An Introduction to Kabbalah, Part 2: God Does Not Exist, God is Existence Itself

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week, in part 1 of my Guide to Kabbalah, we began at the beginning, asking the simple question of "What is Kabbalah?" and providing four parallel answers: literal (a "received" tradition of mystical and esoteric thought), spiritual (a system which enables "receiving" of more of the world, or God), historical (a library of Jewish texts and traditions dating from the medieval period), and poetic (a way of reading texts and our experience).

But while last week's post did begin at the beginning from the point of view of the student, you may have noticed that it definitely did not begin with first principles: with fundamental teachings about the nature of reality. Nor did it begin with, well, the Beginning, as in "In the Beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth." Fair enough; we all have to start somewhere. This week, however, we'll look to some of those core principles. (Next week, we'll see how Kabbalah develops three distinct "answers" to its fundamental question; and the week after, we'll look at how this can work in our own spiritual practice.)

So -- let's begin again.

For most Kabbalists, the visible world is only the superficial skin of reality. Just the fact that we've already answered one question in four different ways gives a hint (an intentional one) about how Kabbalah tends to approach texts and ideas. There's always a deeper level, always a counterpoint.

At the deepest, most fundamental level, the true reality of our existence is One, Ein Sof, infinite, and thus the sense of separate self that we all have -- the notion that "you" and "I" are individuals with souls separate from the rest of the universe -- is not ultimately true. The self is a phenomenon, an illusion, a mirage. Because -- we might say -- of the way our minds are constructed to interact with the world, we imagine ourselves as separate selves, going about our business, trying to be happy. In fact, we, the stars, our friends and enemies, and everything around us -- all of us are dreams in the mind of God. Nothing has any separate reality -- it only looks like there are separate tables, chairs, computers, and people from a certain, limited perspective. Being in itself is actually nothing but God.

To be sure, this is a God very different from the ordinary one -- a "God beyond God," as it were, neither a paternalistic judge nor a partisan warrior, but Ein Sof, Being and Nothingness, without end or limit, and thus filling every molecule of this page and every synapse in the brain. God is who is reading these words and writing them, who is thinking and what is thought. This is the world without an observer, with no inside and no outside, in which That (what seems to be without) and You (what seems to be within) are the same. And with this radically different conception of God come very different expressions of Judaism: elite, often hidden traditions quite unlike the mass religion of rituals, myths, and dogmas

This God is less a God that does or doesn't exist, but existence itself. To paraphrase from a non-Kabbalistic source, the yoga sutras of Patanjali, God does not exist -- God is existence itself. Moreover, from God's point of view, all of the distinctions we make -- between ourselves and the world outside ourselves, among objects in the world, etc. -- are completely illusory, because ultimately there is only the undifferentiated unity of the Ein Sof, the Infinite.

Let's pause for a moment, before answering those questions, for a "reality check." For most of us today, the concept of God is a problematic and controversial one. I've taught Kabbalah to adults, adolescents, Jews, non-Jews, and I've noticed that the large majority of my students, when they hear the word "God," seem to say "hold on -- you've lost me."

This makes perfect sense, of course, given that we are living in the 21st century. But for most Kabbalists, the situation was very different. The concept and experience of God were known from their earliest memories. The great Kabbalists were rabbis soaked in the God of Judaism, which they experienced and related to all the time. Questions like 'Does God exist?' or 'How can we know that God is real?' are quite valid, but in the classical Kabbalah, they don't get asked. What is God -- absolutely. But whether there is a God -- not so much.

Of course, this may be problematic for us today, and if we are to conceive of a contemporary Kabbalah, then we must ask these new questions. Fortunately, however, Kabbalah tends to be more interested in how we relate to God than how we can speculate about God -- and this brings us back to experience, to first-hand knowledge and understanding. Kabbalistic texts ask how we know God through the concepts of the sefirot (more on that next week), or how we unite with God through meditation, or how we can use our relationships with God for various purposes. Kabbalah is not a philosophical system. In fact, historically, much of the Kabbalah arose directly in response (and opposition) to rationalist philosophy. So we will not find systematic "proofs" of God's existence in the Zohar or anywhere else. What you will find are texts and practices that enable profound shifts in consciousness. What those shifts enable you to see -- well, that will be up to you.

Now, as we've already noted, the Ein Sof is very different from what most people call "God." The Kabbalists were well aware of that. Let's look at two short texts from one of the most important Kabbalists, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, here in my translation:

Now, the poor person thinks that God is an old man, as it is written, "the ancient of days sits"; and he has white hair because he is old, as it is written, "the hair of his head like clean wool"; and he sits on a great wooden throne, glittering with sparks, as it is written, "his throne was fire"; and that his appearance is like fire, as it is written, "For YHVH your God is consuming fire." And the result of all these images, which the fool thinks about until he corporealizes God, is that he falls into some trap, and abandons his faith . . . But the wise, enlightened person knows God's unity, and his essence that is completely devoid of material boundaries . . . And from this he will aid strength to his awe . . . and a great love in his soul.

This is a remarkable teaching. For Cordovero, God is not some old man in the sky who makes sure that only good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad. Only "poor people" (intellectually, not financially, of course) think that way. In fact, the universe is inconceivably vast, and every subatomic particle of it is filled with God. Here's Cordovero developing that point further:

The essence of God is in every thing, and nothing exists outside of God. Because God causes everything to be, it is impossible that any created thing exists except through Him. God is the existence, the life, and the reality of every existing thing. The central point is that you should never make a division within God . . . If you say to yourself, "The Ein Sof expands until a certain point, and from there on is outside of It," God forbid, you are making a division. Rather you must say that God is found in every existing thing. One cannot say, "This is a rock and not God," God forbid. Rather, all existence is God, and the rock is a thing filled with God . . . God is found in everything, and there is nothing besides God.

There is nothing besides God! Notice, this is not a 21st century New Age guru talking; this is a 16th century rabbi, living in semi-poverty in what is now the north of Israel. Think about it. "Ein Sof" means infinite -- really infinite. If this computer screen is not the Ein Sof, we've made a mistake, because we've given the Ein Sof a sof -- an end. Kabbalists take the idea of infinity very seriously. God is that which Is -- YHVH, one of the main Hebrew terms for this Reality, might even be translated "Is." God is not an old man; God is What Is. The Infinite is everything. It is the only thing. "God" is an imprecise name for the only thing in the universe that actually exists.

Of course, most of us don't experience life this way. The world appears to us as self and other, a place with a lot of stuff in it, much of which we don't like. So, in fact, Kabbalah begins, rather than ends, with the Ein Sof, and devotes most of its attention to the finite, to the sefirot and their qualities, the world and its demands. And the Jewish contemplative spends less time establishing nonduality than asking how best to live in its light. If everything is God, why do things appear as they do? And how can we have knowledge of God, in this lifetime?

We'll look at Kabbalistic answers to those questions.... next week. Read The Full Series: An Introduction To Kabbalah