Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Everything Is Godliness"

Excerpt from The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chassidic Teachings And Customs by Rabbi Dovid Sears:

One of the controversial issues which led to the persecution of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples was his assertion that "everything is Godliness, and Godliness is everything." Mystics have their own way of speaking - sometimes to the chagrin of rationalists, who, after all, account for the greater part of the population. To some of his rabbinic contemoraries, the Baal Shem Tov's statements sounded dangerously like pantheism.

Of course, the Baal Shem Tov never identified God with nature - it is a fundamental belief of Judaism that, before or after creation, God is immutable, infinite, and transcendent. What the Baal Shem Tov wished to communicate was the oneness of all things within God and the presence of God's Oneness within all things. (In the language of the Kabbalah, these two perceptions are called yichuda ila'ah and yichuda tata'ah - the Higher Unification and the Lower Unification.) This experience of Divine Oneness gave rise to the surpassing love - for God, the Jewish people, for all creatures great and small - which the Baal Shem Tov uniquely expressed.

So the question immediately arises: How can this love be applied to evil? And if everything is Godliness, how can it not? In fact how can evil exist at all?

The manifestation of all phenomenal reality is a consequence of what the Kabbalah calls tzimtzum (constriction). This term refers to the withdrawal of God's Infinite Light when it arose within the Divine will to the create the universe. As a result of the tzimtzum, an "empty space" was formed. This empty space is the precondition for creation to possess an appearance of independent existence; and, since it is the antithesis of revelation, the empty space is the source of the potential for "evil," i.e. an act which could appear to contradict the Divine will. Basing himself on the teachings of both the Ari z"l and the Baal Shem Tov, the Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov defines the issues in the following way:

"When God wanted to create the world, there was no place to do so, since everything was infinitee. Therefore, He withdrew the [Infinite] Light to the sides, and by means of this act of withdrawal (tzimtzum), an empty space was formed. Within this empty space were brought into being all the various finite entities (midos) which comprise the creation of the universe. This empty space was necessary, for without it, there would have been nowhere for creation to take place. [However,] the tzimtzum which produced the empty space is impossible to understand or grasp. [Its essence will become known] only in the Ultimate Future. For [concerning the empty space] one must say two opposite things: it is both something and nothing. The empty space came about through the tzimtzum: [the Creator] withdrew His Godliness from there (so to speak), and no Godliness remained (so to speak). Otherwise, the space would not have been empty. Everything would have remained infinite, and there would have been no room at all for creation. But the real truth is that Godliness surely exists there too, for nothing can exist without His life force. Therefore, it is absolutely impossible to grasp the aspect of the empty space until the Ultimate Future."

Chasidic doctrine fully agrees that from the standpoint of creation, evil exists and must be repudiated, according to the Torah's dictates. Man possesses free will and is, accordingly, subject to reward and punishment. At the same time, from God's perspective (so to speak), evil has no essential existence - everything is perfect, subsumed within His absolute Oneness. And, according to the degree to which a person can sanctify himself, he can receive a glimmer of this higher reality. The position taken on this issue by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the most prominet leaders of the Misnagdim, is essentially the same.

So, if the ultimate truth is that "everything is Godliness," what is the substance of creation? What is the nature of the empty space which is the precondition of all phenomenal reality?

As Rabbi Nachman states, there is no answer to this paradox - not one that the rational mind can grasp. When man is finally granted this perception, he will transcend his status as a mortal who must chose between good and evil and attain the level of the angels.


At April 21, 2009 at 10:25:00 AM EDT, Blogger Menashe said...

If I remember correctly the original machloikes was whether or not the tzimtzum was kpshuto or not. In other words, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that tzimtzum is only a perceived withdrawal; that Hashem is still in that "empty space," we are just not capable of seeing him. It was the position of the Gra and many before him that the tzimtzum was kpshuto. Hashem (ch'v) literally removed himself. I say ch'v because I have much difficulty reconciling this with what my neshama knows to be the truth. It is something which needs no proof; which we all know is already true. How someone comes to a different conclusion is mind boggling.

In any case I learned over yontif (in the Frierdiker Rebbe maamer Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem) that tzimtzum, being an illusion to begin with, doesn't exist in Hashem's (the real) perspective at all. It's purely for us. This explains why we say that Hashem was one before creation and is one after creation. There was actually no change at all, in essence. The change is only perception. Moshiach's coming is the actualization of this emes from concealment to giluy.

At April 21, 2009 at 2:44:00 PM EDT, Blogger micha berger said...

Chassidus is obviously not pantheism, but I believe it IS panentheism.

Pantheism: "God is everything and everything is God … the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature" (Owen 1971: 74, taken from the Stanford U Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Panentheism: "“Panentheism” is a constructed word composed of the English equivalents of the Greek terms “pan”, meaning all, “en”, meaning in, and “theism”, meaning God. Panentheism understands God and the world to be inter-related with the world being in God and God being in the world. It ... seeks to avoid both isolating God from the world as traditional theism often does and identifying God with the world as pantheism does. Traditional theistic systems emphasize the difference between God and the world while panentheism stresses God's active presence in the world. Pantheism emphasizes God's presence in the world but panentheism maintains the identity and significance of the non-divine." (from the Stanford Encyc of Philosophy)

As for tzimtzum, the L rebbe writes in reply to Rav Dessler (not that he knew who Rav Dessler was) that there are two axis: literal (kepeshuto) or figurative; and tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof (the emanated "Light") or of the Ein Sof.

Tzimtzum kepeshuto applied to the Ein Sof is heretical -- it would imply that G-d Himself changed. But the other three possibilities are still open.

The Gra holds of tzimtzum Or Ein Sof kepeshuto -- a literal constriction, but of the "Light" of emanation, not of G-d Himself.


At April 21, 2009 at 4:22:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Are we or are we not imaginary? Or are both true in some sense?

At April 21, 2009 at 4:44:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Yehonasan said...

Tzimtzum kepeshuto o'lo kepeshuto is a topic that has been written on a lot, but I have had a look at some of the sources and they are really not as clear as one might think.

Can anyone cite a source for the GRA's literalist definition of Tzimtzum other than the one usually cited which is in the end notes to his commentary on Sifra Detziniuta? The Leshem and others do not accept that source, holding that that those notes were not actually written by the GRA. This would be supported by the testimony of the GRA's main student the Nefesh HaChaim (3:7) who wrote that the GRA held that all the things the Ari wrote about in nistar were meant as mashalim.

The Leshem, too, is also cited as a literalist in this matter. I looked at his main discussion of this in his Biurim p 3. Yes, he does say that all the things in the Ari's writings are kepeshuto, but it's not that simple. He also holds that we can have no real knowledge of these things due to the chomriut of our minds,and by inference the concept of kepeshuto itself is impossible to understand. There is no way to grasp, let alone dispute these matters. It follows that the whole debate is mere sophistry.

The Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh also holds that the entire debate about tzimtzum is not supportable. See his commentary on Etz Chaim, vol 1. p 31.

On the other hand it seems to me this debate is not really as much about the theory as the practical outcome regarding our avodah. Is G-d here (tzimtzum lo kepeshuto) or is He far away (kepeshuto)? I think most religious people would say He is here, otherwise they have little hope of feeling any kind of connection/devekut in their avodah.

At April 21, 2009 at 5:50:00 PM EDT, Blogger Menashe said...


In my (unfortunately not so humble) opinion, the "Misnagdishe Tanya," the Nefesh Hachaim, was written specifically as an alternative to the Tanya. But the fact that already in that sefer, the Volozhiner, the GRA's top talmid, already begins drawing closer to the Baal Shem Tov's conception of tzimtzum which is NOT kpshuto, speaks more about the power of chasidus than perhaps anything else. When the opposition begins, in some small way, to acknowledge you are correct, the entire battle has already been won. And now we see that the talmidim of the GRA went even a step further, and have begun to say that the GRA never believed in tzimtzum kpshuto to begin with. Of course we have a longer memory than that and know better than to believe such narishkeit. From this one yesod all the other opposition now has the koach to fall away as well. And we see in history exactly that happened. All the original tainos against the chasidim have long been virtually non-existant or so weak as to be laughable. People that aren't yet chasidim are that way by yichus rather than any real idealogical underpinnings. Are there any real "misnagdim" today who know (to any real degree) what their zeides were even opposed to?

I think it's a good thing; not just for the sake of Chasidus, but also for Yiddishkeit. We know that a few generations later chasidim and misnagdim worked to save yiddshkeit in Russia in the time of the Czar and the communists. If the same gvulim and narishe cherem had remained, I don't know if that could have ever happened.

At April 21, 2009 at 9:41:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Yehonasan said...

Right. Maybe the best definition of "Chassidus" is really "Piety," which is the simple sense of the word after all. Just pious Judaism.

I suppose some Chassidim would disagree with that, preferring to view Chassidism as a quite distinctive and segregated group which much of it is of course in many ways. If so I apologize.

At April 21, 2009 at 10:51:00 PM EDT, Anonymous yaakov said...

chassidus is not pantheism. pantheism worships all as Gd. chassidus perceives the oneness of Gd everywhere. i.e. the Unity of All Creation. we worship the Ribbono Shel Olam,the Bore Olam... the One, Only, Unique, Ein Sof...

re tzimtzum...the point here is perception as well as the concept of concealment or hiddenness. remember the pasuk where it speaks of H' hiddenness. (sorry can't cite it).

yeshaya says: kadosh kadosh kadosh m'lo kol ha-aretz kvodo. the whole earth is filled with the kavod H'. david hamelech says "chesed H' mal'ah ha-aretz" (33). the lovingkindness of H' fills the earth.

and of course, dvarim 4:39 (paraphrase): know this day and take to your heart that in the heavens above and on the earth below there is H' and nothing else. "ein od".... meaning that there is nothing else but H'.

the idea of 'evil' per se is discussed in many places. as an incentive to do good; as essential for 'free will' and choice. ultimately, 'evil' is an illusion of the Truth, which is H'. period.

however, we are commanded to do good and to dispel this negativity.

it says in talmud that H' created the world to bestow His Goodness.

it's correct the quotes that state how our task is to sanctify ourselves and our world thru mitzvot in order to elevate and reveal Gdliness. to create a 'dira b'tachtanim' a dwelling place in the lower worlds for the Shechinah.

it's not that H" doesn't dwell here. our job is to reveal it thru mitzvot.

it's an amazing thing the statement in dev. 6:4 that H' is One. the gematriya for echad/One is 13. so is the gematryia for ahavah (love) and the gematriya for breishis is 130, also "13".

this answers many many questions.

At April 21, 2009 at 11:00:00 PM EDT, Blogger Menashe said...

Gematria of Echad also equals the Gematria of Yavo (yud beis alef) as in moshaich yavo. When will Hashem be truly Echad (in a way of roi kol basar..)? When moshiach yavo.

At April 21, 2009 at 11:00:00 PM EDT, Anonymous yaakov said...

my sources:

re gematriya of 'echad' and 'ahavah' and what it means. yosef ben-shlomo hakohen from bayit vegan, israel.

there's a youtube video, actually, connecting this gematriya to breishis.

also, thetrugmans.com and rabbi matityahu glazerson.

At April 21, 2009 at 11:01:00 PM EDT, Anonymous yaakov said...

yasher koach menashe!

At April 22, 2009 at 1:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous yaakov said...

This is the meaning of the verse, “Hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but revealed things belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 34:22).

“Hidden things” allude to the hidden part of the commandment, and these “belong to the Lord our God.” What we accomplish with relation to God is hidden from us.



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