Unknowability of God In Jewish Mysticism, Part II
It is taught in the Book of Concealment: The Most Ancient One, the Most Secret, the Most Concealed, is formed [128b] and prepared so that, in his formations, he is like an eldest Elder — more ancient than the ancient ones, more concealed than the concealed ones. In his formations he is both known and unknown... In the hollow of the skull is the membrane of the air, the cover of the secret supernal Wisdom that cannot be discovered or expounded or revealed. The membrane envelopes the brain, which is the secret Wisdom. That is, the Wisdom is covered by the membrane that cannot be opened, the brain itself being the secret Wisdom. It is at rest and tranquil in its place, like good wine upon the lees, and thus it is said of the Elder, that his mind is concealed, and his brain is concealed and tranquil... It is written (Dan 7:9) "The Ancient of Days did sit." He sits in his place, but no man can know where it is. He sits but is not found... (rosenberg_73)
The following additional statements are quoted in Matt (1990):
Ein Sof cannot be conceived, certainly not expressed, though it is intimated in every thing, for there is nothing outside of it. No letter, no name, no writing, no thing can confine it. The witness testifying in writing that there is nothing outside of it is: "I am that I am." Ein Sof has no will, no intention, no desire, no thought, no speech, no action — yet there is nothing outside of it (Azriel of Gerona).
No letter, vowel, or image can be applied to it, for even Keter, the beginning of emanation, is devoid of name and image in letter or vowel. How much more so with Ein Sof, whom we cannot depict, of whom we cannot speak, of whom we cannot posit either judgment or compassion, excitement or anger, change or limit, sleep or motion, or any quality whatsoever, either prior to the emanation or now (Moses Cordovero).
Elijah opened and said, "Master of the worlds! You are one — but not in counting. You are higher than the high, concealed from the concealed. No thought grasps you at all... About you, no one knows anything..." (Tiqqunei Hazohar).
Ein Sof is a place to which forgetting and oblivion pertain. Why? Because concerning all the sefirot, one can search out their reality from the depth of supernal wisdom. From there it is possible to understand one thing from another. However, concerning Ein Sof, there is no aspect anywhere to search or probe; nothing can be known of it, for it is hidden and concealed in the mystery of absolute nothingness (David ben Judah Hehasid).
The depth of primordial being is called Boundless. Because of its concealment from all creatures above and below, it is also called Nothingness. If one asks, "What is it?" the answer is, "Nothing," meaning: No one can understand anything about it. It is negated of every conception. No one can know anything about it — except the belief that it exists. Its existence cannot be grasped by anyone other than it. Therefore its name is "I am becoming" (Joseph Gikatilla).
While one can probably find a thousand additional poetic expressions in the kabbalistic literature of the unknowability of En Sof, my suspicion is that there is little to be learned over what might already be gleaned from just the above statements. It is possible, of course, that the statements given above are intended to stoke a certain feeling of mystery and awe in the reader — as well as a recognition of the individual's insignificance besides God — rather than to actually convey any insight about the nature and scope of God's unknowability. Nevertheless, let us try to gather what we can.
It seems to me that the recurring idea here is that the human mind is incapable of representing to itself knowledge concerning either God's wisdom and/or God's nature. In the quotation from the Zohar, it seems that it is the Divine wisdom which remains beyond reach, sealed away and forever inaccessible. In the other citations, it seems rather that it is the Essence of the Divine, the phenomenon of En Sof itself, that is not approachable. But I think we can do a bit better: Azriel and Cordovero both intimate that the problem of God's unknowability is, to a certain extent, a problem of description; that is, we are somehow lacking the tools that we need in order to describe the Divine. Attributes such as intention, desire, compassion, excitement, etc., that we are tempted to apply to God, these attributes — for unspecified reasons — fail utterly to describe the Divine essence. We thus have the sense that the "un-graspability" or "incomprehensibility" of En Sof is due to its essential indescribability by whatever mental or spoken languages we have available to us. Rav Kook provides an analysis of God's unknowability along similar lines (Pangs of Cleansing):
The foundation of religious faith is rooted in the recognition of the greatness and perfection of the Infinite. Whatever we conceive of it is insignificant in comparison with what by right we should conceive of it, and what we should conceive of it is not much more significant in comparison to what it really is. ... All the divine names, whether in Hebrew or in any other language, give us only a tiny and dull spark of the hidden light to which the soul aspires when it utters the word "God." Every definition of God brings about heresy, every definition is spiritual idolatry; even attributing to Him intellect and will, even the term divine, the term God, suffers from the limitations of definition. Except for the keen awareness that all these are but sparkling flashes of what cannot be defined these, too, would engender heresy.
We see here again a conceptualization of the unknowability of God as the indescribability of God, and, in particular, the indefinability of God. I assume here that "definability" is a refinement (i.e., restriction) on "describability," but without further specification it is difficult to know exactly in what ways these notions differ. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate to interpret Rav Kook as saying — along with earlier kabbalistic thinkers mentioned above — that there is a key failure of description in the case of En Sof, and it is this failure of description that is the cause of our inability to know the Divine. However, the actual mode of failure remains unspecified.
Among the contemporary thinkers who have written on this topic, two individuals of unique stature are Aryeh Kaplan and Adin Steinsaltz. Aryeh Kaplan was a prolific author and outstanding scholar who wrote and translated many books on spiritual topics related to kabbalah and meditation (in addition to his classic Living Torah). I'm not certain, however, that among his many achievements can be counted any elucidation of the nature of God's unknowability, at least not beyond what was achieved by earlier scholars. In any case, Kaplan writes as follows:
God Himself, of course, is absolutely and ultimately unknowable. There is absolutely nothing in our experience that can be used as a means of comparison. There is nothing in human or any other language that can be used when speaking of God Himself (kaplan_90).
Our minds can only think in material terms, and therefore, it is almost impossible for us to picture any existence outside of space and time. This is but another reason why God's essence is absolutely unknowable (kaplan_90).
Ultimately, God is so high above us that we cannot comprehend Him at all... We have neither the words nor the mental processes that would enable us to actually describe God or understand Him. This is not only true of mortal man, but even of the highest celestial beings (kaplan_90).
Since everything conceivable — including any category of thought that the mind can imagine — was created by God, there is nothing conceivable that can be associated with Him. Let us say that I want to think about God. There is, however, no category in my mind in which I can place Him. Therefore, trying to depict God is like trying to see without eyes. When I try to see where there are no eyes, all I see is nothing. Similarly, when I try to think about God, all that my mind can depict is nothing (kaplan_85).
When a person imagines nothingness, he should realize that this is the closest that it is possible to come to imagining God. Most certainly. this does not mean that God is nothingness. In every possible way, God is more real than anything else that exists. However, it means that since there is nothing in the human mind that can relate to God as He actually is, nothingness is the closest thing to a perception of God that we can obtain. When a person depicts nothingness, he must realize that behind the nothingness is God (kaplan_85).
Of course, even to use the word "being" with relation to God is a misnomer and anthropomorphism. The only reason that we think of God as a "being" is so that we can speak to Him, and "being" is the only category into which we can fit that to which we can speak. Of course, the fact that "being" is the closest category into which we can place God does not mean that he is a being. As we have discussed earlier, there is no category into which can place God (kaplan_85.)
One may be tempted to say, "God is a principle." However, as I discussed earlier, the sentence "God is..." is a statement that cannot be completed. God is the creator of all categories and therefore cannot fit into any of them. Both "principle" and "being" are approximations that we use because the mind has no category into which it can place God. It may be that a third, intermediate category might be a better explanation, but the mind has no example of it, and therefore, such a category cannot be imagined. Nevertheless, through meditation, one can gain a glimmer of the nature of this third category (kaplan_85).
We will leave alone that last remark about meditation, except to make the following point (not for the last time): It seems to me that once we begin to discard reason we can no longer consider ourselves to be doing theology. Although Bayle claims that "you are accustomed by your theological mind to abandon reason as soon as you believe yourself to be in the presence of a mystery," this is a bad habit that we really cannot tolerate. Theology is the study of God and religion, and as far as I am aware, study of anything requires reasoning. When we give this up, we give up the only tool by which we can assess the relative merits of competing claims, and thus we again descend from constructive argument into "rhetoric and vituperation" (in Fackenheim's words). "Faith is different from reason and transcends reason but reason is the only tool we have by which to distinguish faith from credulity, truth from superstition" (jacobs_57).
In this connection, it might occur to one to suggest that perhaps the very notion of an "unknowable God" is intrinsically irrational or mystical, but that is very far from the truth, in my opinion. While the proposition that God is unknowable may have undesirable consequences for the grounding of religion in "metaphysical truth," the idea itself is rational and coherent since "unknowability" can be formalized mathematically for knowledge representation systems. To the extent that the human mind is a knowledge representation system of one sort or another, there is therefore nothing essentially irrational in positing the existence of "unknowable entities." However, this does not mean that every particular claim about unknowability is a coherent one, and so every such claim needs to be thoroughly vetted.
Now, to return to Rabbi Kaplan, he gives us a lot to digest, although — as we'll see — most of the claims he makes about God's unknowability were already made by the medieval rationalists. The most important of these claims are, as I see them, the following:
- There is nothing to which we can compare God.
- There is nothing in the world that can be associated with God.
- There is nothing in our verbal language that is useful in describing God.
- There is nothing in our mental language that is useful in describing God.
- There is nothing in the mind that is related to God.
- There is no category in which we can place God in order to depict Him.
- There is no predicate capable of completing the sentence "God is..." (although, judging from the above quotes, this does not prevent Kaplan from using such sentences frequently).
- The mind has no example of the category into which God might be placed.
It seems to me that some of these points have substance, and indeed constitute an essentially rational understanding of the problem in the classical mode, which we will take up in greater detail later. By "rational," I particularly mean that these types of assertions are formalizable, and thus open to some sort of debate or discussion. For example, in Claim 1, if by "compare" we mean something like feature-matching, then the statement that we have nothing to which we could compare God is (in its extreme interpretation) a claim that our mental representation of God does not share representational features with any other cognitive representation. This is an idea that we can at least attempt to formalize, and whose coherence and consequences we can therefore study. Similarly for the other claims.
However, as I see it, the above claims can all be formalized simultaneously within a single framework, because — to quote Joseph — it is the same dream. That is, from different angles, Kaplan is describing a single problem of unknowability, and it is the same problem of description which emerged from the sources cited earlier. The entire idea is essentially captured in Claims 4 and 5 (which I take to be synonymous), that there is nothing in our mental language that is useful in describing God. To the extent that mental description is achieved through a listing of features or relationships among features (something we will certainly pick up again below), what this claim means is that there are no features in our internal representational language that are applicable to describing God. From there it follows all the following claims.
- Claim 3 follows, since we do not expect that our verbal language could compose descriptions that our mental language cannot compose.
- Claim 2 follows — if by "association" we mean the sharing of features, since if anything in the perceived world shared features with God, this would imply that such features can be represented (in contradiction with Claim 4).
- Claim 1 follows, since if there are no representational features that apply to God, then there are no representational features by means of which any feature-based comparison could be made.
- Claims 6 and 8 (which I take to be synonymous) follow, since (classically speaking) the subsumption of an entity in a category or class is occasioned by abstracting from that entity those features which are shared between it an the other members of the class. As Rambam writes (GP I:58), "an attribute does not particularize any object of which it is predicated in such a way that it is not associated by virtue of that particular attribute with other things." (E.g., the things I am eating right now are in the category of "legume" because they have certain properties or features in common with other entities in this category.) If no features or properties of an entity can be represented in the first place, then it is impossible for the entity to be classified in this traditional sense. The distinction between Claim 4 and Claim 6, if there is one, is probably between categories considered in their extensional sense (as being characterized by their members) and categories considered in their intensional sense (as being characterized by the attributes shared by their members). We will say much more about this later.
- Claim 7 follows since "is a" relationships are category (inclusion) relationships, and are therefore not possible for the reason just mentioned.
We will not delve too much into these claims right now, except to mention that Kaplan's presentation leaves open many issues (beyond the naked question of why Kaplan's personal knowledge of God seems to exceed so dramatically what his own philosophy permits: "Yet, he who insists that God is in every way unknowable claims to know that what he says cannot be known" (heschel_51).) In particular, how should we frame the problem of describability to which Kaplan alludes? Why is it so impossible for us to acquire a category for God? It cannot, after all, simply be that we do not innately have such a category; there are many mundane categories which we do not possess innately, but that we develop over the course of our lives. As infants we did not have categories for "automobile" or "Jewish philosopher" or "information theory," and yet at some point we did nevertheless acquire these categories. (What is perceived as a "feature" also changes during development (smith_linda_89,younger_03), which may also point to the evolution of perceptual categories: "Shape" becomes a useful feature only when category for "shape" exists.) Indeed, one can reasonably say (and later we probably will say) that the essence of learning is the acquisition of categories — the abstraction of information, and if that is the case, then the process of category formation is clearly a process that humans and animals execute with proficiency and intelligence.
What Kaplan must therefore mean when he says that we do not "have the category" is both that we do not have the category a priori (i.e., innately), and also that it is impossible in principle that we should ever obtain the category. But why is it so? What is it about the structure of God and the structure of our cognitive system that prevents us from knowing about Him? What kind of category would be suitable, and how can we know that we don't have it? Does "entities that create everything conceivable" not constitute a valid category? If it does, then haven't we indeed categorized God? If it does not, then what does it mean to say that God is "the thing that creates everything conceivable," as Kaplan does above? So, while providing some very tantalizing ideas, Kaplan definitely leaves us with a lot of work to do in order to understand anything concrete about the kind of unknowability that confronts us in approaching God.
An approach very similar to Kaplan's seems to be adopted by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is considered to be one of Orthodoxy's preeminent contemporary thinkers. He provides a brief treatment of the nature of God which fuses kabbalistic mysticism with Maimonidean equivocation (which we will cover later). The reader can judge for themselves whether, besides the updated language, this version adds anything new to the account of Ramchal, Philo, or Rambam.
No created intellect, whether of man or angel, can possibly bridge the gap between the works of Creation and the Creator. Just as the creature is unable to grasp the Infinite Divine, so is it unable to grasp his attributes. Indeed, when speaking of any of the Divine attributes or Sefirot, we are only bringing the incomprehensible down to our human level because we are confronted with an insoluble dilemma. We can either use terms that are obviously imprecise and incorrect, but have some meaning for us as humans, or we can try to use precise terms that only make us totally inarticulate, unable even to begin to express ourselves. In a sense, as soon as one wishes to be absolutely correct in speech, there are no words any longer, none that satisfy the requirements....
Compare the above statement to Rambam's observation (regarding, there, in particular, the notion of that "God is one not through oneness") that "These subtle notions that very clearly elude the minds cannot be considered through the instrumentality of the customary words, which are the greatest among the causes leading unto error. For the bounds of expression in all languages are very narrow indeed, so that we cannot represent this notion to ourselves except through a certain looseness of expression" (GP I:57). However, I am not sure what Steinsaltz has in mind when he claims that "we can try to use precise terms that only make us totally inarticulate," since precision in language is generally found to improve comprehension, and it is the lack of precision that ordinarily leads to misunderstanding.
In any event, the general thrust of his remarks are that we do not have the right terms (descriptors, predicates, etc.) by which to describe God, and therefore we cannot understand God. As I mentioned above, I believe that the proposal that "we do not have the right terms" (really Rambam's proposal) is the same as Kaplan's proposal that we do not have the right "category" for God (also Rambam's proposal). It is the same dream. Steinsaltz continues:
To be sure, it may be claimed that I am a product of Divine grace. If so, how is it that I do not have any way of knowing Him? It is as though a creature of three dimensions were to draw a picture of two dimensions. This two-dimensional picture could never grasp the concept of three dimensions or comprehend that which brought it into existence. We, too, are thus a sort of transfer or a projection from some higher plane of being, constantly receiving from it and even endeavoring to grow into it, but altogether unable ever to grasp it or understand it.
There can be no direction to God's being — above or below in any meaningful way as far as geography is concerned; it can only be in terms of levels, in the sense of different planes of existence. Only thus can it be said that the dimension of Ein Sof is above and beyond the world. To be sure, this other-worldly dimension has become, in a manner of speaking, the point of departure for those philosophies that maintain that, since Ein Sof or God is beyond the world, then there is no connection between them, and there is an essential, unbridgeable gap between Divinity and reality as we know it...
Steinsaltz invokes the ever-beguiling Flatland metaphor as a way in which to understand the unknowability of En Sof, and it is not a bad start (although it would be a far better start if he would cite Plato or Abbott for the idea). I have previously written about the limitations of this sort of metaphor, but it is not the general use of the metaphor with which I find fault here. What is troublesome is the unwillingness of Steinsaltz to pursue the idea with greater rigor and detail. Geometry is certainly a formal discipline. If Flatland is the appropriate metaphor, then isn't it imperative to investigate it from every angle and aspect? If geometry or vector space is a sound metaphor, then each part of his statement that "We, too, are thus a sort of transfer or a projection from some higher plane of being, constantly receiving from it and even endeavoring to grow into it, but altogether unable ever to grasp it or understand it" would seem to cry out for some formalization within the framework of geometry or linear algebra. If he was not planning on using the tools of geometry or linear algebra to investigate this idea, then why introduce the geometric metaphor in the first place?
My conclusion is that while the Flatland metaphor is very important, it is used by many religious writers — and by Steinsaltz here — as a primitive "intuition pump." It all sounds very plausible at first — sure enough, everyone agrees that the two dimensional picture could never grasp the concept of three dimensions. But, when we consider it further, we must begin to wonder in what sense "a picture of two dimensions" is like "human cognition" and in what sense "a creature of three dimensions" is like the En Sof. What is the likeness between a picture and the human mind? What is the likeness between a "third dimension" and En Sof? Moreover, is it even coherent to say that "a two-dimensional picture could never grasp the concept of three dimensions"? Is "grasping" an activity that we can predicate of pictures? I personally have never observed a picture to "grasp" anything. As far as I am aware, "grasping," in the sense of "conceiving," is something which is only done by minds (or, if you like, information processing systems), so it is incoherent to talk about anything other than a mind or information processing system grasping something in this sense. However, as I said, there is something profound about the Flatland metaphor, and we will hopefully later see what it is.
Since we've already strayed quite a ways from Kabbalah, we can wrap things up here. The "unbridgeable gap between Divinity and reality as we know it" mentioned above by Steinsaltz — the tension between the imminent (Sefirot) and transcendent (En Sof) aspects of God — would seem to be the principle dilemma in kabbalistic thought. Indeed, "a great part of the history of religions, including the religion of Israel, consists of the quest for the solution of the problem of bridging the abyss that cannot be closed" (urbach_75), and so Kabbalah is unique not for its identification of the central problem, but in its approach to reaching a resolution. Although some of the kabbalistic literature evidences an attempt at systematicity — for example, in the attention given to the particular relational structure of the Sefirot, I am not aware of any true formalization of this system which uses any of the tools of knowledge representation. In particular, while "the sefirot reveal what can be conveyed of the divine nature" (matt_90) it is not clear what the relationship between the Sefirot and the En Sof might actually be, if any, and it is therefore not clear in exactly what sense the En Sof remains unknowable.
Finally, to end this little discussion of the God's unknowability in Kabbalah, there is the following consideration: "The language of truth is unadorned and always simple." It seems to me that for the most part the kabbalistic literature exhibits the very opposite of unadornment and simplicity, which makes me wonder whether there is really to found within it (i.e., in the classic sources) a genuinely coherent statement of the essential problem of God's unknowability. While I'm not nearly familiar enough with the sources to draw a definite conclusion, my feeling is that the clearer exposition of the problem is likely to be found within the writings of the rationalist philosophers.