Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 9;
Derech Mitzvosecha,
Mitzvas HaAmanas Elokus
, chs. 3-4,
Shoresh Mitzvas HaTefillah, chs. 28-30;
the series of maamarim entitled Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShanah 5666 , pp. 167-168

Once R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw the town apostate approaching. With a loving smile, he drew near him and embraced him: “Don’t worry,” he told him. “The G‑d whom you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

As mentioned in previous chapters, a Jew’s faith is a function of the existence of his soul. On the other hand, there are times when our minds get in the way and present us with an image of G‑d in which we have difficulty believing. As we develop a conception of G‑d that is genuine, we erase the possibility of such problems arising.

Reaching Beyond Our Grasp

For the longest time, man has striven to define G‑d. Spurred by the awareness that there is a power above himself and above nature, he has tried to clarify what this power is and how he can relate to it intellectually.

In doing so, however, he has created G‑d in his own image. For since we are mortals, there is no way that we can appreciate a reality that transcends the framework of creation. Our existence begins with His desire to create the world. He, Himself, however, transcends that desire. As such, any description of G‑d that we offer will come from our own reality and therefore be inappropriate. For He as He exists for Himself is beyond our ken.

Man has also realized the limits of his grasp. He knows that He cannot comprehend G‑d in a direct manner. Accordingly, he has resorted to abstraction, what our Rabbis call yedias hashelilah, negative understanding. You realize the limits of what you can understand and you explain how G‑d transcends those bounds and restrictions. In doing so, you expand the extent of your comprehension, gaining some albeit not a complete understanding of what is essentially beyond mortal limits.

Even this approach, however, is still grounded in man’s fundamental humanity. For even with abstraction, the starting point for our conception is our own reality and there is no way that it can serve as an appropriate handle for appreciating Him.

The Rambam’s Conception

The above applies, not only to man’s personal striving to comprehend the Divine, but even to the conceptions offered by our Rabbis that were motivated by ruach hakodesh, Divine inspiration. For example, the Rambam describes G‑d, stating:1 “He is the Knower, He is the Object of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself; all is one.”

What motivates his description? Knowledge is the most developed of mortal potentials. Our emotions are subjective and self-oriented, their basic approach is: “What will this do for me? How will it affect me?” Knowledge, by contrast, is objective, enabling one to see and appreciate every entity as it is. Knowledge thus represents transcendence, for it takes man beyond his own limits and allows him to unite with other entities.

Nevertheless, implicit in mortal knowledge is a certain dimension of subjectivity. We seek to know entities that exist independently of ourselves. Hence, there exists a gap between the knower, the object of knowledge, and the knowledge.2

This is not true with regard to G‑d’s knowledge. Man exists within the set of creation, while the set of creation exists within G‑d.3 As the Rambam states:4 “All the beings of the heavens and the earth… came into existence solely from the truth of His being.” Thus by knowing them, He is knowing Himself. There is no separation whatsoever.

On this basis, we can appreciate the Rambam’s conception that G‑d is knowledge, for knowledge is the most perfect type of existence we can appreciate. Mortal knowledge, however, has limitations as described above. G‑d, however, is not bound by these limitations; He is consummate and truly perfect knowledge.

Man cannot comprehend this level, for this type of knowledge is beyond our framework of reference. Nevertheless, the Rambam’s explanation enables us to appreciate the nature of our limitations and the manner in which He transcends them. In this way, we gain a conception of Him.

The Maharal’s Objections

Rav Yehudah Loewe, the Maharal of Prague, however, takes issue with the Rambam’s approach, explaining5 that G‑d is called: “HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One, blessed be He) and not HaSeichel Baruch Hu (the Wise One, blessed be He). As the Maharal continues to explain, G‑d is fundamentally unlimited and unbounded, unable to be confined to any definition. Knowledge, by contrast, has a definition: the ability to comprehend an entity as it is. Thus it is a particular quality, distinct from other potentials such as kindness or might. Accordingly, it is inappropriate as a definition for G‑d. Although the Rambam’s definition of G‑d is unlimited and transcendent in man’s terms, it is not truly unbounded. Instead, any definition of G‑d is limiting and thus inappropriate, for He transcends all delineation.

The Resolution Offered by Chassidus

While accepting the fundamental tenets of the Maharal’s approach, Chassidus6 takes the issue a step further. For even the concepts of transcendence and the infinity mentioned by the Maharal require clarification. As the Avodas HaKodesh states:7 “Just as we describe Him as infinite, we are forced to say that He possesses a finite dimension. For describing Him as infinite without a finite dimension would be detracting from His perfection.”

To explain: Infinity, when defined simply, can also be a limitation. For by saying it’s infinite, you imply that it is not finite. Thus, in contrast to knowledge or kindness, we are not speaking of a entity or quality whose definition can be known or grasped intellectually. Nevertheless, there is something finiteness that is outside and separate from the infinite quality. And so, the infinity is also circumscribed by itself, as it were.

Therefore we have to say that He is neither infinite, nor finite, but neither non-infinite, nor non-finite. “He is what He is.” There is absolutely no way that we can describe Him or put a finger on what He is. No definition, neither wisdom nor infinity, is appropriate. On the other hand, we cannot say that there is anything apart from Him. He manifests both an infinite and a finite dimension.

To explain the above in terms of the spiritual cosmos: The Rambam’s conception applies with regard to the level of Chochmah and in a general sense, all the sefiros of Atzilus.8 At this level, He is one with His attributes.9 Although Chochmah and the other sefiros are distinct entities, they are G‑dly. In contrast to the beings of the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah, where each entity has feelings of yeshus, personal existence, in Atzilus, all existence appreciates that it is an emanation of Him; there is no conception of self or independent existence. This reflects the finite dimension of G‑dliness spoken about by the Avodas HaKodesh.

The Maharal’s conception applies with regard to the light that is sovev kol almin, encompassing all the worlds. This light has no definition whatsoever, but instead is infinite, transcending all the frameworks of reference which we recognize. And the approach of Chassidus refers to an even higher level, Atzmus, G‑d’s very essence.10 It relates to G‑d Himself, not to the light or attributes that emanate from Him.

Our Bond With Him

The definitions offered by the Rambam and the Maharal fall short, not only in their upper limits, the descriptions of G‑d they offer, but also with regard to their lower limits, the relationship between G‑d and man. There is a gap between the perfect knowledge described by the Rambam and the material dimensions of our world. The spiritual elements of man’s life the knowledge he attains and the Divine service he performs can relate to this spiritual rung, but man’s body and the physical reality associated with it cannot.11 Since this knowledge is a defined quality, it requires a kli, a vessel, in which it can be revealed, and material existence is not appropriate to serve in that capacity.

The infinity described by the Maharal has the potential to relate to material existence. Since it is entirely unbounded, it is not confined to the spiritual and can be expressed in the material as well. Nevertheless, there is also a deficiency, for since it is unbounded and unlimited, there is no point of attachment for man’s powers of intellect and emotion; they cannot establish an internal bond with this unlimited potential.

The approach of Chassidus which maintains that both the infinite and finite are expressions of G‑d, combines the positive dimensions of each of these conceptions. And since it is not limited to either conception it does not possess either of the drawbacks.

The Outgrowths of Understanding

It is written:12 “Know the G‑d of your father and serve Him with a full heart”; i.e., our intellectual conception of G‑d should evoke an analogous approach in Divine service. Because the Rambam’s image of G‑d is perfect knowledge, he sees man’s goal and ideal as attaining perfect knowledge. Since the Maharal appreciates the Divine as infinite and unbounded, he sees the unlimited commitment of emunah, faith, as the quintessence of man’s Divine service. For a man of faith steps beyond his own intellect and emotion, and in that way establishes a bond with Him.

Chassidus, which postulates that there is absolutely no way that we can describe Him or put a finger on what He is, requires Divine service that can also not be defined or in any way delineated, i.e., a commitment of mesirus nefesh in which a person gives himself over to G‑d with no limits whatsoever. And just as from G‑d’s essence emanate both unlimited and limited expressions of Him, this commitment of mesirus nefesh must be manifest in both an unlimited commitment of faith and defined efforts to attain fulfillment in the realms of intellect and emotion.