Defining Devekut - Attaining Oneness with God

דבקות (devekut). n. (abstract): 1) adhesion, 2) devotion, 3) allegiance

The idea of devekut, best translated here perhaps as 'adhesion,' is one that gets thrown around an awful lot in liberal Jewish circles which claim to be informed by Kabbalah. So called, 'Neo-Hasidut' advocates the attainment of this state of undefined mystical unity with God, often without a great deal of clarity on how said enlightened stasis is to be achieved. On the other end of the spectrum, scholars of Jewish mysticism find no greater pastime then debating whether devekut is truly the sort unio mystica practice which has such cross-cultural resonance, or whether it represents a unique outgrowth of the Jewish spiritual mind. In all my years of studying and learning Kabbalah, no one has even managed to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what devekut is, how it should be maintained, and what it says about the relationship between God and humanity. That is, until I found Rav Yehuda Ashlag's take on it, which (I think) successfully answers all three questions. 

1. What is it?

To understand the way Rav Ashlag defines devekut, we first have to accept some things about his theological worldview. In Ashlag's system, God is primarily an expression of ratson lehashpia, the will to give, and humanity is an expression of its opposite, ratson lekabel, the will to take. This polarity is more than a matter of degrees - God cannot possibly contain any element of the will to take - for from whom would God take? Similarly, we as humans are defined by the fact that we relate to the world almost exclusively by taking. From the birth of an infant to the corporate governance of a multibillion dollar corporation, we operate by taking. Even when we do summon the divine will to give, it is usually only for a specific reward (ie. we give charity for recognition or to feel good) and thus, it is itself another form of the will to take (just cleverly hidden behind an appearance of generosity). This essential difference between the human and divine leaves an apparently unbridgeable chasm between the two, which begs the question, how can we traverse the trenches of materiality to reach God at all? 

The answer comes in understanding that both the human soul and God are spiritual entities. Each is made up not of matter but of form. The relationship between forms is also different than it would be for physical matter. In the physical world, things are made distinct and separate by their physical location - if I wish to take two identical coins and fly one halfway around the world, we can reasonably say that the two coins are very far from one another. This is not true in the spiritual world - there is no component of physical space to operate under. Instead, the closeness or distance of two things is defined by how similar their forms are. Thus, we are spiritually distant from God because our form is the will to take and God's is the will to give. Yet, we can attain true devekut (adhesion, attachment) to the divine, meaning that we can bring ourselves close (spiritually, speaking) to God by making our form like God's form. That is, devekut is a process of equalizing the form of our soul to the form of God, transmuting our will to take into a will to give. 

2. Okay, but How Do We Do that?

So if we understand the goal of spiritual life to be the attainment of devekut, of this level of spiritual enlightenment which equivalizes our form to the Divine one, then the question remains as to how we effect such a change. We, who are built to take, are asked to make our form like God's, purely giving. Rav Ashlag, in answering this question, quotes a famous sugya from the Talmud:

“What does the verse, ‘And you shall walk after Hashem, your God,’ mean? Is it really possible for a person to walk after the Shekhinah? For hasn’t it already said to us, ‘for Hashem your God is an all-consuming fire?!’ Rather, it means to walk after the attributes of the Holy Blessed One: just as God clothes the naked, so too you should clothe the naked, just as God visits the sick, so to you should visit the sick.”  [BT Sotah 14a]

Rav Ashlag brings this text to point out that we have already been shown how it is we should make ourselves like God - we need to live up to the statement of Bereshit that we were made in the 'image and likeness,' of God and the direction of the prophet Mikhah when he tells us, "You have already been told, mortal, what it is God requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." (6:8) Here we see a similar statement - that to make our form (will to take) like God's form (will to give) and thus effect devekut, we have to imitate the ways in which God demonstrates that will to give. 

Rav Ashlag supports this idea by a creative reading of a key Hebrew word, אדם (adam). The typical etymology given for this label which means 'human' is that it is connected to the word for Earth/ground (adamah). In fact, Bereshit itself tells us of this connection. Yet, Rav Ashlag sees a difference source for our collective appellation, in the word adameh, 'I will imitate.' What it means, according to this, to be human is to always strive to imitate God, to make ourselves like God, to equalize our forms, and through the decreasing spiritual distance afforded by the equivalence of form, to achieve devekut.

3. What It Says about Us

This version and vision of devekut, in which we make ourselves as similar as possible to our Divine source, can inform a great deal about how we live our lives. In one way, it encourages to us think and act with an eye always toward what could be done in a given situation that would empower the will to give and diminish the will to take. The more we can eliminate the self-interest and self-love that is fueled by our desire to take, the more our form can imitate God's, and the closer we get to devekut.

Moreover, if devekut truly is the goal of the spiritual life, then Kabbalah has something to offer which other traditions fail to give. Many mysticisms around the world advocate that the end goal of the spiritual life is total indistinct oneness with God, 'to be lost in the sea of God,' 'to be reabsorbed in the Divine Light,' etc. No loss of individual identity is entailed here - the goal is not to destroy ourselves so as to be reintegrated into Divinity, the goal is to change ourselves so that we can adhere and attach to the Divine. The language itself of adhesion and attachment implies not the blending of distinct things into a homogenous oneness, but rather the embrace of two distinctly individual elements, here, united by a common form.

Thus, the vision of devekut described here doesn't require asceticism or self-destruction. One can be adhered to the Divine in the smallest aspects of day to day life - if we succeed in suppressing our will to take and instead cultivate our will to give, we can imitate God in everything we do, and attain a whole and holy devekut in all aspects of life. In that, I'll leave you with the words of Rav Ashlag as chizuk (encouragement): 

"One who is able to transmute their will to take into a will to give, and to take what they receive and use it only for the benefit of others, only they will be able to obtain perfection and pleasure in the things they acquire. They will achieve equity of form with their Creator, and in doing so, will find true enlightenment (devekut amitit)." [Talmud Eser haSefirot, S1, HP, C21]