What better place to start a discussion about “What is God?” than at the beginning, of both God and the universe. So we are going to start with the first verse of Genesis and its interpretation by the Jewish mystical practice of Kabbalah. By “mystical” we mean anything that enables one to make a direct, usually emotional, connection to God.
The Hebrew word kabbalah means “receiving” or “that which has been received.” The Zohar (meaning Radiance or Splendor) is a Medieval Kabbalistic text which offers a detailed commentary on the inner meaning of the entire Torah.
Utilized in this post are two selections from the Zohar regarding Genesis 1:1, as referenced in volume I of “The Zohar” by Daniel Matt. The Zohar is a deeply abstract text that attempts to convey with words what can not be described by words alone. Therefore, mystical literature is filled with both linguistic and logical contradictions as well as non-linear thought lines that can be very frustrating to modern readers. There is much mystery involved. This mystery is not so much a problem to be “solved”, as it is an enigma to be appreciated. As a result one doesn’t “read” the text as much as one “experiences” the text subconsciously. Like poetry it must be read again and again with a “relaxed” mind, then savored in those nooks and crannies of the mind. One should “feel” the contradictions of the text and try not to think too much about their meaning. This is perfect subject matter for those meditative moments when contemplating, “Who and What is God?”. This requires training for those of us with a “Western Worldview” which is hopelessly addicted to logic and reason.
— From the Zohar on Genesis 1:1
THE CREATION OF GOD: With beginning….
WHEN THE KING conceived ordaining, he engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark flashed within the concealed of the concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. When a band spanned, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, imbuing colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of the Infinite. The flow broke through and did not break through its aura. It was not known at all until, under the impact of breaking through, one high and hidden point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known. So it is called Beginning.
“The enlightened will shine like the zohar of the sky, and those who make the masses righteous will shine like the stars forever and ever.”
Zohar, concealed of the concealed, struck its aura. The aura touched and did not touch this point. Then Beginning emanated, building itself a glorious palace. There it sowed the seed of holiness to give birth for the benefit of the universe.
Zohar, sowing a seed of glory like a seed of fine purple silk. The silkworm wraps itself within, weaving itself a palace. This palace is its praise, a benefit to all.
With Beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace, a palace called God. The secret is: “With Beginning, ______ created God.”
If you read this through once and think you’re confused, welcome to the club. So at this point it would be beneficial to understand how the Jews interpret Genesis 1:1 in the Hebrew Tanakh. This is important since this verse in the Tanakh has a subtle difference in translation from it’s Christian counterpart.
The first six Hebrew words of the Torah as written in the text are “Beresheet bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-erets”. A direct translation of the words gives us: beresheet meaning either “in beginning” or ‘with beginning”, bara meaning “created”, Elohim meaning “God”, ha-shamayim meaning “heavens”, et v’et are “and”, with ha-erets meaning “earth”. Here the proper name for God, “Elohim”, is attempting to convey the essence of God as a primal infinite space, the universe. This is where “the palace” reference comes from in the above Zohar passage. Put it all together you get.
Genesis 1:1 – In the beginning( בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) God( אֱלֹהִ֑ים) created( בָּרָ֣א) ( אֵ֥ת) the heaven( הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם) and( וְאֵ֥ת) the earth.( הָאָֽרֶץ׃) –The King James English-Hebrew/Greek Reverse Interlinear Bible
The grammar as related to subject and object in Genesis 1:1 is open to interpretation. The typical Christian “King James” translation above exchanges the order of bara and Elohim so that God becomes the subject doing the creating. This yields “In the beginning God created…”. Kabbalah, on the other hand, insists on reading the words as originally written, thereby transforming Elohim (God) into the object of creation. This means that the subject doing the “creating” is unnamed. We get, “With beginning ________ created Elohim”. This is the proper and direct translation, since the true subject for the emanation (creation) is unnameable. Here Elohim denotes both God as well as the universe (cosmos) which emanated from ___________.
In the primal state, “_____ the creator” is “emanated undifferentiated being”, a blank, neither this nor that, the infinite pregnant nothingness of becoming. In Kabbalah the Ein Sof is the name for this hidden source of all emanation, the pregnant infinite. It is important to note that all the divine names, whether in Hebrew or any other language, provide merely a tiny, dim spark of the hidden light for which the soul yearns for when it says “God.”
Every definition or mental picture of God leads to limiting and results in an “anthropomorphic” (making human) God.
God “defined” is spiritual idolatry.
— From the Zohar on Genesis 1:1
THE AROMA OF INFINITY
EIN SOF DOES NOT abide being known, does not produce end or beginning. Primordial Nothingness brought forth beginning and end.
Who is beginning? The highest point, beginning of all, the concealed one abiding in thought. It also engenders end, the culmination of the word. But there, no end. No desires, no lights, no sparks in that Infinity.
All these lights and sparks are dependent on it but cannot comprehend. The only one who knows, yet without knowing, is the highest desire, concealed of all concealed, Nothingness.
And when the highest point and the world that is coming ascend, they know only the aroma, as one inhaling an aroma is sweetened.
Sometimes a picture can be used with words to try and convey the mystical quest. Consider the picture below. It is called the Flammarion engraving and was created as a wood engraving by an unknown artist, so named because its first documented appearance is in Camille Flammarion‘s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (“The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology”). It has been used to represent the ancient cosmology familiar to the author of Genesis, where the entire cosmos consists of a flat “earth” bounded by a solid and opaque sky, or “heavens”.
The engraving depicts a man (seeker), clothed in a long robe and carrying a staff, who kneels down and passes his head, shoulders, and right arm through a gap between the star-studded sky and the earth, discovering a marvelous realm of circling clouds, fires and suns beyond the heavens. One of the elements of the “area beyond the cosmos” bears a strong resemblance to traditional pictorial representations of the “wheel in the middle of a wheel” described in the visions of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel.
This picture shows the entire universe as it was understood by the Jews at the time the Torah was written and compiled. The known universe consisting of many ascending layers of heavens above the earth. These multiple heavens were very well known by Jews of Yeshua’s time and are described in the three Jewish Books of Enoch. Sha’ul talked about Enoch’s third heaven, the realm of divine creatures and unspeakable mysteries, that was the subject of one of his many ecstatic visions.
Here also is rendered the eternal metaphorical ideal of both the scientific and the mystical seeker who quests for knowledge of what is beyond the cosmos, the infinite Ein Sof. But the infinite concept of the Ein Sof is beyond human comprehension.
Long before the Zohar was written, Yeshua addressed the subject of beginnings in the Gospel of Thomas. This Gospel is nothing more than a collection of Yeshua’s mystical teachings given to and studied by his inner-circle of disciples. As such they sound a lot like the Zohar, but while the Zohar was not written until the middle ages, the practice of the mystical Kabbalah did exist before the time of Yeshua.
Thomas Logion 18, The disciples said to Yeshua, “Tell us, how will our end will come?”Yeshua said, “Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is. Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.”
Thomas Logion 19, Yeshua said, “Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being. If you become my disciples and pay attention to my sayings, these stones will serve you. For there are five trees in Paradise for you; they do not change, summer or winter, and their leaves do not fall. Whoever knows them will not taste death.”
Unlike the Jews that balk at even saying the sacred name of God, let alone imagining God to be a man, Christianity thrives on the anthropomorphic God. Because of its Greek heritage, there is a very strong tradition in Christianity for picturing God as a person, usually as a kindly, old white hired man or perhaps God as Yeshua with a halo. There is a basis for the “old man” God in the book of Daniel where the “Ancient of Days” is mentioned. It took Michelangelo to solidify the picture of God as man with his depiction of the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Now while Yeshua did refer to God as Father, as an orthodox observant Jew he would not have had sympathy for any depiction of God as a man. His use of the phrase “Father in Heaven” is both metaphorical and imaginary, not a actual physical description of God.
Both Kabbalah and the Zohar go to great lengths to insure the disciple does not infer or form any mental construction of God as a human being, or for that matter a physical anything, in either appearance or characteristics.