God, we say, is “beyond time.”

What does that mean?

Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein wrote:

“Man has conveniently divided..time into three periods: past, present, and future…but God is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’…What is the Past to the human conception, is Present to [God]; and what is designated as the Future is also the Present to Him. To the Divine Mind there is but one eternal Now.” [1]

Over a thousand years earlier, Saadiah Gaon (b. 822 CE) taught the same:

“…’How is it conceivable by the [human intellect] that God knows everything that happened in the past as well as all that will take place in the future, and that He knows both equally?’
…the Creator requires no mediary cause [i.e. the senses, which can only perceive one moment at a time] for the acquisition of His knowledge, since it is rather by His essence that He is aware of things; [to Him] the past and the future are both on the same level. He knows the one as well as the other [simultaneously]…” [2]

(Rabbi) Saadiah Gaon discusses this as a prerequisite to the love and service of God.

Rabbi Lichtenstein discusses it as a prelude to right prayer.

Yet, the knowledge of God that they both encourage is the same. As Rabbi Lichtenstein puts it with admirable clarity and brevity, “To the Divine Mind there is but one eternal Now.

These days, their manner of expression might seem anachronistic. But even in the study of kabbalah — much more popular now than in their times — the same concept must appear using whatever language and terminology a teacher prefers. In learning Hasidut, too, one must eventually come upon the same concept. 

In the end, even a seemingly strict “rationalist” like Saadiah Gaon is telling us: The human intellect really can’t understand this at all, because it depends on the information of the senses. We must instead use our imagination to even begin to conceive of this.

The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that learning “aggadah” — “legends,” as it were; stories — rather than “halachah” — Jewish law — leads to the knowledge and experience of God:

“…[aggadah] is designed to touch the human heart (Yoma 75a), ‘so that one should recognize Him who created the world, and so cling to His ways’ (Sif. Deut. 49)’.” [3]

When we listen to stories, what moves us is not the pure details of the stories themselves. It’s the feelings those details stir up in us. It’s no less true of watching a movie: What moves us is not the chemical structure of the film or the details of the digital technology involved; it’s not the words of the script. It’s the feelings that the images suggest and convey, which become real to us as we relax our intellect and allow the images we are perceiving to impact on us spontaneously.

Learning the legends might be called a “right-brain” experience, while learning the law might be called a “left-brain” experience. These terms are only descriptive, of course. But I use them to suggest that aggadah requires a more creative mental activity: one which allows its own details to be transcended. 

Rabbi Lichtenstein says the same of prayer:

“We find that man’s power of prayer…lies in his imagination. The imagination is man’s creative faculty…In his imagination, man first sees the new horizons which he is later to reach…” [4]

Even — perhaps especially — in learning Kabbalah and Hasidut, words are meant only as springboards for the imagination. “Intellect” is only useful to clarify what is being discussed just enough for it to be “imagined” or “visualized.”  

In our learning, then, let us use our imaginations and our hearts, even if we begin with the intellect.


[1] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; © 1925 by Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein; p. 15-6
[2] Saadiah Gaon; The Book of Beliefs and Opinions; S. Rosenblatt, trans.; © 1948 by Yale Judaica Press; p. 132
[3] http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/aggadah-or-haggadah
[4] Lichtenstein; p. 49.