Could it be that love lies at the core of reality?
By Tzvi Freeman
Love and Reality
Of all the experiences of life, nothing engages us, moves us, shakes us, reaches as deep inside us, churns our guts, molds us and defines for us who we are—as the act of love.
If we are heartbroken, love is most likely the culprit. When we sing a song, chances are it’s about love. Our most precious words, our most cherished memories, our most delightful fantasies, our agony, our ecstasy, our most deeply felt needs are those revolving about that elusive charm of life, that welcomed spirit of insanity, that which we call love.
If anything must sit at the core of our reality, all signs point to this. And since G‑d is just that—the core of reality—it follows that G‑d, too, must be obsessed with the act of love. Not out of any need, not out of any nature. At the core, there is no need; there is only freedom. All that exists emerges out of G‑d’s free choice to love.
Take a look at life on this planet He made, a place where nothing can survive without making more of itself. And how does it do that? By finding another that is mostly like itself, but in certain ways the opposite of itself—and then becoming one with that same-other being.
If life were purely about survival, this process would be madness. Propagation is far better served by parthenogenesis, the simple process of one divided by two equals two. If life were purely about survival, this process would be madness. Plenty of simple plants do it, so do quite a few fleas and bees, even some reptiles and fish (including some sharks)—and a certain kind of turkey, too. No, the turkey doesn’t divide in half, but its cells do—as they do in all organisms we know of. Except that in this case, they do it in such a way that the turkey can lay a perfectly viable egg without the need of a member of the opposite gender. Less resources wasted, less energy expended, far less risk, and very little time consumed.
So, perhaps there is more to the miracle of life than survival. Perhaps life has a more profound meaning, as a work of art has more meaning than strokes of color upon canvas. Perhaps, as art provides a window upon the soul of the artist, life provides a window upon the soul of G‑d. Only that the core essence of G‑d cannot be known except through the window of paradox, of an insane union of opposites becoming one, while all the time remaining opposites.
Love, Life and G‑d
G‑d chose that life should occur through love, because love is where G‑d can be found. And that is what He chose to desire—to be imminently found within His own creation. It follows, then, that the paradigm of all love affairs is the one between each one of us and the One who made us.
Which explains why, from the romance of Solomon’s Song of Songs to the admonishments of Isaiah and Hosea, from the lurid imagery of the Zohar to the mystical poetry of Tzfat, no metaphor has played as central a role in the transmission of the inner wisdom as the union of male and female.
In the teachings of the Ari, the focus of every act of Torah, whether in study or in practice, is in essence this: To unite the cosmic forces of feminine and masculine. There is nothing else.
The Divine Image
Once the Creator had set all the background parameters of His cosmic program, He set to work on the core code of a creature that would serve as something of an avatar for Himself—a character that would represent all that He desired from His creation, within the creation. He said, “Let us create Adam in our image . . .”1
“Us,” because G‑d was speaking to all that He had created so far.2 All of them would be found, in some way, within this avatar. That way, whatever would happen with this creature would affect all of them.
But what’s with the image? Everyone knows G‑d has no image. No form, no definition, no way to be grasped.
So the Magid of Mezeritch explained:3This image is not a form. It is a vision. Read: “Let us create Adam according to our vision.” A vision that lies at the heart of the entire drama of G‑d’s creation. The divine image is a vision, one that lies at the heart of the entire drama of creation.
And G‑d created man in His image; in the image of G‑d He created him; male and female He created them.4
. . . and He took one of his sides,5 and . . . built the side that He had taken from man into a woman. Then He brought her to Adam. And Adam said, “This time, a bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh . . .” Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and he shall bond with his wife, and they will become a single body.6
Adam was initially created as a man and woman in a single body. Then this Adam was hewn apart, to become two separate beings.7Now one has become two. Two separate beings, each seeing the other as other. But not so that they should remain two others. Rather, so that those two others should return back together into yet greater union, face to face, with love and passion, and thereby generate life.
That is the divine image: a singularity torn apart and then pulling back together. Not a static form, but a drama; less a resolution than a sustained paradox. In miniature terms, it occurs in the marriage of two human beings. In cosmic terms, it is the drama of G‑d’s desire to fall in love, to give love, to be loved, to create life through love. And to be present in His world through love.
So, just what is this cosmic love story? What’s its screenplay? Because if we will understand how it plays out in the cosmic stage, we will have a better idea of how to play it out in our private lives.
The cosmic love story is part and parcel of the act of creation. To create art, whether a story, a painting, a song or a dance, you must slice yourself in two, and those two must dance in harmony. All of human creativity depends on this self-bifurcation. Without it, one cannot be said to have created anything at all. All of human creativity depends on a kind of self-bifurcation.
The Talmud calls this bifurcation machshavah, literally meaning “thought,” or da’at, “consciousness.”8It is something that develops in stages throughout childhood, blossoming around the age of puberty—a sentience of self as an entity distinct from the other, an incessant voice narrating its own story in its own mind, as a sort of sentinel viewing from above. Without this reflective self-knowledge, we can only respond and react. Our acts do not belong to us, and we are not invested within them. Once we have gained this sentience, our acts become deliberately creative acts, original acts, acts that express our very being in that which lies outside of ourselves.
Take the two roles of the storyteller: You have a story, one that conveys meaning, an expression of your inner self. But to convey that story, you must hide yourself behind the story by making that story vividly real for the audience. Try putting yourself in that position, being inside in the story and outside it at the same moment.
Let’s say your story is about a chicken. To play the part convincingly, you immerse yourself into the experience of that chicken, as it pecks seeds from the ground. You have no words, not much memory, not much more than sensation and instinct. Your entire being is consumed with the taste and texture of the different seeds that you find and swallow. Little more exists other than the sensations of dirt, pebbles and grains of sand mixed with the seeds, the wind furrowing your feathers, and occasionally another feathered fellow pecking in your way.
If you can become entirely absorbed in that role, your audience will become engaged in it as well, suspending reality for a while, allowing themselves to believe that you are not a person like one of them, that you are a dumb little chicken. Yet more, they themselves will identify with you, experiencing the world of a chicken as you do.
So far, I am writing the script for your story. At this point, I’ll hand it over to you. What will happen next? What adventures will our chicken hero encounter on its pecking expedition? What new sorts of seeds will it discover? What ominous hazards lie portentously before it? What is it, really, that you wish to convey with this story?
Hold on! Where did the chicken go? Are you still being it? The two roles—author and actor—appear mutually exclusive. Yet the storyteller must play both at once.
No, you’re not. And if you are not being the chicken, the chicken can no longer be. It has no substance other than your experience of being it. As soon as you switch over to being the author of this chicken, the chicken no longer exists as a chicken. True, it exists as a concept in your mind. But a concept is not a chicken. I mean, if you were a chicken, how would you feel if we offered you to be a concept instead?
Under the microscope, the two roles—author and actor—appear mutually exclusive. As we saw, it seems impossible to fulfill the requirements of both at once. Yet, to be a great storyteller—or musician, or artist, or dancer, or teacher, or master of any expressive art form—you must do just that: play both in tandem. You must immerse entirely within the realism of your art while simultaneously standing above it, observing it from beyond and directing it from there. Like the artist with his canvas, you must follow a rhythm, moving in to brush your strokes as though you yourself stand within the scene you are painting, then standing back to view the entirety, and then moving in once again to invest yourself in the details.
The musician spends years mastering his instrument, practicing scales, honing technique, disciplining the smallest finger muscle until every movement is under control—all so that the music will be clean and consistent. Yet, the soul of the musician remains wild and untamed. The two, married together, make for the greatest performances.
So, how does the artist do it? How do we all do it? How do all of us carry around this sentience of self, this self-bifurcation, while remaining a single person?
It seems there is something yet deeper within the human psyche, a solid core that breathes within all that we do and all that we let ourselves be. That which can neither be said to be standing without or sitting within, for it is neither standing nor sitting, neither observing nor observed, neither beyond nor within, but enveloping all these at once. The quintessence of self of which we can never be aware, just as our eyeballs cannot see themselves. Because it is who we are. We are the actor and we are the scriptwriter, the story and its narrator, the self and its sentinel—there is something of us that encompasses all these opposing dyads and is found within all of them. Something that is not us in any particular form, but us absolutely. It is this who we are that glues us together and holds these two parts as a single whole. There is something of us that has no particular form, but is us absolutely. That is the glue.
And in that sense, we are all in a marriage with ourselves. The better your internal marriage, the better you will be able to unite with others. And the more you allow yourself to unite with others, the better your internal marriage will be.
Preschool with Marlon Brando
Here are two wonderful examples of that exquisite harmony of two parts within a single human being:
First, a preschool teacher. To teach children is a profound art, one that demands a ceaseless fount of creativity. Your materials are not clay or paint or musical vibrations (okay, you probably have those in your classroom as well), but the minds, the hearts and souls of these small children. You are a gardener, nurturing their growth, and a craftsperson, crafting an environment in which they can grow.
I observed this particular preschool teacher at the Child Study Center of the University of British Columbia. He was a slight yet confident young man of Japanese origin. Teachers stood on the reverse side of a one-way glass to observe and learn from him, but I was privileged to sit right there in the classroom, with one of my own children who just didn’t want to let go that day.
It was an open classroom, with many activities running simultaneously, children moving on a whim from one workstation to another—the dread of the old-style teacher, and a daunting challenge for new ones, as well. I watched as he sat on the floor with a circle of children, playing a simple card game. If it were not for his size, you could have mistaken him for one of the kids. He kvetched when he lost, showed excitement when he won—he was truly part of the game.
Yet at the same time, his eyes continually scanned the entire room, with focus, noting each activity. And even within the game he was playing, if you listened carefully, you heard how he was subtly guiding its progress, teaching the children how to stick to the rules and be fair to one another.
At one point, three children came rushing over. “He took it from me!” “No, I had it first!” “She’s being mean!” “Gimme it now!”
There was no transition period. He was immediately the adult, paying attention to each one, imbuing some calm into their frenzy, settling the matter as only an adult could do—and within minutes, he was back in the game. What made him a teacher? The marriage of child and adult within himself.
What made him a teacher? The marriage of the child and the adult within himself.
Next is a great artist of the 20th century, Marlon Brando. They tell this story of Marlon when he was in acting school. The instructor instructed all the students to become chickens. The room was filled with caws and screeches as nutty student actors pecked around on the floor, flapping wings without inhibition.
Then the instructor informed them all that a nuclear bomb was about to fall on their heads. As you can imagine, pandemonium broke out. Chickens were jumping, screaming, hiding, generally going insane—all except for Brando. Brando was calmly sitting on the egg he had just laid.
“Marlon!” the teacher exclaimed, “Didn’t I say that a nuclear bomb is about to fall on your heads? Why are you just sitting there?”
“I’m a chicken!” Brando replied. “What do I know from nuclear bombs?”
Here’s what had happened: The other students were not acting. They had just taken themselves to some middle ground between human being and chicken-being. They had neither the experience of truly being a chicken, nor the common sense of a human being.
Brando was in a bifurcated state. He was totally a chicken. And at the same time, totally aware of himself being a chicken. And the two were in utter harmony. That’s an artist.
And we are all artists. As Oscar Wilde liked to say, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
The Cosmic Love Story
Now about your own chicken-being: Truth be told, and I hate to break it to you, but you never really created anything to begin with. But then, neither did Marlon Brando. Chickens, seeds, taste, texture—all these were pre-existing resources your mind gathered for its scenario. And, sorry for the news, but you weren’t really a chicken either—at least, not in the eyes of others who may have been watching in dismay as you were pecking around on the floor.
The one and only real Creator has a somewhat more difficult job. As you did (sort of), He must be entirely invested within the experience of those phenomena and sensations as a reality exclusive of any other reality—entirely forgetting (so to speak) that there really are infinite possibilities, no real rules, and that He can do whatever He wants. As described in the essay on tsimtsum, He must put aside His own boundless presence to make space for this reality. Because if it is not real for Him, it is not real.
Simultaneously, in that very same space of His creation, He must be there as the boundless source of all isness, conjuring up the chicken, its feathers, the seeds, the dirt, the other chickens, the air, the space, the time, along with all forms of sensation, whether palpable, visible, audible, olfactory or whatever else—along with the plot of this story and its place in the overall picture of the entire creation—all from the infinite nothingness, and sustaining the isness of it all at every moment. Because if He is not there sustaining it at every moment, nothing else will. Because there is nothing else.
Now get this:
Without the presence of the Creator, the created being cannot exist.
Within the presence of the Creator, the created being has no reality. The Creator must be both at once: There and not there, bounded and infinite, is and is-not. Without that paradox, creation cannot occur.
So the Creator must be both at once: There and not there, bounded and infinite, is and is-not. Without that paradox, creation cannot occur.
The schism results in two distinct aspects at every level of being. In English, you would call them the transcendent and the immanent—that which remains intrinsically elusive, and that which invests itself within the creation in all its details, giving life and unfolding within time and space. In simple terms: G‑d as He is beyond, and G‑d as He is within. In classic Jewish imagery, the transcendental is the male aspect of this schism. The female is the immanent.
We have many other terms for these two modalities of G‑d. Often the male aspect is called The Holy One, blessed be He. Think of holiness as transcendence. This is G‑d as He is all-powerful and awesome, who “spoke and the world came into being.” G‑d as we address Him in prayer, praising Him and beseeching Him. G‑d who commands us from above, and whom we serve with love and awe.
The feminine is commonly called The Shechinah. Shechinah שכינה is derived from the word shochen שכן, to dwell within. Think of the Shechinah as G‑d’s presence, dwelling within His creation. Only that, in this sense, He is not He, but She. This is G‑d as nurturer, sustaining the life of every creature, pulsating within every cell, every organism, every moment of time.
In Her most pristine form, the Shechinah is G‑d breathing within the human soul, as the verse goes, “. . . and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” As blood flows from the heart to every limb, as consciousness emanates from the brain to all the body, so the Shechinah breathes within us, and from there seeps out to nurture all else that must be.
The cosmic drama, then, is to unite these two aspects of G‑d within the creation. Not to merge them, but to unite them, as a sort of pas de deux or duet, where each part brings out the beauty of the other through its counterpoint with the other.
What unites them? As with us, His avatars, this duality points to a third, overarching and quintessential element, one that cannot be described, defined or known in any way—other than through the window of this very paradoxical duality. It is this third element that provides a context in which two can be one. Through drawing this third element into play, harmony can exist and the cosmic love drama can be fulfilled.9 Before the soul descended, it was neither male nor female, but both. Apparently, there’s a soul-splitting device on the way down.
We play out this entire drama at the wedding ceremony. Before the soul descended, the Zohar tells us, it was neither male nor female, but just as the primal Adam, it was both. Apparently, there’s a soul-splitting device on the way down. Now, the two have each found their other half. But they remain opposites. So we reunite them under a chuppah—a wedding canopy that encompasses them both. Marriage is forged only within a higher context, and endures only within that context—as the chuppah endures as the home that these two set out to build.
If you have a Jewish prayerbook, it’s quite likely you’ll find at least one instance of some version of the following phrase:
For the sake of the unity of the Holy One, blessed be He, with His Shechinah, in the name of all Israel.
Some say it only once a day, near the commencement of prayers. Others say it before the performance of any mitzvah. The intent is the same: Everything we do is meant to effect this reunion. When we pray, the two enter into a communion of mind, heart and soul. When we study Torah, the two enter into a communion of words, as a couple may converse and kiss. When we do mitzvahs and acts of kindness, or simply find G‑d in the everyday things we do, the two embrace. In our union, all the creation communes, kisses and embraces its Creator, until a perfect whole is achieved.
See Chizkuni ad loc., and in several other classic commentaries.
Ohr ha-Torah, secs. 9 and 304.
“One of his ribs” is also a valid translation. Both meanings are offered by Rashi.
Genesis Rabbah 8:1, cited by Rashi ad loc.
See Talmud, Chullin 12b.
We’ll discuss this third element, G‑d willing, in a future article, at which point I will have to remember to put a link here. We call this ha-Atzmut.