In searching for a compelling religious treatment of nothingness, the Jewish tradition would seem like a strange place to turn. It places a strong emphasis on the Israelites as being God’s chosen people, a guiding light for the other peoples of the world, whose actions are central to the redemption of a fallen humanity, a broken world, and the coming of the messiah. The role of the Jewish people in the light of the Torah is hardly nothing.
But in the 13th century, a mystical branch of Judaism developed called Kabbalah that plumbed the esoteric depths of the Torah in order to better know God—and one of the things the mystics found in the depths was nothingness.
According to kabbalah, there are ten sefirot, the emanations or attributes of God. Keter, top-most sefirah, or the “Crown” of God is also referred to as ayin (“ah-yin”)—literally, “Nothingness”. It is the primordial Nothingness that existed before the universe and from which the universe sprang into existence.
To learn more about ayin, we spoke with Daniel Matt, a preeminent scholar of Kabbalah and a translator of the central Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, into English.
“It sounds very strange to speak of God as Nothing or Nothingness” says Matt. “‘God is Nothing.’ Now that is not a statement of atheism it’s not saying that God does not exist. It’s really saying God is beyond anything we can conceptualize. So it’s a way to speak of the boundlessness the undefined ability of God by using this paradoxical term. Ayin.”
These Jewish mystics are saying that God can be thought of as Nothing in the apophatic sense: He is like no thing, and so cannot be talked about.
“Since God’s being is incomprehensible and ineffable,” Matt says, “the least offensive and most accurate description one can offer is, paradoxically, nothing.”
Ayin was first developed in medieval Kabbalah as an abstract theological concept. In the 18th century, the emerging Hasidic movement in Western Ukraine began to ascribe a practical psychological significance to the complex theology of the Kabbalists. Ayin, rather than a strange and unknowable part of God, became—among other things—a medium for self-transformation.
Dov Ber of Mezeritch, an early Hasidic leader and a successor of the Kabbalists, explained ayin like so:
“Ayin is the root of all things and when one brings anything to its root it can transform it. Each thing must arrive at the level of the ayin and only then can it become something else. Ayin strips off one form and puts on another. Transformation is possible only through ayin.”
Dov Ber encouraged his followers to shuffle the letters of aniy (Hebrew for “I”) into ayin (Hebrew for “Nothing”)—similar to the way Buddhism teaches its disciples to relinquish their ego. In Hasidic Judaism, dissolving the ego in nothingness is not interpreted as a nihilistic act but essentially an act of transformation. Dov Ber likened this transformation to a seed which must destroy itself in order to sprout the plant. Likewise, the ego is not evil but its annihilation is essential to engender a new form of life.
“You know the beauty of ayin,” said Matt, “is its paradoxical nature, but most of us only hear the word “nothing” or that kind of negative language immediately associated with nihilism. So it’s important to draw that distinction. This is a state of letting go and then the possibility of transformation. Or you could say you know letting go and allowing something beyond your normal self to come through.”
To enter into ayin is a dissolution of self into molten nothingness. But like Buddhism, Hasidic interpretation of Kabbalah recognizes that to live as a human being in the human world requires us to reform a self, to return as an ego—albeit a changed ego.
Matt: “… the goal is not to stay in that state of ayin. The goal is not to dissolve into nothingness and then just remain there in that ocean or that puddle of ‘us.’ Ayin is really a moment of transformation. You let go a certain concept or a certain identity and then a new idea a new insight a new aspect of your personality could emerge. So the process is really one of transformation not of melting into an eternal state of not-being.”
While Jewish mystical teachings are meant to be a powerful and vivifying force, rabbinic authorities have historically been wary of the dangers of diving too deeply into the mystical substrata that underlay the sober, intellectual Judaic tradition. Rabbinic scholars cautioned not to study kabbalah’s central text, the Zohar, until the age of 40, and warned that if taught inappropriately kabbalah can bring immense darkness into the world. Matt also acknowledges the risk of descending into an unhealthy form of nothingness.
Matt: “You might say you know that you can’t you shouldn’t work on losing the ego until you have developed a stable ego. And people who jump in too quickly and want to face their normal sense of self could be left with nothing nothing with a small N. I would say and ayin is nothing with a capital N.”
Gershom Scholem, the founder of the academic study of Kabbalism, was fascinated with the mystical sources of nihilism in Judaism. In the first essay of his book Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Scholem characterized the experience of the nihilistic mystic as such:
“In his mystical experience, the mystic encounters Life. This ‘Life,’ however is not the harmonious life of all things in bond with God … but something very different. … this ‘Life’ never ceases to produce forms and to destroy what it has produced. … The nihilistic mystic descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born … Into this bubbling caldron, this continuum of destruction, the mystic plunges.”
From the point of view of Jewish rabbinical authorities, this kind of mysticism would have been regarded as demonic possession.
The mystical conception of Kabbalah puts humanity in relation with a very different sort of God than a walking, talking deity with a beard and a bald-spot. Kabbalah paints humanity in relation to an immense universal order, a Tree of Life that pervades the universe and is as abstract and intuitively strange as the laws of quantum- and astro- physics. Like the universe as we know it today, Kabbalists portrayed God as so immensely Other, His mind so unkowable, that nothing can be said about Him in the human sense. And yet these scholars learned to turn Nothing into more than everything, and so find sacredness therein. Those trying to confront an immense, indifferent, yet unknowable universe, might find the Kabbalists teachings an unlikely guide to relate to a universe that—while it may be approached by theory—will forever be beyond our grasp.
This series is adapted from the podcast episode I produced for the Ministry of Ideas. Listen to it here.