Knowing the Unknowable

Four worldsHow do you speak about the unsayable? Represent the unrepresentable? Make conscious what is, by its nature, unconscious?

Here is a short proposal for an academic research project reaching in that direction. Scholar alert: Read on if you aren’t afraid of APA-style citations. Don’t worry about jargon: all technical terms are eventually defined.


The purpose of this hermeneutic study will be to explore and understand C.G. Jung’s concept of the “psychoid” realm through the concept of Eyn Sof (Infinity) as presented in selected Kabbalah texts from Hebrew and Aramaic traditions. At this point in the research, the psychoid is defined as a realm “beyond apprehension,” that “precedes conscious experience” (Jacobi, 1959). Eyn Sof is understood as the undefined infinite source of all realities (Tishby, 1989).

Although the proposed topic is highly theoretical, it is grounded in personal experiences both intentional and surprising. As a rabbi, I was educated in a mystical approach to Judaism and Kabbalah, and my intentional synagogue work focuses on re-invigorating traditional religious practices with spiritual awareness. As a student of depth psychology, twice I have been surprised with profound mystical experiences after course units drew my attention to non-representable aspects of the psyche. The paradoxical drive to wrap my intellect around these non-intellectual experiences comes from my first discipline, philosophy. Although I took up philosophy to escape superficiality in daily life; Kabbalistic studies to escape the superficial in philosophy; and depth psychology to escape superficial approaches to spirituality, my philosophical method continues to inform my scholarship.

After 40 years of studying and teaching the history and practice of philosophy, I am able to articulate my own approach, based on Marcel (1950). Philosophy is the attempt to capture elusive experiences in verbal concepts, articulate the implications of those concepts, assess what the concepts teach and where they fall short, and then try again. To my scholarly studies of Hebrew and Aramaic Kabbalah, I brought this particular philosophical lens, and thus found myself fascinated by Kabbalah’s view of the uses and limits of religious language. In the Kabbalistic tradition, concepts of God, such as Eyn Sof, are metaphors used for cosmological speculation and psycho-spiritual growth. Each concept holds a linguistic and narrative history, captures a powerful experience or insight, but, through its limitations, points seekers’ attention beyond what is conceptually known (Matt, 2002). To my studies in depth psychology, I bring the same intellectual lens. Most fascinating to me are Jung’s evolving attempts to speak about aspects of the psyche hidden from consciousness. He, too, attempts to conceptualize linguistically and explore scientifically experiences and intuitions that seem to escape those attempts.

C.G. Jung’s concept of the “psychoid” is one such attempt to capture an intuition. In On the Nature of the Psyche, Jung (1960), presented a comprehensive view of his philosophy of the psyche. There, he spoke of aspects of the psyche beyond the “threshold” of our conscious perception, calling these “psychoid” processes. We find these veiled processes at work at “both ends of the psychic scale,” in the “subconscious” as well as the “superconscious” (85-86). Throughout his career, Jung was interested in speaking about such elusive yet active processes, using vocabulary from his current interests. Addison (2009), in “Jung, vitalism and ‘the psychoid’: an historical reconstruction,” suggested that Jung’s interest in the topic was evident as early as 1897, when, influenced by biological studies, he spoke of a “substance” underlying the “contingent phenomena of consciousness” (128). Later, wrote Zabriskie (2001) in “Jung and Pauli: A meeting of rare minds,” Jung increasingly saw psychic energy “emerging from a mind-matter continuum” that he came to call “psychoid” (xxxviii). Clearly, Jung’s own changing discussion of the psychoid forms the foundation for this research project.

As Jung’s own evolving discourse shows, when exploring an elusive concept, it can be helpful to borrow vocabulary from a related field. Such vocabulary can be found in modern literature on the Zohar, a core text of Jewish Kabbalah. The Zohar itself is a multi-volume Aramaic work composed in thirteenth century Spain. Through metaphor and myth, the Zohar described the process by which an ineffable, unknowable, infinite (Eyn Sof), Godhead reveals itself via ten archetypal spiritual qualities (Frisch, 1999). Modern scholars have highlighted different aspects of the Eyn Sof that could be helpful in developing discourse about the “psychoid.” Scholem (1946/1995), in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, focused on the underlying substance itself, describing the paradox of a hidden being that is nonetheless active throughout the universe. Idel (1990), in Kabbalah: New Perspectives linked this active being with the psyche, saying it represents the “primordial plenitude” of the soul (48). Tishby (1989), in Wisdom of the Zohar, spoke of epistemological issues, specifically “the responsibility to recognize not-knowing along with knowing” (232). For each of these ideas, analogies can be made to understanding the psychoid, as Jung began to sketch it.

One justification for borrowing Kabbalistic vocabulary to develop the notion of the “psychoid” is provided by evidence that Kabbalah influenced Jung’s thought in other areas. In “Jung, Kirsch, and Judaism: Mystical and Paradoxical Transformations,” Drob (2012) spoke of Jung’s increasing appreciation for Jewish theology, particularly Kabbalistic teachings about the relationship between God and Self. In Mysterium Conuinuctionis, Jung (1963/1977) himself explored psychological aspects of Kabbalistic themes echoed in the alchemical tradition, such as scintillae (sparks), Adam Kadmon, and the union of Divine male and female. In The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament, Edinger (1986), self-consciously applying Jungian ideas, drew heavily on Kabbalistic teachings to draw out individuation themes in Hebrew Bible.

This research project, connecting Eyn Sof and the psychoid, builds upon these foundations. Specifically, it asks: How can the Kabbalistic concept of Eyn Sof help us understand Jung’s concept of the “psychoid?”

The project opens a conversation between two textual traditions’ attempt to conceptualize veiled psychic processes below threshold of consciousness. Thus, hermeneutic phenomenology provides appropriate methodological theories and tools. Phenomenology studies the lived experience of consciousness (Husserl, 1913/1962). Hermeneutics studies the methods by which people make meaning of experience through interpretation (Ricoeur, 1970). Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology proposes that texts gain meaning when readers use their experiences to interpret them; texts are not closed systems (Ricoeur, 1974).

From a depth psychological perspective, the human psyche, as it experiences itself, is also not a closed system. Through the transcendent function, unconscious material presents to consciousness, providing it with new tools to encounter future challenges (Jung, 1929/1969). From within the field of hermeneutic phenomenology, Bachelard described an aspect of this function. He described a “phenomenology of the soul” that would study moments in which the world itself seems to reach out and touch a human psyche, arresting and transfixing attention in a “poetic moment.” Such a moment cannot itself be interpreted, though a person may well try to analyze or reconstruct it using words and concepts. Yet the moment burns an image into the psyche, which becomes a template for future images, understandings, and interpretations (Bachelard, 1994).

Again, this project explores connections between the Kabbalistic concept of Eyn Sof and the depth psychological concept of the psychoid. Hermeneutic phenomenology informs the project on two levels: motivation and method. On the level of motivation, I am attracted to the key concepts because each seems to offer a language for describing poetic moments. Both aim to articulate linguistically an un-interpretable source that generates the templates of our experience and its representations. On the level of method, I will allow my experience of reading about each concept in its original context to inform my interpretation of the other. First, I will read about Eyn Sof, approaching Kabbalah texts as a relatively closed system, on their own terms and with the aid of scholarly literature concerned to understand those terms. Next, I will read the work of Jung and selected Jungians on the psychoid. Then, I will return to the Kabbalistic texts, re-interpreting them as part of the depth psychological conversation, and articulating their contribution to a theory of the psychoid.

Clearly, I participate in a hermeneutic circle, with my own acts of interpretation at the center. To work ethically, I must work with self-awareness, separating as best I can the three partners in the conversation, Kabbalah literature, Jungian literature, and my own life experience. In addition, I must remember that phenomenology brings one person’s lived experience into conversation with a community of scholars attempting to identify essential structures of experience. For the limited purposes of this project, my own experience serves as the point of translation between the vocabularies of Kabbalah and depth psychology. As I read and interpret, I must be aware of the subjective dimension inherent in my conclusions, and be humbly open to alternative perspectives.


Addison, A. (2009). Jung, vitalism and ‘the psychoid’: An historical reconstruction. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 54, 123-142.

Bachelard, G. (1994). The poetics of space (M. Jolas, Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Drob, S.C. (2012). Jung, Kirsch, and Judaism: Mystical and paradoxical transformations. Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, 6 (1), 35-55.

Edinger, E.F. (1986). The Bible and the psyche: Individuation symbolism in the Old Testament (Studies in Jungian Psychology no 24). Toronto, ON, Canada: Inner City Books.

Frisch, D. (1999). Sefer Zohar hakadosh im peirush Matok Midevash [The holy book of the Zohar with the Matok Midevash commentary] (Vols. 1-15). Jerusalem, Israel: Mechon Daat Yosef.

Husserl, E. (1962). Ideas: general introduction to pure phenomenology (W. R. Boyce Gibson, Trans.). New York, NY: Collier Books. (Original work published 1913)

Idel, M. (1990). Kabbalah: New perspectives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jacobi, J. (1959). Complex, archetype, symbol in the psychology of C.G. Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1957)

Jung, C. G. (1969). The transcendent function. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 8, pp. 67-91). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1929)

Jung, C.G. (1977). Mysterium conuinuctionis (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1963)

Jung, C.G. (1960). On the nature of the psyche (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marcel, G. (1950). The mystery of being. Chicago, IL: Regnery.

Matt, D.C. (2002). Zohar: Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Illuminations.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (D. Savage, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). The Conflict of Interpretations: essays in hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Scholem, G. (1995). Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York, NY: Schocken Books. (Original work published in 1946)

Tishby, I. (1989). Wisdom of the Zohar (D. Goldstein, Trans.). Washington, DC: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Zabriskie, B. (2001). Jung and Pauli: A meeting of rare minds. In C.A Meier (Ed.). Atom and Archetype: The Pauli-Jung letters 1932-1958 (D. Roscoe, Trans.) (pp. xxvii-xlx). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  1. I’m tingling. I want to read with you (but cld never keep up.). And I have a rare but occasionally helpful personality disorder. I love APA.

    1. Don’t worry, Leora. If I pursue the project there will definitely be reading groups. How else would I study?

      And, yes, it is a bit weird to love APA. I’m a fan of Chicago style myself.

  2. What an invigorating post. Academic in it’s presentation, I still could not get away from the sentence that I found to be the topic sentence of this piece; “…aim to articulate linguistically an un-interpretable source that generates the templates of our experience and its representations.”
    I think Campbell said it best when he said, “Ggod is a metaphor for all that is beyond intellectual. It is that simple.”
    Thanks and I truly enjoy your posts

    1. Thanks, shoe1000. You have absolutely identified the key sentence. That is what I keep finding myself trying to do!

  3. Yasher Koach, Reb Laura.

    Without question, the best “articulation” of a well-put challenge to wrap one’s mind around the Jewish intellectual/philosophical/spiritual, paradoxical, conundrum I have ever read. Was there, by any chance, any influence on the question you pose, from a coincidental examination of the deeper aspects of Purim in relationship to Yom Kippur, last week? The “pre-apprehension” “knowing” state, which occurs prior to any cognitive stimuli, is not so highly theoretical any longer recent Scientific America). To me, this stuff is very “Jewcy”.

    I’m not sure if the approach isn’t a bit upside down, however. There may be wisdom in looking at how the experiential informs the emotional, which informs the intellectual, which informs the spiritual which informs the experiential, and so on. I think that energy flows in waves and can best be understood as sound, as music, as a hum, or a song. You can’t ride side-saddle on the paradox on Jewish Mysticism. This study will be a fascinating process to watch unfold, and surely an uncomfortable experience for anyone engaged with the study. How do I stay “tuned in”?
    Brachot v’ahavah,

    Rev .Gabbai Eli Shirim Lester

    PS Any chance we will see you in Ashland in May with Zalman?

    1. Eli, these are great observations. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on Yom k’Purim.

      Actually, I began the project on Feb. 5, when Purim was still a distant memory from last year. And I totally agree with your emphasis on the experiential, but the teacher told me to make the project narrow and deep, rather than broad!

      I’ll definitely be blogging about this and related ideas, so here’s where you can “stay tuned.” I’m sorry we won’t see you in Ashland. Our schedule is too busy and we have a retreat of our own to run only 10 days later! Be well. We’ll miss your music.


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