matter in great depth beforehand, but it’s in this discussion that he shifts the terminology. Since Plato and Aristotle, the terminology of philosophers was “form and matter,” of which all reality is composed. Form includes the shape, the properties and the nature of each thing. Matter is that which takes form—you could say, the “isness” of the thing.

In the Hebrew Bible, there seems to be no concept of stuff being made of anything at all.

But, just as there is no biblical word for “nature,” so there is no word for “matter” or “stuff.” In the Hebrew Bible, there seems to be no concept of stuff being made of anything at all. Everything exists because the Creator says it exists. “And G‑d said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.”3 “With the word of G‑d, the heavens were made.”4

That’s one Hebrew paradigm, and so, the word for “thing” is most often davar—which literally means “word.” But there’s another paradigm in the Hebrew Bible: Everything exists because G‑d wants it to exist. “All that He desired, G‑d made, in the heavens and the earth.”5 And so, in post-scriptural, Mishnaic Hebrew, an object is called a chefetz,6 meaning “a desire.”7

So, R. Schneur Zalman takes these two notions—desire and speech—and employs them to demystify form and matter.

Form, he says, is an artifact of the Creator’s desire. “Nothing is beyond pleasure,” says the Book of Formation. Before the desire to take pleasure in a created world, there is nothing, not even a concept or even a possibility of form, for all begins with a choice to desire. Not a choice obligated by any need or inclination—for that too would imply some precedent of form. It would imply that “because the Creator was this way and not that way, therefore he desired this and not that.” But no, the Creator has no way of being. The Creator simply is. And so, His choice has no precedent, no cause. It is an absolute choice. A choice that there will be desire.

Desire, pleasure—these imply diversity. There is no pleasure in uniformity. Why? Because the primal desire of all desires was the desire for a multifarious world, a world of constant change, of opposites and counterpoints, of tension and resolution, of fire and water, snow and smoke, crystals and vapor, order and chaos, of one becoming many and many becoming one, of no two instances of time or space alike. All delight that ever existed originates in that primal seed of desire, and therefore all delight is in diversity and novelty.

The form of each thing is its conception in the Creator’s will and wisdom. Much as Berkeley wrote, things are divine ideas.

Once there is desire, there is conception. Conception is the funnel through which desire is translated into ideas. In the language of the Kabbalah, desire is keter, the crown; conception is chochmah, wisdom. “How diverse are your works, O G‑d,” sings David; “all of them You made with wisdom.”8

Wisdom is where the parameters of this diverse universe are conceived. Like the artist’s flash of inspiration, the genius’s “I got it!”—not yet articulated, not yet fully grasped—more like a lightning bolt provides vision on a dark night, revealing an entire landscape in utter clarity, if but for a fraction of a moment. So too, when desire conceives wisdom, endless diversity condenses into a single point.

From that point a universe bursts forth, through the medium of the other sefirot, into its multitudinous forms and functions, always retaining that harmony and elegance of wholeness achieved in wisdom.

Which means that the form of each thing—that which makes one an apple, another a crocodile, yet another a massive fiery ball of hydrogen and helium—is its conception in the Creator’s will and wisdom. Much as Berkeley wrote, things are divine ideas.

Matter of Speech

Matter, however, is something quite different. Matter is an artifact of speech. Here, R. Schneur Zalman breaks ground that Berkeley did not enter—ironically, through the aid of tradition. And by doing so, he resolves much of the criticism Berkeley received. By connecting matter to divine speech, rather than ideas, he is able to explain why matter seems so darned real.

Speech, R. Schneur Zalman says, is tsimtsum—the process by which the Creator goes into hiding,so to speak, to allow a context for creation. Matter is an artifact of the Creator’s lack of presence.

What does speech have to do with hiding? In other talks and writings, the connection between the two becomes clearer.

Funny thing about speech: it requires someone else to speak to. Sitting on your own, you can think, you can emote, you can act—you can be a complete human being. There’s just one thing that’s rendered superfluous, and that’s speaking. Speech implies an other—a being who is not you, in whose self you are not present.

Speech, after all means a lot more than vibrating vocal cords and mouthing sculptured sound waves. Yes, you can do that on your own. But you’re not really speaking in the full sense of the word unless there’s someone else to hear. Human speech and language is principally about hearing—hearing yourself from within the ears of another. One who cannot hear how he sounds from within another person’s mind cannot really be said to be speaking.

What if there is no other around to speak to? Well, if you’re one of us mortals, you can always put some coconut hair on a volleyball and speak to it. But if you’re the Creator, then you can create a bona fide, full-blown other all your own. How? By removing any sense of your presence from a conceptual space and speaking to a conceptual being within that space. By tsimtsum.

That’s exactly what speech means for the Creator: creating a space of otherness, and hearing Himself from there. For us, there must be someone else there before we can speak. For Him, otherness is created by implication. If G‑d is speaking, there must be others.

When we say “G‑d spoke,” we’re saying that He created a subjective experience of His ideas.

So when we say “G‑d spoke,” we’re saying that He created a subjective experience of His ideas.9 He created a world of otherness, a place of beings that perceive themselves as autonomous entities, and therefore walk around inside all these ideas perceiving them as well as autonomous things. In other words, as matter.

If we overcome that subjectivity and cease to sense ourselves as others, there could be no sense of matter, or of space or time. All would be a singularity, that single flash of an idea before it has been fleshed out and articulated, as a single point in simple, pure oneness, and yet higher, as a quiet yen, hidden and unknown, the absolute desire of He who is beyond infinite.

As R. Schneur Zalman had already written many years earlier:10

Why does every created phenomenon appears to us as a tangible something? Only because our physical eyes cannot perceive the G‑dly force . . . within that created phenomenon. If, however, the eye would be allowed to perceive this energy . . . we would no longer perceive the physicality of any created being. Its existence would be absorbed and annulled within the context of the energy running through it.

What is that energy? Now, years later, R. Schneur Zalman tells us, it is divine desire translated into divine wisdom translated into divine articulations we call words of speech. Desire, wisdom, speech. Basically, a story is being told.

The Creator invents a world that tells a story, and then generates beings that will perceive it for Him. The purpose of the story is not to be a story, and the point of having those other-like beings is not so they should remain others. The story has meaning; the beings have purpose. The purpose of the beings (us) is to discover the meaning of the story (our world), and thereby to reveal the Storyteller within it (real soon).

That is the ultimate desire of the desire—that the Creator’s essence be found in His story. And that is the whole matter of matter: It is nothing more than the Creator allowing us to experience His thoughts from the inside. It is the divine, in tangible form.

Not So Fast!

As for our story—the one I’m writing here—it’s not yet over. As I’ve left matters, you might think that material reality is entirely an illusion. Well, I can’t leave you thinking that. Because, if so, your response might just be to abandon all involvement in the material world, as much as possible, to redeem yourself from this illusion. Starvation, poverty and war could be ignored, because, after all, they’re also just illusions. If there’s no physicality, how real can physical pain be?

But that’s not Torah. Torah demands taking care of this world, taking the pain and suffering of others seriously and doing something about it. The great majority of Torah mitzvahs involve material objects, and those material objects gain sanctity through the mitzvahs we do with them. The mitzvahs can’t be understood simply as devices to escape our subjective experience of otherness, because even great tzaddikim such as Moses and Aaron were obliged to fulfill them in just the same way as anyone else.

So, to explain why matter really matters, there’s another installment coming up.