Friday, February 08, 2008

Ain and Yesh: Being and Nothingness in Judaism

[The Yin and Yang of Jewish Existence: Illustration from http://tzvee.blogspot.com/]

Along with a dozen of my Dallas colleagues, I had the delightful experience of studying with the illustrious Rabbi Lawence Kushner this month. In one session, Rabbi Kushner had us read excerpts from the Hasidic Torah commentary, Kedushat Levi, written by Levi Yitzkhak of Beirditchev, one of the luminous minds of 19th Century Hasidism.

What follows is my translation of part of the passage we discussed (I'll continue it for the next couple of entries), which speaks of what Levi Yitzkhak claims is the essential teaching of Bereshit, the first Torah portion. The footnotes include numerous interpretations, some of which were offered by those in attendance, though weeks after the fact I cannot give due credit to each individual who originally offered them. Given that, I also cannot claim any credit for these insights, excepting perhaps the bad ones:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth (Gen. 1.1). Everything (ha-klal)[1] – that the Creator, the Blessed One, created all (ha-khol), and is all (ha-khol), and His influence/emanation, it never ceases from the universe, because in every moment His emanation flows to creation, and all the [material] worlds, and to all the celestial precincts, and to all the angels, and to all the holy beasts.[2] Thus we read: Forming (yotzer) light and creating darkness,[3] -- [but] not, He formed (yatzar) light and created darkness. [We] only [find] yozter, in the present tense, because in every moment He is forming, that in every moment He is flowing life-force to all life. And everything from Him is blessed, it is complete, and it is comprised (k’lul) from The All (ha-khol).[4] And thereby when a person comes to No-Thing (Ain or Ein),[5] then he knows that he [himself] is not anything (aino klum),[6] [there is] only the Creator, the Blessed One, placing strength/existence in him. Only then can he call to the Creator, the Blessed One, by the aspect yatzar [the past tense], namely, that He has already created him. Therefore we can read: Who has formed [yatzar] humanity with wisdom[7], that Chokhmah (Wisdom) that is the level of Yesh (positive existence),[8] therefore [in this context] it is fine employing yatzar and not yotzer. Therefore it is stated in the writings of the Ari[9], may his memory be a blessing, that the Tetragrammaton is sovereign in the aspect of Ain [nothingness] – because ‘Adonai Melekh’ (the Lord is king, i.e., 'absolute') – [There is nothing besides Him in] that He is currently giving us life-force. So it is [in] the aspect of Ain that we are not anything, only that the Blessed Name gives us existence....

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] This also means, “The principle,” as in, “[what follows is] the great principle.”
[2] This list is arranged counter-intuitively. One would expect it to read “…and all the holy beasts, and all the angels, and all the heavenly precincts, and [even] all the [material] words,” working “down” the chain of creation. Why he opts to arrange it thus is not clear.
[3] This is quoting the daily prayer known as the gevurot.
[4] Which is God. It is hard to capture in English the playful interaction of the related terms ha-khol, ha-klal, k’lul and klum. There is also a built in linguistic curiosity. Khol means “all” in the most boundless and limitless sense. Yet the ha- attached to the front is the definite article, which is both specifying and delimiting - “the all” (not be mistaken for another boundless and limitless all), is essentially a paradox, one that captures the paradox of God's all-being and nothingness in a word.
[5] The greatest reality of God, that God is “no-thing.” So if God is All and Nothing, then every creation too is both [part of] all and is nothing.
[6] If God is everything, then our sense of self means nothing. One reader has complained about the persistent use of the masculine third-person pronoun for both God and humanity. In actuality, this translation has already eliminated many of the masculine pronouns that pepper the Hebrew text. As was conventional in his day, Levi Yitzkhak referred to God primaily using masculine terms. Hopefully the thoughtful reader can see past these words and recognize his essential argument, which is that what we term "God" simultaneously contains and transcends all categories, including those of gender and sex.
[7] Citing from another prayer, the blessing for the functioning of the body.
[8] This refers to a formal teaching of kabbalistic metaphysics – that existence emanates from the sefirah of Chokhmah, a higher aspect of the godhead labeled “Wisdom.” Above that stage/level in divinity, there is only ain, that which is “no-thing.”
[9] Rabbi Isaak Luria, the most famous Jewish mystic in history.


Post a Comment

<< Home