Spinoza, panentheism and mystical Judaism


It is a popular misconception that Spinoza was a pantheist. He was not. Like the medieval kabbalists, Spinoza was a panentheist.

By Richard Mather

Panentheism, meaning “all-in-God,” is situated somewhere between pantheism and classical theism. For pantheists, the world is identical to God, while for classical theists, the world is completely external to God. Panentheists believe  three things: that the world is within God, that God is in all things, and that God is also supernaturally transcendent. To put it another way, God is ontologically at one with the universe and yet remains greater than the universe. The universe does not exhaust what it means to be God.

To use the terminology of mathematical set theory, the universe – the totality of facts, ideas and things – is a subset of God.

If the word panentheist seems alien to Judaism, a synonymous term is available: monistic monotheism. Either way, such a conception of God can be found in medieval esoteric Judaism (Kabbalah), in the writings of seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in hasidut (Hasidic Judaism) and even in yahadut mitkhadeshet (Reconstructionist Judaism).

In his youth, Spinoza was exposed to Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Gate of Heaven, a widely influential work of Jewish mysticism written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew. This work was apparently used by Spinoza’s Talmud teachers, Manasseh ben Israel and Saul Levi Morteira. According to de Herrera, God is not just hidden in himself but is also immanent in the universe. Indeed, the material universe “is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God.”

A classic Judeo-panentheistic formulation is memaleh [filling] kol almin u’sosev kol almin – that God fills and surrounds all worlds. This formulation is found in ha-Zohar (the Zohar) and the twelfth-century hymn Shir HaYichud, which contains the words: “All of them are in You and You are in all of them” and “You surround all and fill all and when all exists You are in all.” Similarly, the kabbalist Hayyim Ibn Atar writes in his commentary Or Ha-Hayyim, “The world is in its Creator and the light of the Creator is in the whole world.”

According to hasidut (which emerged as a popular movement less than a hundred years after Spinoza’s death), God both transcends and indwells the universe. The phrase, “The whole earth is full of His glory,” from Sefer  Yeshayahu (Isaiah) is taken to mean that God is in all things.

Hasidic Jews believe that the multiplicity of things we observe in the universe , including ourselves, is due to the screening of the divine light that prevents us from perceiving God as He is in Himself. Similarly, Spinoza refers to things, including ourselves, as “modes” or modifications of God. Both Hasidic Jews and Spinoza believe that only God is substantial. There can be no other substance in the universe but God. That is not to say that individual things aren’t real, just that they are modifications of God and are dependent upon God for their existence.

For Spinoza, because God is infinite, He therefore has infinite attributes, including mind and matter. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. Because God is infinite, God must have an infinite number of attributes, of which we know nothing. There must be an infinity of other divine attributes that are hidden from us, that transcend our senses and our knowledge.

Spinoza has been erroneously characterised as a pantheist because he asserted Deus sive Natura, which means “God or nature.” But he did not mean that God and nature (i.e. the universe) are synonymous terms, but rather that nature is God, but not God in His entirety. The  two attributes known to us – mind and matter – signify God’s indwelling in the universe. But His transcendence is secured by his infinitely many attributes, of which we can only guess.

As such, there are two inter-related aspects of God in Spinozism. First, there is the active, productive aspect, which is God and his attributes, from which all else follows. This is what Spinoza calls natura naturans (“nature creating”), which is wholly identical with God. Secondly, he employed the term natura naturata (or “nature created”) to describe the aspect of God when it is predicated into “modes” such as the laws of motion and rest, logic, the Milky Way, cats, buildings, rocks, minds, beliefs and so on.

Likewise, mystical Jews sometimes envision two aspects of God: Firstly, the impersonal Ein Sof (meaning “there is no end”), which is God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable and limitless, hidden. Secondly, there is God in manifestation, the revealed aspect of God, which is accessible to human perception, and is dynamically interacting through spiritual and physical existence.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a dualistic conception. If so, the Kabbalists wouldn’t have been able to remain true to the strict monotheism of rabbinical Judaism. Rather, they sought (as they still do) to make the universe holy by unifying God-as-Other with God-as-immanent. Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza made a subtle distinction between two aspects of God, and like the Kabbalists, he also had the  fundamental insight that God is one substantial whole. Indeed, God is the only substantial whole.

Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza believed that there is nothing external to God, nothing outside of Him. And like the Kabbalists, Spinoza held that everything that exists is a part of God and is brought into being by God.

Because God is everywhere, and because holiness is literally in the world, religious Jews often emphasise simcha or joy. A popular teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid – “it is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness.” Similarly, Spinoza talks of the “intellectual love of God,” which is when the mind perceives God not only as essence but as the immanent causal power of the universe.

Spinoza writes of the person who has attained the intellectual love  of God that he “is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind.” Spinoza refers to this as “blessedness,” which is similar in meaning to shalem (and hence shalom), a Hebrew word-concept signifying wholeness, harmony, prosperity, delight, peace.

Whether we call it blessedness or shalem, the webbing together of God, humans and  creation is at the heart of both Spinozism and rabbinical mystical Judaism.















One comment

  1. James Lee · April 3, 2016

    I can’t decide whether panentheism is splitting hairs, trying to have your cake and eat it too or just another plain old garden-variety internally self-contradictory non-falsifiable notion. lol.


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