Portland Oregon has a young and thrifty urban culture which thrives in outdoor markets, parks and small breweries and restaurants. When I’m in that city I make a trip to Powell’s Books. Powell’s is a multilevel, massive and colorful collection of new and used volumes. Seven years before I began learning and praying with Tzemakh David, while carefully searching the jackets and spines of that treasure-trove, I stumbled upon a large honey-brown copy of a Jewish mystical text called Likkutei Amarim; a translation of its embossed and gilded title could be a collection of sayings. Although my copy came off the press in 1981, the book was originally published in 1797. It’s more commonly referred to as The Tanya and was written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known affectionately by the community he founded as the Alter Rebbe, which is to say, the old and beloved master. In his generation, the Alter Rebbe sought to fuse the masterful and detailed learning of the Jewish yeshiva world with the fervor of the Jewish spiritual revivalists of his time. The result is a line of Jewish thought and an approach to Jewish life called Habad Hasidus.
It was a well spent fifteen dollars. I began mulling over its pages after returning home and became absorbed by the book’s fourth chapter, a chapter which is, in my opinion, a perfect commentary on the teachings found in the fourth gospel. In John’s gospel, the beloved apostle describes the creation of the universe through the word of God; a word which seems to be a thing in itself, while somehow remaining one with the source of creation. The book says it like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:1, NASB)
The Alter Rebbe’s teaching also describes this unity between God and His word. He wrote:
The Torah has been compared to water, for just as water descends from a higher to a lower level, so has the Torah descended from its place of glory, which is His blessed will and wisdom; [for] the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one and the same and no thought can apprehend Him at all. Thence [the Torah] has progressively descended through hidden stages, stage after stage, with the descent of the worlds, until it clothed itself in corporeal substances… (Tanya Ch. 4, Kehot)
In the lines following the Alter Rebbe fleshes out these ideas explaining how lowly humanity can enter into communion with an infinite God, a God which is called, “unknowable” and “beyond investigation.” For me, these passages are so powerful as to invoke a tangible sensation in my jaw and the feeling as if my heart might explode.
In the Jewish tradition our Creator is called Ayin Sof meaning Without End. Ayin Sof is beyond description—beyond limitation. In the human experience a thought is something distinct from the thinker; the thought about object is something other. Stretching the limits of human imagination, the Alter Rebbe explains that in a pre-creation existence where there is nothing other than the light of Ayin Sof, the thinker and the thought are one. God is all. There is no other. It’s a lofty idea and deserves some reflection.
In his Tanya the Alter Rebbe quotes a profound Jewish verse; “Where you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you also find His humility."
It’s through finite creation that God has expressed His infinitude. In the letter to the Romans an Apostle says the same. In fact, God has managed to express his complete will and wisdom through mere commandments. The Alter Rebbe calls this a garment or a robe. That means that if we simply peer into our scriptures we find God. The infinite clothed in finite garments. The contraction of the infinite actually involves a succession of garments; one after the next. Although God is infinite and beyond investigation, He has nevertheless found a way to clothe Himself within the commandments, commandments which are further robed within the printed text itself. If we look into the text we find the commandment; if we look into the commandment, we find the mind of God, and the thinker and the thought are one. Mind blowing.
The Alter Rebbe explains:
[I]t is by way of illustration, like embracing the king. There is no difference, in regard to the degree of closeness and attachment to the king, whether while embracing the king, the latter is then wearing one robe or several robes, so long as the royal person is in them.
Because of the ideas described above, he says that when we contemplate and grasp a biblical principal we are literally binding ourselves to the living God. I’ve always been familiar with the idea that the Christian Messiah is nothing less than the divine robed in flesh, but after learning the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya I was able to fill in the gaps regarding just how this works. Completely bound to the commandments Christ is perfectly unified with the Father, his person, merely an outermost garment for a King.