The Potential Contribution of the Allegorical Interpretation of Tzimtzum to the Dilemma of Post-Liberal Theology
If, as implied by the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum, fixating on a fragment of God’s revelation is essentially a form of idolatry, what, then, could possibly be the justification for living our lives in accordance with this heresy? In other words, what merit is there to a form of worship that diminishes and distorts the true object of faith by equating it with our limited and subjective perceptions?
In continuation of the passage quoted above, R. Dessler provides what might appear to be a half-hearted answer to this question:
What is the value of a relative perception? Its value lies in its being relative to us, in accordance with our situation in this world – the world of free-will and worship; accordingly, it is the only truth we have... “You endow man with understanding” – even our perceptions have been created for us and given to us by the Creator, may He be blessed, for purposes of fulfilling our role in this world – and that is their entire value. 
On the surface it would appear that R. Dessler is merely reiterating Stout’s critique of the skeptical realist (as cited above) in religious terms, once again cautioning against striving for the impossible. Yet the facile manner in which Dessler lapses in the concluding sentence of this passage, which emphasizes God’s pantheistic acosmism, into to a theistic mode, viewing God as a Creator deliberately fashioning our perceptions, is telling.
Fueling his compliance with the inevitable subjectivity and finitude of human perception, it would be safe to conclude, is a layered conception of God which legitimizes the personalist understanding not only because this is all that we are capable of imagining, but also because it too is ontologically part of that infinite reality which is beyond definition.
More explicit expression of this type of justification is encapsulated in a statement popularly attributed to the charismatic 18th century Hassidic teacher, R. Nachman of Breslau, who declared:
Whenever I think about God, I am at first saddened, because I realize that in thinking about Him, I distance myself from Him. But then I remember that since He is all, He is also my thought and my distance, and I am consoled.
A more philosophical formulation of the same idea appears in a passage by R. Kook, in which he declares:
Every definition of the divine leads to heresy. Definition is spiritual idolatry… even divinity itself and the name ‘God’ is definition. And without the supreme knowledge that all these are merely sparkling flashes of what is beyond definition they too would lead to heresy. And for people who have become completely distanced from this original view they indeed do lead to gross heresy.
From here we see that R. Kook, similarly to R. Dessler and R. Nachman, does not denigrate the appeal to imperfect, human theological conceptions. So long as one is careful to distinguish between these limited “awarenesses of the heart” (hakarot ha-lev) and their infinite source, while not severing the relationship between “the core of faith” and its “explication”, such depictions are worthy of respect and not to be belittled.
Applying such insights to a constructivist view of revelation, one might say that the human (or Rabbinic) decision to view the Torah as a direct communication of God to man is to be defended simply because this perception is an element of that ultimate reality itself.
Such a defense, however, does not take us very far, for if everything can be validated on the basis of its grounding in some monolithic undefined, all-inclusive and infinite noumenon, how are we to distinguish between revelation and non-revelation, and why prefer any truth claim (revelatory or not) over another?
The allegorical interpreters of tzimtzum preceding R. Kook do not appear to have been troubled by this specter of relativism, but their assumptions regarding the superior revelatory status of Torah as self-evident merely reflect their personal existential experience or the influence of tradition. R. Kook, however, does attempt to address these questions in a manner that intensifies the intertwining of the subjective and objective dimensions of our God-talk even further.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 25, 2014
December 3, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. 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.
Essays on Related Topics: