Creation in the Empty Space

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2012

The encounter with the chalal hapanui, the empty/hollow space, can be experienced in different and contradictory ways. These experiences reflect different religious and spiritual dispositions.

I’d like to now bring in two segments that both speak of the experience of hollowing out, of the chalal hapanui - the empty/hollow space - and use them to express several thoughts on this concept. The first was written by a secular friend who is an artist; the latter was written by a student of mine.

Here is the first segment:

How to move in an empty space? If there’s no world yet, how do you begin? Before space or time have been defined, where does one turn? Where do image or story come from? What is the source of the first movement, and how does it connect to those that follow?

The choreographer enters the studio: an empty, silent space. What is there, then, but for the floor/ground, the walls, the body, the frantic movement of thoughts and feelings? In this state, it is good to ask: What do I want? What is my true desire, what mechanism will represent it? Or, in other words: what action will represent it truthfully?

I want to approach my desire through a story that is meaningful to me, one which moves me and stirs up a question and an intention; through the attempt to express a movement that will represent my desire, defining my condition for the other, for the world and for myself.

In my studio work, I explore desire in my body. In the first stage I give my senses the right of speech, allowing my 246 organs and 365 sinews to speak, to hear the words of my bones, for “all my bones will say…” (Psalms 35:10). I listen to my bones; I discover their whisperings… I am not creating but rather revealing, seeing, exposing desire, the dynamic names of desire. Uncovering the wishes and strivings of the soul through its garments, revealing her longing and cravings, her hopes and aspirations.

I do the work of uncovering, of revealing, as a craftsman seeking to complete a puzzle. I put together spiritual depth/desire and, through representational, physical/theoretical forms, I show it to the world, to external reality. Of course, I first seek to see my own self through the movements of the soul and through inner desire - but this alone cannot suffice. It is not enough for me to study my internal experience; in order to complete the work, I must give it form and outward representation.

Here is the second segment:

At this moment, the single real thing that exists for me is the (empty) space. I can say many things about it, but it’s all commentary - calling it the ‘empty space,’ speaking of a faith that is based upon nothing-ness, etc. In my opinion, this is talk that chases its own tail, circling around itself. I cannot say - or rather, in this case - I do not believe that it reveals or creates something beyond that.

I am not trying to answer the question of whether or not God exists. I am unable to find an access point to this discussion, nor am I able to negate it. These attempts seem absurd to me to begin with - finding evidence or clues in this world, or attributing phenomena and events to providence. Indeed, it is in my attempts to find some sort of order that I sense, far more strongly, the presence of chaos and absurdity. (Rav Shagar’s commentary on the radla”h  - that divinity is lawless, and the world is its reflection - has not supplied me with an answer. Although it may have resonated with me in my learning before, today I read it as more of an apologetic interpretation).

What is meaningful to me? It is my interpretation of things. Today, the words Elokim, emuna, kodesh - God, faith, holiness, etc. - do not move me. I do not understand them, and it seems to me now I never understood them at all. I cannot give them substance. They get lost in all this empty space.

The emptiness is too vast. I always struggled with discussions of the ‘leap’ that leads to new insights or some kind of revelation. I simply cannot imagine how this happens. The thought that such a thing could be possible overlooks the gaping, infinite abyss in the middle. The most I can do is to fall without expecting to ever reach the other side. Perhaps, in the end, I may arrive somewhere - I don’t know where - but I can’t expect it.

I would like to compare the writing in these two segments. They both speak of emptiness, of the hollow space, yet they experience it very differently. The author of the first segment is soft and self-aware. He does not experience the emptiness through disappointment or crisis, he does not envision an abyss and a fall. The emptiness is an opening for a clear, pure encounter with the self, a threshold for a kind of creation that springs from great self-confidence, a feeling of calm when faced with the roiling bodily forces inside. The empty space is bright and illuminated, perhaps it is the reshimo (רשימו, impression of a light) mentioned earlier; it is a place in which his emptiness calls out to be filled with creation.

 On the other hand, we have the author of the second segment. He speaks from the place which Rav Nachman described, clearly under his influence and also that of Rav Shagar. Like Rav Nachman, the author here too sees the empty space as a place of complete loss, of despair that cannot allow for faith or inspiration. His empty place is not an opening for creation, nor can it be skipped over; it is the manifestation of the emptiness that cycles through our lives. There is no reshimo here, only an absolute withdrawal of divine light.

The gap between these two descriptions expresses the state of doubt in which I find myself, a struggle that also relates to how I read this story by Rav Nachman. Earlier we spoke of how Rav Nachman opens the story with a ‘spark’ of the atmosphere of Torat Eretz Yisrael, which allows for happiness at the descent from kingship - saying “yes” to life, even at its low point. But Rav Nachman also has a deeply despairing side to him, one of energies that draw from the empty space in a way that is described in the second segment. To some extent, this second description fits Rav Nachman’s spirit better than the sense of comfort expressed in the first segment. If we apply the terms described above, then one is a diasporic description, built on the experience of absence, humanity at its most painful and vulnerable point. The author of the first segment, a secular Israeli-born person, describes the experience of existence in a much simpler way, free and liberated, and it is from there that his creativity emerges.

I feel drawn to both of these descriptions, and both have something to offer. The first segment - specifically due to the liberating, simple approach it has to the world - ‘loses’ God, at some point. It describes a creativity that grows from emptiness, from a primordial position that precedes any definition; yet the comfort and confidence of this position in an empty space also expresses a ‘giving up’ on faith. In that empty space there is no God, nor is there a need for one; the author has full trust and confidence in the power of his own creation, in his own ability to draw out something of value. There is no place here for feeling loss and lack (which are at the very heart of the second segment). His own emptiness leads him to himself, and things are good there; now he only needs to find a way to bring himself out to a public, shared space.

To some extent this person remains trapped in the world of wisdom, the memaleh (filling) world. Even if he forsakes traditional definitions and returns to the empty space devoid of “time and space,” he still believes in his own abilities and powers. His creation comes from his body, the place of the un-known, but he has the ability to build his world from such a place comfortably, without needing any other thing. In this scenario, there is no place for faith in its most absolute sense. There cannot be a full ability to rely on Hashem, to know that He will save you despite your unworthiness, even from the deepest pit. God does not exist here as an external anchor outside of the inner world, the revelation of the or sovev (surrounding light) which goes beyond self-confidence or inner listening. This is the God that Rav Nachman seeks when he speaks of the empty space as a place of despair, where one cannot rely on oneself because God is not even present within. This despair is a cry for revelation: he asks for a faith that is not self-confidence, a belief directed towards a God who appears missing from both the external and the internal world. This emptiness - when even “I am not for myself” and there is no one to rely on - is the position that Rav Nachman speaks of many times, a state of relating to God precisely from the place of His absence.

In a variety of ways, faith, too, can be imprisoned within wisdom; even God can become part of a worldview that is, at its core, heretical. In this situation, faith becomes a part of things familiar and known, part of an organized world that follows regular rules and whose ‘best fit’ practices are predictable. The Torah, too, can be understood like this: as knowledge that teaches a person how to behave in a way that guarantees her success. God Himself turns into a part of this knowledge, one which governs a person’s life and grants her security and peace of mind. Yet this kind of faith has no place for surprise. Indeed, not only is man incapable of surprise, but God is trapped in a framework that He himself created. In such a world, one cannot believe that God will rescue a helpless person from the abyss of emptiness, that He will skip over all the rules of logic and save one who falls into the darkest depths. Yet this is precisely the faith that Rav Nachman fights for, versus the scholars of natural order (חכמי הטבע) - for the faith in a God who is beyond all wisdom.

On the other hand, as I review the second segment again, I feel that it does not speak to me. This segment - like many of those by Rav Nachman - describes a space that I have not been to, nor do I wish to come to it. I would not want to build my faith on such a foundation. I feel that for us - for those who were born in the Land of Israel and absorbed the Torah of Rav Kook - other opportunities have opened. Those who were born here do not need the difficult conditions set forth by Rav Nachman in order to justify their creation and creating; they do not require the stage of total despair in order to arrive at revelation. It seems to me that for us, there is a more balanced path to reality, towards a less strained relationship between the sovev and memaleh (light which surrounds and light which fills), between knowledge and faith. I think that Rav Nachman - in the time and place in which he lived - needed to tap into a massive amount of strength in order to generate joy. This is a characteristic of this story, which summons the happiness of the wedding through a panoply of hideous places and strange personas. It would appear that we find ourselves in a very different place.

Our Torah draws greatly from the Torah of the Diaspora, and perhaps it is time to ‘let go’ a little, to loosen that grip. It is possible to tell Rav Nachman’s story (as I have attempted to do here) in a Land-of-Israel ‘translation’; to set up the tension between knowledge and faith, happiness and simple existence, in a ‘softer’ way. For example, I think that Rav Kook thought of his creations from a place of dialogue between the or hasovev (light which surrounds) and knowledge, from the Eretz Yisrael atmosphere that has something more relaxed, more peaceful. In the place we found ourselves now, I do not think this would necessarily lead to apathy or shallowness. Today we have the ability to engage with different forms of knowledge that surround us while not letting them trap us in. We can do so by holding onto the ‘wink’, the readiness for surprise, an openness to the light that surrounds and goes beyond any wisdom. We can live in the world as it is without being ‘caught up’ in it and finding openings of light that do not pass through the total despair of the Breslovian empty space. We can create a fruitful dialogue between sovev and memaleh, between the ordered and chaotic, from a place that is comfortable and open, secure and enabling.

I feel that I belong more in that direction, and it places me in a complex position with regards to Rav Nachman (a position that I believe relates to the meaning of attaching oneself to a tzaddik in our times). On the one hand, I study his writings and take in much of what I read (in part, as a form of criticism aimed at the world I live in). On the other hand, I am removed from him, I look for what I ‘get’ and what can be made better, can be made to match the reality I live in and the opportunities it brings. These opportunities may be far beyond what Rav Nachman may have envisioned, or perhaps they make manifest what Rav Nachman himself yearned for and could not attain.

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