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The Kabbala of Duality
By Simon Jacobson
The challenge of bridging modernity and faith, which was exposed by the Emancipation, is based on the (mis)understanding of Divine unity, as discussed in my column "Orthodoxy Vs. the World."

The ideological root of this dilemma can be traced to a Kabbalistic argument about the very nature of existence.

To explain the possibility of our independent existence in the face of Divine omnipresence, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria), the great mystic of Tzfat, taught the mystery (sod) of the Tzimtzum. The Lurianic doctrine of Tzimtzum explains that existence is a result of Divine concealment. In the memorable words of the Arizal: “First the Divine infinite energy/light (ohr ein sof) filled all existence and there was no 'room' for the creation of finite worlds. Then came a Tzimtzum, which contracted and concealed the light, allowing “space” for our existence,” a reality that feels independent of its divine source.

A classic debate arose in attempting to understand the meaning of this Tzimtzum. Some interpreted the “Tzimtzum” literally (Tzimtzum k’peshuto), that the Divine actually “removed” Himself from our existence. They explained that this is the only way to reconcile our inferior realm with the Divine presence. G-d would be defiled were we to say that He is present within the “filth” of our universe. Instead, G-d’s presence and providence in this world is like a “king who watches the grime through a window” (an actual quote).

Others, however, felt that a literal application of the Tzimtzum is a misinterpretation of the Tzimtzum doctrine. Apart from the fact that a literal Tzimtzum would be applying corporeal phenomena to G-d, the literal “departure” of the Divine ultimately implies that the Divine presence cannot be found directly in our existence. This contradicts the fundamental principle of Divine unity, with the many verses that clearly describe G-d’s omnipresence within all of existence.

Instead, they interpret the Tzimtzum not literally (shelo k’peshuto). The Divine is not “removed” from existence; It is only concealed. Even though we cannot perceive His presence, the Divine is within every fiber of existence, sustaining it with a steady flow of renewed energy. Since the Divine is not bound by any properties – “physical,” or “spiritual” or any other – we cannot fully understand how the Divine can be present in “filth,” while not be “bound” and defined by it.

These two interpretations of the Tzimtzum are not merely academic or philosophical. Their implications are far reaching; their consequences profound.

According to the first opinion, which was held by some great mystics, the Divine can ultimately never be truly integrated into the material world and surely not in modern life. According to them the Divine is experienced by denying the world. Even when engaging secular life, there always remains a fundamental tension between the “inferior” finite universe and the “superior” infinite Divine. Inevitably, this leads to compartmentalization – the duality so aptly captured in Noah Feldman’s “Modern orthodox” experience, as discussed last week at length.

The second opinion, however, leads to an entirely different approach. The Divine is present everywhere all the time, in every micro-detail of time, space and soul. The mission of our lives is to reveal the Divine in every aspect of our daily activities, refining and spiritualizing the material, converting it into sacred fuel.

Evil must be denied, rejected and destroyed. But the universe itself is not evil. Neither are the people of the world. It is a state of concealed spirit. Even evil is the absence of good, which can take on a damaging life of its own through our choices and actions. When we choose to resist destructive temptation, or to “break” it and make amends once manifest, we reveal the inner good within the material universe – the Divine light that always remained dormant, waiting to be awakened by us.

This approach makes it very clear that total integration of matter and spirit, faith and the universe, is not only possible but necessary.

Ironically, at first glance, the former interpretation of the Tzimtzum would seem to give more credence to modernity. Since the Divine literally “departed” from this world, we are then left to a certain measure “on our own” when dealing with modern challenges. Yes, the “king is peering through the window,” but since the Divine immanence is literally “removed” from our corporeal beings, we are left with no recourse but to negotiate with the “rules” of society. The statement of our sages “when you come to a city follow its customs – “when in Rome do as the Romans do” – takes on the meaning that Noah Feldman described as “a Jew in the home and a man in the street.”

By contrast, the opinion that the Tzimtzum is not literal understands this phrase to mean, that you “follow its customs” not because they have power, but because the Divine edict dictates that you spiritualize these customs and you elevate the city, reveal its inner G-dliness and transform it into a Divine home.

But upon deeper scrutiny, the former opinion, by giving credence to the modern, actually limits our ability to transform it. At best, you have to tailor faith to social standards, and attempt to lift the social norm to a higher, halachik model (“the Halachik man”). At worst you have to conform to these standards. But being within and bound by these rules, you can never master them. While the latter position, which recognizes the Divine as being above it all, paradoxically allows us the power to transform the material and integrate the two.

Four Opinions

More specifically, the two opinions about the Tzimtzum actually break down into four opinions:

1) The Tzimtzum is literal and also in the Divine Essence (the source of the light), not just in the Divine light.

2) Literal Tzimtzum but only in the Divine light.

3) Tzimtzum is not literal, but also in the Divine Luminary.

4) Tzimtzum is not literal, but only in the Divine light.

The four opinions differ in two areas. Whether the Tzimtzum: is 1) Literal or not literal, meaning whether the Divine is actually “removed” or only concealed from existence, 2) In the Divine Essence or only in the light, which means whether the “removal” or concealment is only on a conscious level (light), or also affects the Essence (unconscious).

In context of our present discussion on integration, these opinions can perhaps be interpreted in the following manner:

The first opinion is the most radical form of “disconnect” between the Divine and the secular. Both the Divine light and the Essence (the conscious and unconscious) are "removed" from our existence. Divine unity is achieved primarily through rejection of the mundane. Not only is it impossible to integrate Divine revelation in this universe, but even the Source is “removed” and can only be accessed through denying the material. [Psychologically speaking, this means that both the unconscious and the conscious cannot be accessed].

Opinion two recognizes that an element of the Divine Source manifests in our physical lives, but its does not appear in any revealed way; the conscious light is "removed" from existence. The Essence expresses itself on its’ own terms, not on ours. Due to its inferiority, we cannot fuse the personality of our existence with Divine manifestation. We experience Divine awareness not within our parameters, only outside of them. [In psychological terms, this would be like an unconscious experience, which does not express itself in any conscious fashion].

The third opinion (a modified version of the radicalism of opinion one) feels that the Divine Source remains “detached” from our existence, but not "removed" to the extent of the first opinion (which holds that the Tzimtzum is literal). The Divine Essence is present but concealed. Because the Essence is affected by the Tzimtzum (even if only being concealed), ultimately, it has some subtle (albeit distant) relationship with the creation, thus unable to fully transform the modern world. [Psychologically this means that the unconscious is concealed from existence].

The final opinion realizes that the Divine Essence is altogether unaffected by the Tzimtzum. It is beyond revelation and concealment, and its own essential way is very present in existence. At any moment, in every situation, a person can access G-d. Beyond that: Even the Divine light, the conscious experience of the Divine (and only its lowest level) is merely concealed (not “removed”), waiting to be revealed.

In other words, the integration between matter and spirit is possible for two reasons: 1) The Essence, unaffected by the creation of the universe and the Tzimtzum, empowers us to fuse the two. 2) This fusion is not just on an essential level, but also permeates our conscious experience, as we spiritualize our lives and reveal the hidden Divinity in the world. [1]

Psychologically, we have here a model of total fusion of all dimensions – the Divine unconscious and conscious joined together with the human unconscious and conscious.

The Tzimtzum concealment is just one component of a magnificent system that allows us the ability to achieve Divine Unity (Hashem Echod) in the universe. Beyond the Tzimtzum, the mystics fluently map out an elegant structure that teaches us how to marry heaven and earth; to integrate every aspect of our beings with higher purpose, ultimately with the Divine itself.

The Kabbalistic themes of reshimu and kav (the residue and thin ray of light following the tzimtzum), “lights” and “containers” (orot and keilim), the sefirot and the “worlds” – all make up the Cosmic Order, which helps us develop and expand our own material “containers” and fuse them with the “lights” of spirituality.

Practical Conclusions

In practical terms all this means that we can unite the two worlds of faith and modernity.

Each of has been charged and empowered to spiritualize our specific talents, professions and opportunities. We do this by utilizing them not just for personal gain but to help others and improve the world around us.

A spiritual experience does not need to be very dramatic. It can be generated through a simple act of kindness. A small effort today that goes a bit beyond yesterday’s effort.

That’s all it takes. Remember always that the duality of our universe is only in our perception. Underneath it all, concealed, lays enormous reservoirs of energy and light. Within it all lies the Essence, untouched, unaffected, by all the commotion.

The Essence – and all the revelations throughout history – is together with us, every moment, in every corner, in every experience of our lives!

All it takes is for us to open our eyes and see through the shrouds.

And act.


[1] On a personal level perhaps these two dimensions are expressed in the two aspects of human potential, discussed in Tanya: 1) The conscious power of self control; the natural ability of the reflective mind to control impulsive desires. 2) The unsconscious, "hidden love," which lies at the heart and is the innate nature of every soul. Tanya is concerned with the dilemma how the human being can overcome his narcissistic drives and access the Divine. The Tanya explains that with the power of self control and with the unconscious "hidden love" the soul is able -- both on a conscious and unconscious level -- to connect with the Divine.

Since the Tzimtzum is not literal (not even in the light) it does not in any way 1) affect the unconscious, allowing us to always access the unconscious "hidden love," nor does it 2) fundamentally alter the conscious (only in a form of concealment), allowing us the power of self control. Both human consciousness and unconsciousness, thus, remain essentially connected and can always fuse with the Divine.


Reader's Comments:

SW, 08/16/2007
May be worthwhile to consistently refer to Atzmus as Divine Essence and not call it one and then the the other - Divine Luminary, which makes it sound like two things:
1) The Tzimtzum is literal and also in the Divine Essence (the source of the light), not just the Divine light.
2) Literal Tzimtzum but only in the Divine light.
3) Tzimtzum is not literal, but also in the Divine Luminary.
4) Tzimtzum is not literal, but only in the Divine light.
U'bifrat shekasha lehakorim lehavin hachiluk (bli hesber, bein or umaor, b'eis shekal brias ha'maor hu leha'ir vchuli), vchein harei "atzmus" u"maor" heim "dargos" shonos.
Bichlalus yesh leha'ir, shekimdumani halashon bdach hu tamid tzimzum b'maor o b'or, ki bkesher latzmusu mamash, harei ein kol yachas -gam shel shlila- lchutz mimenu (sheharei ein chutz mimenu, vchuli).
Gam lo heivanti: "[Psychologically speaking, this means that both the unconscious and the conscious cannot be accessed]. If he has access to none of them, iz bichlal nisht do mit vemen un vegen vemen tzu reden.
Of course, brilliant article!

I'm glad you chapt the diyuk. The Rebbe in his original letter does exactly that: in the first shita he uses the expression "atzmuso," elsewhere in the letter he uses the expression "maor." Why -- needs some serious iyun. I didn't want to go away from the original loshon, and thought that most people lo nochis l'dayak b'zeh. But not the yodei dovor... -- so I commend you for that.

Now we have to figure out why the Rebbe uses atzmuso in shitas ha'gra. Maybe its in ordwer to be consistent with the Alter Rebbe's loshon (in sh'hay'vha ch. 7) that according to the shiteh of tzitzum k'epshuto "silek atzmo u'mhuso chas v'sahlom m'olam hazeh." The Alter Rebbe doesnt' use the expression "maor." But the inyan still needs iyun.

Regarding what you write >>Gam lo heivanti: "[Psychologically speaking, this means that both the unconscious and the conscious cannot be accessed]. If he has access to none of them, iz bichlal nisht do mit vemen un vegen vemen tzu reden<< -- ein hochi nami: According to radical tzitzum kepshuto we are inferior human beings whose only relatiinship to G-d is like a servant to a master, a workman to a boss -- with no commonality. The consequences in the extreme is nothing less than... intermarriage and afilu shmad r"l.

Thanks for reply.
If you haven't already done so, you will very much enjoy Nochom Greenwald's series of articles on this very subject in "Heichal Habaal Shem Tov" vols. 1-2-3.
Agav, I think it's even less than "a servant to a master, a workman to a boss", because there by fulfilling the command the "ish pashut" gets a degree of cheshivus b'einei hamaskil ha'atzum (keyadua hamashal madmur muharyat"z in Hatamim), while in this instance there seems to be absolutely no connection at all. But if so, what is meaning of Torah and Mitzvos?

Torah and mitzvot according to the opinion of radical tzimtzum'nik's (and even less radical ones) is, in the words of Yeshayahu Leibovitz, a system to keep mankind in line, "le'tzaref bohen es ha'briyos." There can be no relationship (achdus) between Boire and nivre, only in the form of nivre serving Boire. V'ohavto es Hashem Elokecho, according to this view, is not love in the sense of closeness and intimacy ("how can you love something invisible" Leibovitz increduously wonders), but through doing things commanded to us by G-d. The reasons for the laws cannot be discerned and are irrelevant to us. Leibovitz holds that Kabbalah and other religious movements stressing emotional attachment in the performance of Mitzvot are misleading and akin to idolatry.

Of course, there are less radical views about the topic, but they also lean toward apologetics, compromises and other elements that attempt to navigate, or better put: juggle, between this world and G-dliness, as I elaborate on in the previous articles.

B'kitzur, ohn (without) Chassidus is men tif in tzoros, a step away from kefirah, and not far from intermarriage.

John, 08/13/2007
A real tour de force! But dialogue may not be possible here. Suffice
it to say that God's being present in creation thorughout is quite
compatible with a notion of "tsimtsum" wherein contraction/WITHDRAWAL
is real, not merely a concealment or hiddeness.

Rabbi Craig Wyckoff, 08/13/2007
As always I found your article very enjoyable -when i try to explain the Divine Omnipresence I tell people to imagine a beach of sand ---that beach is Gd and that beach is the universe--if you make sandpeople and sandanimals and sandplants and sandfish then everything that is created contains a part of Gd --our purpose of existance is to let that part of the Divine presence within us come forward. so if in real life all of the universe ws created from the fiber of the all mighty--he exists in every thing that lives.

Julia Farber, 08/13/2007
Yes, yes.
If G-d chose to use the forces of evolution to sculpt man, I am not going to complain about that. That was HOW he blew into man's nostrils the breath of a soul; an obvious miracle, as no animal needs a soul to survive.

I never get into a fight with science.You can't win and it is the wrong discussion. Science only describes the wonders contained in nature, which is G-d's handiwork. Science knows its Master.

The challenge is to know science, but at the same time understand that our reality, ultimately, after we know science, is how things impact US. NOT the objective, scientific facts. They are not ultimately important, though useful and interesting.

That is why Bereishis describes creation in terms of a baby's experience, not as the universe was actually made; G-d is saying, what is IMPORTANT is how it impacts YOU. My relationship is not with matter. It is with YOU. First you were in the formless confusion of the just-born, then you went outside the house where you were born and saw the sun and moon, next the plants and animals, then you used language and named things, then you married.

Describing HOW nature works does not injure religious vision. The acceleration of a falling body is 32 feet per second per second. So? That's just a fact, a measurement, like a shoe size.

When we fight with science, we are unconsciously trying to limit G-d to a vision we can get our minds around, and that is a mistake. We must not try to shrink G-d to a manageable size; we should not say "too much time! too much distance! too big!". We must be humble, and let G-d be big, bigger than we are comfortable with. We must not domesticate G-d.

On Shabbos eve, should G-d read us an objectively accurate scientific text? No. We would never get to dinner, and who cares anyway. We want truth, not facts, on Shabbos eve. So we do science six days, then read the Vayikulu on the Seventh Day. Science is just facts, the Vayikulu is truth. We must remember all week that the owner and maker of all that is being investigated by science, during the week, is G-d. So we lock the laboratory on Shabbat.

Science is useful and interesting, but it bows its head before its Master.


Posted on August 17, 2007
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