November 16, 2009


The following is an excerpt from Dr. Moshe Idel’s “Hasidism: Between Ecstacy and Magic” (SUNY), pp. 107-111. Footnotes have been omitted from this online version, although we restored several source references to the text. We also took the liberty of fixing several typos and settling on the term “naught” exclusively as the English equivalent of ‘Ayin, where the author uses both “naught” and “nought.”

Some Remarks on Immanentism and ‘Ayin

Moshe Idel

The question of which is the more dominant factor in religion, and especially in mysticism – experience or theology – is not easy to answer. A more open theology, with immanentist leanings, might be considered to open up more easily the way for mystical experiences. However, mystical experiences are reported even within religions that cultivate extreme forms of transcendental theology. Thus, it may be that the spiritual predisposition, the opening of the human to the divine, is more important for the occurrence of mystical encounters than theology. Such an opening would select out of the many available theologies in the speculative reservoir of a particular religion the more immanentist or pantheistic one. As Erich Neumann has said, the “world and its content are numinous, but this is true only because man is by nature a homo mysticus” (Mystical Man, p. 385). Therefore, the emergence of a certain type of mystical theology should be an indicator of the experiential emphasis of the religious mentality within which this theology appears. Provided that mystical experiences emerge from and are encouraged by both immanentist and transcendental types of theologies, it seems reasonable to conclude that the latter do not impede upon the mystical experiences. Insofar as Hasidism is concerned, its theologies, which include strong immanentist formulations, are apparently not strong determinants of this religiosity, but more the effects of a theological selection determined by the strong openness of the Hasidic masters toward the numinous. This also seems to be true in the case of other Jewish mystical systems, more precisely ecstatic Kabbalah, especially in the forms espoused by R. Yizhaq of Acre and [R. Moshe] Cordovero. Indeed, a certain correlation between a tendency toward experiential mysticism and immanentism should be presupposed.

That immanentist theology cannot alone explain the emergence of full-fledged mystical experience may be deduced from a comparison between Hasidism and the thought of one of its great opponents. R. Hayyim of Volozhin, who used expressions that betray his deep interest in immanentist theology, as M. Pachter has shown. Therefore, the theological assumption that God is immanent in the world is far from being an innovation of Hasidic thought, but is one of the possible theologies that an eighteenth-century mystic could have adopted from a variety of classical Jewish writings. Strong unitive expressions, however, cannot be found in the writings of R. Hayyim. It would therefore be more plausible to look for the sources of Hasidic mysticism not in a certain type of theology, or at least not solely in it, but in a special spiritual opening, which drew on classical sources both in order to reach and to express the mystical state. The existence of a long history of mystical techniques, concepts, and systems in medieval Jewish mysticism proves that those texts that revealed them could have informed the Hasidic masters; thus we may assume that the role of immanentist theology in the emergence of Hasidic mysticism may be substantially reduced.

With this observation in mind, let us inspect briefly the history of the concept of “annihilation [bitul].” This concept is crucial for many of the Hasidic discussions of mystical experience and may be considered one of the most important components of the mystical technique in Hasidism. Indeed, its role as part of the technical aspect of the model is the expansion of consciousness, the break ing of the ego-centered personality, in order to assimilate to the divine and thereby receive the influx from above. It should be emphasized that assimilation by annihilation does not concern divinity in its immanent aspect but, on the contrary, the highest plane in the divine world, the divine Naught. Despite the remoteness of this aspect of the divine, it is possible to encounter the deity by inducing a certain state of mind and/or soul. In these discussions, while we are stressing the importance of experiential starting points over theological ones, the possible impact of the latter should not be ignored. We must assume, however, that the existence of mystical practices is far more important for the actualization of a mystical drive than the theosophical or theological structure within which a particular form of mystical revival takes place. In other words, the emphasis should be placed on the existence of a directive to imitate God by self-effacement as well as on the practices of solitude and mental concentration. Such practices reflect more adequately the emergence of a mystical search that may also adopt a variety of theologies as religious frameworks. Let us therefore examine the availability of a pivotal practice for the nascent Hasidism in earlier mystical traditions.

In a Talmudic discussion, R. Abbahu, a mystically inclined Amora, is quoted to the effect that “the world does not subsist ... but for the sake of someone who conceives himself as nonexistent” (Hullin 89a). The last phrase is a translation of the Hebrew words Mesim ‘azmo kemiy she-‘eino This awareness of personal “nothingness” has no direct relationship to a divine way of behavior, though it has, at least implicitly, a certain cosmic connotation: the existence of the worlds is conceived as depending upon this kind of person. The precise nature of such a person is not specified by the Talmudic source, which mentions in this context—though not in this specific case—names of biblical figures.

However, in another context, R. Yohanan is quoted as saying that the Torah does not subsist except for those who conceive themselves as “nonexistent.” (Sotah 21b). In this case, however, a prooftext is given: the famous verse in Job 28:12, “Ve-ha-hokhmah me-‘ayin timaze.” While the original sense of the verse is interrogative (“But where shall wisdom be found?”), in the Talmudic context the sense is that wisdom, namely the words of the Torah, [is] found in someone who regards himself as nonexistent, the last concept being represented in the verse by the word ‘Ayin. Interestingly, R. Shelomo Yizhaqi [Rashi], the most important commentator on the Talmud, uses in the context of the passage the form ke-‘Ayin, namely “as nonexistence,” or “as naught,” instead of ke-’eino. I cannot embark here on a full description of the implication of such a reading of the biblical verse in the Talmud. However, for our purpose, it is sufficient to point out that according to the above quotes, ‘Ayin can designate the spiritual state of the few, who play a special role both in sustaining the world and as teachers of the Torah.

A correlation between humility and the concept of ‘Ayin as the symbol of the highest Sefirah, Keter [Crown], is already evident in R. Moshe Cordovero’s Tefillah le-Moshe (fol. 219b): “ ‘Ayin ‘Aniy, the humble, Anavim who are within ‘Ayin, while the poor ones are within ‘Aniy.” This statement means that the humble ones can reach the divine Naught, which stands for the first Sefirah, while the poor belong to the last Sefirah, Malkhut [Kingship]. Even more important for the subsequent evolution of Jewish mysticism is a passage from Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah [“Palm Tree of Deborah”], in which he relates the imitatio dei to the imitation of the activity of the first Sefirah; in the second chapter of this book we read that the “quintessence of the humility is that man should not find in himself any value but should consider himself as naught [‘Ayin] ... because Keter is the first attribute ... which sees itself as naught in front of its emanator. Likewise, man should consider himself as naught, indeed, his ‘non-existence’ being better than his existence.”

As Bracha Sack has shown (“The Influence of Reshit Hokhmah”), this text has influenced Cordovero’s student’s important book, Reshit Hokhmah, and thereby also Hasidism. However, before turning to this work, let us ponder the meaning of the comparison between human behavior and the theosophical processes. The first Sefirah recognizes both its nothingness and its dependence when it ascends to receive the power of the Infinite. However, the first Sefirah does not disappear, and there is no reason to assume that the concept of self-negation is proposed here even implicitly. The Sefirot in Kabbalah can return to their source, but they do not lose their distinctiveness even there. By analogy, humility does not automatically assume a loss of identity, but may signify instead the proper understanding of the nature of reality and the absolute dependence of the individual upon the higher entities.

R. Elijah de Vidas, a major disciple of Cordovero, describes the first Sefirah as bowing in front of the emanator; it is called ‘Ayin, “since it considers itself as nothing when compared to the Emanator. And it lowers its head in order to watch over and to emanate onto the lower worlds, which all incline to suckle from it. Therefore, it is appropriate for man to think about himself as naught before His Greatness, blessed be He, which has no end or limit” (Reshit Hokhmah, The Gate of Holiness, chap. 1, para. 15, p. 582, [Appendix 5]).

Although there is no doubt that de Vidas was influenced by Cordovero, it should be mentioned that he also made recourse to the two talmudic texts quoted above (ibid. p. 618). However, there is one element that is hinted at in Reshit Hokhmah that does not occur in the context of the passage we have quoted above from Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah. According to de Vidas, the Kabbalist should imitate the first Sefirah not only through his humility or “annihilation” but also, he seems to be saying, through his influence on others. It should be emphasized that this is not an explicit statement: the emanation of Keter appears in de Vidas, but not explicitly in Cordovero, while the human counterpart of this act is not mentioned. Nevertheless, from the phrase “it is appropriate” we may infer that someone should also attempt to imitate the first Sefirah by service to others. Although this is only a possible inference, it is one which, indeed, was drawn by the Hasidic masters. It should be emphasized that the use of the term ‘Ayin, in order to express the mystic’s attitude of humility in relation to God, does not imply, at least in the above texts, individual disintegration or momentary annihilation. On the contrary, in some instances we may assume that by imitating the divine Naught the mystic is extending his consciousness by removing the boundaries of the self. Just as the divine Sefirotic realm starts with the infinite and moves toward the finite, so it is the case with human consciousness during this experience: by broadening his consciousness one not only transcends his regular, mundane state of awareness, but enhances his spiritual capacity, enabling it subsequently to capture or attract more sublime contents and stronger divine powers. This is the explanation of the ability to imitate the second type of divine act: the emanation or the production of the influx that descends upon the lower entities. This explanation ensures a certain logic of events, a Gestalt-contexture between the two divine acts as imitated by the mystic…