The G-d of Nothing

Imagine you are an ancient pagan worshipping spirits, the forces of nature, or mathematical abstractions. You have no problem saying what your god is. He’s this dude with pale blue eyes and a massive hammer. He can turn into a magnificent swan. She is the perfect triangle transcending all worldly triangularity.

What does it mean that your gods are so easily defined? Definition is (by definition) the act of finding the limits of a thing, the ability to say where they begin and where they end. Thor may be huge but his eyes are shocking chips of ice and the triangle is a triangle but not a square. Even our very ability to truthfully describe these beings with language, our knowledge of the color blue which is the very same color as Thor’s eyes, implies that they are worldly beings existing within the boundaries of our reality.

These are gods of something. The god of thunder. The god of war.

Then Abraham comes along with the radical idea that none of these gods exist on their own but must all derive from one source, one cause, and one power. This One G-d is not like any of the other gods. The One G-d is not defined in worldly terms, for He is not caused by the world, but the world caused by Him. He is not a limited being within the creation, but the ground for creation, that which precedes it, the Uncreated.

The color blue is not something in which He Himself participates. The color blue is something He created, and therefore He precedes it and causes it to exist. What is true for the color blue is true of every other means of defining G-d by comparison. Nothing compares to Him, for He comes before and creates everything.

How, then, can we know G-d? As the famous line goes, if we were to know Him, we would be Him. In other words, the creation cannot know the Creator, unless it ceases to be the former and becomes the latter.

The Rambam and others famously frame this in terms of apophatic, that is, negative theology. We cannot know what G-d is, but we can know what He isn’t. He doesn’t have blue eyes, or green eyes, or red eyes. He doesn’t have eyes at all. We cannot say that He sees, but He also is not blind, nor unseeing. He knows with knowledge unlike ours; He knows by being Himself.

Whereas you, the Rambam may tell the idolators, think that a god has blue eyes, I know that G-d is beyond reckoning. He is not limited to being a particular color, nor any number of colors we know of. The most we can say about Him is that He is not of a particular color or definition; He is more than being something.

He is the G-d of beyond thunder, He is the G-d of beyond war. He is the G-d of everything, from the highest to the lowest. He precedes all of them; they are all His creation, and all of their qualities find their highest expression in Him.

Since He is the G-d of everything, the closer one gets to everything, the close one gets to Him. He is perfect, so we try to be perfect. He lacks nothing, so we try to lack nothing. We can never reach Him, but we do good deeds and build a magnificent temple to remind us what to strive for.

But this, too, is not quite right.

For we are basing what He is beyond, what He transcends, on what we know. We know He is not a particular color and rather the source of all color. But why should we assume He is the source only of what we know? Once we go through the realm of the knowable, one we realize He is beyond and the source of color and taste and cars and race, have we fully exhausted what He is?

Indeed, there are indications in His Torah that there are things about G-d that are not only unknown to us, but fundamentally unknowable to anyone. Think of the miracles of contradiction. Things like bushes and oil burn but are not consumed; the Holy Ark both took up and did not take up space. Not only are these miracles, they are pure contradictions. We cannot say the laws of nature are being broken, for we cannot even describe what is taking place at all. Describe a square circle. Describe what it means to both ride and not ride simultaneously. Describe what it means for something to take up no space because it takes up a certain number of cubits.

No, says the Torah of truth; He is not merely something and not merely everything. “Everything” is a sense of what exists beyond what we know. He exists beyond this sense, too. He is the G-d not just of infinite colors, but of infinite infinities, everything that is possible and everything that is impossible. He exists beyond the distinction of what is and what is not, what can be and what cannot be.

He is also the G-d of nothing.

But if He occupies the realm beyond this dichotomy, beyond something and nothing, then declaring anything non-G-dly would be in contradiction to His truth. If there is nothing He is, and nothing He isn’t, who are we to say that the holy is G-dly, and the mundane unG-dly?

He is not just beyond Creation; He is beyond the distinction between Creation and Non-Creation. Destruction, too, is His. In fact, He is no less destruction than He is creation.

Can we even call the Temple G-dly, but the destruction unG-dly?

The difference lies only in what we see.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Stupid Tisha B’Av

There is a certain type of mourning that elevates. Just as upon observing proud triumph or awful beauty we feel ourselves wrenched from our narrow horizons and pushed upward toward a higher view, so, too, in recalling or witnessing bitter tragedy are we forced to acknowledge, by the power of a story, that the universe does not end at our eyelashes, that there are larger things afoot that we merely partake in.

One day a year we are supposed to take millennia of things not working out and jam them through our eyes into our skulls and remember that in this way, too, we are Jewish, chosen by G-d, His people, ballast of history, purposeful. The national day of mourning is supposed to be cathartic, a time when we tell G-d that we’re sorry and we’re hurt and you’re still with us and we’re still with you and we have regrets and you have regrets but we can still do this, right? We can finish the mission, together, and all the missteps and dead ends of these desert wanderings will have been our path to some sort of stability.

But for me the day is not release but a laborious ingathering of exiled woe, and I can’t get over my headache.

Tisha B’Av is a punishment stacked atop the historical ones. It is a day of caring that reminds me how little I care. It is a lens bringing into a grating hot focus the post-modern abyss of my religious feeling.

The real punishments of Jewish history were the destruction of the Temple and the Inquisition and Khmelnitsky. But the real punishment is living in a time when we suffer no existential threats and benefit from no miracles of the spirit, when we are addled by not just informational but philosophical overload and we have no great leaders to talk us through it.

The sad thing about Tisha B’Av is my fellow Yeshiva student and I at the Kotel a few years ago where there’s a sort of pillow party, only slightly less festive for lack of food, three dozen voices trying the keening kinot and recanting Jeremiah’s lament. My friend’s angry because no one is really sad and I’m angry that he wants them to be. He’d rather a maudlin show in solidarity with the endless suffering of our forebears, whose pain came coupled with purpose or reason or direction or at least the indestructible knowing, that hard untarnished bone of Jewish identity that cannot be stabbed or burned or suffocated. I’d rather a counting of our blessings, that we get to live long, fat lives unmarred by the discomfort of a real G-d who draws all faces and matters upturned to Him. He wants us to be trivially sad and I want us to be meaninglessly happy, and it is not our fault.

Nothing is our fault. We don’t ask to live and don’t ask to die, and the minuscule range of even our furthest rebellion is decided by the time which is chosen for us. We have been chosen for the tail end of an interminable exile, an exile which colors even our highest dreams of redemption and leaves them hopelessly off-mark.

Tisha B’Av is the reminder that the exile is our G-d, that our happiness and sadness, our triumph and sorrow, are mere variations. Exile had us pinned, and calling it exile changes nothing; it is the beginning and the end, and there is nothing other than it. All enlightenment and escape is just another mode of its expression. There is the infinitude of the exile and its finitude, which interwoven produce the form and matter of this endless unconsummated trudge of a world. The exile exists; it does not exist; our opinions don’t matter. It is still what swaddles us as we drift off to sleep under our LED lamps and what greets us when we open our eyes to (yet) another day. We worship it either with millennia of traditions or rituals or we worship it merely by breathing. We worship it with rebellion and with apathy. Not a blade of grass turns in the wind without it being decreed by the exile, signed by the exile, generated from nothing by the endless bitter exile, for the plan that only the exile knows.

Some say the exile is not a being in and of itself, that it exists only in our minds. G-d is all that’s real, they say; the exile is an illusion. But they ignore common sense, the preponderance of the evidence. They are short-sighted; they do not see how their G-d is just a subcategory of this interminable, intolerable wasteland. If they could see only as far as their faces they would sanctify their noses and declare their nostrils two halves of a sacred olfactory dualism.

No, in exile, exile is all there is, and this is what Tisha B’Av teaches us. From exile we come, and to exile we shall return. We are sad, we are happy, we are good, we are bad, we are enlightened, we are benighted, we pet the dog, we kick the dog, we filter our Internet, we go wild, we curse the truth in our hearts or we denounce lies in public, it doesn’t matter. We’re still in this stupid world with its stubbed toes and terrorist attacks, and we understand our G-d in that context. Stupid Tisha B’Av.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.