Why are bricks red?

One way to explain the color of the brick would involve discussing the quantum mechanics of the atoms bricks are made of, (and this is where most readers eyes gloss over and skim to the end of the paragraph…) and the possible energy levels electrons can take when those atoms are combined into the compounds they are when they comprise a brick. Why those permitted levels means that those electrons will more readily absorb particular frequencies of electromagnetic waves. And how, of the frequencies in the range humans can see and thus call “light”, the result is that less light in the lower frequencies  is absorbed. Then we detour into the physiology of the eye, how the cone-shaped neurons in your retina detect light, why the three types of cones respond more to different ranges of frequencies. In particular, we can then trace the signal from the kind of cone most sensistive to lower frequencies of light, like the majority of the light that is reflected off the brick to the brain, and from there perhaps analyze why we group that under the label red. (… Hello again to all you skimmers!)

None of which actually touches on the first-hand experience of what it’s like to see red, what is called in cognitive science the “quale” of red. Not just to know something is red, but the first-hand mental image.

My question, though, is which is the cause and which is the effect?

Do we experience the quale of red because of the physics, biology and neural networking involved? Or, is what’s primary is that a soul experience the red of the brick, and that causes all the explanatory empiricism?

I am asking about the relationship between metaphysics and physics. We can take it as a given that Hashem causes metaphysics which in turn causes physics. That’s what metaphysics means — the spiritual “stuff” that lies behind physics.

So, to rephrase my question…

How are physics and metaphysics connected? Do metaphysical laws cause the physical ones? Are the laws of nature their implementation in physical “stuff”? Or, is their connection indirect, via people — who live both in this world and yet reach up to heaven?

I discussed this latter idea (from a different angle) in an earlier post titled “Mind, Perception and Metaphysics“. R’ Chaim Volozhiner (and I believe R’ Dessler is on the same page, see that post) writes in Nefesh haChaim 1:6:

אבל עיקרו של דבר כי הוא ית”ש אחר שברא כל העולמות ברא את האדם אחור למע”ב בריאה נפלאה כח מאסף לכל המחנות. שכלל בו כל צחצחות אורות הנפלאות והעולמות והיכלין העליונים שקדמו לו.

But the essence of the thing is that He (blessed be His name), after He created all the worlds, created man differently from the Act of the Beginning Of [ie the process of the rest of creation]. A wondrous creation, forces / potentials gather from all the camps. That unified in him all the Refinements, Lights, Wonders, Worlds and Upper Palaces that preceded him.

Physical objects exist and impact in the empirical world. Angels have their various planes of existence. In all of creation, only man’s existence runs from earth to heaven.

Related to this is the difference between how Chassidim and Litvaks understand the concept of tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacia contraction), of other things existing.

In Chassidus, tzimtzum is understood to refer to the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but is only an illusion. After all, Hashem Himself cannot change. As tzimtzum is an illusion, it would seem they assert an actual unity between metaphysics and physics.

In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, tzimtzum is real, but not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else. Different opinions then multiply as to what — the Or Ein Sof (the Infinite Light), Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will – R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position), and other opinions (wordings of the same idea?) exist. This removes the association between Hashem’s Unity and saying creation is inherently connected. Whereas Chassidim would have Hashem linking the various worlds, Rav Chaim — as we saw — says the linkage is via the human soul.

Interestingly, my theory fits the two communities’ respective attitude toward segulos, actions designed to achieve particular goals through metaphysical mechanics. Whereas it might be common to see a Chassid (or a Sepharadi, or… but let’s keep this in scope) wear a red string as a bracelet to avoid ayin hara, or a single Chassidah wear a magnet to attract a date, until recently you would not have found Litvaks doing the same. (Scoffing at the whole notion was far more common.)

To the Chassid, what happens in this world directly influences what happens in higher ones and the reverse. Thus, the notion that one can use Qabbalah to engineer a given consequence. A chassid can think in terms of the protection afforded by the mezuzah itself.

To a Litvak, the only connection is the soul and what is best for it “as he is there”. Thus, actions that do not refine the soul (or ch”v the inverse), do not change what is best for it, will not change outcome. Even the reward for mitzvos can not be determined mechanistically. A mitzvah will change the soul and thus what it deserves, but every soul and every moment of a life is different — we cannot know what that is. And so doing the mitzvah of mezuzah merits receiving protection (rather than it being a power of the object), but even so if for other reasons that soul needs trauma rather than protection… Even homes with the most beautifully and passionately written mezuzos have been broken into r”l.

So, returning to my opening question…

I am suggesting that the Chassid would say that the quantum mechanics, biology and neurology that goes into seeing the brick as red are caused by higher principles Hashem put into place beforehand. On the other hand, the Litvak would say that those higher principles are why a person has the experience of redness, the quale called “red’. This then causes the empirical world to “do its thing” to provide it.

Light of Creation

רבי לוי בשם רבי בזירה שלשים ושש שעות שימשה אותה האורה שנבראת ביום הראשון. שתים עשרה בערב שבת ושתים עשרה בליל שבת ושתים עשרה בשבת. והיה אדם הראשון מביט בו מסוף העולם ועד סופו כיון שלא פסקה האור התחיל כל העולם כולו משורר שנאמר (איוב לז) תחת כל השמים ישרהו למי שאורו על כנפות הארץ. כיון שיצאת שבת התחיל משמש החושך ובא ונתירא אדם ואמר אלו הוא שכתב בו (בראשית ג) הוא ישופך ראש ואתה תשופנו עקב שמא בא לנשכני ואמר (תהילים קל) אך חשך ישופני.

Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Bezeirah: The Light created on the first day was used for 36 hours. 12 hours on erev Shabbos, 12 hours on the night of Shabbos, and 12 hours on Shabbos. Adam haRishon could see with it from one end of the world until its [other] end.

- Yerushalmi Berakhos 8:5, 60b

I posted a series on the Rambam’s notion of Creation, and how much it resembles the tradition of Qabbalah found in Lithuanian sources like R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh haChaim or the works of the Leshem. (HT: The Leshem, whose writings often refer to the Moreh Nevuchim.) The Rambam speaks of a chain of forms, or thoughts, that we call angels, each contingent on the prior link of the chain, through which G-d’s Thought becomes the objects and events in this world. The Qabbalists speak of Light that descends through worlds, at each stage assuming ever more abstract forms, that cause the forms and substances of the world below it.

Two of the points made and buttressed there:

Rav Chaim Volozhiner holds that only the human soul connects this world to the higher ones, and thus events in this world only have metaphysical effects via their effects on the people involved.

I then connected this to Rav Dessler’s understanding of the Maharal’s position on miracles. The world around us isn’t some objective reality, it is colored by what our minds impose in how we as people perceive and understand things. And so, when Hashem performs a miracle, the miracle needn’t be shared by every person involved. What was blood to the Egyptians was water to the Jews.

I suggested that this is the mechanism by which the Nefesh haChaim’s principle worked. Events in this world, by changing the human soul, changed the perceiver and thus influences the world he experiences in the future.

I believe this quote from the Yerushalmi shows the link between the notion of the Supernal Light and Rav Dessler’s (rather Kantian) notion of the role of perception.

In Michtav Me’Eliyahu I, “Olamos deAsiyah veYetzirah” pp 304-312, Rav Dessler writes about the difference between the four worlds discussed in Qabbalah. As in his general pattern — which of the olamos one is in depends on how one looks at the world. There R’ Dessler writes that Adam, before the sin, was in a state such that what he considered the lowest world, the olam ha’asiyah (world of action), is the world we identify with the one above the lowest, the olam hayetzirah (world of giving forms).

Rav Dessler also discusses the difference in the consciousness of Adam before the sin in his discussion of the time of creation, in vol II pp 150-154, “Yemei Bereishis veYemai Olam”, in the section subtitled, “Zeman: Qevi’as Mahuso“. The section’s name (“Time: Establishing His Nature”) is a bit of wordplay — referring both to establishing what is the essence of time, and that that essence comes from the nature of the person.

People think of themselves as stable, and the world moves around them. But this is an error. With each moment and each impression, some of the potential of the person is actualized. It says in Nidah 30b that a baby before birth sees “from the end of the world until its [other] end”. But when he’s born, he enters the hiding caused by time, the unity of creation speaking the Unity of the Creator is concealed, and only the present seems real. In the world of action (olam ha’asiyah), every moment is fixed by the action. Every moment following the Torah adds some light to his mahus, and similarly ch”v in the reverse. Through his free will [thus connecting this definition of the time to the one in the opening of the lecture] he establishes his nature, thereby giving a flow to time.

Note that Rav Dessler places the flow of time as a feature of the lowest world, an illusion created by free will choosing actions, and thereby changing the nature of the soul who acts. Earlier in this essay, R’ Dessler writes that since Adam before the sin lacked this same kind of decision-making, we can not know how he perceived time.

To close the loop to the gemara, realize that the higher worlds are realms of lesser tzimtzum, less concealment of the Divine Light, and we get the idea that Even and Adam lost the light when they ate from the fruit, they lowered down to the olam which we now inhabit. But until then, this extra Light of the higher world let Adam, like an infant before birth, see “from one end of the world until its [other] end.”

Thus we see that the Yerushalmi describing Light as giving the ability to see — perceive — across the entire universe can be identified with Rav Dessler’s notion that one’s choice of perception defines one’s world.

Maimonidian Qabbalah – Recap

Talking it over with some friends, it became clear that my posts on this topic required an overview. The explanation got buried among the proofs, and it’s therefore hard to follow the flow of the essential points. It all started with my considering the Leshem. Here we have a mequbal whose works follow the Vilna Ga’on’s approach to Qabbalah and yet also cites the Rambam frequently. This led me to think about the points hared in common between the Rambam’s philosophy, which is usually thought of as Artistotilian Rationaism, and Qabbalah.

  1. According to the Rambam, creation is via a series of angels. First is G-d, the only One who exists without any contingencies, then the highest level of angels, who in turn are the causes of the next level, and so on, down until the Celestial Spheres and finally the physical substances of this world. Each level more contingent than the prior. (Part I)
  2. Angels are both forms without substance and thought independent of matter.(We then explored the identity of form and thought, and how in information theory too, a bit is one aspect of the form, and totally unrelated to the substance or even other aspects of the object’s form.) So, we can equally discuss of a chain of forms down from the most abstract downward into physical substance. And we can also describe this chain of angels as G-d having a thought, who has a thought, who has a thought, etc…
  3. The Rambam also understands events as being initiated by intellects (in consonance with Aristotelian physics). In the case of Divine Will, angels are the intellects that mediate between His Will and physical motion and change. Thus, angels are not only definable as links in the causal chain of the existence of objects, but also in the occurrence of events. (Part III)
  4. Qaballah refers to a Divine Light which is ne’etzal, willfully emanated by G-d (Part II). Unlike forms, Light fills space, thus adding to Qabbalah two concepts not in the Rambam’s discussion:
    1. A hierarchy of olamos, universes that run from concrete physical existence to one step below the Divine.
    2. Tzimtsum, the restriction of that Light. If we view Hashem’s power of creation as  a Light, then the pure white undifferentiated light of G-d must be filtered and differentiated for various things to exist. Creation via tzimtzum is like the projection of a movie in a theater. The film stands between the light and the screen, blocking various parts of the light, narrowing the colors and amount of light that reaches each portion of the screen.
  5. Still, the Leshem identifies this Light with the same concepts as the Rambam’s understanding of existence. The light bridges each world’s forms to those of the world below. The substances of one world are the forms of the world below. The Light actually shines through twice to the next world twice: once as the substances becomes its forms, and a second time as those forms take on substance.
  6. Thus, according to the above, each world contains a set of truths more abstract than the one below. This concept is echoed in Rav Dessler’s explanation of the Maharal’s understanding of miracles. According to the Maharal, the difference between living in a world of natural law or one of miracles depended upon the spirituality of the viewer’s perspective. Even to the extent that two people experience different realities. Rav Dessler elaborates that this is the very difference between worlds. The person for whom the laws of Justice, Morality and Spirituality are more absolute than those of physics will impose that order on the world of his perceptions. And so, miracles will actually violate natural law in conformance with that perception (Mind, Perception, and Metaphysics).
  7. According to the Rambam as well, the prophet is someone who raises his perception to that higher plane. This is the basis of his dispute with the Ramban about the nature of prophecy. According to the Ramban, prophecy is a message relayed via vision. But according to the Rambam, prophecy is a perception of events at a higher plane of reality.Thus, the Rambam says that Avraham’s three visitors came in a prophetic vision and yet actually did save Lot from the real destruction of Sodom. The Abarbanel explains that even though he believes that angels can only be seen through prophetic vision (since they are not physical, and therefore can’t be seen by physical vision), the angels seen in that vision are real, and their actions are real.In contrast, the Ramban has no problem believing that the Man in the throne seen by the elders at Mt Sinai, and by Yirmiyahu and Yechezqeil in their visions of the Divine Chariot actuall was G-d. Because to him, nothing in a vision is real — the Man is simply a symbol in a message, representing G-d. However, to the Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, identifying the Man with G-d would be idolatrous, as it would mean that from the more abstract perspective, G-d had a body. Rather, Maimonides understands the Man as being Kavod Nivra, Created Glory. An entity created to embody G-d’s Kavod, and not Hashem Himself. (Aspaqlaria [title post]).
  8. This distinction — whether the prophet is one who tries to receive G-d’s message or develop his own unity until he himself is on a higher plane, is the root of the “Forks in the Hashkafic Road” category.)
  9. People have this ability to see things at different planes of abstraction. And, if sufficiently holy, to actually lift our perception to that of other worlds. We are unique in this way. Angels are static. Each are on its level, depending upon the type of angel. Each is a slice, one plane along the Divine Light. The physical is the lowest plane of reality. The human soul, however, extends along the entire dimension. We are unique in this way. (Form and InFORMation)
  10. A person’s consiousness is always aware of three things — the plane of abstraction it is focused on, the aspect of the soul on the plane immediately below it, and the aspect of the soul immediately above. This is the root of Naran (see blog category). Since Adam’s expulsion from the garden, people spend most of their existence (barring moments of prophecy or miracle) such that their awareness is from the perspective of the physical world, their lower desires are those of the body, and their loftier ones are those of the Olam haYetzirah, which Rav Dessler (above) defined as the one where the laws of Justice, Kindness and Spirituality operate.
  11. The relationship between soul and brain is therefore NOT as two distinct entities. Rather, the final link in the soul’s chain of forms is embodied in the brain. It is the soul, as it is manifest on the physical plane.
  12. The Nefesh haChaim writes that physical action causes metaphysical change only through people. Only people combine the forces of all the worlds, therefore only through the human soul do changes in one world carry through to others. This is akin to Rav Dessler’s explanation of miracles, a generalization of the idea. Actions change perception, and that’s what changes the underlying metaphysics in how the universe responds. Thus, according to all of the above, in this misnagdic qabbalah, a mezuzah can not protect the home. It’s the act of keeping the mitzvah of mezuzah which impacts the soul and it is that which brings protection to the home. If one does the mitzvah perfectly, checking it as recommended, etc…, and unbeknown to them a letter happened to crack off the parchment, there is no reason to assume the home is any less protected than had the mezuzah been whole.

One more concept not yet raised in this discussion:

  • Somewhere early along this chain of forms/ideas/angels is Chessed. As Hashem lacks nothing, a common observation (made by R’ Saadia Gaon and the Ramchal, to bring two distant examples among many others) is that the only ones to benefit from Creation are the created. Creation occured because “it is the nature of Good to have someone to whom to bestow that good”.
  • However, the ultimate Good would be to share in G-d’s Image, and thus to be able to define ourselves, jusr as G-d Himself is not shaped by external forces (in a more absolute sense).
  • Thus, growing out of Chessed is Gevurah, Divine Restraint, holding back to allow us to make our own mistakes, and also to complete ourselves as we see fit.
  • According to the Malbim (on Dani’el) this is the relationship between Micha’el (Chessed) and Gavriel (Gevurah). But then, we already established that angels are forms (abstractions) / intellects.

(If you see in this the sketching of a pattern that could be carried through to all ten Sephiros as they appear in the Eitz Chaim, that is intentional.)

This shows where the notion of Divine Justice as developed in the first section of my Aseres Yemei Teshuvah reader (where you can find these bullet items developed in far more detail) fits in relation to this larger model. Just as, along the way, I tried to give similar context to the model of the psyche developed on this blog, prophecy, miracles, the split between Chassidim and Misngdim, and a number of my other recurring topics.

Mind, Perception, and Metaphysics

We developed a metaphysics based on the Rambam’s notion of the chain of forms or intellects (they are identical), called “mal’akhim” (angels), that bridge the gap from the Creator down to physical reality (part 1, part 2, part 3). Along the way we used the Leshem, a mequbal who considered himself bearer of the Vilna Gaon’s legacy, to draw strong parallels to ideas in Qabbalah, and showed how these ideas are echoed by Rav Chaim Volozhiner as well. What the Rambam sees as a Divine Thought having a thought, which in turn has a thought, in  chain, the Leshem describes as a beam of Light which causes one universe’s forms to take on substance which in turn becomes the next universe’s forms.

In the most recent post in this discussion, we applied this unity of thought and form as well that beam of Light to explain something about the nature of the human soul. A mal’akh is a given form, it exists on its plane of existence. A physical object, including our brains, exist at the lowest plane of existance. The soul encompasses the entire beam of Light.

Now I want to look at some implications of those concepts.

I

Rav Chaim Vilozhiner in Nefesh haChaim 1:6 (mentioned in the past) expounds that man alone has the power to bring sanctity into this world, because man alone is a combination of all the forces, across all the worlds.

אבל עיקרו של דבר כי הוא ית”ש אחר שברא כל העולמות ברא את האדם אחור למע”ב בריאה נפלאה כח מאסף לכל המחנות. שכלל בו כל צחצחות אורות הנפלאות והעולמות והיכלין העליונים שקדמו לו. וכל תבנית הכבוד העליון בסדר פרקי המרכבה. וכל הכחות פרטים הנמצאים בכל העולמות עליונים ותחתונים. כולם נתנו כח וחלק מעצמותם בבניינו ונכללו בו במספר פרטי כחותיו שבו. כמ”ש בזוהר יתרו ע”ה ב’ קוב”ה כד ברא לי’ לב”נ סדר בי’ כל דיוקנין דרזין עלאין דעלמא דלעילא. וכל דיוקנין דרזין תתאין דעלמא דלתתא וכלא מתחקקא בב”נ דאיהו קאים בצלם אלהים כו’ דכתיב. ויברא אלהים את האדם בצלמו ע”ש. ובפ’ תזריע מ”ח א’ תאנא כיון דנברא אדם כו’. ובריש פר’ במדבר ר”א פתח ויברא אלקים את האדם בצלמו וגו’ ת”ח כו’. ובאד”ר קל”ה א’ כמראה אדם כו’. ושם בד’ קמ”א סוף ע”א דיוקנא דכליל כל דיוקנין כו’. וברע”מ פ’ פנחס רל”ח ב’ ויאמר אלקים נעשה אדם כו’ עד והיינו נעשה אדם בצלמנו כו’. וכן אמרו זה הלשון יותר באורך בתז”ח פ”ט ע”א ע”ש. ובז”ח יתרו במעשה מרכבה ל”ב ע”ג דיוקנא דאדם דדא איהו דיוקנא דכליל כל דיוקנין כו’. ושם דף ל”ג ריש ע”א. ושם בשה”ש נ”ח ב’ ויאמר אלקים נעשה אדם בצלמנו כו’. ע”ש היטב בכל המקומות הנז’. וע’ בע”ח שער הצלם פ”א ובלק”ת פ’ תשא ופ’ האזינו. וזה כל האדם שכל כח פרטי שבו מסודר נגד עולם וכח א’ פרטי מסוד השיעור קומה של כלל הכחות והעולמות. שמסודרים כביכול כתבנית קומת אדם כמו שית’ אי”ה בשער ב’ פ”ה:

– Nefesh haChaim 1:6

In line with the first three posts in this discussion, Rav Chaim relates this view not only to Qabbalah, but to the Rambam as well:

גם הרמב”ם ז”ל כתב במורה בפ’ ע”ב מחלק הא’ שכל העולם בכללו נקרא שיעור קומה. והאריך להמשיל כלל חלקי העולם לחלקי אברי האדם וכל עניניו שבו. ושהוא ית’ הוא נשמת העולם כענין הנשמה לגוף האדם ע”ש. ודבריו ז”ל ראוים למי שאמרם. שכן מבואר בזוהר תולדות קל”ד ע”ג ע”ש. ומדבריו ז”ל נשמע לדידן לענין סדר כלל העולמות כולם יחד. ושגורה בפי רז”ל שהאדם הוא איקונין ודיוקן מלכו של עולם יתב”ש. כמ”ש בסנהדרין (מ”ו א’ וב’) לא תלין נבלתו גו’ כי קללת אלהי’ תלוי. תניא אר”מ משלו משל למה”ד לשני אחים תאומים כו’ אחד מינוהו מלך ואחד יצא ללסטיות צוה המלך ותלאוהו כל הרואה אותו אומר המלך תלוי כו’. ופירש”י אף אדם עשוי בדיוקנו של מקום ובשמות רבה פ”ל מכה איש ומת וגו’ משל לאדם שקפח איקונין של מלך כו’ אמר המלך לא קראת כו’. שכל מי שהוא נוגע באיקונין שלי הוא אבד כו’ כך אם הרג אדם נפש כו’ כאילו הוא מעביר איקונין של מלך. ר”ל זה שסיים בסיפיה דקרא הטעם ע”ז כי בצלם אלקים עשה את האדם:

Nefesh haChaim 2:5

People have unique power because we alone were created from all the forces. A physical object exists on one plane of existence. This describes the soul in contrast to the Rambam’s concept of mal’akhim as intellects which only influence the thing below them in the chain until we get down to the lowest intellect which moves objects — and with their lack of intellect the chain ends. Man is a being who has form at every level of perfection from “10 tefachim below [Hashem's] throne of glory down to earth.” (cf Sukkah 5a) Each kind of angel exists on its plane. Only the human soul is not at a single plane, but is the entire beam of “Light” from the Source down to physical reality. The ladder in Yaaqov’s dream represents Yaaqov himself, as only a person “stands earthward with his head reaching toward heaven.”

In a sense, we can say the soul is therefore the pattern which the brain fits, encoded in the layout and attributes of its neurons, neurochamicals, glial cells, etc… This doesn’t mean the soul is only the pattern, or that the soul has no existence without the brain. The soul is the same thing, as substantiated in a higher world, one in which there is no need for a physical instantiation. The two are in sync in the same way a movie picture changes as the light from the projector flickers in its different colors.

Thus the mind is a product of the design and structure of the brain while simultaneously being a spiritual thing, our connection to a higher plane.

To use another metaphor: The soul is the flickering of the light from the movie projector to the screen, the body’s motions are the actions on the screen itself.

(This idea is akin to that in Hashgachah Peratis as a Level of Abstraction. In both, I’m arguing that the difference is one of which aspect one is describing. Both Divine Providence and nature are the same thing, both soul and the intellectual content of the brain are the same thing. The difference is the plane on which we look at the problem.)

The higher forms of the Maimonidian rationalist are the forces of the higher universes of the Qabbalist. They are two perspectives on the same notion.

II

One of my recurring questions on the Avodah email list involves the power of mezuzos. When we say that a mezuzah protects the home, do we mean that the mezuzah itself protects, or that the particular reward for the mitzvah of mezuzah is that one is protected?

The difference? What if someone checked the mezuzah as regularly as required. They did every facet of the mitzvah meticulously. However, it happens to be as a matter of unknowable fact that one of the letters of the mezuzah cracked off, and the mezuzah would no longer be kosher. Did the person get the same protection? If it depends on the object of the mezuzah, then the answer should be “no”. However, since he fulfilled the mitzvah superlatively, if it depends on the mitzvah, the answer would be “yes”.

A similar question could be asked about the concept that eating non-kosher food is “metamteim es haleiv — seals up the heart”. But what if someone relies on the laws of majority, or the like, as permitted, and happens to both follow halakhah and eat something that the Almighty Knows is non-kosher? Does it impact his heart, or not? Again — is it the object or the sin which has the metaphysical power to change the person?

With respect to mezuzah, the Rambam quite forcefully instructs us not to impart power to the scroll itself. To him, this would be belittling the mitzvah by turning it into an amulet.

Unsurprisingly, we see can find an idea in Nefesh haChaim (1:21) that would provide a rationale for assigning metaphysical power only to the mitzvah:

וזאת תורת האדם. שבעת עסקו בתורה לשמה. לשמור ולקיים ככל הכתוב בה. מטהר את גופו מראשו ועד רגליו. כמדרשם ז”ל (ברכות י”ו א’). למה נסמכו אהלים לנחלים כו’ מה נחלים מעלין את האדם מטומאה לטהרה. אף אהלים מעלין את האדם מכ”ח לכ”ז. וכענין שדרשו ז”ל גבי טהרא הטמאים במקוה. כל בשרו במים מים שכל גופו עולה בהם. כך בד”ת כל גופו של אדם עולה בהם. (ושיערו חכמים אמה על אמה ברום שלש אמות. הן הג’ עולמות. ונר”ן. מעשה דבור מחשבה בתורה). וכשם שכל גופו של אדם עולה ומזדכך ע”י עסק התורה והמצות. כך העולמות כולם אשר הן המה שיעור קומת אדם כמש”ל פ”ו. הם מזדככים ומתטהרים ומתעלים. והאדם הישר העובד אמיתי לא יפנה דעתו ומחשבתו בעת עבודתו לו ית”ש אפי’ כדי לעלות ולטהר גופו ונפשו. אלא שיעלה טוהר מחשבתו וכוונתו ופנה למעלה לתיקון וטהרת העולמות הקדושים. וזו היתה גם כל ענין עבודתם של האבות וכל הצדיקים הראשונים. שקיימו את התורה קודם נתינתה. כמו שדרז”ל ע”פ מן הבהמה הטהורה גו’ ואמרו מכאן שלמד נח תורה. ואמרו (יומא כ”ח ב’) קיים א”א את כל התורה (וכ”א בב”ר פצ”ב ובבמדבר רבה פי”ד. ובתנחומא בהר ובמדרש תהלים מזמור א’). לא שהיו מצווים ועושים כך מצד הדין. דא”כ לא היו מעמידים ח”ו על דעתם והשגתם אף שהשיגו שלפי ענין שרש נשמתם ההכרח להם לעבור ולשנות אף מקצת מאחת מכל מצות ה’. ולא היה יעקב אע”ה נושא ב’ אחיות ולא הים עמרם נושא דודתו ח”ו. רק מצד השגתם בטהר שכלם התקונים הנוראים הנעשים בכל מצוה בהעולמות וכחות העליונים ותחתונים. והפגמים הגדולים והחורבן והריסה ח”ו שיגרמו בהם אם לא יקיימום. וכן נח הקריב דוקא מן הבהמה הטהורה כי ראה והשיג הכח והשרש העליון של כל בהמה וחיה. איזה מהם כח שרשו מצד הקדושה והקריבה. ואיזה מהם כח נפשה מצד הטומאה והס”א ולא בחר בה להקריבה לפניו ית’ כי לא ירצה. וזהו ויתהלך חנוך את האלקים. את האלקים התהלך נח. האלקים אשר התהלכו אבותי לפניו. שפי’ אלקים בעל הכחות כולם. היינו שהשיגו ענייני הכחות העליונים ותחתונים וחקות שמים וארץ ומשטרם. וסדרי הנהגתם והתקשרותם והרכבתם ע”י כל ענייני מעשי האדם. וע”פ סדר וענין זה היה כל א’ מהם מתהלך ומתנהג בכל עניניו. כפי שראה והשיג התקונים העליונים לפי שורש נשמתו:

R’ Chaim Volozhiner discusses the concept that our forefathers fulfilled the entire Torah even before it was commanded. How? Because they could feel their own souls, and thus the impact of their actions on the worlds. From that, they could deduce what it would take to repair the worlds, and figured out the mitzvos on their own. This is also why despite this, we find that Yaaqov married two sisters and Amram married his aunt. Because they weren’t keeping the mitzvos as mitzvos, but they were seeking that which would repair the world — and these exceptions were part of that repair.

Notice that in this philosophy of mitzvos, it is the action which influences the soul, which influence the world. A different description of what we saw in Rav Dessler, that the person’s perspective changes which laws his world obeys.

This is the same philosophy of mitzvos from which I tried to derive the rules of resolving doubt, and why the unobservable has no halachic import, and why a psychologically important approximation that since drifted out of sync with the sun is still significant for birkhas hachamah. Because the impact of our actions are in how they change our souls.

Note that in the this Maimonidian, or Litvisher, Qabbalah, we can fully understand the metpahysical force perspective by explaining it in the intellectual terms. This might be Rav Hirsch’s intent as well. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch’s philosophy of mitzvos revolves around the concept that they are tools Hashem uses to impart truths to man in a manner that they get internalized. Dayan Grunfeld, in his introduction to R’ Hirsch’s Horeb (pp. cxx-cxxix), notes the strong similarities between Qabbalistic metaphysical entities and the symbols Rabbi Hirsch invokes in order to explain the messages of mitzvos. It is possible that Rav Hirsch too thought that these metaphysical entities are nothing but the human comprehension of the Torah’s ideas?

III

Note that this dovetails with the Rambam’s position about prophecy and angels.

When prophets speak of the fact that they received a prophecy, they say that they received it from an angel, or from God; but even in the latter case it was likewise received through an angel. Our Sages, therefore, explain the words, “And the Lord said unto her” that He spake through an angel. You must know that whenever Scripture relates that the Lord or an angel spoke to a person, this took place in a dream or in a prophetic vision.

- Moreh Nevuchim 2:41

According to the Rambam’s definition of mal’akhim, to see an angel means to see the higher level of reality beyond the physics of the situation. Someone who develops within themselves an understanding of these higher abstractions would naturally be aware of them, and their psyche would clothe that awareness in visions.

In the following chapter (2:42) the Rambam applies this idea to the story of Avraham’s three guests who turn out to be angels, which is somewhat well known because of the Ramban’s objection to his position. Here’s how I described the dispute in Mesukim miDevash on parashas Mishpatim (addressing the question of Who was the man in the throne seen by the elders at Mt Sinai?):

We find an instance of a similar debate in their understandings of the beginning of Parashas Vayeira. According to the Rambam, any narrative that involves people seeing mal’akhim must be the retelling of a prophecy. Mal’akhim do not have physical substance; they cannot be physically seen. Therefore, the Rambam holds that the parashah opens by telling us that Hashem visited Avraham, and then elaborates by telling us the substance of the visit, the prophecy that Avraham received. In other words, Avraham did not interrupt Hashem’s visit to welcome what he thought were three people. Rather, the visit itself was the vision in which Avraham hosted the three mal’akhim .

The Ramban takes issue with this understanding. After all, did these mal’akhim not then proceed to Sodom where they saved Lot? Was Lot not really saved? According to the Ramban, the story physically occurred. Avraham saw the mal’akhim in the regular sense, actually fed them food, etc…

What does the Rambam do with the Ramban’s question? The Abarbanel, in his commentary on the Moreh Nevuchim, writes that according to the Rambam, things seen in prophecy really occur. They are visions of events happening in higher planes of reality. The prophet’s mind and pen may make sense of the vision by interpreting its contents as things familiar from normal sensory experience, but the event seen is real. This is consistent with the Rambam’s position on our verse [the Throne vision]. Since G-d does not have a body in any plane of existence, their vision had to be of kevod Hashem, something created to be a metaphor [of G-d's Glory] for them to see.

So it is unsurprising that the Rambam considers prophecy a natural consequence of development of the appropriate knowledge. In fact, it is the absence of prophecy when G-d doesn’t want the prophet to get his vision that the Rambam considers the miracle.

Prophecy is sight of angels, ie higher forms, ie existence at more abstract and rarefied levels of description, and thus closer to the original and unfathomable Thought of G-d.

IV

To tie to yet another theme that recurs in this blog: This idea that a person can can choose where his consciousness resides withint this “beam” appears in Rav Dessler’s explanation of the Maharal’s position on nissim (miracles). (See Mesukim miDevash for Beshalach and this entry on the role of perception.) One can live in the empirical world, where the absolutes are laws of gravity, or one can spend a life elevating oneself to a moral plane, olam ha’yetzirah, where the absolutes are notions like freedom vs oppression, and physics becomes fuzzier. Quoting my “Mesukim” article:

The Maharal … writes that rather than being an exception to the rule, nissim follow their own rules. Indeed, miracles occur all the time, but on their own plane of reality. This is why Yehoshua requests “shemesh beGiv’on dom – the sun should stand still in Giv’on.” (Yehoshua 10:13) The sun stopped for the Jews in Giv’on, who were on a plane where miracles operate, but not for anyone else. Literally two different realities were simultaneously experienced. Not two different perceptions of the same event, but two conflicting things were real, depending upon which world one occupied.

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mequbalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The second is their self-awareness. The senses bring us information about the physical world. Self awareness brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

But now we can give this metaphysical significance.

We saw that forms are ideas are points on the Divine Light as it intersects each level of abstraction. The Leshem (Kelalim 2) writes that the forms of one world is the substance of another world. In Rav Dessler’s terms, we are saying that the laws of nature are the substance with which the laws of morality are implemented. The more abstract ideas are ontologically prior, as we saw in the Rambam (Yesodei haTorah 2) — each level further from the Creator is more contingent and dependent on the one above it.

We can manipulate the physical world by changing its underpinnings — the ideas and our relationships to them. Rav Dessler’s explanation of the Maharal tells us how — thought creates reality. Therefore, our actions and reactions change our perceptions, and our perceptions change the world. Not the unknown and unknowable state of my mezuzah or piece of meat. The mechanics of metaphysics depends on us, the sole ladder that unifies the physical world with the higher ones.

People are unique in that we think in different planes of abstraction. But that is just another way of saying what we said in the first section of this essay — the human soul is the only thing which contains the forces of all the worlds, which is the entire “beam of Light”. And within that resides prophecy, miracles, and all the metaphysical causality discussed in Qabbalah.

We can choose whether to put the world into physical causal categories, moral ones, or climb to unfathomed worlds above them. An object exists in the physical world. An angel has its place on its plane. In Qabbalah’s model of a Light of creation, these things are the light hitting different worlds, slices of the full reality. We live in a world of our perceptions, therefore our choice changes the world we live in.

Form and InFORMation

So far (part 1, part 2, part 3) we discussed the Rambam’s notion of the chain of forms/intellects from the Creator down to physical reality , in comparison to the Qabbalah’s metaphor of a beam of Light. In particular, the Leshem writes that the Light shines from one world to the next which is what makes what serves as substance in one world to be the forms in the next lower one.

Now I wish to look at the identification of forms with intellects, and in particularly, how that works in modern terms. In the second section of this post, we will look at how to understand the human soul in these terms.

I

Something we learn early on in Computer Science classes is that the program or data is a matter of bits, not what the bits are made of. In one computer, a “1” may mean holding the wire at 5 volts. In another, a “0” could be 2.3 volts, and a “1” is where it’s grounded (0 volts). In yet another computer, a one is a hole in a card, or a marble running down a slide, or water in a pipe. It doesn’t matter, as long as the bits interact as per the rules of the various logic gates, how they’re represented is irrelevant to the computation (power consumption, speed, reliability, etc… aside). You just need the chips, the marble’s bumpers or the water-works’ valves are set up accordingly.

The information is in the form, and we could ignore the substance. When looking at bits, we can even discard much of the form. If we say the presence of a marble is a “1”, we can ignore its color, for example. In a digital computer, we gain reliability by dividing the possible forms of the parts of the machine into one of two categories – those we call “1” (even if it’s at 4.4 volts in a machine where ideal is 5v) and those we call “0”.

We then combine those bits into patterns, such as the convention used by most computers today to use 01100001 to represent an “a”. When your file has an “a” in it, that sequence may be represented as a pattern of pits in a CD, patterns of iron filings on a hard drive, a time sequence of voltages in a wire or light in a fiber optic cable. But all the physical phenomenon share one feature, they represent the 01100001 pattern.

The information involved is form without substance. Only one aspect of the form of what encodes them, it’s true, but the relevant point is that they do not require physical implementation because they lack substance.

I’m not suggesting that the mind or soul is nothing more than computer software, which in the case of a human mind is implemented on a computer called the brain. I would instead suggest it as an analogy: mind is to brain as program is to computer. Minds aren’t digital computers, and thought isn’t computation. But thought too is copying a form into one’s mind. This is actually the origin of the word “inform” — en + form, the Latin for “putting a form into [one's mind]“. When you think about a table, the form of the table is in your head. You picture its shape, color, hardness, etc… It’s not a table because it has no substance, and an object requires both form and substance. But whatever elements of the form you think about are copied within your head. This is the koach hadimyon, the ability to make a demus, a similar form. It’s what the rishonim called the same mental ability Aristotle called “imagination”. (Although it goes beyond the current meaning of the word, as Aristotilian imagination not only included seeing things that are made up, but also qualia — how one experiences red internally when actually seeing something red.)

This brings a whole new meaning to the title “Olam haEmes” — calling the spiritual world the World of Truth. It’s not simply an adjective, it’s the defining feature! Olam haEmes is a realm where Truths exist beyond physical implementation.

I once visited someone who knew they were in life’s final lap. The gentleman asked me how could he be sure, I mean really sure, that there is an afterlife. I was a little pressed and felt a need to answer quickly and with certainty — for the asker, this was a pressing and very real problem. Any uncertainty he would hear in my reply would cause emotional pain.

I replied that truths are eternal. Whether we are speaking of “2 + 2 = 4″ or “It rained in New York city on November 1, 2009.” (In the latter case, we might phrase it as “it is raining”, which doesn’t sound like it’s an eternal truth but actually expands to the same fact.) What is a mind if not an active constellation of ideas? How could such a thing not be eternal?

I think this is a radical notion — that everything the mystic refers to as metaphysical forces are equally validly described as ideas. Not that they are mythological, metaphoric representations of ideas. But that ideas actual have metaphysical existence, and these existences are ontologically prior (the cause and less contingent, as the Rambam puts it in Yesodei haTorah 2:5).

II

The basic mind-body problem is figuring out the relationship between the two. Is the mind merely a product of the neurons in our brain? Does it exist as a separate entity?

I think the givens of Yahadus compell one to conclude that the mind is a function of the soul. After all, it’s the soul that is credited with bechirah chafshis (free will), and gets judged for man’s decisions. And what is free will if not decisions consciously made, therefore intimately tied with the notions of awareness and self-awareness? Second, the entire concept of mussar is founded on the notion that perfecting one’s soul is a function of correcting one’s personality faults, that issues of patience, modesty, self-restraint, zeal are spiritual ones.

But if we say that the mind is something the soul does, how does one explain the relationship between brain injury and personality? How could a lobotomy change behavior? By what mechanism do decisions made by the mind cause the body to take the chosen action? How does one bridge the gap between our spiritual selves and our physical bodies?

The rishonim who deal with this question raise another example: How does food aid in keeping the soul in the body? After all, food is a physical object, how does it reach out and impact the soul. Rav Chaim Vilozhiner (Nefesh haChaim II) presents the typical answer, based on the concept of emanation. The apple is at the end of a beam of Light ne’etzal from the Source. Thus, there is spirituality within the apple.

What does this say about the relationship between soul and brain? Our question is based on a false dichotomy. We assumed that either they are the same thing, or we have to ask about the causal connection between the soul and action, or between sensation and the soul. This concept of atzilus means that the brain itself is the “projection on the wall” of a beam of light that shines through higher levels of reality until it reaches this one. The connection between soul, mind and brain isn’t causal. Rather it is all one action, described on different planes, as the Divine Light cuts through the different worlds.

The difference between soul and brain, it would seem, would be their closeness to G-d upon the same flow of shefa. The lowest level of perfection, but still very much the soul, is the form of our brains. We saw about bits that a bit represents only a single yes/no question about the state of a computer system. Similarly, not everything about our central nervous system is an implementation of the soul. And yet there is no need to distinguish the significant aspects of the brain’s design from the soul itself. Albeit, the soul as it appears in this world, olam ha’asiyah, the world of action and physical events, the light as it finally hits the screen of matter.

In a sense, we can say the soul is therefore the pattern which the brain fits, encoded in the layout and attributes of its neurons, neurochamicals, glial cells, etc… This doesn’t mean the soul is only the pattern, or that the soul has no existence without the brain. The soul is the same thing, as substantiated in a higher world, one in which there is no need for a physical instantiation. The two are in sync in the same way a movie picture changes as the light from the projector flickers in its different colors.

Why do so many mitzvos involve shoes? In Ruach Chaim 1:1, Rav Chaim Vilozhiner writes, “The body is only like the shoe for the soul. Just as the shoe only clothes the very bottom extremity of the body, so too the body only clothes the very bottom portion of the soul. A shoe is called a body, in that a body is considered the end of the feet of the soul.” This is why moments or locations of extreme spirituality, such as Yom Kippur, serving in the Beis haMiqdash, or when Moshe saw the burning bush, call for removing one’s shoes. Also, when in mourning, removing one’s shoes is a way of remembering that only the body is gone. For chalitzah, the widow’s refusal or inability to continue her husband’s line is brought home by having her spit in a shoe. All in the sense of shoe representing the body, as it is a house for the bottom-most portion. The brain is only the shoe, only the manifestation of the bottom-most aspect of the ever less abstract form that is the soul. The bits on the CD.

Notice there is a basic difference between the human soul on one hand, and mal’akhim and physical objects on the other. Mal’akhim are forms at specific levels of abstraction, each level of mal’akh a lower point on the beam of light. The soul, however, is the entire beam — from “10 tefachim below the throne of [Hashem's] Glory” (cf Sukkah 5a) to its physical implementation in the brain.

We will explore the implications of that idea in the next post in this series.

Maimonidian Qabbalah – Part III

So, in the past two posts in this particular series (part 1, part 2) I hopefully established the notion that both sides of the Maimonidian Debate portrayed creation in terms of G-d causing something which causes something… etc… down to the physical world, which is a distinct way to view Creation than picturing that Hashem “poofed” various things into existence and then formed and moved them around to construct something. According to the Rambam, this “something” is a chain of intellects, and according to the Leshem it is a progression of worlds each filled with ever more substansive items as the Divine Light descends from one to the next. The substances of one world becomes the forms of the one below.

In Models of Creation, I mentioned the Rambam’s embracing both the “manufacture” model of creation as well as that of “atzilus“, both describing creation as Hashem making the universe, and has it being something He chooses to emanate. The Rambam describes the two as identifying Hashem as Cause vs identifying Him as Agens, and shows they are really identical in the Moreh Nevuchim I ch. 69.

THE philosophers, as you know, call God the First Cause (in Hebrew ‘illah and sibbah): but those who are known by the name of Mutakallemim are very much opposed to the use of that name, and call Him Agens, believing that there is a great difference whether we say that God is the Cause or that He is the Agens. They argue thus: If we say that God is the Cause, the coexistence of the Cause with that which was produced by that Cause would necessarily be implied: this again would involve the belief that the Universe was eternal, and that it was inseparable from God. When, however, we say that God is the Agens, the co-existence of the Agens with its product is not implied: for the agens can exist anterior to its product: we cannot even imagine how an agens can be in action unless it existed before its own production. This is an argument advanced by persons who do not distinguish between the potential and the actual. You, however, should know that in this case there is no difference whether you employ the term “cause” or “agens“; for if you take the term “cause” in the sense of a mere potentiality, it precedes its effect; but if you mean the cause in action, then the effect must necessarily co-exist with the cause in action. The same is the case with the agens; take it as an agens in reality, the work must necessarily co-exist with its agens. For the builder, before he builds the house, is not in reality a builder, but has the faculty for building a house-in the same way as the materials for the house before it is being built are merely in potentiâ–but when the house has been built, he is the builder in reality, and his product must likewise be in actual existence. Nothing is therefore gained by choosing the term “agens” and rejecting the term “cause.” My object here is to show that these two terms are equal, and in the same manner as we call God an Agens, although the work does not yet exist, only because there is no hindrance or obstacle which might prevent Him from doing it whenever He pleases, we may also call Him the Cause, although the effect may not yet be in existence.

Since Hashem doesn’t need anything but His own Will to create, there is no untapped potential that Hashem then taps, there is no difference between Hashem being First Cause or being viewed as the Agent. (We also find the Ramban opening his commentary to chumash with the beri’ah – yetzirah perspective of creation ex nihilo of substance, which is then given form during the six days, but he also refers repeatedly to the notion of atzilus and the descent of the Light through veils to lower and lower worlds.)


I mentioned only as an aside that angels not only cause an event, they actually are the event. The Rambam’s concept of mal’akh is not only as a link in the chain of intellects / forms from the Creator down to physical objects, they also mediate motion and change.

From the Moreh Nevuchim (II:6; tr. Friedlander):

We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed — he uses the term “Intelligences,” and we say instead “angels.” His theory is that the Intelligences are intermediate beings between the Prime Cause and existing things, and that they effect the motion of the spheres, on which motion the existence of all things depends. This is also the view we meet with in all parts of Scripture: every act of God is described as being performed by angels. But “angel” means “messenger”; hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of the brute creation are sometimes due to the action of an angel, when such movements serve the purpose of the Creator, who endowed it with the power of performing that movement; e.g., “God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths that they have not hurt me” (Dan. vi. 22)…. It is also used of ideals, perceived by prophets in prophetic visions, and of man’s animal powers, as will be explained in another place.
When we assert that Scripture teaches that God rules this world through angels, we mean such angels as are identical with the Intelligences. In some passages the plural is used of God, e.g., “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. i. 26); “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language” (ibid. xi. 7). Our Sages explain this in the following manner: God, as it were, does nothing without contemplating the host above.

Here we see the Rambam defines a mal’akh, a messenger (which is also what the Greek “angel” means), as an Intelligence that does G-d’s Will in this world. He explains the mal’akh with Aristotle’s terms of the intellects that mediate between Hashem’s world and actions in this world. This is much like the notion of steps in the flow of atzilus, but here they are Intelligences, not forms.

The need for intelligences to perform action is part of Artistotelian physics. Aristotle didn’t have a notion of momentum, which is conserved. Unsurprising, because in the real world momentum is generally turned into heat (the momentum of molecules) by friction, and thus we see motion dissipate. Instead, Aristotle taught that Intellects impart impetus to objects, which then continue moving until the impetus runs out. It is for this reason that the Rambam asserted that the spheres are intellects (Yesodei haTorah 2:7), since the stars and planets continue in motion eternally, there must be intellects repeatedly imparting impetus to them.

Thus, the Rambam’s conception of a mal’akh is a being of form without substance that is a step in the chain of Divine Atzilus by being the intellect that drives the actions of the next step in the chain, down to actions in this world.

In the next installment on this topic, “Forms and Information”, I intend to look at how the Rambam can see these two concepts as identical.

Maimonidian Qabbalah – Part II

In the previous installment on this topic, I included long quotes from the Rambam’s to show that his position on how the world came to be has more points in common with Qabbalah than we usually picture it.

The Rambam describes creation as the Creator having a thought which has a thought, and so on down a chain until one gets to the spheres, earth and in short physical existence. This is a causal chain progressively more contingent from the Almighty down to the objects around us.

Qabbalah describes creation as a Light which shines forth from the Creator, progressively down from world to world until it reaches the lowest world, olam ha’asiyah (the world of action) which is the physical world around us. According to the Leshem, the forms of items in one world are in fact the substance of the items in higher worlds. So there too there is a concept of a chain of ever more pure and abstract thought connecting the physical world to G-d.

This identification of form and thought requires justification. That will be our next topic. But first…

So how isn’t the Rambam Qabbalah, despite my choice of title for these posts?

The Rambam speaks in terms of thoughts. Entities. For example, those thoughts in the chain from G-d to the physical are what we call mal’achim.

Qabbalah speaks in terms of Light. Light fills spaces. This is how qabbalah has a conversation of higher and lower worlds, as ever less light reaches spiritually lower spaces. Thus the conversation is not about entities, but domains. And this led to the concept the Ari called “tzimtzum“, the vacuation of the spaces (all of which is metaphoric, since we’re not speaking of the emptying of physical space but the emptying of spirituality so that there can be a physical space to begin with) so that Light can fill them in different ways rather than everything being the pure unflitered Light and undifferentiated pure existence — rather than distinct things.

The Rambam’s model leads one to a Transcendent view of G-d, Who is linked to us as our Creator by a chain of Thought. And to the Rambam, our entire relationship with the A-lmighty is defined in terms of knowing what He isn’t (since we can’t know what He is) and emulating Hashem as He shows Himself to us through His actions.

The Qabbalah describes an Immanent G-d Who is only separated from us by an act of tzimtzum which filters His Light. If I may use the metaphor of a movie… What makes the distinct characters and objects on the screen is not the creation of something distinct from the projector’s bulb, but the presence of a film that blocks parts of that light from reaching it.  (The light that shines through is like the qav, the line, which allows the substance of one world become the forms of the next.) We can therefore quite literally connect to G-d, because “the whole world is filled with His Glory”.

Maimonidian Qabbalah

First, some quotes from the Rambam:

ג: וְאִם יַעֲלֶה עַל הַדַּעַת שְׁאֵין כָּל הַנִּמְצָאִים מִלְּבַדּוֹ מְצוּיִים, הוּא לְבַדּוֹ יִהְיֶה מָצוּי וְלֹא יִבָּטֵל הוּא לְבִטּוּלָם:  שֶׁכָּל הַנִּמְצָאִים צְרִיכִין לוֹ; וְהוּא בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינוּ צָרִיךְ לָהֶם, וְלֹא לְאֶחָד מֵהֶם. לְפִיכָּךְ אֵין אֲמִתָּתוֹ כַּאֲמִתַּת אֶחָד מֵהֶם.

ד: הוּא שֶׁהַנָּבִיא אוֹמֵר “וַה’ אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת” (ירמיהו י,י)–הוּא לְבַדּוֹ הָאֱמֶת, וְאֵין לְאַחֵר אֱמֶת כַּאֲמִתּוֹ.  וְהוּא שֶׁהַתּוֹרָה אוֹמֶרֶת “אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ” (דברים ד,לה), כְּלוֹמַר אֵין שָׁם מָצוּי אֱמֶת מִלְּבַדּוֹ כְּמוֹתוֹ.

ה: הַמָּצוּי הַזֶּה–הוּא אֱלוֹהַּ הָעוֹלָם, אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ.  וְהוּא הַמַּנְהִיג הַגַּלְגַּל בְּכוֹחַ שְׁאֵין לוֹ קֵץ וְתַכְלִית, בְּכוֹחַ שְׁאֵין לוֹ הֶפְסֵק, שֶׁהַגַּלְגַּל סוֹבֵב תָּמִיד, וְאֵי אִפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּסֹּב בְּלֹא מְסַבֵּב; וְהוּא בָּרוּךְ הוּא הַמְּסַבֵּב אוֹתוֹ, בְּלֹא יָד וְלֹא גּוּף.

3: If you would imagine that everything other than Him did not exist, He Himself would still exist, and would not cease just because they ceased. Because everything that exists require Him, but He, blessed is He, doesn’t need them, or even on of them. Therefore, His Truth is not merely like the truth of one of them.

4: This is what the prophet [Jeremiah 10:10] says, “Hashem G-d is True” — He Himself is the Truth, and nothing else has Truth like his. This is what the Torah says, “There is nothing else, but Him” (Devarim 4:35). As if to say that there is nothing truly existing except Him that is like Him.

5: This existence is the G-d of the world, the Master of the entire Earth. He rules the sphere with a Power that is never-ending and has no culmination, with a power that had no stop. For the sphere revolves eternally, and it could not revolve without a Revolver, and He, blessed by He, is the One Who turns it, without a hand nor body.

ג: כָּל מַה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּעוֹלָמוֹ, נֶחְלָק לִשְׁלוֹשָׁה חֲלָקִים: מֵהֶם בְּרוּאִים שְׁהֶם מְחֻבָּרִים מִגֹּלֶם וְצוּרָה–וְהֶם נֶהֱוִים וְנִפְסָדִים תָּמִיד, כְּמוֹ גּוּפוֹת הָאָדָם וְהַבְּהֵמָה וְהַצְּמָחִים וְהַמַּתְּכוֹת. וּמֵהֶם בְּרוּאִים שְׁהֶם מְחֻבָּרִים מִגֹּלֶם וְצוּרָה, אֲבָל אֵינָם מִשְׁתַּנִּים מִגּוּף לְגוּף וּמִצּוּרָה לְצוּרָה כְּמוֹ הָרִאשׁוֹנִים, אֵלָא צוּרָתָם קְבוּעָה בְּגֻלְמָם לְעוֹלָם, וְאֵינָם מִשְׁתַּנִּים כְּמוֹ אֵלּוּ–וְהֶם הַגַּלְגַּלִּים וְהַכּוֹכָבִים שֶׁבָּהֶן, וְאֵין גֻּלְמָם כִּשְׁאָר גְּלָמִים וְלֹא צוּרָתָם כִּשְׁאָר צוּרוֹת. וּמֵהֶם בְּרוּאִים צוּרָה בְּלֹא גֹּלֶם כְּלָל–וְהֶם הַמַּלְאָכִים, שֶׁהַמַּלְאָכִים אֵינָם גּוּף וּגְוִיָּה, אֵלָא צוּרוֹת נִפְרָדוֹת זוֹ מִזּוֹ.

ד: וּמַה הוּא זֶה שֶׁהַנְּבִיאִים אוֹמְרִים שֶׁרָאוּ הַמַּלְאָךְ אֵשׁ וּבַעַל כְּנָפַיִם–הַכֹּל בְּמַרְאֵה הַנְּבוּאָה וְדֶרֶךְ חִידָה, לוֹמַר שְׁאֵינוּ גּוּף וְאֵינוּ כָּבֵד כַּגּוּפוֹת הַכְּבֵדִים, כְּמוֹ שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “כִּי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵשׁ אֹכְלָה הוּא” (דברים ד,כד), וְאֵינוּ אֵשׁ אֵלָא מָשָׁל. וּכְמוֹ שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “עֹשֶׂה מַלְאָכָיו, רוּחוֹת” (תהילים קד,ד).

ה: וּבַמֶּה יִפָּרְדוּ הַצּוּרוֹת זוֹ מִזּוֹ, וַהֲרֵי אֵינָן גּוּפִין–לְפִי שְׁאֵינָן שׁוֹוִין בִּמְצִיאָתָן, אֵלָא כָּל אֶחָד מֵהֶן לְמַטָּה מִמַּעֲלָתוֹ שֶׁלַּחֲבֵרוֹ וְהוּא מָצוּי מִכּוֹחוֹ זֶה לְמַעְלָה מִזֶּה; וְהַכֹּל נִמְצָאִים מִכּוֹחוֹ שֶׁלְּהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְטוּבוֹ. וְזֶה הוּא שֶׁרָמַז שְׁלֹמֹה בְּחָכְמָתוֹ וְאָמַר “כִּי גָבֹהַּ מֵעַל גָּבֹהַּ, שֹׁמֵר, וּגְבֹהִים, עֲלֵיהֶם” (קוהלת ה,ז).

ו: זֶה שֶׁאָמַרְנוּ לְמַטָּה מִמַּעֲלָתוֹ, אֵינָהּ מַעֲלַת מָקוֹם כְּמוֹ אָדָם שֶׁיּוֹשֵׁב לְמַעְלָה מֵחֲבֵרוֹ; אֵלָא כְּמוֹ שֶׁאוֹמְרִין בִּשְׁנֵי חֲכָמִים שֶׁאֶחָד גָּדוֹל מֵחֲבֵרוֹ בְּחָכְמָה, שְׁהוּא לְמַעְלָה מִמַּעֲלָתוֹ שֶׁלְּזֶה, וּכְמוֹ שֶׁאוֹמְרִין בָּעִלָּה, שְׁהִיא לְמַעְלָה מִן הֶעָלוּל.

ז: שִׁנּוּי שְׁמוֹת הַמַּלְאָכִים, עַל שֵׁם מַעֲלוֹתָם הִיא; וּלְפִיכָּךְ נִקְרָאִים חַיּוֹת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְהֶם לְמַעְלָה מִן הַכֹּל, אוֹפַנִּים, וְאֶרְאֶלִּים, וְחַשְׁמַלִּים, וּשְׂרָפִים, וּמַלְאָכִים, וֵאלֹהִים, וּבְנֵי אֱלֹהִים, וּכְרוּבִים, וְאִישִׁים. כָּל אֵלּוּ עֲשָׂרָה הַשֵּׁמוֹת שֶׁנִּקְרְאוּ בָּהֶם הַמַּלְאָכִים, עַל שֵׁם עֶשֶׂר מַעֲלוֹת שֶׁלָּהֶם הֶם. וּמַעֲלָה שְׁאֵין לְמַעְלָה מִמֶּנָּה אֵלָא מַעֲלַת הָאֵל בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הִיא מַעֲלַת הַצּוּרוֹת שֶׁנִּקְרֵאת חַיּוֹת; לְפִיכָּךְ נֶאֱמָר בַּנְּבוּאָה, שְׁהֶן תַּחַת הַכִּסֵּא. וּמַעֲלָה עֲשִׂירִית, הִיא מַעֲלַת הַצּוּרָה שֶׁנִּקְרֵאת אִישִׁים, וְהֶם הַמַּלְאָכִים שֶׁמְּדַבְּרִים עִם הַנְּבִיאִים וְנִרְאִים לָהֶם בְּמַרְאֵה הַנְּבוּאָה; לְפִיכָּךְ נִקְרְאוּ אִישִׁים, שֶׁמַּעֲלָתָם קְרוֹבָה מִמַּעֲלַת דַּעַת הָאָדָם.

ח: וְכָל הַצּוּרוֹת הָאֵלּוּ חַיִּים וּמַכִּירִים אֶת הַבּוֹרֵא, וְיוֹדְעִין אוֹתוֹ דֵּעָה גְּדוֹלָה עַד לִמְאוֹד. כָּל צוּרָה וְצוּרָה לְפִי מַעֲלָתָהּ, לֹא לְפִי גָּדְלוֹ. אַפִלּוּ מַעֲלָה הָרִאשׁוֹנָה אֵינָהּ יְכוּלָה לְהַשִּׂיג אֲמִתַּת הַבּוֹרֵא כְּמַה שְׁהִיא, אֵלָא דַּעְתָּהּ קְצָרָה לְהַשִּׂיג. אֲבָל מַשֶּׂגֶת וְיוֹדַעַת יָתֵר, מִמַּה שֶׁמַּשֶּׂגֶת וְיוֹדַעַת צוּרָה שֶׁלְּמַטָּה מִמֶּנָּה; וְכֵן כָּל מַעֲלָה וּמַעֲלָה, עַד מַעֲלָה עֲשִׂירִית. וּמַעֲלָה עֲשִׂירִית גַּם הִיא יוֹדַעַת הַבּוֹרֵא, דֵּעָה שְׁאֵין כּוֹחַ בְּנֵי אָדָם הַמְּחֻבָּרִין מִגֹּלֶם וְצוּרָה יָכוֹל לְהַשִּׂיג וְלֵידַע כְּמוֹתָהּ. וְהַכֹּל אֵינָן יוֹדְעִין אֶת הַבּוֹרֵא, כְּמוֹ שְׁהוּא יוֹדֵעַ עַצְמוֹ.

ט: כָּל הַנִּמְצָאִים חוּץ מִן הַבּוֹרֵא, מִצּוּרָה הָרִאשׁוֹנָה עַד יְתוּשׁ קָטָן שֶׁיִּהְיֶה בְּטַבּוּר הָאָרֶץ–הַכֹּל מִכּוֹחַ אֲמִתּוֹ נִמְצְאוּ. וּלְפִי שְׁהוּא יוֹדֵעַ עַצְמוֹ וּמַכִּיר גָּדְלוֹ וְתִפְאַרְתּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ, הוּא יוֹדֵעַ הַכֹּל וְאֵין דָּבָר נֶעְלָם מִמֶּנּוּ.

י: הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַכִּיר אֲמִתּוֹ, וְיוֹדֵעַ אוֹתָהּ כְּמוֹת שְׁהִיא. וְאֵינוּ יוֹדֵעַ בְּדֵעָה שְׁהִיא חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָנוּ יוֹדְעִין, שְׁאֵין אָנוּ וְדַעְתֵּנוּ אֶחָד. אֲבָל הַבּוֹרֵא–הוּא וְדַעְתּוֹ וְחַיָּיו אֶחָד, מִכָּל צַד וּמִכָּל פִּנָּה: שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא הָיָה חַי בְּחַיִּים וְיוֹדֵעַ בְּדֵעָה, הָיוּ שָׁם אֱלוֹהוֹת הַרְבֵּה–הוּא וְחַיָּיו וְדַעְתּוֹ; וְאֵין הַדָּבָר כֵּן, אֵלָא אֶחָד מִכָּל צַד וּמִכָּל פִּנָּה וּבְכָל דֶּרֶךְ יֵחוּד. נִמְצֵאתָ אוֹמֵר: הוּא הַיּוֹדֵעַ, וְהוּא הַיָּדוּעַ, וְהוּא הַדֵּעָה עַצְמָהּ–הַכֹּל אֶחָד. וְדָבָר זֶה–אֵין כּוֹחַ בַּפֶּה לְאָמְרוֹ וְלֹא בָּאֹזֶן לְשָׁמְעוֹ וְלֹא בְּלֵב הָאָדָם לְהַכִּירוֹ, עַל בָּרְיוֹ. וּלְפִיכָּךְ אוֹמְרִין “חֵי פַרְעֹה” (בראשית מב,טו; בראשית מב,טז) וְ”חֵי נַפְשְׁךָ” (שמואל א א,כו; ועוד הרבה, בצירה), וְאֵין אוֹמְרִין חֵי ה’ אֵלָא “חַי-ה'” (שופטים ח,יט; ועוד הרבה, בפתח)–שְׁאֵין הַבּוֹרֵא וְחַיָּיו שְׁנַיִם כְּמוֹ חַיֵּי הַגּוּפוֹת הַחַיִּים, אוֹ כְּחַיֵּי הַמַּלְאָכִים. לְפִיכָּךְ אֵינוּ מַכִּיר הַבְּרוּאִים וְיוֹדְעָם מֵחֲמַת הַבְּרוּאִים, כְּמוֹת שֶׁאָנוּ יוֹדְעִים אוֹתָם, אֵלָא מֵחֲמַת עַצְמוֹ יְדָעָם; לְפִיכָּךְ מִפְּנֵי שְׁהוּא יוֹדֵעַ עַצְמוֹ, יָדַע הַכֹּל–שֶׁהַכֹּל נִסְמָךְ בַּהֲוָיָתוֹ לוֹ.

4: This is that the prophets mean when they say that they saw saw angels of fire with wings? This is owing to the riddles of prophetic vision, for angels [in reality] have no bodies and are not affected by physical limitations, for it is written, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire”. This fire is merely analogous, as it is written, “…who makes the wings His messengers”.

5: How are these forms different if they no bodies? They are not equal in their existence, some being “below” others and owing their existence to those above them, and all of them owe their existence to the power of HQBH and to His Goodness. Solomon in his wisdom hinted at this by saying, “…for there is a High One that watches over him that is high” (Qoheles 5:7).

6: The phrase “some being below those above him” does not refer to being above spatially, like a person sitting higher than his friend. Rather, as we say of two sages where one is greater than his peer in wisdom  that he is “above” the other, and just as says that one set of circumstances is “above” another.

7: The difference in the names of the angels is according to their “height”… All these 10 names that the angwels are called by, they are according to their ten “heights” that they have….

8: All these forms live and recognize their Creator and they know great wisdom exceedingly. Each form according to its “height”, not according to its size. Even the first level can not grasp the Truth of the Creator as it is, their minds are insufficient to grasp it. However, they do grasp and understand more than the grasp and comprehension of the form which is “below” it.  And so on each level until the 10th. And on the 10th level, it too knows the Creator, a knowledge that humans who are fused of body and form lack the ability to grasp and comprehend like they do. And non know the Creator as He Knows Himself.

9: All things that exist, with the exception of God, from the first level (Chayos) until the smallest grub that lives in the mud, do so through the power of His Truth..  Since He knows Himself and recognizes His own Greatness, Glory and Truth, He knows everything, and there is nothing that is hidden from Him.

10: HQBH recognizes His own Truth and knows it as it is. He doesn’t know it with a knowledge which is external to Him, the way we know things — because we and our knowledge are not one. But the Creator, He and is Knowledge and His “Life” are one, from every facet and corner. If He were Alive with Life and Knowing with Knowledge [as things other than His Essence] there would be many gods. And it is not so — rather He is One from every facet, corner, and way of Unity.  This subject cannot be spoken or heard, and it is beyond Man’s understanding to know his Creator. … Therefore, God does not know the creations because of their own existence, but knows them of His own accord. Therefore, He knows everything, for everything relies on Him for existence.

– Hilkhos Yesodei haTorah 1:3-5, 2:3-10

The picture we get from Yesei haTorah is that the Rambam defines Hashem as

  1. The sole non-contingent Being. Everything else exists because He chose them to.
  2. Also, the sole uncaused Cause. The beginning of the causal chain. And in fact that chain goes down 10 levels of mal’akhim, to the spheres, to ourselves.
  3. The unity of the Knower, the Known and the Knowledge. The mal’akhim at each level have less perfect knowledge of Him.

And these are not distinct facts… The chain of will is the chain of causality which in turn is the chain of diminishing knowledge.

Note also that mal’akhim are described as “forms without substance” (2:3) and also a beings capable of knowledge (2:8), and that in fact the quality of the form is the quality of the knowledge.

Let’s compare this to the Rambam’s description of the spheres and angels in the Guide 2:4:

This leads  Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that G-d, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. G-d burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the ‘angels which are near to Him’, through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move… thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from G-d and are the intermediaries between G-d and all the bodies [objects] here in this world.

And 2:6:

We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed–he uses the term “Intelligences,” and we say instead “angels.” His theory is that the Intelligences are intermediate beings between the Prime Cause and existing things, and that they effect the motion of the spheres, on which motion the existence of all things depends. This is also the view we meet with in all parts of Scripture: every act of G-d is described as being performed by angels. But “angel” means “messenger”; hence every one that is intrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of the brute creation are sometimes due to the action of an angel, when such movements serve the purpose of the Creator, who endowed it with the power of performing that movement; e.g., “G-d hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths that they have not hurt me” (Dan. vi. 22). Another instance may be seen in the movements of Balaam’s ass, described as caused by an angel. The elements are also called angels. Comp. “Who maketh winds His angels, flaming fire His ministers” (Ps. civ. 4). There is no doubt that the word “angel” is used of a messenger sent by man; e.g., “And Jacob sent angels” (Gen. xxxii. 4); of a prophet, e.g., “And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim” (Judges ii. 1); “And He sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt” (Num. xx. 16). It is also used of ideals, perceived by prophets in prophetic visions, and of man’s animal powers, as will be explained in another place.

When we assert that Scripture teaches that G-d rules this world through angels, we mean such angels as are identical with the Intelligences. In some passages the plural is used of G-d, e.g., “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. i. 26); “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language” (ibid. xi. 7). Our Sages explain this in the following manner: G-d, as it were, does nothing without contemplating the host above. I wonder at the expression “contemplating,” which is the very expression used by Plato: G-d, as it were, “contemplates the world of ideals, and thus produces the existing beings.” In other passages our Sages expressed it more decidedly: “G-d does nothing without consulting the host above” (the word familia, used in the original, is a Greek noun, and signifies “host”). On the words, “what they have already made” (Eccles. ii. 12), the following remark is made in Bereshit Rabba and in Midrash Koheleth: “It is not said ‘what He has made,’ but ‘what they have made'; hence we infer that He, as it were, with His court, have agreed upon the form of each of the limbs of man before placing it in its position, as it is said, ‘He hath made thee and established thee'” (Deut. xxxii. 6). In Bereshit Rabba (chap. li.) it is also stated, that wherever the term “and the Lord” occurred in Scripture, the Lord with His court is to be understood. These passages do not convey the idea that G-d spoke, thought, reflected, or that He consulted and employed the opinion of other beings, as ignorant persons have believed. How could the Creator be assisted by those whom He created! They only show that all parts of the Universe, even the limbs of animals in their actual form, are produced through angels: for natural forces and angels are identical. How bad and injurious is the blindness of ignorance! Say to a person who is believed to belong to the wise men of Israel that the Almighty sends His angel to enter the womb of a woman and to form there the fœtus, he will be satisfied with the account; he will believe it, and even find in it a description of the greatness of G-d’s might and wisdom; although he believes that the angel consists of burning fire, and is as big as a third part of the Universe, yet he considers it possible as a divine miracle. But tell him that G-d gave the seed a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called “angel,” or that all forms are the result of the influence of the Active Intellect, and that the latter is the angel, the Prince of the world, frequently mentioned by our Sages, and he will turn away; because he cannot comprehend the true greatness and power of creating forces that act in a body without being perceived by our senses. Our Sages have already stated–for him who has understanding–that all forces that reside in a body are angels, much more the forces that are active in the Universe. The theory that each force acts only in one particular way, is expressed in Bereshit Rabba (chap. 1.) as follows: “One angel does not perform two things, and two angels do not perform one thing”; this is exactly the property of all forces. We may find a confirmation of the opinion that the natural and psychical forces of an individual are called angels in a statement of our Sages which is frequently quoted, and occurs originally in Bereshit Rabba (chap. lxxviii.): “Every day G-d creates a legion of angels; they sing before Him, and disappear.” When, in opposition to this statement, other statements were quoted to the effect that angels are eternal–and, in fact, it has repeatedly been shown that they live permanently–the reply has been given that some angels live permanently, others perish; and this is really the case; for individual forces are transient, whilst the genera are permanent and imperishable.

So again we see a chain of forms-without-substance, that are thinking beings, which leads from Hashem to events within this world. Furthermore, an angel actually is the intellect that causes by the event, it’s defined by that event it is to cause. Therefore every mal’akh can only have on task, and could never do anything but that take — there is no free will.

The Rambam even says (citing Plato), “G-d, as it were, ‘contemplates the world of ideals, and thus produces the existing beings.'” A close sibling of the Zohar’s “histakeil beOraisa ubara alma — He looked into the Torah and created the world”!

This thought directly causes existence, as in the Morah (3:20):

THERE is a great difference between the knowledge which the producer of a thing possesses concerning it, and the knowledge which other persons possess concerning the same thing. Suppose a thing is produced in accordance with the knowledge of the producer, the producer was then guided by his knowledge in the act of producing the thing. Other people, however, who examine this work and acquire a knowledge of the whole of it, depend for that knowledge on the work itself. E.g., An artisan makes a box in which weights move with the running of the water, and thus indicate how many hours have passed of the day and of the night. The whole quantity of the water that is to run out, the different ways in which it runs, every thread that is drawn, and every little ball that descends–all this is fully perceived by him who makes the clock; and his knowledge is not the result of observing the movements as they are actually going on; but, on the contrary, the movements are produced in accordance with his knowledge. But another person who looks at that instrument will receive fresh knowledge at every movement he perceives; the longer he looks on, the more knowledge does he acquire; he will gradually increase his knowledge till he fully understands the machinery….

Our knowledge is acquired and increased in proportion to the things known by us. This is not the case with God. His knowledge of things is not derived from the things themselves: if this were the case, there would be change and plurality in His knowledge; on the contrary, the things are in accordance with His eternal knowledge, which has established their actual properties, and made part of them purely spiritual, another part material and constant as regards its individual members, a third part material and changeable as regards the individual beings according to eternal and constant laws. Plurality, acquisition, and change in His knowledge is therefore impossible. He fully knows His unchangeable essence, and has thus a knowledge of all that results from any of His acts.

So Hashem has a Thought, which has a thought, and so on, down to the material world before us.


Despite the (hopefully) provocative title, how far is the Rambam’s position actually from Qabbalah, and notions of worlds of descending Atzilus from Hashem to physical being?

Most profoundly, the Rambam has a causal chain of entities — mal’achim and spheres — not worlds. There is no “plane of existence”, but a kind of intellect/form which is one step more removed from G-d than its predecessor. It also means that there is no mention of tzimtzum. A chain of thoughts that link His Will to the physical world doesn’t fill everything to require a “constriction”, real or apparent. Worlds include the spaces between the “entities”, and therefore we can speak of needing to make room from the higher ones for those lower.

But there is also much in common.

The Leshem’s Qabbalah derives from that of the Gra, but he also heavily cites the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that in Haqdamos uShe’arim ch. 2, the Leshem explains that in the process of unfolding of worlds, the substance of a higher world becomes the form of the next one. Again, a chain of ever-descending forms.

I want to discuss this notion of a descent of form and thought as one gets “further” from G-d until the world of objects and events that we live in, olam ha’asiyah, in a future post.