Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Sequel Centuries Later


In my early 20’s, I found it much easier to understand Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s mystical book on the Creator’s Oneness, “The Gate of Unity and Faith”, than I had initially expected. Although it was my first thorough exposure to this book, I was already introduced to many of it’s fundamentals a couple of years earlier, in Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda’s “Duties of the Heart”. In my late teens, I took a class in Medieval Jewish Philosophy which centered on a section in the book called “The Gate of Unity”. When studying this section, I never suspected that I was really being prepared for my future study of another work in Jewish spiritual thought.  

Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda’s  “The Gate of Unity” was written about 1080 C.E. There, he explains the Creator’s Oneness in the philosophical terms popular in his culture and era, Jewish Andalusia. He explains the Creator’s Oneness as the most perfect of onenesses, as a Oneness containing no parts. Every oneness that humans can depict is somehow divisible and therefore, flawed; not a true oneness in the most absolute sense. However, the Creator’s Oneness is indivisible, totally seamless. This absolute version of Oneness is technically called a “non-composite unity”.

As an extension of the notion of Oneness, Rabbi Bachya has also describes the Creator as being truly Infinite, as being without parts automatically also means no beginning, middle or end - the very defining feature of Infinity itself. He uses this notion of the Creator’s Infinity to argue against polytheism by claiming that if the Creator is truly infinite then reality has no room for any other infinite deity. Where would a second infinite deity fit, when true Infinity is so all encompassing?

Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda’s argument is just one tiny step away from further extending his stream of logic to claim that there is no room for anything else altogether - whether infinite or finite. If there’s no room for a second infinity, why should there be any room any second entity - even a finite one? The obvious implication of this is that there should be no room for our universe. However, at the time I took the class in Medieval Jewish Philosophy this subtlety escaped my notice.

I was first exposed to such a notion a couple of years later, when I was taught Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s work “The Gate of Unity and Faith”, written in the late 18th century. There, Rabbi Shneur Zalman grapples with the issue of how can our universe exist within the Creator’s Absolute Oneness, without compromising His Oneness. For a finite spot within Absolute Oneness/Infinity is really a hole. If such a hole is real then the Oneness/Infinity is compromised and is no longer Absolute - as all seamlessness is lost.

To resolve this problem, he explains that even though there’s only Absolute Oneness/Infinity, there are a vast variety of perspectives, which arise from the varying degrees of the illusion of fragmentation introduced during the process of creation. For instance, an angel and a human see the exact same reality, but very differently. What an angel’s eyes pickup about the universe is vastly different from what a human being’s eyes pickup. Therefore, an angel and human will perceive themselves to be occupants of very different realms, when truthfully, they share the same reality. Yet, the gaping gap of their relative perceptions set them up to believe that they abide in “different realms”.

When a group of beings share a highly consistent set of perceptions, they are said to be occupants of the same realm. The higher or more spiritual realms are really just the perceptions of beings with less illusion of separation, while lower or more physical realms are the perceptions of beings who experience of this illusion much more intensely. Each realm is really just a construct set up by perceptions. The only Being Who perceives the entirety of reality as it really is, without any editing, is the Creator Himself. From His perspective there’s only Absolute Oneness/Infinity, i.e. Himself. All reality is seamlessly Him, as sunrays are seamlessly “sun” before radiating out into the universe.

So  is our earthly realm real? Yes, but not as we perceive it. Our perception is so highly edited that the huge gaps in our perception leave us with a very disjointed view. As a highly oversimplified example, imagine looking at a long ray of light. Suddenly the mid-section of the ray becomes ultraviolet light. It appears now like there are two smaller rays, when really its one long ray with an imperceptible mid-section.  

Years after having been taught “The Gate of Unity and Faith”, the question of, “Why didn’t Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda take that one tiny step, mentioned earlier, to extend his argument, which explained why there’s no room for two infinite beings, to also explain why there is no room for anything else altogether - whether infinite or finite? Why was this work left unfinished until Rabbi Shneur Zalman came along some six centuries later?”

This question is strengthened when considering that the result of this key turn in his argument could have brought to light the teaching that “there’s nothing other than the Creator” centuries earlier and spared whole populations from an unnecessarily compromised notion of the Creator’s Absolute Oneness/Infinity - which according to Judaism is a vital belief the entire humanity.

I held this question in my heart for a long time. Having found out that Sufis also share this belief that only the Creator exists, I asked a student of Sufism whether all other Muslims also this view. The response I received was that most Muslims don’t accept such a notion of Oneness. They consider it a violation of assigning “partners” to the Creator - presumably, on a misconception that in this scenario the creation would function as a kind of “second deity”. I was further told that Orthodox Muslims have often caused problems for Sufis over this notion, as it differed with their standard theology.

Then it occurred on me that in the theocratic climate of the Ishmaelite world, Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda probably felt that it was necessary to remain silent on this notion - as it possibly placed Jews at risk. His text was written in Arabic, in order to spiritually guide his fellow Jews living throughout the wider reaches of Islamic culture. Having been written in the vernacular, his book could have easily been picked up by Muslims on the “lookout” and had it contained such a notion, the Jews could have been falsely accused of believing that the Creator has “partners”.

While this silence likely spared Jews from the “partnership accusation”, it also had a downside. A contemporary commentator of “The Gate of Unity and Faith”, Rabbi Shimon Gopin, writes that prior to the publication of this work, Jews were usually unaware that the world is continuous with the Creator. By and large, they were fuzzy on their understanding of the relationship between the Creator and His creation.

However it took a Torah genius, living outside the domain of Islamic society, like Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who also possessed the necessary sensitivities and literary skills to feel safe picking up where Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda had left off. True to the function of a sequel, Rabbi Shneur Zalman never seems to explicitly repeat what Rabbi Bachya has already established. Yet, his work implicitly relies on the notions of Oneness and Infinity laid down by Rabbi Bachya to flow.  

Therefore, it seems likely to me that Rabbi Shneur Zalman intended “The Gate of Unity and Faith” to be a continuation of the “The Gate of Unity” section of Rabbi Bachya’s “Duties of the Heart”. This might even explain why the names of the two works are so similar.  



I have since writing this article reconsidered whether it is clear that Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda was truly a Monist. What moved me to reconsider is the fact that he might have believed in a very literal notion of the world being created "something from nothing".

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi did not have a very literal notion of "something from nothing". To him, the world is somehow continuous with her Creator. "Something from nothing" simply means that reality of the world is seamlessly dissolved in her spiritual Source. If you look at the Source, you won't find the world there anymore than you will find an individual sun ray in the belly of the sun. This is not a literal "something from nothing". It just means that something individuated out of a prior state of being seamlessly dissolved. The connection between the Creator and the world raises the question of how is there space for a world inside of a Creator whose seamlessly One.

However, someone who believes in a literal notion of "something from nothing" believes that the world "poofed" into existence at the Creator's will. In this scenario, she is not continuous with her Creator. She's simply another kind of existence altogether. Since the Creator of space is beyond space, questions of being inside Him, outside Him or His somehow making room, don't even apply. Only a continuity of sorts can make such questions logically apply, in the sense of the world being somehow included in Him.

Since the presentation of creation as "something from nothing" in "Duties of the Heart" very easily reads as literally intended it is possible that the author was not bothered at all by the question of how the world exists inside of her Creator and therefore, had no need to harbor Monist beliefs.

However, this does not detract at all from Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda's clarification on the notions of absolute Oneness and Infinity which are found at the foundations of Monistic mystical thought. It is these clarifications that formed a basis for helping me understand Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and in that sense it was a "Sequel Centuries Later".

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