The Doctrine of “Tzimtzum Shelo Kepshuto” and Its Power
Luria was primarily a visionary. The power of his mythic teachings lay in their symbolic ramifications rather than in their discursive logic. Nevertheless, some of his more philosophically inclined students queried the viability of Tzimtzum when taken literally.
Luria may have couched his description of divine contraction with repeated caveats of “as if” and “as it were” (kivyakhol), acknowledging that all talk of movement and change in the Ein sof refers to spiritual rather than physical processes. This, however, did not dispel the qualms of some of Luria’s disciples regarding the very legitimacy of speaking of a “before” and “after” when referring to a timeless deity, or of attributing to such a sublimely spiritual Being any element of change. Others also raised doubts regarding the possibility of any space that could be emptied of God’s infinite and all-pervading presence. Such reservations led to the development of what eventually became known in the secondary literature as “the allegorical interpretation of the doctrine of Tzimtzum“, (or as the kabbalists themselves termed it: Tzimtzum shelo kepshuto).
According to the first expositors of Tzimtzum shelo kepshuto, the original Lurianic doctrine of Tzimtzum should not be understood literally as a real displacement and the creation of an actual void within the Ein-sof, but rather as the establishment of a world of appearances, in which God’s infinity is represented in finite proportions capable of being grasped by finite minds.
According to this understanding, God’s monolithic unity before creation and after creation remains exactly the same; ontologically nothing has changed. But as a result of the spontaneous activity of the divine life, there ensued a covering over or concealment of some aspect of God’s all-pervasive presence, thereby engendering an illusory realm of appearance. This so-called metaphoric “withdrawal” enables the epistemological distinction between subject and object, creator and created being, perceiver and perceived, and allows various elements of God’s infinity to view themselves as separate entities, despite the fact that ontologically they remain merged with the whole.
By way of illustration, the act of divine tzimtzum was likened by some to the situation of a teacher who conceals the full scope of his knowledge so that some limited portion of it may be revealed to his student. Just as the wisdom of the teacher is unaffected by this concealment, so too all forms of existence gain a sense of their selfhood as a result of the hiding of God’s all-pervasive presence, yet God’s all-embracing monolithic unity remains the same. All appearances of diversity and particularization – while real enough – are swallowed up by His infinite unity, just as drops of water are contained by the sea and indistinguishable from the surrounding waters.
While the allegorical interpretation of Tzimtzum, and its sharp swing to a position of near-pantheism, once again served to resolve difficulties of a theological nature, it raised new religious problems on a more practical plane. Proponents of this view might easily conclude that if all that distinguishes between Creator and created being is the illusion of selfhood, truly the unity between man and God is but a hair’s breadth away. All that is required is a switch of consciousness, and voila – unio mystica is achieved!
In contradistinction to this tantalizing possibility, one of the natural corollaries of Jewish monotheism and God’s transcendence is the notion of divine command. Conceiving of God as a Supreme Being who reveals the divine will in the form of concrete laws encourages the sanctification of a this-worldly ethic as the most sublime expression of worship. A life of law, however, mandates the premise of a diversified, multifarious world, differentiating between holy and profane, good and evil, and recognizing a hierarchy of clearly distinct entities and values. This stands in sharp contrast to the mystic understanding of God as an infinite, monolithic unity in which all binaries are dissolved.
In response to this threat of anti-nomism, there arose amongst Lithuania Jewry of the 18th and 19th century two new developments of Lurianic Kabbala, which on the one hand accepted the allegorical interpretation of the doctrine of Tzimtzum but on the other hand strove to stem its nihilistic effects. I refer here to the Hassidic movement, particularly in its Habad version – as developed by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, and to the ideology of its opponents, the Mitnagdim, as explicated by R. Hayim of Volozhin, one of the most prominent disciples of R. Elijah Kremer, the Gaon of Vilna.
The bitter exchanges between the leaders of both movements have already become legion in the annals of Jewish history and to some extent continue to this day. What is less popularly known is that the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim were in fundamental agreement with regard to their central theological conception, illustrating the fact that minor differences between protagonists sharing a basically similar worldview are often experienced far more acutely than the differences between camps that are farther removed.
Common to both the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim was the notion of three levels of consciousness, which in effect represent three levels of existence. The first, or highest level, which I will dub Stage One, consists of all that there is, and as such, defies definition. Even the attribute “God” as applied here is inadequate, as this would imply comparison with something else. From the vantage point of creation as a separate entity, however, two other levels of perception can be spoken of. Stage Two seeks to describe how we, as perceiving creatures, imagine that God relates to the world from God’s point of view (mitzido). In other words, Stage Two explores how we might articulate the essentially ineffable reality of Stage One in words. Finally, Stage Three defines how we, as perceiving creatures, see God’s relationship to the world from our point of view (mitzideinu).
The Hassidim and the Mitnagdim agreed (with a few reservations) regarding the ineffability of Stage One. They also agreed that Stage Two (how we, from our illusory vantage point of separate existence, conceptualize God’s relationship to the world from God’s point view) is essentially a position of semi-acosmic pantheism. What this term means to convey is that if we stretch our imaginations beyond the limits of our perception, we can hypothetically posit that from God’s point of view, God’s existence is all-inclusive, so that from God’s perspective, there is no reality other than God.
The main point of difference between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim, was their understanding of Stage Three – how we perceive God’s relationship to the world from our point of view. Since it is this perspective that dictates the nature and ultimate objective of religious worship, one may readily understand why this difference was the cause of the great acrimony that ensued between the two movements.
According to R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, although the light of the Ein sof fills all worlds so that nothing is void of God’s presence, the concealment of that light in our this-worldly reality is also absolute. The very delineation of our world (in contradistinction to God) renders the derivative ray of light which sustains it as qualitatively different in essence from the monolithic unity from which it stems. For this reason, God’s reality from our point of view is not only “more”, but also “other” in substance. Precisely because nothing of God’s absolute and infinite unity filters down to our world, the highest object of the religious life is to pierce our illusory sense of separate existence, and merge – to whatever extent possible – with that undifferentiated unity which is God’s. This is accomplished by drawing that unity into this world,  eradicating its “reality” by eradicating our false sense of independent selfhood. The life of halakha, which combines spirit and matter in the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, is an important tool in this endeavor, but its ultimate arena is the world at large.
R. Hayim of Volozhin, by contrast, contended that the distancing of our world from God’s monolithic unity via the metaphoric act of withdrawal is actually a dual process. The hiding of God’s infinity is indeed a result of the metaphoric act of tzimtzum. Nevertheless, the fact that the derivative ray of light emanating from that infinity appears to us as a plurality of descending gradations is not due to any essential property of the ray itself (whose concealment could, in principle, also appear as “uniform in all places”) but rather to the manner in which it is perceived.  Hence, while the substantive relationship between God’s absolute existence and any aspect of our created remains, we both “cannot and are also forbidden” to dwell upon the “awesome matter” of God’s all-pervasive presence”. Rather than strive for dramatic shifts in consciousness on the earthly plane, the task of the faithful is to worship God in accordance with reality as it appears to us, confident that through the study of Torah and practical observance of halakha we fortify the ontological connection between the final and lowest point of God’s manifestation in this world and its infinite source. R. Hayim of Volozhin likens awareness of the higher dimension of reality to embers of fire; as background warmth such knowledge can serve a positive function in fueling our devotion, but if approached too closely we face the danger of being consumed.
What may appear to lay eyes as abstruse theological nitpicking is actually a serious attempt on the part of both the Hassidimand the Mitnagdim to overcome a tension even more evident than in classical Kabbala between the conflicting religious sensibilities of pantheism and theism. Both the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim do this by developing a very intricate and finely tuned conceptual scheme that will allow these two incompatible bedfellows to somehow lie peacefully together. Emphasis on various forms of distinction between God’s point of view and ours enabled them to hold on to the view of the unlimited reality, which is God’s, without the threat to normative halakha which acceptance of God’s ultimate unity would seem to entail.
More significant for our purposes, however, is the fact that in spelling out this version of the allegorical interpretation of the doctrine of tzimtzum, both the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim appropriate in Kabbalistic idiom a critical/subjectivist theory of knowledge which bears striking similarity to Kant’s “Copernican” revolution in the realm of epistemology, as referred to above.
As already noted by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the distinction that the allegorical interpreters of the doctrine of tzimtzum made between God’s point of view and ours served for these latter-day Kabbalists much the same function that the distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenal world did for Kant. There is, however, one critical difference. Whereas Kant was uncertain with regard to the nature of the noumenon, the skepticism of the latter day Kabbalists was directed towards the reality of this world and its perceptions. Despite its inherent inscrutability, for the kabbalists, the truth of God’s infinite unity constituted the one absolute certainty. As R. Eliyahu Dessler, the 20th century proponent of the modern Musar movement, expressed it:
The definition of [God’s] unique unity expressed as “there is none but Him alone” cannot be grasped inherently from within creation, for this aspect of God’s uniqueness implies that creation does not really exist [i.e., “there is nothing but Him alone”]. The world was created through [divine self-] contraction and concealment of that truth, and the reality of creation can be perceived only from within creation itself – that is to say, following, and within, that self-contraction – and its reality is only in and of itself, relative to itself……It follows that all our understandings are only relative to creation. They are only within and in respect to creation, in accordance with our concepts, which are also created. We possess only relative truth, each one in accordance with his station and condition.
Under such circumstances, it would appear that not only the reality of creation, but even that of a personal, finite God who reveals Himself to an entity that is other than He, makes sense only from within the concealed and illusory state of tzimtzum. Indeed, when relating to the distinction between the Jewish view and that of Kant, R. Kook (whose entire worldview is also predicated on the assumption of tzimtzum shelo kepshuto) explicitly debunks the notion of an infinity capable of being grasped (אין סוף מושג) as a logical contradiction in terms. He goes so far as to claim that this concept could only have stemmed from a descendant of idolaters, such as Kant. Nevertheless, it was precisely their faith in this mystic equation of God with infinity that led the allegorical interpreters of tzimtzum to develop a more charitable view of the relationship between language and metaphysics, or human truth-claims and divine reality that is germane to our discussion.
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March 25, 2014
March 22, 2020
Professor Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
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