If God is not what we think it is, what is It?

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 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.