The Strife of the Spirit

The Strife of the Spirit

coverstrifeofspiritThe Strife of the Spirit is a unique collection of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s essays, stories, discourses and interviews that focuses on the needs of today’s spiritual seekers and speaks to readers in astonishingly clear and profound terms. These works-in-progress explore such fundamental themes as the nature of the human soul, the path of the penitent, and the relationship between student and text. This book represents Rabbi Steinsaltz’s diverse interests and deep roots in Judaism, which combine to make the Jewish experience meaningful and accessible to the newcomer.

Read an excerpt from The Strife of the Spirit:

Worlds, Angels, and Men

strifeofspiritThe physical world in which we live, the cosmos which we can observe objectively, is one part in a vast system of worlds. The other worlds are for the most part ethereal, that is, nonmaterial. They can be envisaged as different dimensions of being. They do not exist elsewhere, in different sets of spatial coordinates, but rather in another order or plane of being.

Furthermore, as we shall see, these various worlds interpenetrate and interact with each other. In a certain sense it can be said that each of the worlds is a replication, by means of transformation, change, or even distortion, of that immediately above it. World after world is reflected in that which lies below if, and finally all the worlds–with their complex interrelated influence–are projected in to the world we know and experience.

The terms higher and lower do not indicate a physical relationship of altitude, which does not obtain in the spiritual realm, but rather relative positions on the scale of causality. A higher world is more primary, elemental, concentrated; a lower world is secondary, more remote from the primal source, and thus a replication. However, such a replication is not simply a coarser version, but is in itself a total system with a life and existence of its own, and with its own specific properties and characteristics.

The totality of the world in which we live is known as the World of Action. It is the world of our sensual and nonsensual apprehension. It is not, however, homogenous. The lower part is subdivided into an ethereal realm, and what is known as the material World of Action, which is of a physical nature, and is governed by the laws of nature; the upper part, known as the spiritual World of Action, is the realm of spiritual activity.

Common to both parts of the World of Action is man; situated between them, he partakes of both. Insofar as he exists in the lower part, man is governed by the physical, chemical, and biological laws of nature; from the standpoint of his consciousness, even when it is totally concerned with physical or base matters, he belongs to the spiritual part of the World of Action. The ideas of the World of Action are for the most part bound up with the physical world, indeed, they are functions of it. This obtains both for the most exalted speculations of a philosopher and the cruder thought processes of the ignorant savage or the child.

Human existence is thus dual in nature, partaking of both matter and spirit. Furthermore, in the World of Action, the spiritual is largely subordinate to the material, to the extent that physical objects and the laws of nature are the basis of reality and determine its nature. The spiritual life almost exclusively derives from and acts upon this substrate.

However, the World of Action is but one in a general system consisting of four fundamental worlds, each of which is a complete cosmos in itself, with its own essences and nature. In the literature of the Kabalah, these worlds, form higher to lower, are called Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Action (in Hebrew, Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah.) The world above our own is thus the World of Formation. The differences between those worlds can be understood if we examine the manifestations in each of them or three traditional dimensions of existence known as “world,” “year,” and “soul.”

In modern language these would be termed space, time, and being. For example, in our world, space is a basic system that is necessary for any object to exist; it is the matrix within which, upon which, and from which all living creatures operate. In the higher worlds, this dimension is manifest in what is known as the “mansions” (Heichalot).

It is not space as we know it, but a framework of existence within which all forms and beings are related. A useful comparison to this concept is that of a self-contained system, known in mathematics as a group or a field, in which each unit member is related in a specific and fixed manner to all the other members and to the totality. Such systems may be inhabited, partially or to capacity, or sparsely to empty.

Time, too, is manifest in a totally different fashion in the higher worlds. In our experience, time operates and is measured by the movement of objects in space. More abstractly, it is perceived as the process of change, the transition from state to state, from form to form; it is an essential feature of our concept of causality, which establishes the limitations of transitions within certain laws. In the higher worlds, the system of time becomes increasingly abstract, and its connection with the measurement or perception of change is diminished. It becomes no more than the essence of change, or the potentiality of change.

In the World of Action, the dimension called “soul” is manifest in the totality of living creatures functioning in the time and space. Although they are essentially part of this world, they are distinguished from it by their faculty of consciousness of self and of other. In the higher worlds, too, souls are self-conscious beings acting within the framework of their respective “mansions” and “years.”

The World of Formation is a world of sentience. The beings that populate it are pure, abstract manifestations of what we, in our world, would call emotions or feelings. These beings, or creatures, operate in a similar fashion to the way we do in the World of Action. They are called “angels.”

There are millions of angels, and each of them possesses its own unique character. No two are alike. The distinctive personality of a particular angel is a function of two features, which can be termed “content” and “degree.” The content is the specific feeling or emotion, of which the angel is a pure manifestation, and the degree is its position on the scale of fundamental causality. An angel may thus be an inclination, or impulse, toward love, fear, pity, and so on, at this or that degree. However, each of these contents is subdivided into an almost infinite number of related feelings (no two loves are the same), and angels thus fall into large groups. Such a group is called a “camp of angels.”

Another characteristic feature of angels, one that distinguishes them from humans, is the fact that they are unchanging. Circumstance, time, place, and even mood alter the content and the intensity of most human emotions. However, whereas emotion is ultimately secondary to our existence, it is primary and essential to angels. An angel is by definition the constant, unchanging manifestation of a single emotion or feeling.

It would be quite misleading, however, to regard angels as abstractions, as hypothetical conceptualizations of emotions that have no real existence. Each angel is a complete being that possesses consciousness of itself and awareness of its surroundings. It is able to act and create within the framework of its existence, the World of Formation. A characteristic feature of angels is implicit in their Hebrew name, which mean “messenger.” In fact, the task of angels is mediation, to maintain two-way communications between our world, the World of Action, and the higher worlds. They serve as emissaries of God in bringing divine plenty down into the world, and of men, in raising up certain consequences of our actions.

Men and angels belong to separate categories of existence. Even if we ignore the human body and look only at our apparently more angelic aspect, the soul, the differences are great. The human soul is a heterogeneous, complex entity composed of distinct elements, whereas an angel is homogeneous, a single essence, and thus ultimately unidimensional. Furthermore, the human being, by virtue of the multiplicity of facets in his personality, with the implicit capacity for internal contradictions and conflicts, and by virtue of his soul, which contains a spark of the divine, possesses the power of discrimination, in particular between good and evil. As a consequence, man had the potential to reach great heights, and also to fall to abysmal depths. Not so the angels, which are always the same. Whether an angel is ephemeral or eternal, it is static and remains fixed in the coordinates of content and degree in which it was created.

Some angels have existed since the beginning of time, and are the channels through which divine plenty flows into the world. There is, however, another kind of angel, those that are constantly being created. This process of the creation of new angels takes place as a consequence of actions and phenomena that are performed and occur in all worlds, but especially in our world, the World of Action.

It is said that with every mitzvah, every good deed that he performs, a man creates an angel. In order to understand this, it is necessary to envisage each such act, or prayer, as being an operation on two levels.

The first level is behavioral; it is the initiating or bringing about or completing of a transformation–no matter how small–in the physical world. The other level is spiritual and involves the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and mystical meditations that should accompany the performance of the external act. These spiritual actions coalesce and form a discrete spiritual entity, which possesses objective reality, and which, in turn, creates an angel in the World of Formation. Thus, by means of the mitzvot he performs, man extends the realm in which his activity is effective from the lower to the upper worlds. He creates angels, which are, in manner of speaking, his messengers in the higher worlds. Whereas a newly created angel retains its essential bond with its human originator in the World of Action, it acquires reality only in the World of Formation. In this way, the spiritual content of the holy deed, by becoming an angel, rises and initiates changes in the upper worlds, and especially in the World of Formation, the world immediately superior to our own. In fact, the nature of the World Formation is determined by the relationships between the angels and between them and the worlds above them, and they, in turn, influence these higher world too.

The angels who serve as emissaries of God and the upper worlds down to our world are apprehended by men in a wide and sometimes strange variety of forms. The reasons for this is that as the angels derive from a totally foreign world of being, they are invisible to man in their “true” forms, for the human sense organs, and faculties of comprehension, are incapable of grasping them. Some kind of “translation” is necessary before they can be seen. A useful analogy is that of a television transmission. The electromagnetic carrier waves are of a frequency that is totally invisible to the human nervous system, which in fact is incapable even of detecting their existence. However, when these waves are processed by the television receiver, the information and signals they bear are translated and become visible on the screen. There is, of course, no resemblance between the electromagnetic waves and the picture, as there is none between the true form of the angel and what is perceived.

The Kabbalah describes such a process as “clothing in garments” or “containing in vessels.” The garments and the vessels are remote perceptible manifestations of the unknowable essence. This is the form in which angels appear to men.

Such manifestations generally take place in one of two situations: one is the vision of a man who has attained a high level of holiness, such as a prophet; the other is in an isolated incident of enlightenment or revelation from the higher worlds experienced by a more ordinary person. In either case, the person involved experiences the reality of the angel as it is clothed in garments. Even so, frequently the form of this manifestation is of a degree of existence that is not easily processed by the human mind, and especially by that part that involves verbal communication, and the descriptions offered are occasionally strange and fantastic. Given the cultural limitations of our linguistic skills, it is natural that many such images will be, to some degree or another, anthropomorphic. The visionary images one finds in the prophetic works, such as winged animals or eyed chariots, are secondary human translation of undescribable phenomena. When Ezekiel describes the angel that he saw as possessing the face of an ox, it does not mean that the angel had a face at all, let alone a bovine one, but that one aspect of its inner essence, when translated and projected into our physical reality, is expressed in a form that shows a conceptual likeness to the face of an ox.

All articulated prophetic visions are, in fact, depictions in comprehensible human language of abstract, formless, spiritual realities. There are, notwithstanding, cases in which angels are manifest in “ordinary” form, are clothed in familiar material garments, and appear to be natural phenomena; on such occasions, the viewer will encounter difficulties in deciding whether an apparition or a natural object stands before him, whether the pillar of fire or the man he perceives belongs to this world, with its own system of natural causality, or to another. Furthermore, the angel, that is, the force sent from a higher world, may not only be manifest in the physical world, but may also appear to act according to, and be governed by, the laws of nature, either totally or to a limited degree. In such cases, only prophetic insight can determine whether, and to what extent, higher forces are active.

The fact that a man can create an angel, which is instantaneously transposed to another world, is not, in itself, a supernatural event; it is a part of a day-to-day way of life that can on occasion seem ordinary and commonplace-the life of mitzvot. When we perform an action that results in the creation of an angel, we are generally aware of no more than that we are acting on, and within, the physical world. Similarly, the appearance of an angel does not necessarily involve a deviation from the normal laws of physical nature. Man is thus in close contact with the upper worlds, and though the actual route, the nature of the link, is hidden, the fact of the relationship is as axiomatic as the duality of his body and soul, of matter and spirit. Man does not pause to wonder every time he moves from the physical to the spiritual part of the World of Action, and takes for granted the occasional penetration of higher worlds into our world. When we use the word “natural” in its widest possible meaning, that is, comprehending everything that we experience and know, the appearance and creation of angels are not “supernatural” phenomena.

The world immediately above the World of Formation is known as the World of Creation, and also as the World of the Chariot, and the Throne. In an image derived from the vision of Ezekiel, it is the Throne above that stands for “the likeness of the Glory of the Lord.” This Glory, which is the aspect of divinity revealed to prophets, belongs to the highest world, the World of Emanation. The World of Creation is its Throne, and our world is its footstool. The World of Creation is the matrix through which passes all the divine plenty that descends to the lower worlds, and all things that are raised up to God. It is a sort of crossroads of all modes of existence. A central element of the Jewish esoteric, mystical tradition, called the “Study of the Chariot,” deals with this world. It is the highest level to which the mystic can aspire, the limit beyond which even the holiest of visionaries can apprehend only the vaguest impressions. Of course, not even this world can be comprehended in any more than a fragmentary fashion. Deep study of this world places the spiritually developed person at the point of intersection of all worlds, and gives him knowledge of all modes of existence and of change-past, present, and future-and an awareness of God as prime cause and first mover of all forces acting in every direction.

The World of Creation, like the other worlds, is structured according to the manifestations of the dimensions of space, time, and being. The “mansions” of this world are metaphysical realms of existence in which past, present, and future, cause and effect, are related, and time is a genus of rhythm. This world, too, is populated by beings, called “seraphs.” Whereas angels are manifestations of feeling or emotion, the beings of the World of Creation are the pure essence of intellect. The word “intellect” has many connotations in modern English, but here its significance is closer to the older philosophical meaning. Seraphs are the potentiality of the ability to grasp the inner content of phenomena, in both creative and perceptive aspects. Like the angels, they are unchanging and characterized only by content and degree. Seraphs of different levels reflect the relative planes of consciousness and comprehension. Like angels, they serve as messengers between the worlds.

The superiority of the World of Creation over the World of Formation is not merely a feature of the relative positions of intellect and emotion on the scale of fundamental causality. It is also a function of another aspect of “highness”: the higher worlds are more transparent to the divine light, which is their vitality and being. As one descends in the system of worlds, there is more and more matter. Another way of stating this is that the beings of the lower worlds have a greater awareness of their independent, progressively separate selves, of their private “I.” This consciousness of self obscures the divine light, and dims the true, unchanging “I” that exists within each individual being. Nevertheless, this opacity is a prerequisite for existence of any kind. Each of the worlds can only come into and remain in being by virtue of the concealment of divine light. They can only exist when God conceals himself. Were the divine plenty to be manifest in its fullness, there would be no room for anything else. A world can exist only by virtue of the withdrawal of its creator. However, as one descends to the lower worlds, the concealment becomes overwhelming and the divine plenty scant. In our world, the World of Action, this trend has reached such proportions that the inhabitants may, and frequently do, reach a situation in which not only can they no longer perceive the divine plenty, but they deny that it exists.

Whereas the inhabitants of our world must be equipped with prophetic insight, or vision, or faith in order to be able to discern the divine plenty in its various forms, the higher worlds are much more lucid, and there is little impedance to the flow of light. The World of Creation is the highest of the three lower worlds, and so its creatures, the seraphs, possess a very high degree of awareness of the divine light. Nevertheless, it is a separate world, and the seraphs are characterized by individual, separate selves. They are capable of experiencing the divine light, and they accept its sovereignty in everything, but they know that they are separate from it. Consequently, even the seraphs are consumed by a great yearning to approach God.

The highest of the four worlds, the World of Emanation, is of a totally different nature. It is a mode of existence characterized by absolute clarity, no concealment, and no separate beings. There is no individuation, and no “screens” or filters separate God from that which is not God. In fact, the World of Emanation is not a world in the sense that the other three are: in a certain sense, it is the Godhead itself. The gulf between this world and that which lies below it is immeasurably greater than those that separate the other worlds; it is substantial, and not a matter of degree. It marks the border between the realms of differentiated individual beings-each of which is separated from the others and from the source of all by screens of varying degrees of density-and the Godhead, where there are no screens, and unqualified unity prevails.

Before the created, differentiated world could exist, God had to withdraw something of His divine essence and wisdom. This voluntary absence or concealment is depicted as the archetypal screen. It is the critical point of Creation, “the darkness on the face of the deep,” on the one side of which is God, and the other, the template, which is the basis for the coming-into-being of the world.

In addition to the physical and spiritual parts just described, the World of Action contains many other ethereal or spiritual realms, which differ widely from each other in both their content and their spiritual significance. On the one hand, there are the realms of the various manifestations of human wisdom and creativity, such as philosophy, mathematics, poetry, and art, which are all ultimately “neutral” as regards their spiritual orientation. On the other hand, there are realms that possess a distinct spiritual charge, which may be either positive or negative. Furthermore, just as man can relate to various physical and spiritual features of the World of Action and thereby raise himself in the direction of holiness, so can he tie himself to the realms of the unholy, and move and act in them. These are the realms of evil, in the most general sense of the word, and are known by their Hebrew name, Kelippot (singular, Kelippah), which means husks.

The Kelippot, like the worlds of holiness, have their own “mansions,” and are arranged in an inverted hierarchy, with the evil becoming more intense and distinct as one descends. They are, in their own way, all related to the World of Action. In fact, it can be said that our world, to the extent that it is neutral in its spiritual orientation, belongs to the realm of the Kelippot, more specifically to the one known as Kelippat Noga. This is a level of existence that contains all things that are not intrinsically directed either to the holy or the evil. Although it is neutral, when a man sinks into it entirely and does not, or cannot, disentangle himself from it, he fails to fulfill his specific human destiny and is wanting at the core of his being.

The relationships between the realms of the Kelippot are to a certain degree similar to those obtaining in the higher worlds. Thus, between each successive level, there are translations and replications of the mode of existence, and the manifestations of each are expressed in the same three dimensions: space, time, and being. The Kelippot are inhabited by ethereal beings, a species of angels known as destructive, or subversive, angels, or alternatively as devils, demons, or evil spirits. Like the holy angels, they all have their own individual personalities, which are defined in terms of their particular unchanging content and their degree. Corresponding to the angels of love-in-holiness and awe-in-holiness are the destructive angels of love-in-wickedness and awe-in-wickedness. Furthermore, some of these destructive angels are ephemeral; that is, they are created by man’s actions, whereas others are eternal, or rather, they came into existence with the world and will continue to exist until evil is finally vanquished. Each evil deed that a man performs brings into being a destructive angel, which, in turn, has its effect in the deeper realms of the Kelippot. Nevertheless, there is a substantial difference between the two systems. There is obviously no equivalent in the Kelippot to the World of Emanation. Evil has no independent, ontological existence, and its direct source of nourishment is the World of Action; indirectly, it is sustained from the higher worlds. By performing an evil deed, a man not only creates a destructive angel that will accompany him and be bound to him as part of his ambience, but he actually diverts the divine plenty into the upper realms of evil, whence it is dragged down to the deepest Kelippot.

The eternal destructive angels are the messengers that mediate between the various realms of evil, just as the holy angels move up and down in the upper worlds. Destructive angels are manifest in our world by means of “clothing in garments,” and they appear in ethereal or material forms that are sometimes as bizarre and strange as those of the holy angels. These destructive angels are the tempters who try to incite man to evil by bringing the idea of wickedness to our realm, of existence; in return, they receive the diverted divine plenty. They also serve as the instruments by which a sinner is punished. Just as the reward received by the righteous man or the saint is an extension of his good deeds, so the retribution for shortcomings is part and parcel of the sin itself. In this life, punishment is no more than to be held in close contact with the evil one has created, in a variety of manifestations and translations-bodily and mental torment, despair and anguish, and failure.

One of the most severe forms of punishment is the “mansion” of the Kelippot known as Hell. When a man dies, his soul is separated from his body and relates only to the ethereal beings, which he created and with which he was associated in his lifetime. The soul finds its level. In the case of a great sinner, this will be in the company of the destructive angels he created, who will punish him for bringing them into existence, until the full measure of remorse is exhausted. But even this extreme retribution is not extrinsic, for it is an organic continuation of the actual sins committed.

Though the destructive angels are manifestations and the messengers of evil, they are also part of the totality of existence. Like the entire system of Kelippot, to which they belong, they are not optimal, but they do fulfill an essential role in maintaining a certain balance in the cosmos, by deterring men from slipping deeper into evil. Were evil to be banished from the world, they would disappear, for ultimately they are parasites on men and cannot exist without his wickedness. But as long as man uses his power of choice to do evil, they feed off, incite, and punish him. In this sense, the existence of destructive angels is conditional, rather like a police force, which is necessary only as long as there is crime.

The fact remains, however, that far from disappearing, the destructive angels are growing stronger and more powerful, as evil waxes in the world. Their ontological status is no longer clear, and far from being mere instruments of deterrence within the total system of existence, they appear to be independent beings acting in their own terms of reference, subjects of a sovereign realm of evil.

The significance of man’s role in Creation is thus immense. When the day comes that we free ourselves from the overwhelming temptations to sin, the entire system of evil will fall back into its proper dimensions. Those aspects of it that came into being as a consequence of man’s deeds-the ephemeral destructive angels-will disappear, while the eternal structural elements, which now serve as deterrents, will assume a new, entirely different role. That which now appears to be evil will be reintegrated into holiness.