Understanding G-d

In answer to a Twitter discussion on our understanding, or lack thereof, of G-d. Many wise things were said on Twitter and this is not intended to be a full treatise on the topic. I just want to explain what prompted my answer here:

I’ll open by saying I’m all for genuineness. Therefore, if you’ve been learning Chassidus and have been genuinely overwhelmed by the vastness of G-d and the smallness of your own mind, that’s legitimate, and admirable. Nevertheless as in all things in Chassidus, there are two sides to everything, and I’d like to stress the side of understanding.

Understanding & Applying
I’d like to retract what I said on Twitter, suggesting that if it effects your life it means you’ve understood it. That’s Daas, which comes after Binah. It’s possible to understand something long before its ramifications have hit home. The application of Chassidus to daily life is a related but different process, often called Avoda as opposed to Haskala. Does lack of Daas imply a lack of Binah? I wonder. But from here on I’m referring to the rational understanding.

G-d & His Torah
According to Chassidus there should be no way for finite beings like us to grasp Hashem, not through understanding or any other means. Hashem chose to open up a channel for us through Torah and mitzvos (and teshuva, ahava etc.) It is therefore a fundemental Chassidic belief that we can grasp G-d through the Torah. Perek Hey of Tanya, you’ve wrapped your head around רצונו וחכמתו of Hashem (so not Hashem’s etzem?). Yes, our brains are limited, but that’s exactly the point. Hashem wanted to be grasped by the gray matter inside our skulls that is simultaneously occupied with how to beat the next level in Candy Crush.

Excuses & False humility
What bothers me about these non-understanding disclaimers is that it serves as a block, an excuse. How many people have been frightened away – “I should learn likutei torah? samach vov?” – or made to think they’re arrogant for wanting to.
It’s not an excuse and it’s not arrogant to use the brain G-d gave you. Strip away the esoteric, read the words, and treat it as you would anything else. Use everything you know – math, logic, language, psychology – and form an approximation of what Atzilus is, figure out its component parts, what triggers what. If you’re missing a piece of information, go find it out. Learn it often enough that you begin to form associations with the terms “zeir anpin”, “or makif”,”eser sefiros hagenuzos”. There will always be a lot you can’t understand – because you haven’t learned enough.
As for the humility, don’t worry – no one is accusing you of actually knowing what goes on in Atzilus, only the best approximation your gray matter can come up with.

  • Really great post. Thoughtful and thought provoking.

    Here are some of my thoughts.

    1) I’m not entirely sure that Tanya, Chapter 5 is relevant to this discussion. As you point out, there it refers to G-d’s wisdom and will, rather than the Divine self (ohr ain sof or atzmut) which is vested, and perhaps concealed therein. This question was recently discussed at the Chabad Society at Oxford University by Dr. Israel Sandman and Rabbi Moshe Woleberg, and a video of their conversation can be viewed here: .   

    2) Having said that, in Kuntras Inyono Shel Torat Ha-chassidus (On the Essence of Chassidus) the Rebbe clearly states that Chassidus has the unique property that it is transparent to essential revelation of the Divine self (ohr ain sof). I once wrote an article attempting to articulate this idea and demonstrate how it actually works. This can be viewed here: . 

    3) Here is my abridged translation of a what I think is a very relevant sicha from the Friedike Rebbe (Sefer Ha-sichot Kayitz Tof Shin, pages 26-7), together with my comments:

    “The Chassid Reb Gershen Ber of Parhar said… Chassidus brings the most abstract understanding to the fore, to the degree of mystic union (yedative hayisiv) experienced by the divine soul,  and through toil of the soul and toil of the flesh in avodas shebelev one comes to complete understanding.”

    This implies that there are many degrees of understanding, and the deepest recognition of the Divine self can not be achieved without avodah, which as you say is related to Daat rather than Chachmah and Binah. 

    “The Rebbe Rashab said… each and every Chassid who toils in Chassidus and avoda shebelev, which two – learning and davening – are one; when one learns but doesn’t toil in avodah shebelev  the learning is not learning, and when one toils in avodah shbelev without learning it isn’t avodah. But when one has both things, one davens and one learns, each individual recognizes (derhert) the essential being (hayisiv) that comes from the knowledge (yadativ) of the soul.” 

    This implies two things. Firstly, that every Chassid can achieve the highest level understanding. Secondly, that any understanding reached without avodah will remain essentially deficient.

    4) Finally, your central point, about hiding behind the veneer of false modesty is absolutely correct. Conversely, the more we understand the more awed, humbled, thankful and privileged we should feel, for this great gift of Chassidus.  

    • Thanks for taking the time to write up this response. The links are missing from your post so my response won’t be complete. 

      1-2) I think we’ve accidentally moved away from the original question – understanding tzimtzum and by extension all esoteric concepts in Chassidus, to the question of whether or not we can grasp G-d Himself. (My title may have something to do with that.) This could actually be the key.  Whatever Hashem put in the Torah (his chochma and ratzon), and that includes Chassidus, should at least on some level be understandable. Hashem himself, that’s another story. Separating between Hashem himself and his Chochma/Ratzon? Not so simple.

      3) So can I retract my retraction then?
      More seriously though if we used terms from neuroscience and pedagogy, I imagine it would be similar, where being able to apply an idea is part of understanding. Though there are plenty of geniuses who remain in the realm of ‘theoretical’ as opposed to ‘applied’ science or math and accomplish a lot while remaining in the world of thought. 

      To @popchassid I also hope my last sentence doesn’t undo the whole answer. I don’t think it does. Just like in Middos you need to be aware of both your strengths and limitations. Know what you know, and what you still have to know. Actually, knowing what you don’t know is quite a level in itself – but that’s another matter.

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