Magazine article Tikkun

The God beyond God

Magazine article Tikkun

The God beyond God

Article excerpt

The God Beyond God

Daniel C. Matt is professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Excerpt from God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science and Spirituality, by Daniel C. Matt. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996. $21.95 + $3.50 s/h P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing.

How can you name the Oneness, the Unnamable? The Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah, offers a number of possibilities. One is Ein Sof, which translates literally as, "there is no end." Ein Sof is the Infinite, the God beyond God. This name sounds so different from the personal divine names that populate the texts of the tradition: YHVH, Elohim, Shaddai, the Holy One, blessed be He. As an anonymous kabbalist observed, neither the Bible nor the Talmud even hints of Ein Sof. This remark is both obvious and revealing, an acknowledgment of the radical originality of this mystical formula.

By calling God "Ein Sof," Jewish mystics imply that everything is divine. The kabbalist Moses Cordovero, writing in the sixteenth century, put it this way: "The essence of divinity is found in every single thing--nothing but It exists. Since It causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them. Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say, `This is a stone and not God.' God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity."

There is nothing but Ein Sof. Even a stone in a field, even a slab of concrete in a downtown parking lot, is an expression of divine energy. The entire world is God in myriad forms and disguises.

The name Ein Sof opens with a negative: Ein, "there is no." This accords with the view of the philosopher Moses Maimonides that it is more accurate to say what God is not than what God is. Calling God "powerful" conjures up the image of a muscleman. Calling God "wise" puts Him in the category of a sage. Better to say that God is neither "weak" nor "stupid." Even the bland statement "God exists" is misleading because divine existence is unlike anything that humans can conceive. A more precise formulation is: God "exists but not through existence."

The best theology, in Maimonides' view, is negative theology. "Know that the description of God by means of negations is the correct description, a description that is not affected by an indulgence in facile language. Negative attributes conduct the mind toward the utmost reach that one may attain in the apprehension of God. You come nearer to the apprehension of God with every increase in negations."

The kabbalists adopt Maimonides' negative style of theology and take it to an extreme. Among their names for God, Ein Sof is the most famous, but not the most radical. Having carved away all that is false, they discover a paradox of a name: Ayin, Nothingness. We encounter this bizarre term among Christian mystics as well: John Scotus Erigena calls God nihil; Meister Eckhart, nichts; St. John of the Cross, nada.

To call God "Nothingness" does not mean that God does not exist. Rather, it conveys the idea that God is no thing: God animates all things and cannot be contained by any of them. In the words of a fourteenth-century kabbalist, David ben Abraham ha-Lavan, "Nothingness (ayin) is more existent than all the being of the world. But since it is simple, and all simple things are complex compared with its simplicity, in comparison it is called ayin. …

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