Kabbalah, God and the “Unknown”
Dialogue from the New Kabbalah Guest Book, E-mails and Letters to the Author.
Email inquiries with my response are subject to editing. I will not post your comments if you do not want me to, so if you are not willing to have your inquiry or comments posted please let me know.
Kabbalah and the "Big Questions"
I have several questions:
Is it fair to say that the unknown, as you use that term, means that which cannot or probably cannot be known?
I will try to respond to at least some of your questions, beginning with the question about the "unknown."
The Nature of the Unknown in the New Kabbalah
The kind of "unknown" that I am talking about when I say that the Kabbalah has a "healthy respect for the unknown," is not so much empirical (a probable unknown) or epistemological (a logically necessary unknown) as it is moral and ethical unknown. The Kabbalists refer to their ultimate, Ein-Sof (literally "without end" or the Infinite) in negative theological terms, as that which is unknown, cannot be spoken about or characterized in any way. The contemporary philosopher, Jacques Derrida, takes up the problem of "negative theology" in several of his works—and concludes that the possibility of plurality, difference, and democracy rests upon the notion that absolute knowledge is impossible. If certain knowledge were indeed possible and one could know for certain the answers to questions about God, humanity’s purpose, the right way to live, etc. then the differences in culture, plurality of perspectives, hopes, and searching that characterize human beings in a pluralistic society would come to an end, as an elite that knew the truth would feel compelled to impose this truth on everyone. History is full of examples of those who oppressed others in the name of "truth." While there are good epistemological reasons (some broadly having to do with limitations imposed upon us by language) for holding that we can never apprehend the "transcendental object" and hence never know absolute truth, there are also compelling moral reasons for maintaining that the absolute is always, as Derrida puts it, "the impossible," beyond our reach. This view is, I believe, highly compatible with the negative theology of the Kabbalah, and, as Derrida himself intimates, with the Jewish prophetic view of God and the Messiah—as that which is always yet to come. Keeping this in mind, let’s examine some of these ultimate questions as they are addressed in the Kabbalah, and in particular in what I refer to as the New Kabbalah.
The Problem of Evil and Suffering
With respect to the question of why the righteous suffer, it is apparent to anyone who has ever experienced a terrible misfortune that theory is of little solace in the face of the actual experiences of trauma, pain and suffering. For example, one of the problems in attempting to provide a theoretical explanation of God’s seeming absence during the holocaust is that whenever we imagine the holocaust we re-experience it, and thus theory becomes completely beside the point of our anguish and rage. Acknowledging this limitation, and thereby confessing a certain impotence in our ability to rationalize evil, I will present several Kabbalistic responses/insights to this vexing problem.
Chayyim Vital, in his Sefer Etz Chayyim (the classic text of the Lurianic Kabballah) tells us that the world we live in is indeed almost entirely evil, mixed in with just a modicum of good. The contemporary Kabbalist and Talmudic commentator, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (see "The Mystic as Philosopher: An Interview With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz" interprets Vital’s observation in the following paradoxical, but, I believe, insightful manner:
Our world is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope, and this world on the brink of disaster is paradoxically the best of all possible worlds.
Steinsaltz’s observation forms the basis for what I have, in Chapter Four of Kabbalistic Metaphors, called the "immanent solution" to the problem of evil. Briefly, according to the Kabbalah, the world was created in order to make manifest and maximize the actuality of values or in Platonic terms "the Good." As such it was formed on the basis of ten archetypal values, the Sefirot (Wisdom, Understanding, Kindness, (Moral) Judgment, Compassion, Beauty, etc. However, in order for these values to become concrete, i.e. to become something more than mere ideas, they must be actualized in a realm in which they "matter," i.e. in which they make a genuine difference. That realm, is, according to the Kabbalists, the material world, and it is precisely the terribly difficult conditions of that world and the freedom that enables humanity to make things so much worse, that elicits from individual men and women the acts of great wisdom, knowledge, love, courage, compassion, judgment etc. that fulfill the divine intention in creating a world, i.e. the realization of the good. Up to a certain point, the greater the hardship and evil in the world, the greater the potential for good. Our world exists at that asymptotic point where evil (and thus goodness) is maximized, it is the point just short of making our situation completely hopeless. Further, human freedom is such that there is a genuine possibility that humanity will fail in its endeavour to maximize the good (i.e. destroy the world, allow the Nazis to triumph). This notion is the subject of David Birnbaum’s book, God and Evil. My forward to Birnbaum’s book (God and Evil) summarizes his position, which is related to the Kabbalistic concept of "divine contraction (Tzimtzum). For the Kabbalah, the only meaningful response to the problem of evil, and hence the only meaningful response to the problem of life, is to actualize our human potential to transform evil into good, tragedy into beneficence, ignorance into knowledge, etc.
At this point one might argue that we have something like an explanation for the existence of evil in the world, but one that does not at all touch upon the patent injustice of the suffering of the innocent. To answer this we must supplement our account with what I have called the "transcendent solution." This solution, also presented in Chapter Four of Kabbalistic Metaphors (as well as Chapter Seven, pp. 324-8 of Symbols of the Kabbalah) is also predicated on the thought of Adin Steinsaltzs and the little known but important Neoplatonic philosopher: JN Findlay. Both Steinsaltz and Findlay argue that the world as we know it is shot through and through with a number of antinomies or surds that give rise to the perennial philosophical problems regarding space and time, the universal and the particular, our knowledge of "other minds," the contradiction between free will and causal necessity. As a result of these antinomies the world appears absurd, not right, somehow "out of place." These philosophers argue, that the contradictions of earthly life inexorably point to a higher realm or series of "worlds" in which matter is attenuated, where the universal blends into the particular, and where the injustices of our world are resolved. This is an admittedly speculative and complex subject, and the reader is referred to the relevant places in my books for further explication. I should point out, however, with respect to the inquiry regarding personal immortality and memory of one’s earthly existence in these upper realms, that for the Kabbalah, our individual state of existence is a necessary, but temporary, fallen and (in certain respects) illusory state that is transcended in the higher realms, so I don’t think the Kabbalah offers the sort of personal immortality that has us running about in eternity with our family and friends as if we were continuing on earth, but rather the sort where the essence of ours and their character, ours and their virtues, wisdom and love, are writ large and splendid across the heavens, in a manner that is presumably far more deeply satisfying than any satisfaction on earth. As we read in Pirket Avot (The mishnaic "Sayings of the fathers") One hour in the world to come…Interestingly, Pirket Avot also says the opposite. Both the immanent and transcendent "solutions" to the problem of evil are equally necessary, and as I describe in KM, exist in a state of coincidentia oppositorum, mutual interdependence.
Does the Kabbalah provide a "Grand Scheme" within which we can make sense of human existence?
With regard to the Kabbalist’s "grand scheme" of the universe, this would require us to go into detail regarding the Kabbalistic doctrines of the Breaking of the Vessels (Shevirat ha-Kelim) and Restoration (Tikkun), which are covered elsewhere in this website. In short, for the Kabbalah, the purpose and meaning of life is to raise those sparks of divine light, that have fallen into our world, and lay entrapped within all things, all events and all souls. Each encounter in our lives, each event, each act of self-reflection, provides us with an opportunity to either raise a spark of goodness, or to plunge the world further into darkness.
The Existence of a Creator
Here I must refer you either to Chapter Two of Symbols of the Kabbalah, or to the link to Ein-sof on this website. The Lurianic Kabbalah, as I understand it, regards the entire cosmic system of creation (Tzimtzum), existence (Sefirot) deconstruction (Shevirah) and repair (Tikkun) as a single divine reality, and does not necessarily posit a transcendent, pre-existing God, who created a world external to and independent of Himself. The world is itself part of the divine plenum, and there is a spark of divinity in all things—thus all creation, natural, human, etc. is divine.
3/24/01 From H.B. On the "Unknown" and the Existence of God.
I have read your responses to my questions, and I appreciate very much
More on the Axiological "Unknown"
Thanks again for your thoughtful responses and inquiries. I will try to respond to each as best as I can. First I will try to clarify my views with regard to the "good" of there being an unknown, and whether "knowing things to a certainty gives rise to a class of tyrants."
I do believe that for all practical purposes there are many things that we know for certain (although many things that past generations believed they knew for certain are now known to either be false or only approximations to the truth). Further, I am not of the opinion that we should throw up our hands cut off rational inquiry into the most important philosophical, spiritual, or ethical questions. Indeed, my books are efforts to provide rational, philosophical interpretations of Kabbalistic symbols that others, most notably Gershom Scholem, have held to be impenetrable to the rational mind (see Ch.1 of Symbols of the Kabbalah). Nevertheless, I believe that there are a class of questions, amongst which are the questions about the existence of God, the purpose of creation, and the existence of evil, about which reasonable people not only disagree, but about which we cannot even agree whether and how to go about finding the answers. (Many twentieth century philosophers—e.g. Wittgenstein—held that many such questions are to be dissolved rather than answered). In fact, I think that a philosophical question is one about which rational minds can and do disagree about at least two things: (1) whether the question has meaning, and (more importantly) (2) what criteria should be used in evaluating proposed answers. Now, certain questions that were once thought to be philosophical (e.g. certain questions about the nature of space and time) are now, for the most part, relegated to science, and others, e.g. the nature of mind, are held by some to be philosophical and others to be scientific in nature. I have no problem with science trying to take over philosophy’s territory, and I believe that scientists should attempt to reformulate certain questions that were once thought to be philosophical, in ways that they can answer. What I am opposed to is any system of belief, whether it be scientific, religious, or whatever, that holds that it has a corner on truth.
It’s not knowing (some) things to a certainty that gives rise to tyranny, but rather believing that one knows certain very important things—like what God wants, which religion holds the truth, what are the paths of salvation and damnation--that is tyranical. The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of tyranny founded upon such dogma. While certain orthodox (and liberal) apologists may attempt to obscure the challenge to religion by saying "its all mysterious and unknown," I believe the greater danger of orthodoxy is that it claims to know the roads to salvation and hell, and which of these roads you and I are traveling. My own interest is in attempting to outline the nature and limits of human knowledge with regard to so-called spiritual or metaphysical matters. I think these limits are not nearly as great as many theologians think, I think they are movable (and should be moved), but I also think that there are good epistemological and axiological reasons to believe that they can’t be eliminated altogether, and one of them, yes, is to prevent what I think is the potential tyranny of believing that one has absolute knowledge about matters of theology.
On the Existence of a Personal vs. Impersonal God
I consider the question of a "personal god" at some length in Ch. 2 of SK. There I describe how for the Kabbalists, Ein-sof is an impersonal "that" rather than a personal "I", "He" or "She", but through its engagement with and expression in a world Ein-sof becomes the "personal" God of the Bible. I describe how the actions of a tzaddik (the saintly man or woman), of a Baal Teshuvah (one who repents before his creator) and of one who pours his heart out in prayer, we actually witness the transformation of Ein-Sof into a personal deity. This very thought it expressed by the Indian poet Tulsidas (d. 1623)
There is no difference between the Personal and the Impersonal...He who is Impersonal, without form and unborn becomes Personal for love of his devotees.
I guess I believe something like this—that the potential for a personal God, like everything else, exists within the infinite being of the universe, but that it takes the personal actions, entreaties and love of men and women to actualize that potential and make the personal God real. The personal God becomes phenomenologically real in those critical life moments when one reaches out with heart, mind and soul (and somehow feels compelled) to curse, thank, praise or entreat God. At such times God becomes very personal and very real.
In order to answer your question more fully, I need to make an aside regarding the Kabbalistic doctrine of "coincidentia oppositorum," a doctrine that holds that seemingly incompatible views are not contradictory but actually mutually interdependent.
I believe that the only way we can obtain anything like a synoptic view of the world is through a procedure that is not unlike that of the Hegelian dialectic. I think we go nowhere when we try to defend one philosophical or theological position as against all others, and I believe there is a more inclusive dialectical mode of thinking that is called for in matters of philosophy and theology. T believe that through a sustained inquiry into perspectives that we had originally thought to be incompatible and even contradictory, we can come to see that certain contrasting positions, for example "God created man" and "Man created God" (I think it was Pascal who quipped ‘God created man and man returned the favor’) exist in a state of coincidentia oppositorum, or reciprocal interdependence. The physicist Neils Bohr once said that shallow truths are truths whose opposites are false, but "deep truths" are truths whose opposites are also true.
I have tried to show in my recent work on the fragmentation in contemporary psychology that different perspectives in psychology (biological, behavioral, cognitive, experiential, systems, psychoanlytic, etc.) each rest upon certain deep philosophical assumptions about the nature of mind that only appear to contradict the underlying assumptions of the other schools. The poles of these "contradictory" assumptions, e.g. "free will and determinism" "objectivism and constructivism," "individualism and collectivism," "public and private criteria for mental states," only appear to be mutually exclusive, but are rather mutually supportive and interdependent. For example, inquiry into the problem of free will and determinism reveals that without the regularity of material-causal effects free choice would be impossible. However, inquiry into how we determine the existence of specific causes (and causes in general) reveals that without the possibility of reasoning in the light of evidence (which presumes a certain freedom from material causality) we could not determine anything reliable about causality. In a recent paper I have tried to show that the different paradigms in psychology are best conceived of as alternative maps whose deep conceptual structures are interdependent ideas, thus providing a rationale for holding that each perspective is essential for a synoptic view of the whole.
I believe that something like this is at play not only in psychology but also in philosophy and theology. I believe that the perspectives arrived at by the great traditions of Eastern and Western thought may appear to be contradictory or incompatible, but are in truth based upon interdependent beliefs and assumptions. They, like the various theories in psychology, are akin to various two-dimensional maps of a "globe" that we cannot see in itself. Philosophical and theological perspectives are like different cartographic projections of the earth’s sphere (e.g. Mercator, Polar, so-called "Equal Areas"), each depicting something true about the world, but each also yielding distortions that can only be corrected through the other projections. Thus I do not wish to discard either the Indian conception of a universal life-energy, nor the Judaeo-Christian conception of a personal God, nor even an atheistic point of view from my attempt at synopsis. In this regard, I would note that the Kabbalist Azriel of Gerona (13th c.) wrote that the Infinite God (Ein-sof) is the place where faith and disbelief coincide. I like to think of Ein-sof as the point where philosophical and religious ideas pivot, or swing-over, into their opposites. I believe that the history of philosophy and religion provides us with a series of only seemingly contradictory maps of the realms of idea and spirit, and for reasons just vaguely articulated, I choose not to discard any. I believe the Lurianic Kabbalah provides a dialectical framework that enables one to be inclusive, yet rigorous and systematic in one’s eclecticism. Some of these ideas are present in SK and KM, but they will, I hope, be more clearly articulated in a book I am currently writing on Mysticism and Post-Modernism.
I sometimes worry about the ethical implications of my inclusive theology and philosophy (e.g. don’t I want to discard Hitler’s or Alfred Rosenberg’s "philosophy"?) and I have tentatively concluded that those philosophies that limit discussion and inquiry and as such are enemies of inclusiveness—are rather low on my hierarchy of valuable points of view. However, they may still be useful depictions of what the Kabbalists would speak of as "the Other Side." Further, I believe that one must, for practical purposes, operate within or out of a tradition or traditions— mine is largely constituted by Judaism and Western Philosophy/Psychology—without elevating that tradition to the level of having privileged access to the "truth." We are now, more than at any time in the past, fortunate enough to have our thinking informed by multiple traditions—and as such are in a better position than ever to articulate a more global philosophy, one, for example, that is informed by both Western and Eastern thought.
On the Philosophical Significance of "Open Parentheses"
(As for opening parentheses and not closing them. Although I hadn’t thought of this before [and am in process of correcting such errors on my website, I actually like the idea of truth as a never-ending, indeterminate aside that wanders away from the main discussion. As a psychoanalytically oriented psychologist I certainly hold that such wanderings are the means to insight in psychotherapy, and since I believe that the macrocosm mirrors the microcosm, they may very well be the means to insight into the world as well…
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