5. God: The Transcendent and Immanent
God is easy and simple – utterly uncomplicated in any way. However, our ability to comprehend Him is another matter. Anything we can say about God is more about how we perceive Him than about God himself. This is because God, as we shall see, is entirely transcendental. His essence is utterly beyond all comprehension. In fact, God is indescribable and ultimately unknowable. However, God is also immanent and involved with His creation. From this feature of God we can learn a lot about Him, deriving His desires and values. This is perhaps the most famous example of God’s essence versus our perception of God: Although God is ultimately simple, we perceive Him as both transcendent and immanent. This idea is at the heart of much Torah theology and a good starting point for our discussion.
The Transcendent Aspect of God
The prayer Shema states: “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is one!” This declaration of God’s unity is not merely about the mathematics of faith. It is more correctly understood as a qualitative rather than quantitative idea. God is not simply “one.” Instead he is “oneness,” the ultimate unity. The problem with ultimate one-ness is that its nature precludes two-ness. For that matter, it precludes three-ness, four-ness, or anything-else-ness at all! If that is the case, then how do we exist? The answer is an important concept called tzimtzum: constriction. Before God could create anything at all, He had to create a space in which creation could take place. In order to do so, He “constricted” his presence, creating a space in which the essence of one-ness was diluted enough to allow creation to endure. This empty space is known as the Chalal ha-Penui (or Chalal, for short), the vacated space. Between God’s eternal, unified essence and the Chalal a barrier called the Pargod, the veil, or partition.
The Chalal is the canvas upon which all creation took place. Anything that is not- God exists as a created entity within the Chalal. As God Himself said: “I am God; I make all things.”
This distinct separation between God and His creation yields a number of conclusions about God:
As creator of all things, God must therefore be, in essence, entirely separate from all things. There is nothing in the created world that can represent or approximate Him. As it states in Isaiah: “To whom will you then liken God?” Similarly: “There is none like you among the heavenly powers…” Since God must be distinct from the creation, Judaism and Noahism must reject any concept of pantheism.
Since God created all things, his existence can in no way be predicated upon anything in creation. We cannot therefore define God as love, morality, or any kind ethical force.9 God may have those attributes, but they are not God and vice versa.
Since He created all matter, God must not be made of matter. Similarly, since God created space and time, He cannot exist within space and time.
What emerges from the above is a picture of a God who is entirely transcendent and beyond is creation. The danger of such a conception, however, is the erroneous conclusion that God is absent from His creation. To the contrary - God is intimately involved with His creation.
The Immanent Aspect of God
Tzimtzum does not mean that God totally removed Himself from the Chalal. It only means that he restricted his essence to a degree necessary for creation to endure. Yet, God’s presence still permeates and fills the Chalal.
How do we know this?
In Nechemiah 9:6 we are told:
You have made the heavens… the earth and all that is on it… you give life to them all.
The last clause is in the present tense: God gives life and is continuously giving life. There are many other references to God as the perpetual creator throughout the Tanakh.
Since creation’s continued existence depends constantly upon God’s will, then His will must extend into the Chalal. However, since God is an absolute unity, then his will and his essence must be one in the same. Therefore, God’s essence must extend into the Chalal.
In this sense, God is immanent: He is continuously and intimately involved with His creation. He directs and sustains it, He hears and answers the prayers of His people; He gives it life and deals with it in kindness and justice. We see this on every page of the Tanakh.