This series began by asking why we haven’t all fallen through the floor. Or through planet Earth, for that matter. Matter—that’s the whole issue. It’s not just full of holes; it’s almost entirely empty space.

So I introduced a nice (almost) Jewish boy, Wolfgang Pauli, to explain that the wholeness and diversity of this universe is all a product of one simple principle: Every particle of matter has exclusive rights to its quantum state. Since one of those quantum states involves the space it occupies, chunks of matter necessarily occupy chunks of space.

How do the particles know their states and the states of every other particle in the universe? Pauli was convinced that the universe was one great psyche—and that glides along nicely with the way Jewish philosophers and mystics have dealt with it (as have many others, as well).

That explains matters in a rather abstract sense. It doesn’t explain what we might call the qualia of matter—our subjective experience of matter as the very substance of reality. If I were an immaterial being, such as an angel, from Pauli’s principle I would never have predicted this sensation of matter, which is so vital to the human experience.

So, in Part II, I introduced a bright Irishman, George Berkeley, who proposed that matter is an illusion, and all that really exists is “G‑d’s ideas.” G‑d has ideas such as apples, crocodiles and pit slime, each occupying its conceptual space, and our organs of perception sense those as material objects.

But what about the qualia of matter? How does G‑d get us to experience something that doesn’t exist?

Which still doesn’t explain that qualia thing. How does G‑d get us to experience something that doesn’t exist?

That’s where the explanation of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi comes in. He splices reality into the classic division of form and matter—and tells us that the form of things (including properties, etc.) are G‑d’s ideas. The matter of everything, on the other hand, is not just G‑d’s ideas—it’s an artifact of G‑d’s words. Words mean tsimtsum, meaning withdrawal of presence to make for an other. In other words, the creation of subjective experience.

Why Matter Really Matters

Truth be told, long before George Berkeley or R. Schneur Zalman, mystics of the East had already concluded that all sensation is illusory, including our sensation of a manifold reality and of self. Yes, there’s some similarity there. There are also vital distinctions.

Whereas the mystics of the East constructed a path to escape this illusory consciousness, R. Schneur Zalman embraced it.

For one thing, R. Schneur Zalman took this idea and ran with it in the opposite direction. Whereas the mystics of the East constructed a methodical path to escape this illusory consciousness, R. Schneur Zalman embraced it. In the experience of a material world, R. Schneur Zalman found not only an exquisite expression of the divine—but an expression of the divine on which matter has exclusive rights.

To explain that, let’s go back to that situation where you were attempting to create and sustain an other to talk with—and found you could not. But the Creator does just that. Why? Why is it that you and I cannot create a being that is other than us, and yet the Creator can? What’s the trick?

If I had a more powerful imagination, I could imagine an entire being, one very different from me, with his own life and own concerns, sitting right there on the desk in front of me. I’ll give him a tailored suit, shiny black shoes and a trim haircut. I’ll imagine he’s staring at me somewhat scornfully, wondering why this guy can’t get his act together and look as neat and spiffy as he does.

But I would never be able to truly suck myself out of there. It would always be me telling the story, dictating his words and thoughts, and carrying him through the script. Even if I could imagine this character making his own free choices, it would be entirely artificial. Not only would I know the choice is artificial, the character would certainly have no sense of his own that he is making a decision. After all, no matter how different this character may be from myself, his entire being is in truth nothing but my imagination. And I can’t be there (imagining him) and not there (allowing him sentience, subjective experience and choice) both at once.

So if it’s not a more powerful imagination that’s needed, what is it? What does it take to create otherness?

Basically, it takes isness. You have to have true isness to isify something other than you.

If you exist because something else is making you be, you don’t have real isness. You are a certain thing—a rock, a tree, a cloud or a human being—but you do not own your own isness. Your existence is something you are given, but it doesn’t belong to you.

When we talk about the Creator, however, we’re talking about the exclusive origin of all isness. Isness starts here. Look at this: The name the Torah gives Him is a conjugation of the verb “to be,” meaning just that: Isness. The Creator is not a particular entity that exists. The Creator is the origin of existence itself.

Maimonides puts it like this:

He is not a being in a state of existence—which would imply that existence is an additional factor to His being. Rather, since He is always the necessary existence, no event occurs to Him, nothing happens to make Him be. If so, we could say that He exists without existence.1

“Exists without existence.” Mysterious words. But think of it this way: If I exist in a certain place, I am going to have some sort of tangible presence there. I am going to exist as a certain being with some sort of definition. No matter how discreet and inconspicuous I attempt to be, if I’m there, it will not be without some sort of impact. Because I am, after all, not just a being, but a certain particular being.

The existence of the Creator, on the other hand, is raw isness, no definition needed. Therefore, He can be there, in the world of His characters, sustaining all that occurs within them, providing them their very existence, yet without any tangible presence whatsoever. Just as raw being.

There can only be one raw isness. And so, the Creator has exclusive rights on isness and isifying others.

Matter of Precedent

Shortly before his passing, R. Schneur Zalman composed perhaps his most radical essay, turning once and for all the tables on form and matter, the spiritual and the physical. All I’ve just written is contained in these words from that essay:

. . . the very being and core-essence of the Emanator, blessed be He, who exists from His own self and is not the result of any cause that preceded Him, heaven forfend—He alone is capable of creating something from absolute nothingness—and truly so—without any cause or other precedent to this somethingness . . . physicality represents that “the end-result of the act is first in intent.”2

The experience of matter is the experience of that which has no precedent. For one thing, the tangibility of matter does not inform you of any origin. It appears as a thing that is just here—and indeed, philosophers such as Aristotle felt that it must have always existed. And in truth, there is no precedent to the otherness of matter. One form emerges from another, one idea out of another idea, and a spiritual being could emerge out of a higher spiritual being. But matter does not emerge from anywhere. It is entirely sustained by its Creator’s non-presence.

So, why did the Creator create such a thing?

Because, in creating a world, the Creator desired the ultimate form of self-expression: that His absolute isness be expressed within His creation. By creating worlds filled with beings acutely aware of their source, like rays of sunlight that never lose their connection with the sun, He does not express that exclusive isness. As long as a creation feels itself as a creation, it cannot express the exclusive isness of its Creator.

Matter does not emerge from anywhere. It is entirely sustained by its Creator’s non-presence.

It’s in the creation of beings that feel autonomous, as though they are there without any need to justify their existence, as though they are the very stuff of existence—it’s in that experience that the Creator hits paydirt. That’s the experience of self, and of a material world.

This is where the exclusion principle fits in magnificently: Quantum physics has put the story under a microscope—and, what do you know, in every word the Author has signed His signature: As He is the exclusive true existence, so each particle of His universe reflects that in its exclusive state of being.

All that’s needed now is for these created beings (namely us) to recognize that, despite this inherent sense of self and matter, it’s totally ludicrous to imagine that we are actually the stuff of existence, because we quite obviously didn’t make this place and are not responsible for its perpetuation—and equally absurd to believe this matter stuff is just here because it’s here. And if so, our sense of absolute realism is nothing more than a symbol, a pointer to the true absolute existence, and a way that we may know Him within our world. We need to recognize the signature with the work of art.

A construct of the Creator is not an illusion. It is the way He tells His story.

A construct of the Creator is not an illusion. It is real. It has purpose and meaning. It is not to be escaped, but reframed. We must come to know that we are not conscious beings because we are conscious beings, but because that is the way the Creator can tell His story—and find Himself within that story.

Which brings us to R. Schneur Zalman’s conclusion from all the above: There is nothing greater than the deed, than mitzvahs that are performed with the physical world. Spiritual yearning, metaphysical enlightenment and divine ecstasy have their place. But the ultimate is in the practical deed of a mitzvah—even more, in discovering the divine within your everyday activities—because there, in the subjective and material world, is the ultimate expression of the divine. Practical, divine-oriented action is the strategy by which we reframe that experience and awaken it to its true meaning.

Which is why, concerning the time to come, the prophet says, “All flesh shall see that G‑d is speaking.”3 Not the soul alone, but the very physical meat and bones that comprise our bodies will perceive G‑d in its physical sensations.

Touch that table again. You are touching deep wisdom. Infinite wisdom of the one G‑d. You are touching the very core-essence of the divine.