To Become Divine
To get a small taste of the radical impact of the different views on the Tzimtzum (the Divine concealment in existence discussed here in the past few weeks) just read Mark Lilla’s cover article in last Sundays New York Times Magazine.
In a comprehensive fashion Lilla maps out the history and evolution of religion and its role in running the world. The tense relationship between faith and governance, and the terrible bloodshed that it brought about, among other reasons, resulted in the development of new philosophies regarding the role of religious belief in modern society.
Lilla describes the fallacy of the Enlightenment’s expectations and predictions that society was on a:
“one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow.”
Promoters of modernization took it for granted that:
“science, technology, urbanization and education would eventually ‘disenchant’ the charmed world of believers, and that with time people would either abandon their traditional faiths or transform them in politically anodyne ways.”
This simply did not happen, and may never happen. On the other hand, political theology in the West no longer dominates modern society as it once did.
In the last few centuries different approaches developed to find some way to relieve the tension between faith and modernity. For Thomas Hobbes the rules of daily life must be separated from the laws of the Divine lest we risk rousing radical passions that will overrun society.
“In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man.”
Rousseau believed that religion ought to remain a potent force, but it must be stripped of its primitive principles and extreme political theology.
From West to East the shadowy ripples of the grand Tzimtzum’s black hole leave their mark in the rifts and tensions exposed by virtually every philosophy and school of thought. Whether it is Hobbes (and his descendants) compartmentalization between church and state (“the great separation” as Lilla coins it), or Rousseau’s (and his descendants) religious reform, tailoring it to contemporary standards. Or on the other extreme, radical religious passions, which now come in the shape of Muslim fundamentalism, mimicking its earlier Christian cousin, which for millennia dominated, if not terrorized, political life. All these positions – from one end of the religious spectrum to the other, and all the variations in between – make one thing very clear: No one seems able to make peace between a Divine mandate and the political realities on the ground.
And G-d will simply not go away.
However you twist it, G-d and daily life simply doesn’t get along. Is there a simpler way to define the grand Tzimtzum? Is there a more tangible expression of the Tzimtzum? Whether it is the literal or non-literal interpretation of the Tzimtzum, the Divine has a tenuous relationship with existence. The concealment and inaccessibility of the Divine defines the very nature of our political and religious history. When an entity (life) is out of touch with its mission, when substance is detached from spirit, when what you do is misaligned from who you are – you have a fatal rift.
Yet, as discussed last week, the Tzimtzum is after all merely a state of concealment, not removal. Albeit, a profound and powerful concealment, which unleashed complicated tensions, but still, we have the power and role – our unique mission – to puncture the “black hole” and reveal the light within. We have the ability to bridge substance and spirit, to reveal their inherent unity and reconnect our material lives with its Divine purpose.
Last week we reviewed how the cosmic order allows us to recognize the Divine properties within our material existence and actually enables us to integrate and align the two into one seamless flow. Substance and spirit – containers and light – join as one. Thus creating a full relationship between the human and the Divine – “I am to my beloved and my beloved to me.”
The question we left with last week remains: How can we achieve total fusion of “I am to my beloved and my beloved to me” when the Divine Essence is a non-existential, independent, reality (metzius bilti metzius nimtza), completely beyond and diametrically opposite, in every way, of our existential, dependent, mortal existence. How then is it possible to unite these opposite realities? Given, we can unite with the Divine as it manifests in existence, but can we actually connect to the ultimate reality – the innermost essence of Divine reality, which we have absolutely no way of relating to?
The answer in one (Hebrew) word is: Bittul. This may be a foreign expression to some of us. Indeed, “bittul” is hard to translate into English, perhaps because the concept is outside of our mind-set.
Bittul is a combination of humility, modesty and selflessness. Bittul is the single most important ingredient in all growth and excellence, and the only way to achieve immortality: The ability to suspend your self – and self-interest – in order to channel that which is greater than you.
Every birth must undergo a metamorphosis in which a previous state of being recedes in order to allow a new state of being to emerge. A seed rots in the ground before it blossoms. Creativity is the child of frustration. Raw metal must be melted in order to shape it into a beautiful ornament. One layer of skin has to be shed before a new one replaces it. As the Kabbalists put it: Between two states of “being,” “itness” (“yesh”) there is a vacuum, a state of suspension (“ayin”). As long as the previous state remains intact, it can never fully access a completely new level of experience. The past will shape and (often) haunt the future.
This is what “thinking out of the box” truly means. All of us are defined by our subjective perspectives: The combination of our education, experiences and viewpoints. As great as that perspective may be, it still is our own defined perspective. Bittul is the ability to suspend your perspective – now matter how hard earned and developed – and allow in the possibility of another, fresh perspective.
In the language of the Chassidic masters: “Bittul” is the entity called “ohr” – light or energy. Light/energy is the powerful metaphor that the Kabbalah uses to describe Divine transmission. The Divine Essence (Atzmus) is beyond expression and definition, a “non-existential” reality (metzius bilti metzius nimtza). Light is the way the Divine expresses and manifests itself. Just like light is merely a reflection of its luminary, so too Divine light has no substance of its own, but it merely reflects and expresses its Source.
Any entity that has its own presence will express itself, and in doing so, it must conceal any other (higher) presence. Because it has no substance of its own, light illuminates, rather than darkens, the landscape with the presence of the luminary it reflects.
In other words: Light is bittul. The epitome of an entity that combines both substance and no substance: it has no substance of its own and always reflects its (luminary) source. Yet, by virtue of its utter and total bittul the Divine Light assumes and emanates the “personality” of its source. (see Light: Where the Existential Meets the Non-Existential). Precisely because of its transparent bittul (selflessness), with no “personality” of its own to get in the way, light purely reflects and channels the deepest “substance” of the source, including the “non-existential” “nature” of the Essence. In effect, the utter bittul of light becomes one with its source (“kodum ke’kadmuso), thus “carrying” the non-existential Essence into existence.
So this completes the circle: Light is the manner by which the Essence imparts its qualities to existence. This light will go through many stages of evolution: It will divide into the infinite light and the finite one, and then experience the radical “quantum leap” of the Tzimtzum, which conceals the light and allows for our independent consciousness. The light will then pierce the Tzimtzum as a narrow thread of light (kav), which in turn will undergo further stages of concealment and revelation.
And this light is also the manner by which we climb the ladder, reversing the steps and returning from matter to spirit, from the containers to the light. The defined “lights” and “containers” of the cosmic order allow us to pierce the Tzimtzum’s concealment and fuse the personality of our material existence with the Divine “personality” (in whose “image” we were created). We then climb via the kav into the pre-tzimtzum light, and that in turn leads us into the infinite (Ein Sof) elements of the Essence reflected in the light. Since light is completely selfless and only reflects its source, it ultimately bridges the final gap between the existential and the non-existential Essence. Ohr (light) is the final stepping stone bridging our mortal existence with the Divine.
Truth be told, bittul is necessary on all levels, to transform every level from the human to the Divine. But it is absolutely imperative, and in its ultimate form, in order to rise from the existential to the non-existential.
For us to fuse with the Divine – “I am to my beloved and my beloved to me” – we too must become like light. The process begins by first recognizing that every aspect of our material existence is a “means” – a “container” – for Divine light. We then transform and sanctify our material belongings and activities into spiritual forces, e.g. donating money to a good cause. Slowly we expose the Divine properties in every detail of the fabric of existence. The containers then become an extension of light, in turn becoming an extension of the Divine Essence. We thus convert the entire material world into a home for the Divine – a magnificent Divine tapestry reflecting the beauty of the Divine in the multifarious nature of existence.
Imagine how wonderful such a world would be.
The most critical ingredient to achieve such seamlessness is through bittul – to be like light whose entire being is to reflect a truth greater than itself.
All the attempts to either ignore or integrate religion into modern life, Lilla writes, conveniently avoid the single most important message of faith: You must change your life. But this message is the one people don’t want to hear. And therein lays the undoing of all the philosophies – from radical atheism to radical religiosity, from compartmentalization to liberal theology: As long as you want to live on your own terms, and even religion must fit into your defined framework, you will be left solely at the mercy of your limited resources; the most that you can expect is what your mortal life and subjective experience can offer. You, thus, can never truly integrate with the Divine (let alone with the Divine Essence). Absolute self interest simply does not allow in (in any complete way) anything beyond your self.
Bittul, however, selfless dedication to a cause greater than your self, opens up the door to the Divine, and ultimately to the Divine Essence.
Through bittul – absolute and utter devotion to the cause for which we were created, rather than our own myopically perceived need – allows us to become part and extension of G-dliness.
Then and only then do our otherwise pedestrian lives take on eternal, immortal and absolute meaning.
Is there a greater gift than that?