Introduction: Philosophical Questions

As human beings we are constantly confronted by the mind-body problem. On the one hand we have physical bodies, complete with arms, legs, a heart and a brain. On the other hand we have mental states, we think, we become emotional, we desire things, we understand things, we enjoy sunsets and the scent of flowers. This led the 17th century René Descartes to a conclusion that schisms the mind from the body. He postulated that there is a mental substance, res cogitans, and a physical substance, res extensa. He understood G‑d to be a third substance that is neither mental nor physical, and which chooses to make these created substances exist.1

From a philosophical point of view Descartes’ position, known as dualism, is deeply problematic. If mind and body exist independently of each other, if the mental and the physical are in fact two completely different substances, how do they interact with one another? How does the brain, a physical lump of grey meat, apprehend ethereal mental concepts?How does the brain, a physical lump of grey meat, apprehend ethereal mental concepts?2

The question of how the mind, or the soul, and the body, relate to each other has concerned philosophers from ancient times till today. But Descartes’ dualism has often been rejected, usually in favour of monistic theories positing that mental and physical phenomena actually consist of the same substance. There is physicalism, claiming that all is matter. There is idealism, claiming all is mind. There is neutral monism, which suggests that all is neither one nor the other, but a third, unified substance that is the combination of both.3

Today, many people assume that everything is physical, that there is no mental state independent of the physical brain. Accordingly, there is no mind and no soul, and hence no mind-body problem. But rather than solving the mind-body problem, this simply replaces it with a problem of a different name. A leading contemporary philosopher thinking about this new conundrum is David Chalmers, and he calls it the “hard” problem of consciousness: Chalmers wants to understand how and why we have subjective experiences.4

A computer, for example, processes large quantities of information—apparently without having any mental awareness or subjective experience of those processes. But when humans process information something happens besides the physical, electronic or chemical changes happening in the body and in the brain: We experience these processes subjectively, there is a feeling of “what it is like.” Philosophers call these subjective experiences qualia.5

Chalmers argues:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.6

This line of thinking has led Chalmers away from physicalism and persuaded him to consider the view that all physical substance—including rocks and electrons—fundamentally possesses some kind of mental quality.7 Today this line of thinking is seen as innovative and controversial, but in truth it is one of the most ancient and persistent ideas in the history of philosophy. Similar theories can be found both among early Greek thinkers, and in the Jewish philosophical, kabbalistic and midrashic traditions. Philosophers refer to this as panpsychism, which means that everything (pan) has a mind or a soul (psyche).

It is important to note, however, that not all panpsychic theories are the same. As with other complex philosophical questions, we should realize that different thinkers often fit similar ideas into vastly different systems of thought, and we should always be weary of false equivalences and conflations.8

Chabad: A Parallel Conceptual Universe

As a counterpoint to the prevalent assumption that everything is physical, the Chabad view is that everything is divine.9

The Chabad intellectual tradition might be described as a conceptual universe that runs parallel to the Western one. It engages with many of the questions raised in the western philosophical tradition to which Descartes, Chalmers and their interlocutors belong, but brings a different set of concepts, assumptions and goals, and a different terminology to the table. This is true of the mind-body problem and the “hard” problem of consciousness, The Chabad intellectual tradition might be described as a conceptual universe that runs parallel to the Western one…and it is true of many other philosophical quandaries as well.10

In Chabad thought these questions are made all the more problematic because we are not simply talking about the interface of the mind—or the soul—and the body, but also about the interface of G‑d and the world. As the Talmudic sages put it, “just as the soul fills the body, so G‑d fills the world.”11 This is taken to a whole new level of difficulty when we consider that G‑d is infinite and the world seems to be composed of finite matter. How can the finitude of creation possibly be filled with infinite divinity?

The crucial point for the present discussion is that in Chabad thought these paradoxes are all resolved by what can be described as a panentheistic false-dualism: Chabad does not subscribe to a monistic idealism (“everything is ideas”) according to which our experience of the physical is some kind of mirage. The physical is at least as real as the spiritual. But both physicality and spirituality are refractions of singular divinity. From this perspective, the designation of the physical realm as a “world of falsehood” (עלמא דשיקרא) should not be understood as a denial of the reality of its existence. The falsehood lies in the impression that the utter singularity of all-encompassing divinity is compromised by the dual modes of divine manifestation.

The unavoidable reality of the physical universe is emphasized in an oft cited discourse by the fourth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (“Maharash,” 1834-1888):

The existence of the world, and all that is created, is a reality… For if we say it is only that it so appears to us, if so what is the meaning of the verse “In the beginning of G‑d’s creation” (Genesis 1:1)? Did not no creation occur at all, but rather it was made to appear to us as if it was so? Therefore we must say that the world does exist as a substantive reality (yesh ve-davar)…12

In the same breath, R. Shmuel also emphasizes that the physical reality of creation is not something other than G‑d:

In truth there is no physical existence other than divinity, for in truth the capacity for concealment is also divinity like the capacity for revelation… All the physical things that are created are themselves literally divinity.13

Even more radical than the equation of physicality with divinity is a phrase oft repeated by the seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, which emphasizes that physical existence is ultimately a deeper expression of divine reality and truth than spirituality: “The created being is itself [an unmediated manifestation of] the true being [of G‑d]…” For the most part, however, this truth remains concealed by the very facade of otherness and duality that most gives it expression. It is only “through the work in this world to remove the concealments and veils…” that “it will be revealed in the created being that it itself is [an unmediated manifestation of] the true being.”14 As will be further explained below, it is precisely in the most abject sphere of cosmic being—or more precisely, in the transformation of the abject into the exalted—that the greatest expression of divine transcendence is found.


Hasidic Panpsychism

There are many relevant texts that could be cited as examples of the different ways in which Chabad teachings approach the problem, its solution, and various resulting implications. Already in the first generation of Chabad we find that panpsychism was an issue of particular interest and controversy. One early chassidic work, titled “Testament of the Baal Shem Tov” records the following “major principle:” “In everything that exists in the world there are holy sparks, there is nothing empty of the sparks, even wood and stones, and even all the actions that a person executes…”15 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi similarly cites the Lurianic teaching that “even in the literally inanimate—like stones, dust and water—there is a soul and spiritual life… which enlivens and creates the inanimate, All reality is divine thought thinking itself.that it may emerge as an existence from nothing…”16

In a direct attack on this concept, Rabbi Eliyahu—the famed gaon of Vilna— wrote that the chassidim “proclaim of every stick and every stone, ‘These are your gods, Israel!’” By borrowing a phrase from the biblical episode of the golden calf, he equated chassidism with Judaism’s worst example of public idolatry.17 The Gaon apparently sought to uphold a dualistic schism between the spiritual and the physical, between G‑d and the world. Elsewhere, he explicitly argued that G‑d transcends the world, and that it is only divine knowledge and superintendence that extends into the created realm.18

The Gaon’s attack was countered by R. Schneur Zalman with a sharp argument proving that divine superintendence could not be accounted for without resort to a form of divine panpsychism. Following the Maimonidean principle that divine knowledge is self-knowledge—G‑d being the knower, the subject of knowledge, and the knowledge itself19—R. Schneur Zalman concludes that G‑d’s knowledge of the world entails that the world itself is not in any way separate from G‑d. Implicitly referring to those who shared the Gaon’s position, he wrote:

Since they believe that G‑d knows all created beings in this lowly world and superintends them, they are compelled to accept that His knowledge of them does not add to Him any plurality or novelty, for He knows all through knowing His self. It as if His being and essence and knowledge are all one.20

Aristotle famously described G‑d as “thought thinking itself.” But the Maimonidean view, as interpreted by R. Schneur Zalman, is that all reality is divine thought thinking itself. In technical philosophical terminology the complexity of the Chabad position might be captured with the designation “theological panpsychic false-dualism.” But even as we speak of panpsychism we must also recall that “G‑d’s thoughts are not as our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). G‑d’s thoughts extend beyond the realm of ideas to animate and encompass physical reality as well.21 We must also recall that G‑d ultimately transcends the category of thought altogether.22 However central the principle of divine panpsychism is to the Chabad system of thought, it must always be considered in terms of what Elliot Wolfson has designated “the logic inherent” to Chabad thought: “a way of thinking that begets an annihilation of thinking.”23

The Mitzvah: Fusing Body and Soul

From the Chabad perspective there is no “hard” problem of consciousness. Consciousness is not an anomalous product of the physical universe. Rather, the physical universe is an anomalous product of divine consciousness. The “hard” problem of Chabad thought is: How does the finite universe exist without compromising the infinite singularity of G‑d?24

Rather than an outright rejection of dualism, Chabad teachings constantly affirm that G‑d at once fills the finite realm immanently (memale kol almin) and infinitely transcends it (sovev kol almin). Yet G‑d’s essential being (atzmuto u-mahuto) is neither finite nor infinite. Nor can G‑d’s essential being simply be reduced to that which encompasses those poles. G‑d is instead understood to transcend all definable categories and limitations, and can therefore be equally manifest in the finite and the physical as in the infinite and the spiritual. The result of this false-duality is the impression that the finite world is something other than the infinite G‑d. The limbs of the person’s body that are performing the mitzvah… become a literal vehicle for the supernal will.But the truth is that G‑d is the immanent core of all reality.25

Moving from the cosmic to the microcosmic, a similar model of false dualism—or more precisely, false multiplicity—is applied to the relationship between the soul and the body. In the second chapter of Likutei Amarim—Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman describes a hierarchy of souls, but emphasizes that “all of them, from the beginning of all levels to the end of all levels… are drawn from the supernal mind [of G‑d].” The difference between one soul and another is only in the degree to which they openly reveal G‑dliness in their own lives and actions, and in the world around them. But all souls are fundamentally bound up in the circle of divine consciousness. Here too, R. Schneur Zalman cites Maimonides’ principle that G‑d is the knower, the subject of knowledge, and knowledge itself.

The divine quality of the soul extends to the physical body as well, but it only becomes overtly revealed therein through the performance of mitzvot, divinely mandated commandments. In Likutei Amarim—Tanya, chapter twenty-three, R. Schneur Zalman explains that when a person performs a commandment “the lowest faculty of their divine soul (levush ha-hitzon shel nefesh ha-elokit), which is its capacity for action, is vested in the animation of that mitzvah performance… Therefore, also the limbs of the person’s body that are performing the mitzvah… become a literal vehicle for the supernal will [of G‑d]. By way of example, the hand that distributes charity to the poor… the feet that walk in the cause of a mitzvah, and likewise the mouth that speaks words of Torah, and the brain that thinks of Torah matters, fear of heaven, and the greatness of G‑d.” Body and soul function as one, yet mirror the false-duality of the cosmic singularity.These limbs and organs, R. Schneur Zalman explains, are themselves “sanctified” because they have become transparent to their divine core.26

The divine nature of the body can only be openly revealed through mitzvah observance and Torah study. But in truth, the Baal Shem Tov taught, even the body’s most mundane cravings are identical with the cravings of the soul. “Hungry as well as thirsty, their soul enwraps itself within them” (Psalms, 107:5). In its original context this is a poetic image describing wanderers lost in the desert, whose souls contract as their hunger and thirst intensifies. But the Baal Shem Tov decontextualized the verse and reinterpreted it to mean that the divine soul is enwrapped within the hunger and thirst of the physical body. Externally the body’s cravings seem mundane, even crass, but in truth they stem from the soul’s craving to raise up the divine sparks that are concealed throughout all reality. Not only is the body not the enemy of the soul, on the contrary, the body and the soul are actually in sync. They function as one, yet mirror the false-duality of the cosmic singularity.27 The soul’s mission on earth, accordingly, is to make the body—and all aspects of earthly life—transparent to the divine core of all reality.28

Yehidah: The Singular Substance of Everything

The above passages allude to another oft discussed theme in Chabad teachings. Drawing on earlier rabbinic sources, each individual soul is understood to have five general levels.29 The lowest, nefesh, corresponds to the soul’s capacity for action, which is channeled through the body to have transformative impact in the physical world. The highest is referred to as yehidah, meaning singularity, because it is utterly bound up with the singular essence of G‑d. The yehidah transcends the false dualism that distinguishes between the physical and the spiritual, and therefore cannot even be associated with the loftiest of spiritual soul faculties. Yet it is precisely the transcendence of the yehidah that is the immanent core of all levels of soul expression, including the lowest, Once the essence is revealed it illuminates all faculties of the soul and all aspects of reality.which animates the actions of the body.

Though the yehidah is discussed in many Chabad teachings, its significance is most fully articulated and emphasized in a treatise by the seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory. In this treatise, On the Essence of Chassidus, the essential core of divine being and the essential core of the soul are described in precisely the same terms. In both cases, the disclosure of the essence is synonymous with the dissolution of the false opposition between spirituality and physicality, light and darkness, good and evil:

All [spiritual] revelations, even the very loftiest, are bound in the category of light and revelation… Consequently, the existence of evil… is in opposition to them, and it is therefore not in their power to transform it to good (only to battle with it till it is effaced). Only the essence of G‑d… which is uncontained by any form and which can have nothing in opposition to it… has the power to transform it to good.30

The essential transcendence of G‑d, in other words, is such that spirituality and physicality alike—and even good and evil—are equally inadequate to give it expression. It is axiomatic that the physical realm conceals the all-encompassing presence of G‑d. But here it emerges that the same is true of the spiritual realm, of spiritual experience and activity as well. The only way in which the essence can be tangibly disclosed is in the overcoming of binaries, through transforming evil into good, through infusing physical reality with the spirit of divinity.

Paradoxically, Chabad’s radical conception of divine transcendence leads us to find the greatest expression of that transcendence in the most abject sphere of cosmic being, or more precisely, in the transformation of the abject into the exalted. The same applies on the microcosmic plane—the essential potency of the soul is only expressed in transformative activities that overcome the divide between body and soul, revealing the G‑dly core even of physical existence. But once the essence is revealed it illuminates all faculties of the soul and all aspects of reality:

Only when the [soul] faculties come to refine a physical object beyond the individual self… (using it for the sake of heaven)—specifically then is the yehidah revealed in them.31

In the final paragraph of his treatise on yehidah—which he also associates with the essence of chassidic teaching itself—the Rebbe cites the messianic vision articulated by R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi in Tanya, chapters thirty-six and thirty-seven:

The physicality of the body and the world will be purified… as it is written ‘all flesh [shall see] together etc.’ ‘all dwellers of your universe’… This ultimate wholeness of the messianic era… is dependent on our actions and work throughout the era of exile…32

In philosophical language we might say that the ultimate goal of all human endeavor is to overcome the false sense of dualism that leads us to the mind-body problem in the first place.33 We achieve this through Torah study and mitzvah observance, through serving G‑d in all aspects of earthly life, and through transforming evil into good.34 We are not simply bodies, nor are we minds, nor do we merely combine the two. Ultimately, there is but one single substance, uncompromised by the mind-body duality. The multiple dimensions of existence are real. Yet they are all refractions of the singular substance of G‑d.