The Limitations of Human Consciousness
Human consciousness strives to perceive and know all, to understand everything that exists in the world, possibly also things that do not exist in it. However, man has realized that even though the desire to know is unlimited, the human ability to know is limited.
There have always been various limitations to human consciousness, some of which can be overcome through various technical means: by bettering technical thinking, or improving the various instruments we use in order to get acquainted with reality. But in addition to all those things that were inaccessible for purely technical reasons, there are things that are inaccessible in essence. Knowing these things can result – as many great philosophers have already attested – in the improvement of our thinking, when we know in which areas our thoughts can operate and in which ones it cannot/ This definition allows for organized thinking, while also preventing a waste of mental energy on areas in which there is no point investing.
One of the greatest teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav has to do with the various questions that may arise in one's mind. He divides these questions into two different types: a) questions that rise from the world, from our existing reality; such questions can be answered, and therefore it makes sense to ask them. b) questions that do not have an answer, and which, therefore, it makes no sense to ask them, and it may even be forbidden to do so, because dealing with them creates problematics that cannot be solved by any means. Rabbi Nachman calls the latter kinds of questions "questions that come from empty space" – or, in other words, questions that stem from the essential difference of Divine hiddenness – that hiddenness which is the very source of the universe. And since all these questions come from that limitation and definition of us as creatures, any attempt to delve into them is doomed to fail, and will lead man to the abyss of skepticism.
But even Rabbi Nachman himself did not fully define these questions, and left it to the reader's understanding. One can understand that Rabbi Nachman sees questions that undermine faith – questions that try to negate faith, or to prove that it is no more than an illusion and a figment of human imagination – as questions that come from the empty space, and that are inherently unanswerable.
Knowing Reality and Knowing the Essence
The Chabad literature, which is more structured, has given many definitions to the areas of the permitted and the forbidden, as well as to the various ways in which one should carry one's investigation in each of them. Through its attempt to define which areas of Divine knowledge should be researched and which not, the Chabad movement has created a system of concepts and ideas that is applicable also to human consciousness in general. An understanding of these ideas about the objects of human consciousness helps us gain a deeper understanding of these ideas also in regard to super-human consciousness.
In the Chabad literature, consciousness – which is called there "knowledge" – is divided into two separate areas: knowing reality and knowing the essence. Generally speaking, "knowing reality" is the recognition of the very existence of something (be it physical or spiritual). "Knowing the essence," on the other hand, is to know the nature of the object, whose existence we have already acknowledged.
Further sub-divisions develop and deepen this idea; a more precise sub division is: knowing the reality of reality, knowing the essence of reality, knowing the reality of the essence and knowing the essence of the essence.
Knowing the reality of reality is the most basic kind of knowledge, which is usually very materialistic in nature. Knowing the reality of reality is the knowledge that something exists, without knowing or guessing its nature; knowing that a certain entity is there, without finding out who it exists. In other words, it is the empirical acknowledgment of the existence of things.
Knowing the essence of reality is a different kind of knowledge. It is the knowledge of how a certain thing exists, and a certain definition of its nature. For instance: it is the knowledge of whether a certain thing is large or small, strong or weak, and all the other human parameters for defining objects. All these definitions have nothing to do with the thing itself, but relate only with how it touches upon our consciousness and experience, and with the things that are already known to us.
Knowing the reality of the essence is yet another kind of knowledge: it is the awareness that there is a certain, undefined essence of something, which is as yet unknown to us; it is the recognition that that thing has its own essence, and that knowing that essence is not only the result of an external familiarity with its existence, but also stems from a closer knowledge of its true essence. This awareness of the reality of essence gives us knowledge about the essence of things, or, at least, the knowledge that such an essence exists.
However, this knowledge does not yet make us truly connected with the object of our awareness. Such inner connectedness is called knowing the essence of the essence – it is the knowledge of the very essence of the objects that come before us, and connecting with them with full awareness.
Let us take the following example in order to get acquainted with the different concepts pertaining to the different kinds of knowledge. A person is in a totally dark room, without knowing what is in that room. He takes a few steps and bumps into something – so now he knows that there is something in that room. This is the knowledge of the existence of existence – namely, the knowledge that there is something in that room.
Then he begins to feel around him, to locate that object, figure out its size. He realizes that it has a certain size, is made mostly of metal and has some screws and springs and buttons. He feels it from all sides, and then gains – to use the terms we have just mentioned – knowledge of the essence of the existence of that object; he can now define it as a complex structure of metallic objects in the shapes of screws, springs and buttons, and will probably be able to say: "This is a machine." Thus he comes to a much deeper awareness, which goes far beyond an experiential awareness of the object – he has reached the definition of that object.
If then someone will switch on the light in that room, or if that person is familiar with similar objects, he will be able to say: "This is a typewriter, and its uses are such and such." Then he understands the machine and all the aspects of its existence. This awareness, that comes from within, out of the knowledge of the essence of things, is what is called knowing the essence of the essence.
Knowledge of God
These four types of knowledge pertain to all existing objects, both material and non-material, and are of special importance in regard to the knowledge of God.
The first kind of knowledge, knowing the existence of existence, means the awareness that there is an entity that we cannot define or understand, a supreme entity far above and beyond us. This is the awareness, or experiential contact, with the existence of the Absolute, of that which is above and beyond us.
This kind of awareness is discussed in Hassidic thought as an explanation of the verse, "from my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26). It is a sort of fundamental experience, an almost physical sensation of feeling the existence of the Divine. This feeling of existence exists in every human being, from the most primitive tribes to those who are so highly sophisticated as to be bereft of any self feeling, every human being has an awareness of something that is beyond us, be it called nature, fate, idol, or God: the experience is one and the same, even if very primary and blurred: it is an awareness that there is something there about which we know nothing.
Any further discussion of these things is an attempt to clarify the essence of the existence of this Supreme Being, that which is above and beyond us. Herein lies the task of the philosopher: he defines, interprets and thinks about all the ways of contact that can exist between us and that Being that is beyond us. This type of knowledge can define the infinity, greatness, eternity, omnipotence, and all the other aspects of Divinity. Only the thinker can thus define the Supreme Being as the Creator of the world, the King of the universe, etc.
However, we must remember that whatever the philosophers grasp is nothing but that knowledge and awareness that is trying to define the reality that we grasp. The philosopher and the thinker Define God to the extent that their prior experience can grasp it: out worldly experience, our moral awareness, and the feeling of grandeur in face of Infinity which exist within us; it is the definition of those very feelings and the charting of boundaries and limits. However, the philosopher and thinker have no knowledge or awareness of God Himself. The knowledge of His essence is far beyond the grasp of a person whose knowledge relies completely upon prior experiential knowledge.
Knowing the existence of the essence of God is one stage3 higher than philosophical thinking. This is the level that the prophet discovers and that the believer senses in some measure. It is the awareness of what we can understand of the existence of a Divine essence that is beyond all the attributes that we can grasp through the power of our thinking and our knowledge, what we can grasp of the existence of a perfect supreme entity, without having known it from our own experience. The awareness of the prophet, and his experience of prophecy is what enables him to understand that there is something above and beyond what ordinary logic can discover. In Hassidic thought this is defined as the difference between the knowledge of God as He who "fills al the worlds" – namely, the awareness of God as the soul of the universe, which is a philosophical sort of recognition that stems from our feelings – and the awareness of the supreme, abstract essence of God which has no contact with the universe, God as He who "encompasses all the worlds" – an awareness which is prophetic only. The prophet is, then, one who experiences the awareness and knowledge that there exists a Divine essence which is above and beyond our understanding, and which is not related in any way to our ordinary human experience.
This level of knowing the existence of the essence is made up of different degrees of knowledge; the greater the prophet, the greater is also his knowledge of the existence of that essence. But knowing the essence of essence is beyond human reach altogether. Only God Himself knows the essence of His essence. As one sage put it: "If I knew God, I would be God." Had we reached the knowledge of that essence and contact with it, we would have become totally identified with it.
This level of knowledge – knowing the essence of essence – is the only level of knowledge that is beyond the reach of human grasp. Knowing the essence of the essence of the Divine means knowing God from within; it is an awareness that interprets and explains everything, that gives everything meaning and significance. In Chabad literature this is called "the fiftieth gate" of Understanding, which is beyond human understanding.