2361 God is not what we think



What is God? God is not what we think It is. God is not a thing, a being, a noun. It does not exist, as existence is defined, for It takes up no space (or includes all space but is not limited by it) and is not bound by time. Jewish mystics often refer to It as Ein Sof, which means Endlessness.

Ein Sof should never be conceptualized in any way. It should not be called Creator, Almighty, Father, Mother, Infinite, the One, Brahma, Buddhamind, Allah, Adonoy, Elohim, El, or Shaddai; and It should never, never be called He. It is none of these names and it has no gender.

When we call It God, what are we talking about? If we say that It is compassionate, full of loving kindness, the source of love, we may be talking about our image of what we think the divine nature ought to be but we are not talking about Ein Sof. In the same way, if we say that the God portrayed in the bible is vindictive, jealous, angry, cruel, uncaring, or punitive, we cannot be referring to Ein Sof. Ein Sof includes every attribute but cannot be defined by any of them individually or all of them combined.

The mystery of the origin of the universe has fascinated human consciousness from the beginning of recorded history. In all cultures of the world we find the timeless inquiry: Is there a creator and if so what is its nature? If not, how did creation begin and what is its purpose?

Mystics teach that there is a universal connection between all things; modern science offers the same message. This connection has various names, some say it is a soul force, others call it love; the ancients called it ether, science often names it energy. Yet, although there is general agreement that there seems to be a fundamental nature in the continuous unfolding of the universe, our relationship to the core of this nature has been a matter of considerable debate.

Jewish mystics are particularly concerned about naming the universal connection. People confuse names with identities. Many primitive cultures have name-secrets. They will not tell you their names for fear that you will have power over them. Similarly, at times, they will not allow you to take pictures of them. In the primitive mind, the essence of a person can be captured and imprisoned if one has control over a name or the image. 

When we give a name to the nameless it is a stumbling block that trips most people. We think that if it has a name, it has an identity. An identity comes with attributes. So we think we know something about it. This is a mistake.

For thousands of years this mistake has become ingrained in the human psyche. The word "God" suggests an embodiment of something that can be grasped. We have given a name to the unknown and unknowable and then have spent endless time trying to know it. We try because it has a name; but we must always fail because it is unknowable. Judaism is so concerned about this misunderstanding, it goes to great lengths to avoid naming God. Yet various names seep through because our minds cannot work without symbols.

What then is the God that is written about in the bible? Kabbalists teach that the very first line of Genesis has been mistranslated. Most people think it says: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." But the actual words in Hebrew can be read another way. A Kabbalist could say: "With a beginning, [It] created God [Elohim], the heavens and the earth."

 That is to say, there was an initial creation out of nothingness the potential to begin--Beginningness. Once there was a beginning, God (in a plural form) was created--a God to which the rest of creation could relate. Then the heavens and the earth were created.


The implication of this interpretation profoundly affects our entire relationship with God and creation, for it says that all the names we have for God and all the ways in which we relate to God are a few degrees removed from the source of creation that precedes even nothingness. This is called Ein Sof, which is not the name of a thing but is an ongoing process.


The idea of Ein Sof was first described by Isaac the Blind. He originated the actual use of the word Kabbalah to designate a variety of Jewish mystical teachings and practices. Prior to Isaac the Blind these teachings were referred to more obliquely, such as: the work of the chariot, the work of creation, the way of truth, and other phrases that hinted at hidden mysteries. People who followed the mystical path had many names as well: masters of knowledge, the wise-hearted, those who know measures and other enigmatic labels.


It is not known whether this teacher Isaac was really blind, or if this was an appellation intimating that he did not see things the way other people saw them. Indeed it was said that he had phenomenal mystical powers, being able to sense a "feeling in the air" whether a person would die in the near future and whether a person's soul was newly formed or was an older, reincarnated soul.


Isaac teaches that Ein Sof precedes thought (machshavah), and it even precedes the nothingness (ayin) out of which thought is born. Nothingness is viewed as a level of awareness that is the result of the "annihilation of thought."


The idea of the annihilation of thought, of course, is paradoxical. Can we imagine a void without beginning or end? Can we, limited by minds that are finite, imagine infinity? The answer is no, we cannot think of nothing.

 Anything that we can imagine has some kind of boundary--Kabbalists call it garment or vessel--and boundaries are containers. All thoughts, including all imagination, are garments or vessels. 

By definition, a boundary sets limits. We may be able to put a name to infinity, we can draw a symbol of a figure eight on its side and say that this represents infinity, but no matter how much we may believe that our imagination is limitless, we remain confined by the boundaries of our own reality. If it can be imagined, it is not infinite.

As infinity is beyond the imagination, what about that which transcends infinity--that which created it? Ein Sof is not "restricted" by infinity. Indeed, we have suddenly run out of words because the idea of "trans-infinite" is a logical absurdity. What can go beyond infinity? Moreover, what can go beyond the Nothingness that surrounds infinity? This is Ein Sof. Although we are informed that Ein Sof is inaccessible through any intellectual endeavor, we may still ask if is there a "knowing" that surpasses the intellect? Does Isaac the Blind have access to a level of awareness through which he can sense, somehow, the imperceivable? 

The answer is yes. Jewish mysticism teaches that we can know Ein Sof in ways that transcend thought. This aspect of developing a relationship with Endlessness, the source of creation, is the key to all Kabbalah and the life-blood of all Jewish practice. The secret teaching in developing this relationship with the unknowable is hidden in the mystical foundation of the nature of relationship itself.

The word "God," and all of its various names in Judaism, such as El, Elohim, Adonoy, Shaddai, and so forth, each represent aspects of Ein Sof. The exploration of these aspects gives us insight into the nature of Ein Sof. Thus, whenever God is discussed in this book, we are not talking about a thing in itself, but a representation of a far deeper mystery.


In the Song of Songs, the mystic whispers about the kiss of its lover: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine."

 We can feel the aching heart of the lover: "I am sick with love, his left hand is under my head and his right embraces me."

 We experience the thrill of anticipation: "My beloved put his hand by the latch of the door and my heart was thrilled; I rose to open to my beloved."


"Ah," we say, "the passion of young love!" But this is not a poem about young lovers. It is about us, about every human being, and it describes our potential relationship with the Divine. Perhaps you do not believe this; perhaps you feel that having an intimate relationship with the Divine is beyond you, reserved for others, or another lifetime. This is not so. It is part of our heritage; it is yours and mine to have. All we need do is learn how to let go of our fear, for fear maintains the barriers of separation.

In many traditions, the mystical expression of our  relationship with the Divine is through eros, the flame of a burning heart. Why? Because when we awaken to the realization that the presence of the Divine is revealed in the fullness of each moment, our hearts melt and the floodgates of our inner yearning open wide.

This is a mystical epiphany. It cannot be rationally explained. Although we cannot cross the barrier between us and that which lies beyond infinity, we can experience in the depth of our being the realization that for each step we take, the Divine steps with us; each breath we draw is connected with the breath of the universe; and that lover, beloved, and the essence of love itself are all reflections of exactly the same thing. In each of these moments we "know" the presence of the Divine and there is no separation.

One of the great Jewish mystics, Abraham Abulafia (13th century), says about one who has achieved this level of spiritual awareness: "Now we are no longer separated from our source, and behold we are the source and the source is us. We are so intimately united with It, we cannot by any means be separated from It, for we are It."


This is described in a lovely Sufi story of a man who constantly cried out to God, but received no response. After a while the devil whispered to this man, "How long will you wait for God to respond 'Here I am' to all of your entreaties?" This broke the man's spirit and he stopped calling out to God. In a dream, however, he envisioned an image of the Divine

 who asked him why he had stopped. The man said that God had never answered his call. The wise dream-image, representing God, then said, "Did you not realize that every calling of yours IS itself my response?"


The urge to call out to God is always answered simultaneously as it is spoken, for ultimately there is no difference between the caller and that to which it calls.

The Kotzker rebbe, Menahem Mendel (19th century), a famous hasidic teacher who lived his last twenty years in voluntary seclusion, asked one of his students, "Where does God dwell?" As the student stumbled in his attempt to respond, the Kotzker rebbe answered his own question, "God resides wherever we let God in!"

 Mystics throughout time, in all traditions, have said the same thing. We do not have to search for God because the presence of the Divine permeates all things. If there is a search at all, it is God searching for Itself, so to speak.


The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being. We can think of it as "be-ing," as verb rather than noun. Perhaps it would help us understand this better if we renamed God. We might call it God-ing, as a process, rather than God, which suggests a noun.

This idea was developed by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who goes further and explains that the kind of verb that represents God-ing is different from the ones we have in our ordinary language. Most of our verbs are considered transitive, which require a direct object, or intransitive, those that do not. He suggests that God-ing is a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other.


For example, "communicating" could be such a verb. If I were speaking to an audience, I might not be communicating. I would be engaged in the act of communication, but if the audience were not attentive and were thinking about other things, I would not be communicating no matter how much I talked. My verbal communication is dependent upon a listener; it cannot be a one-way street. Other obvious verbs that fit into this category are loving, sharing, dancing, kissing, hugging, and so forth.

We can relate to God as an interactive verb. It is God-ing. Moreover, from this perspective, creation should not be treated as a noun. It too is an interactive verb; it is constantly creation-ing. And, dear reader, you should not treat yourself as a noun--as Joan, or Bill, or Barbara, or John. With regard to God as an interactive verb, you are also verbs; you are Joan-ing, Bill-ing, Barbara-ing, or John-ing in relation to God-ing, just as I am David-ing.Each part in the universe is in dynamic relationship with every other part. In human interactions, such as marriage, one partner is husband-ing while the other is wife-ing. The two, in this sense, are one. We normally experience relationships in terms of their component parts; we are mistaken, however, when we assume the parts are separate. 

It is important to remember that the concept of God-ing is a way for us to have a relationship with the Divine. This should not be confused as having a relationship with Ein Sof. Many names of God are included in Ein Sof; God-ing is one name--a name that happens to be a verb rather than a noun.

The true discovery of the intimacy of our ongoing relationship with the Divine can dramatically change our lives. It often happens spontaneously, without a reason. Some call this experience "grace." It arises out of nowhere. We are sitting on the beach, walking in the woods, caring for someone who is dying, even driving on the freeway and suddenly we are overwhelmed by a strange light that penetrates our consciousness and we are never again the same. We read accounts of such transformations and conversion experiences that have changed the world.

Occasionally, individuals devote themselves to a spiritual life because of such experiences. However, most people who commit to an inner path do so because they yearn to connect with truth and meaning. This commitment usually involves undertaking a variety of practices that become part of one's daily life. They may include meditation, prayer, movement, diet, self-restraint, periods of seclusion, mantras, service, acts of loving kindness, and other time-tested techniques to alter consciousness. Eventually, when the practitioner's priorities are clear, the inner light of awareness slowly becomes illuminated and her or his perception of reality steadily changes. On the spiritual path, either through a brilliant flash of insight, or in the slow, steady progress of continuous practice, we gain wisdom. It is not intellectual knowledge, but wisdom--a deep knowing--inexplicable, indescribable and exquisite beyond imagination. This wisdom is the fountain of true mystical experience, the driving force of all spiritual inquiry. It is what sustains us when we are faced with doubts, nourishes us when the world seems bleak, and comforts us when we face the death of loved ones. Without it, where would we turn? What would we be without the awesomeness of the unknowable God? 

There is no answer to this question; we cannot prove anything about Ein Sof. Rather, it is a self-reflecting inquiry. Yet, when viewed from the perspective of our dynamic relationship with the Divine, it is a self-fulfilling question, for paradoxically the source of the question is the answer it seeks. "What would I be without God?" 

Consider this from your inner awareness. Not you the noun, the person you may think you are, but you the verb, the process of being in full relationship, continuously, with its creator. When a question arises within you, who is asking the question and to whom is the question addressed? Assume that there is no "me" to ask the question and there is no God out there to answer it. The question is part of the process of David-ing and God-ing in a mutual unfolding. 

Try to do this in a way that melts all barriers of separation. No subject and no object. Simply an ever opening process. No past, no future; only now. Each moment is a fresh opening. Each breath we draw, each move we make is only Now. This is my dance with God-ing. It is an awesome experience. 

Awe leads to wisdom. The opening of the Jewish morning prayers quote a line from Psalms that says: "The beginning of wisdom is the awe of the Y-H-V-H [the tetragrammaton, one of the key nameless names of God]."

 This Y-H-V-H is often referred to as Hashem, the Name. We don't want to give it a name, so we call it the Name. It is too awesome to name. Yet, we can experience awe. 

Perhaps you will take a few moments to close your eyes and allow yourself to sink into this idea. Meditate on this thought: The teaching of the mystery of Ein Sof is that the center of our being out of which awe arises is that about which we are awed. It is It! When we contemplate our continuous process of opening, right here, right now, we realize that God-ing is always with us; always.The Zohar says: "Before shape and form were created, It [Ein Sof] was without form or appearance. Therefore, it is forbidden to perceive It in any way, not even by the letters of Its holy name or by any symbol. However, had It's brightness and glory not been radiated over the whole of creation, how could It have been discerned, even by the wise? Therefore, it descended on a [mystical] chariot to be known by the letters Y-H-V-H, in order that it could be inferred, and for this reason It allows Itself to be called by various names, such as El, Elohim, Shaddai, Zevaoth, and Y-H-V-H [among others, such as God], each being a symbol of divine attributes. However, woe to anyone who presumes to compare Ein Sof with any attributes. For it is limitless, and there are no means to comprehend it."


Another zoharic teaching says: "That which is within the thought [of Ein Sof] is inconceivable. Much less can anyone know about Ein Sof, of which no trace can be found, and which cannot be reached by any means of thought. Yet, from the midst of this impenetrable mystery, the first descent of Ein Sof [whatever gives us insight regarding It] glimmers like a faint, undiscernible light just like the point of a needle, a hidden recess of thought which is not knowable until a light extends from it where there is an imprint of letters."


The unknowable can be discerned. Beginning at an indefinable point as sharp as a needle, it radiates in various ways which can be perceived. This only occurs in the context of process and interaction. We are not an audience watching the God-ing process on stage. We are on stage, ourselves. We mysteriously begin to get a glimmer of God-ing when we succeed in merging with the continuous process of unfolding creation. 

Our own experience of God-ing is not like anything we read about. It is a different kind of revelation than that described by ancient prophets. Perhaps some people still are able to hear a voice that booms out of the heavens. But this is rare, indeed, and even the Talmud has serious questions about its veracity. 

However, we do not have to be prophets to experience God-ing. It is everywhere around us and an aspect of everything we do. It arises when we repeatedly encounter the magical quality of life, the incredible blend and variety of experience, the exquisite unfolding of nature, the intricacies of our minds, and more than anything, the awe, the profound awe we experience when we sense the enormity of this universe. Somehow the awe itself, ineffably, draws us into the center of creation. At some point we merge with it.