Ein-Sof, Nothingness and the Problem of Creation Ex Nihilo
Recently I have been asked to comment on the notion that Ein-sof is Ayin (Nothingness) and to offer my thoughts on the problem of creation ex nihilo.
In Symbols of the Kabbalah (pp. 67-74) I explored the Kabbalist’s equation of Ein-sof, the Infinite God, with Ayin, absolute nothingness. For example, I commented upon the 13th century Kabbalist David Ben Abraham ha-Lavan’s view that Ein-Sof is a completely simple totality, beyond distinction or categorization and as such Ein-Sof cannot be identified as any thing in particular. According to David Ben Abraham Ein-Sof has
more being than any other being in the world, but since it is simple, and all other simple things are complex when compared with its simplicity, so in comparison it is called “nothing”.
There I also explored the Zohar’s view that when Ein Sof removes Himself from His connection with creation “He has no name of His own at all” and is thus Ayin or nothingness, and Azriel’s view of the complete interdependence and even equivalence between Ein-sof and Ayin:
He who brings forth Being from Nought is thereby lacking nothing, for the Being is in the Nought after the manner of the Nought, and the Nought is in the Being after the manner [according to the modality] of the Being. And the author of the Book of Yetzirah said: He made his Nought into his Being, and did not say: He made the Being from the Nought. This teaches us that the Nought is the Being and Being is the Nought.
I also described, the Kabbalist R. Joseph Ben Scholem of Barcelona’s [c. 1300] view that there is no change, alteration, or transformation, in short no creative act at all, in which the abyss of nothingness is not crossed and for “a fleeting mystical moment becomes visible”. For Joseph Ben Scholem, God, in order to be the creator, must have an element of negation or nothingness as part of his very essence, and it is just this nothingness which the deity calls upon in creating the world ex nihilo. There is a “nothingness” implicit in all things, and this nothingness is that thing’s participation in Ein-Sof.
Finally, I considered the contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick’s view that a truly infinite being (which Nozick himself refers to with the Kabbalistic term, Ein-sof) must include all possibilities absolute nothingness being one of them. For Nozick, Ein-Sof transcends the entire existence-non-existence distinction, a view that played an important role in the Kabbalah.
In Symbols of the Kabbalah, I argued that the Kabbalists, in referring to Ein-Sof, are speaking about an entity so vast, so all-inclusive, as to include, and be, both everything and nothing. God, for the Kabbalah, is not only both everything and nothing, he is completely identifiable both with every void and every finite thing as well. If God were simply the “totality of all things”, and not also nothingness and each finite thing as well, there would be some things which were excluded from God’s essence, or which, although they are included in God as parts, would be distinguishable from Him. On this view Ein-Sof is nothing but is also all other things as well.
Here I would like to explore the notion of Ayin in a different, and perhaps more radical manner than I did in Symbols of the Kabbalah. I will begin with a description of some ideas about “nothingness” that were the catalyst to my early interest in philosophy and religion.
As I child I was for a time preoccupied with an idea that I can only now express with the following words: How utterly improbable, it seemed to me then, that anything whatsoever should exist at all, that there should even be a state of affairs called “nothing” let alone the fullness of nature, the totality of the human world, my own body, and my awareness of existence. All of this appeared to me to be an extremely unlikely miracle, as it somehow seemed “logical” that absolute nothingness rather than “somethingness” should prevail. As such, I found myself attempting to imaginatively conceive of a complete and utter void. In my imagination I removed all objects in space, all stars and planets, galaxies and light, all matter, however ethereal. I was able to do this quite easily, picturing in my mind an infinitely extending black void. I soon realized, however, that this conception was insufficient, for even an infinite, black void was a state of affairs, one that, however monotonous and bland, was on this side of the miracle of creation. So I endeavored in my mind to remove even this black emptiness, to somehow peel it off, as if it were a skin or wallpaper covering the nothingness of utter non-being. To my dismay, this imaginative process invariably revealed a brilliant white light behind it, one that could not, however I tried, itself be peeled away, condensed, or otherwise eliminated. I eventually realized that the perfect void could not be imagined.
But could it nonetheless be referred to in language? I took the problem up later in life after I had become a university student in philosophy, and began to contemplate the nature of “non-being.” I began to think of a hypothetical non-state of affairs that I called “never having come into existence,” or “no state of affairs whatsoever,” which I likened to the non-condition of my own existence years prior to my birth, or the non-state of affairs that many believe is one’s condition after death. Today I would say that such nothingness involves no space, no time, no consciousness, no being, no void, no identity, no difference, no possibility, no significance. It is indeed “no state of affairs whatsoever;” a nothing without any possibility which, because it is nothing, does not participate in the miracle of creation. It is a thought experiment with the thinker removed. It is not described, a void where language ends or does not and cannot arise.
I soon realized that language was itself unable to refer to the nothingness I paradoxically sought to describe, as language, by its very nature, involves a differentiated system of terms that only have meaning through contrast with other terms, etc. My “never having come into existence,” and “no state of affairs whatsoever,” were themselves significant terms in a language and could therefore neither describe nor refer to the X my mind was pressing against. The best that my words could do, I thought, was to lead me and perhaps others to the precipice where language ends, or to use Heidegger’s phrase, be a “formal indicator” of a non-idea.
Perhaps I am now speaking about that which one can only remain silent, but it is something on the order of this “non-state of affairs” that to my mind must be the “void” out of which “creation ex nihilo” took place. For the purposes of creation out of nothing, the Ayin of Ein-sof cannot “contain all possibility,” or “include nothingness as part of its infinity.” Ein-sof may indeed be and include such things, but when we conceptualize Ein-sof this way we beg the question of creation ex-nihilo by surreptitiously assuming the existence of the very being that must be created. One might, of course, say that God created the world out of Himself, or that he/she must have existed eternally in order to have “hovered over the void” and spoken the words that brought the world into being. But this, to my mind, is not creation out of nothingness, but is rather a simple transformation of an eternal substance.
One can reject this whole line of thinking altogether, claiming that the questions I am asking involve a misuse (or are an artifact) of language (Wittgenstein) or assume an ontotheological perspective on the possibility of “presence,” “truth”, and “essence” that has long been deconstructed (Derrida). Such critics would argue that all I am doing here, all one can do, is use certain words in a certain manner, a manner that lies within a system of language which is itself infinitely recontextualizable and reinterpretable. One can speak of “God,” “void”, “creation” and “non-being” but one is working under an illusion to think that these words are in some way penetrating reality in some absolute way, as opposed to penetrating reality in the only way that this is possible, in the changeable relativistic manner that one (thinks one) sets up for oneself by using the terms “penetrating reality.” This notion and others like it have really been set up for one by a myriad of previous philosophers and texts, and they instantly escape one’s grasp once they are read by others, who interpret them in a new context, etc..
Now the questions of what was present prior to creation, or to put in contemporary terms, prior to the “Big Bang,” ultimately comes down to the question of how is it that something was derived from nothing, the old problem of creation ex nihilo. If we are willing to posit the existence of a “state of affairs” prior to the Big Bang we will be involved in the regress of asking what was present prior to that (pre-Big-Bang) state of affairs, etc. Eventually we will arrive at the question of how is it that no state of affairs whatsoever can give rise to states of affairs, which is tantamount to the famous Heideggerean question “How is it that there is anything at all?”
The Kabbalists recognized that there was a certain futility in any attempt to answer this question and posited a dilug or (unfathomable) leap between absolute nothingness and being. I think if we consider the question of creation ex nihilo in its classic formulation the necessity of such a leap is inevitable.
However, I believe that there are other ways of looking at this question which, although they may not provide us with a completely satisfactory solution, may loosen our insistence that we must somehow be provided with one. Rather than attempt to spell out in detail these other ways of thinking about creation ex nihilo I will here hint at them via a series of observations and metaphors.
1) As we have seen, one problem concerning the question of creation from nothing derives from the seeming impossibility of referring to, representing or even indicating the non-state-of-affairs that is a requirement for even phrasing our question. I would suggest, however, that in at least a relative sense—in the context of a representational system—a non-state of affairs can be represented. Let me explain. In cartography it is well known that it is impossible to fully accurately represent a spherical earth on a two-dimensional flat plane. As a result, all “maps” of the earth are distorted in some fashion. A less obvious, but for philosophical purposes, equally important implication of cartography is that all maps necessarily carry with themselves a physical indication of the conditions of there own representation. One example of this is the white space at the edge of a rectangular (Mercator) projection of the globe, or the table or other background on which the map rests. A more graphic example is the white space that exists between the oceans and continents on maps that achieve accuracy in the size of land masses by a procedure that is similar to flattening an orange peel—with resultant gaps between flattened portions of the orange’s (or map’s) skin. These gaps, and equally the white background surrounding the edges of the rectangular-Mercator maps, have no interpretation within the maps themselves. They represent nothing. They are not, as the ancients might have thought, where one ends up if one falls off the edge of the world; they are not representative of the atmosphere or “outer space,” and they are most certainly not a region of cosmic emptiness or non-being that surrounds the world, or in the case of the orange peel projection, somehow infiltrates it. While they are “something” (white paper, a table, etc.) within the wider world, they are absolutely nothing, no-state-of-affairs whatsoever within the context of the map. As conditions of representation they represent nothing, but are nonetheless necessary for anything whatsoever to be represented. Such cartographic conditions of representation are, to my mind, a very concrete, even visible, analog, to what the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, speaks of as differance. Derrida spells “difference” with an ‘a’ in order to distinguish it from ordinary “difference.” For our purpose, it is simply important to note that for Derrida, differance is nether a thing nor a concept, but is rather the condition for all concepts and things, and as such, to use Derrida’s metaphor, differance is “older than being” and logically prior to all being and existence. While Derrida denies that there are any theological or metaphysical implications to his notion of differance I am suggesting here that differance and, moreover, the conditions of representation I have spoken above in connection with mapmaking, are candidates for being understood as the “nothing whatsoever” or “non-state-of-affairs” that gives rise to all things.
2) In Symbols of the Kabbalah I described an explosion in the realm of meaning and significance that I believe is in some ways analogous to the Big Bang in physics. This explosion of meaning is necessitated by the reference to anything whatsoever, to even the most innocuous of things. The reason for this is that a single act of reference or meaning necessarily carries with it an entire language and world.
In Symbols, I wrote the following:
The process by which Ein-Sof creates itself from its own nothingness, is metaphysically parallel (or even identical) to an act of human linguistic reference. In becoming itself, the deity performs a linguistic act in which it affirms itself as a primal undifferentiated totality, which is contrasted with the primal Nought. We might say that Ein-Sof, in its first manifestation, is the “primal affirmation”, the primal “yes” which stands out in relief against the background of an ageless “no”. (This is what the Kabbalists refer to in their distinction between Yesh (Being or “Yes”) and Ayin (non-being, or “No”). This “yes”, this scintilla of significance, is sufficient on the Kabbalists’ view, to set into motion a virtual explosion of significations, a “big bang” in the realm of meaning: for implicit in this “yes” of this infinite being are all the “yeses”, all the affirmations that could have, should have, or would have been. In short, just as a single significant word implies the existence of an entire language, or a single mathematical truth implies the existence of an entire mathematical system, an entire firmament of meanings and, more specifically, values, is entailed by the drawing out of Ein-Sof from the abyss of its own nothingness.
The reason for this virtually infinite expansion of possibilities does not simply rest upon the specifically infinite character of Ein-Sof, for a whole cosmos of meaning and significance would also be implicit if the first referent, the first thing were finite as well. If the first thing, for example, were Sherlock Holmes, John Kennedy or some other finite fictional or non-fictional character, these could not exist (or be significant) without there being pulled out of the void a whole cosmos of significance to go with them. The point is simply that there simply can’t be just one significant thing, or even one referred to thing. The “big bang” of language and significance is inevitable. In and of itself, Ein-Sof is metaphysically unstable. Its very existence implies a world of values and possibilities. We might express this “big bang” schematically as follows:
reference to or being x and not the nought ------> affirmation -----> value/significance ----> matrix of value/significance ------> all possible values---> value firmament -----> (the Sefirot)
The “primal yes” cannot be contained. God, in affirming “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” (I will be that I will be), or in inscribing Himself as the primal letter, Aleph, must, in the process, say every possibility of language, thought and existence.
3) Consider the possibility of the radical impossibility of there being “no state of affairs whatsoever,” once we know, as we do know, that there is at least one state of affairs. In such a case “states of affairs” fill all the possibilities.
4) The very notion of there being something “prior” to the Big Bang rests upon a linear, unidimensional conception of time that may well be vitiated by relativity, quantum physics and string theory. The problem may be analogous to the asking what is “before” the beginning of the earth depicted on a Mercator map. In this case, what is before the beginning is the right hand side, i.e. what appears to be the end, of the map. One is, of course, here reminded of Sefer Yetzirah’s dictum regarding the Sefirot: “There end is wedged in their beginning and their beginning in their end.” From a natural scientific point of view the beginning is empty space, hydrogen, the Big Bang, the formation of heavy elements, and the end is the evolution of the human species culminating in the development of human language and thought, and ultimately in the scientific apprehension of the beginning. Is it not possible that consciousness, and the human apprehension (and in some ways “constitution”) of the physical origins of the universe is what comes before the Big Bang in a metaphysical/theological sense as well as in an epistemological sense? This leads us back to the “conditions of representation” as primordial for both map (and now) world. I am reminded of Heisenberg’s principle in physics, i.e. that the physicist him or herself is not completely extricable from the phenomena he/she investigates.
5) When we discover the origins of the universe in something like the Big Bang, are we not formulating our theories on the basis of certain archetypical routes of the human psyche? Does this not perhaps account for the appeal of the Big Bang “myth” and its analog in the Kabbalah, the “Breaking of the Vessels.”
6) The move from possibility (a species of nothingness) into actuality (a species of “somethingness”) involves a contraction, concealment and elimination of possibilities (nothings). Take as an example, a human being who we encounter on the street and who opens his or her mouth in a gesture of speech. Just prior to him or her speaking there is limitless possibility; this person might say virtually anything in any language. With each syllable they utter, the possibilities are dramatically narrowed—down to the point where virtually every possibility is eliminated but the actual thing they wish to say. This is interesting to me because such an act of speech illustrates the notion that a form of nothingness (possibility) is itself negated through an act of contraction to produce an actual something. Of course, “all possibilities” is not simply nothing—when you have all possibilities before you, in a sense you have nothing but in another sense you have everything. This relates to Schneur Zalman’s discussion of “Yesh” (Existence) and “Ayin” (Nothingness) switching values depending upon whether were are looking downward from above or upward from below:
(Looking) upwards from below, as it appears to eyes of flesh, the tangible world seems to be Yesh and a thing, while spirituality, which is above, is an aspect of Ayin (nothingness). (But looking) downwards from above the world is an aspect of Ayin, and everything which is linked downwards and descends lower and lower is more and more Ayin and is considered as naught truly as nothing and null” (Schneur Zalman Likutei Torah, Devarim, fol. 83a).
 See Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 95.
 Zohar III 225a, Raya Mehemma;
 Ibid., p. 423.
 Scholem. Major Trends, p. 217.
 Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 600
Moshe Idel points out that by the 13th century the idea that God transcends both existence and non-existence began to play an important role in the Kabbalah. Moshe Idel, “Jewish Kabbalah and Platonism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance”, in Lenn E. Goodman, ed., Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 319-351.
See Sarah Heller-Wilinsky . “Isaac ibn Latif--Philosopher or Kabbalist” in
Alexander Altmanna, ed., Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies
 Some Kabbalists, Schneur Zalman of Lyady among them, hold that what we are here calling the “primal affirmation”, is the Or Ein Sof (the light of the infinite) rather than Ein Sof itself (or “himself”). Perhaps, on this view, the term Ein Sof would be reserved for the primal negation, Ayin, “that which the mind cannot comprehend nor the mouth speak”, or for an even earlier essence that transcends both being and nothingness. Schneur Zalman speaks of a revelation or manifestation prior to the Tzimtzum, in which Ein Sof, in a manner which is crudely analagous to a man revealing something to himself in thought, produces his “light”. (See ISchochet, “Mystical Concepts” p. 830, note 13.) The difficulty with this point of view is that it has God engaging in a “private revelation” and thus defeats one of his main motives for creating a world, i.e. to know himself through his manifestation to an “other”.
Schneur Zalman Likutei Torah, Devarim, fol. 83a.; Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God, p. 137-8.