This piece is an excerpt from:
‘The Garden of Paradox’ – The Essence of Non Dual Kabbalah in 3 Conversations.
The conversation occurs in Rav Pinson’s study with three representational students,
embodying respectively, the philosopher, the activist and the mystic.
These conversations were derived from actual classes given by Rav Pinson at the IYYUN Center, and around the world.
Conversation I: Creator
Several students are gathered around their teacher’s table singing a Niggun or ‘wordless melody’ most often used for meditation.
As the voices get stronger, the atmosphere changes. The song speaks to their souls, the sound creates a surrounding field.
Slowly, the melody begins to fade and fall away. Silence settles in and there is a sense of stillness.
teacher: Tonight we are going to explore the concept of “knowing G-d”. This is a common phrase, found in the Torah, and used by the early Kabbalists to describe the nature of their spiritual quest. Before we begin, I am interested to know if there are any initial questions or concerns about this phrase? What first comes to your mind when you hear the phrase,“to know G-d”?
student 1: Well, I don’t feel like we can ever really know the nature of the Creator. As I understand it, the Creator is infinite and our minds are finite. It doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility.
teacher: This is a good point. Our minds seem to be confined by the coordinates of space and time. How are we supposed to understand or connect with something that is not bound by those same parameters? Do we even have a language capable of expressing such a connection if it was attained? Keep these questions in mind as we continue to delve into this conundrum. Anybody else?
student 2: What I am stuck on is this: What do you really mean when you use the word G-d? I feel like most people just throw this word around as if everyone already understands what it refers to. It seems like something major that we’re all just taking for granted. But I for one, would really appreciate it if we could start at the beginning: Who, What, Where, When, Why is G-d?
teacher: This is an excellent place to begin. Throughout the ages our sages have introduced many different faces of G-d, or aspects of the Divine, as it were. This sounds contradictory because the Torah is always talking about the Ultimate Unity of G-d, but it is also understood that the One Essence has many (apparent) attributes. This is an idea generated from the Torah, which refers to the One G-d by many different names.
There is a meta-logic to this idea. It goes something like this: If we say that G-d is One, but also that the One is Infinite, then it is clear that the One can manifest in many masks — hence the multiple names for One G-d. This alludes to the ancient teaching that we can never know G-d’s Essence, but only G-d’s attributes. This means that we can never fully understand the absolute mystery of G-d at its innermost core, but we can get a sense of G-d through G-d’s actions in the world.
Ultimately we can only know that we don’t know. G-D remains an eternal mystery. But we can say that the Torah teaches us that G-d is One, G-d is Unique, and G-d is Infinite. Paradoxically we can also say that the Torah teaches us that G-d created a finite world out of infinity, G-d is aware of each individual creation, and G-d is approachable by humanity. In fact, the Torah even teaches us that G-d desires a relationship with the world. Not only can G-d be approached, but G-d actually wants to be approached.
If this all sounds very paradoxical, that’s because it is. But we need to remember that there is something deeper than finite, linear logic. Perceived paradox often leads beyond itself to some form of inconceivable truth. But to approach this truth one must get out of their head and break down some of the mind’s walls that keep us contained in our normative consciousness.
student 2: OK I get it. G-d cannot be defined. I guess I just have to get comfortable with the unknown.
teacher: Right. I think that’s a good place for us all to start from: The place of openness and unknowing. Once you think you know, you know you don’t. But let’s take a look at what some of the Kabbalists had to say about this elusive idea of knowing G-d.
In the era of R. Abraham Abulafia and R. Gikatalia, the early period in which Kabbalistic teachings were first written down to be published, the focus of the Kabbalist was to know G-d. When speaking of G-d they would use the term, “Ohr Ein Sof.” This appellation literally translates as, light without end. This is the Infinite, Formless, Limitless Light. This was the name of choice used by the Kabbalists to describe the Indescribable: The Infinite One.
So the first question has to be: What did they mean by the Infinite? Infinity in terms of the Ohr Ein Sof is not a mathematical infinity, as in an infinite amount of finite stuff. Rather, Ohr Ein Sof is altogether outside of the context of time and space.
When we are told, for example, that a certain galaxy is one hundred billion light-years away this implies that the galaxy is some 588,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away. For those who don’t know: Light travels at 186,000 miles per second and a light year is some 5,880,000,000,000 miles. So we can see from these astronomically large numbers that it may seem that this particular galaxy is an infinitely far distance away. But no matter how mind-boggling these numbers are, they are still not in the realm of the Infinite.
True Infinity is utterly discordant to the mathematical, or even the philosophical, interpretation of the infinite, which usually refers to something that is un-measurable and non-dimensional. The Infinite that is implied by the Ohr Ein Sof is of another order all together and is therefore beyond all imaginable definitions, limitations, or restrictions.
student 1: All right, this is starting to make a little more sense.
teacher: Good. Let’s go deeper. We also need to understand what the Kabbalists meant by knowing. One of you asked, how is it that an Infinite reality can be known, touched, or even approached by a finite mind? This is a great question. Let’s try to answer it.
Our brain is a dualistic and limited operating system that seeks to rationalize and contextualize whatever we perceive from within our senses. We do so based on our prior exposure to stimulus and the ways we may have rationalized similar perceptions at earlier times. This means that what we perceive is a confluence between what is seen and how it is seen. Our own pre-existing internal mental frame of reference gives what we see a classification and context. We require this context or contrast in order to recognize that something actually exists.
This all describes how our minds normally work. But the Kabbalists were not interested in knowledge the way we normally understand it. In their attempts to know G-d, they were not concerned with amassing an inert lump of mere descriptive data. They were attempting to know in the Biblical sense — meaning to unite with in order to achieve some form of intimacy and existential identification. To do this they would utilize various meditative techniques including visualizations, chanting, extreme exegesis, and breathing exercises. Through these experiential approaches to the subject matter they attempted to get beyond the mind in order to encounter the Creator outside of the standard definitions and limitations usually employed by the mind to make sense of stimulus and phenomena. These meditative techniques were an example of the Kabbalists impulse to stop making sense.
student 3: I can relate to these Kabbalists yearning to know something that is borderless and indefinable. We all seek, on some level, to know what is beyond our perception. But is this really feasible?
student 2: Part of me thinks that we should not even attempt this, but should just accept our human limits and resign ourselves to more sensible and rational goals, such as living in a way that makes our life meaningful.
student 1: Or could it be that this very quest — to connect to the Infinite — no matter how impossible it seems, is what gives our finite lives and goals meaning?
teacher: These are all the right questions. And I just want to point out that they all bring up different concerns. The first question is ultimately one of technique and functionality when it comes to knowing G-d. The second question is about the overall purpose of such a pursuit. And deeper still, it is a question about the essential purpose of our lives and how we spend our time and energy. The third question seems to be addressing the meaning inherent in such a quest, as well as the overall mechanism of finding meaning in our lives in general.
Without addressing any of these questions directly, I’m going to try to give a more general overview and hope that we touch on some relevant elements of each of these three inquiries. Sometimes an indirect or roundabout route is a more effective way of getting somewhere. Especially when the more direct option is full of overgrowth and obstacles that will only serve to strengthen the resistance to any who seek passage through to the other side of reality as it is already understood. Is that ok?
all 3 students: Yes. Sounds good. Sure.
teacher: Then let’s begin.
A natural yearning for the super-natural propelled these Kabbalists into this paradoxical quest. They were totally committed to the dictum of the Torah to ‘Know G-d’.
Understanding from the Torah that we could or should know G-d implies that this is somehow possible. But the question still remains: How are we to know the unknowable? What does it mean to know G-d? Where do we learn the ‘how’ of knowing G-d? The Torah itself gives us the key to unlock this gate: “You must know today, and take it into your heart, that Hashem is Elokim…There is nothing else” (Deuteronomy, 4:39).
The name Hashem literally means The Name — the Ineffable Name of the Nameless — that which transcends all definition or description. We pronounce the name Hashem when the Tetragrammaton (v-u-v-h) is written. It is our tradition that we do not pronounce the Tetragrammaton. Some sources say that the exact pronunciation of the four-letter name was lost during our many exiles.
Deeper still, this name may be, by its very nature, unpronounceable. Some esoteric sources claim that this name was never meant to be pronounced in the first place.
This perspective changes the significance of the name. It transforms it from being an essential name of G-d that we have lost or forgotten the correct pronunciation of, to being an ancient linguistic acknowledgment of the limitations of language when it comes to describing the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Its true and ingenious utility may very well lie within the foundation of its un-pronouncability. According to this understanding, those who try to speak the unspeakable are like those who attempt to assign a sound to silence, as if lighting a candle in the daytime would add any more light. They are missing the point of what it means to acknowledge the futility of naming the nameless.
The name Elokim indicates that same Ultimate Reality, but this attribute of the Divine serves as an interface between finite and Infinite. Elokim serves as a bridge across the quantum chasm that divides the Infinite One from Finite Multiplicity. Elokim dims the Infinite light, as it were, so that finite minds can relate to the Infinite Reality through the linguistic medium of definitions and descriptions. Our minds can relate to limited metaphors for the Limitless such as: Personal G-d, Divine Parent, Beloved One, or Creator of the World.
student 1: That certainly is a paradox: Using a name that implies definition as a bridge to what is un-definable, and maybe even ultimately unbridgeable.
teacher: The real problem with using metaphorical definitions such as these is that we run the risk of placing conceptual borders on the Borderless. As soon as we draw borders, we must learn to go beyond them. “Hashem is Elokim” means: Expressions of the Infinite can be found within the finite world. Yet, whenever we find traces of the Infinite, when we sense that there is something beyond ourselves, we are compelled to go beyond even that. But then the verse continues, “there is nothing else.”
student 3: How do we go about finding expressions of the Infinite? And how do we cross those bridges? Is it even possible?
FROM THE FINITE
TOWARDS THE INFINITE
teacher: Let’s get back to the statement, “There is nothing else”. Let’s delve into some of the experiential tools that Kabbalah uses to foster Divine consciousness, such as:
1) Cultivating awareness of Divine Providence,
2) Meditating on the Tree of Life,
3) Meditating on Divine Names, and
4) Practicing devotional acts of faith, love and awe.
These tools are themselves creations of the Creator and when used correctly they can lead us along a path towards Divine consciousness, for such is their intended purpose.
The creative process of Kabbalistic consciousness is colorful and replete with elaborate imagery, but its aim is to point to the colorless, imageless, transparent reality of the Ohr Ein Sof Itself.
Let us explore these tools and techniques a bit. But remember, the most important thing is for you to do them on your own. These seeds will not bear fruit unless they are planted, watered, and tended properly.
to continue reading . . .
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