The Paradox of Divine Omnipresence and Human Independence

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau






By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #28:

The Paradox of Divine Omnipresence and Human Independence



            Yonatan Grossman introduces his fine discussion of this topic with a contrast between two kabbalistic conceptions.  Kabbalists teach that God constricted Himself (tzimtzum) to enable the world to come into existence.  How should we understand this constriction?  Some understand the term literally; thus, they adopt a viewpoint in which God transcends the world.  Others explain tzimtzum more allegorically; in truth, God’s immanence remains omnipresent.  Chassidim are more likely to stress divine immanence, whereas Mitnagdim highlight God’s transcendence.  Grossman contends that R. Zadok’s exposure to both mitnagdic and chassidic thought helped bring him to a worldview that attempts to navigate between these two positions.[1]


            Indeed, R. Zadok maintains a constant dialectical tension between two perspectives.  From one perspective, God is everywhere and everything.  From this standpoint, humans lack independent existence as well as free choice.  If God orchestrates every act, freedom loses any meaning.  Moreover, mitzvot lose their meaning as divine command assumes the reality of independent subjects.  The other perspective thinks of God as separate from the created order while ruling over it.  While this viewpoint limits divinity, it opens up a place for human freedom, human initiative, and mitzvot.


            This divide finds expression in many aspects of our tradition.  The first two verses of Shema, recited twice daily, convey this duality.  “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” emphasizes absolute divine unity.  In truth, everything is God.  The second verse speaks of “kevod malkhuto,” the glory of God’s kingdom.  Monarchy depends upon subjects with independent existence.[2]  

Our most basic names for God express the identical themes.  God’s essential name is the tetragrammaton but we pronounce it as A-donai.  The word as spelled, comes from the verb “haya” (to be) and teaches God’s overwhelming existence.   The pronounced name instructs us about His kingship as “adon” means master.[3]


            The two types of Torah hearken back to the same split.  All of the Written Law comes from God in a form of great clarity.  No lasting halakhic debates occur in the pages of the Written Law.  The Oral Law, on the other hand, reflects human input.  Only the latter includes endless debates with many positions on a myriad of issues.  This represents a perspective which allows for multiplicity as opposed to simple divine unity.  At the same time, the multiple opinions ultimately stem from God.  As the gemara says, “both these and those are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b).[4] 


            Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai) provides examples of the ongoing tension.  From the perspective of absolute unity, humanity lacks existence independent from God.  Therefore, the gemara (Shabbat 88b) says that the Jewish people’s souls departed with every dibbur (divine utterance).  Encountering the awesome presence of God, they recognize the truth about omnipresent divinity and lose their autonomous existence.   For this reason, God says: “No man can see Me and live” (Shemot 33:20).  A clear viewpoint of this “upper unity” dissolves human existence.  At Sinai, God restored their souls and retuned them to the other way of looking at the world, a viewpoint in which humanity has a place.[5]     


R. Zadok finds many other aspects of our tradition that exhibit the same divide, including the difference between the mikdash (the Temple) and the mishkan (the Tabernacle),[6] the debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel,[7] and the differing religious modes of Yaakov Avinu and Yosef Ha-tzaddik.[8]


            Prayer and Torah study divide along these lines.  Prayer reflects the awareness that everything depends upon God.  In contrast, Torah generates a sense of human independence.  A scholar need not turn to God for guidance every time a question comes up.  Instead, the Torah provides a framework for the sages to work out answers on their own.[9]  At the same time, the authentic scholar understands that this wisdom truly originates with God.  The Torah is somehow both “Torat Hashem” and “Torah dilei, the scholar’s Torah.[10]


            As mentioned in an earlier shiur, realizing God’s role in the human achievement of wisdom becomes part of the essential definition of the Oral Law.  R. Zadok uses this point to distinguish between the Oral Law and Gentile wisdom.  Both reflect human effort and thought, but only the Jewish sages understand that all wisdom comes from God.  In fact, the difficulties in arriving at this realization constitute the essential test (nissayon) of the Oral Law.[11]


Two different gemarot call for integrating these two perspectives either by praying in the location where one studies or by learning in the place of prayer (Berakhot 8a, Megilla 29a).  According to R. Zadok, this means realizing that, even as we put in our effort (“hishtadlut”), we should understand that the effort also comes from God.  Conversely, when we successfully realize that everything comes from God, that recognition itself is the product of hishtadlut.[12] 


            The absolute unity outlook leads to a radical reinterpretation of repentance.  We traditionally think of teshuva as acknowledging wrongdoing, regretting sin, and resolving to do better in the future.  However, R. Zadok suggests a completely different alternative.   The highest form of repentance, repentance out of love, means understanding how every act is orchestrated by God.  That means that even one’s sins were truly the will of God.  Through accepting that reality, we convert sins into merits.  Appreciating God’s hand in all of human history brings about the prophetic promise: “If your sins are like scarlet, they will whiten as snow.”[13]


Such an outlook explains the idea of the scapegoat, the se’ir la-azazel.  Why do we cast a goat off the cliff to its death on the rocks below?  Furthermore, doing so seemingly constitutes a violation of the prohibition not to offer a sacrifice outside of the Temple.  Even worse, someone could view this ritual as a sacrifice to demonic forces.  For R. Zadok, the above questions explain the entire point.  On the Day of Atonement, we engage in an act that has sin written all over it because it reflects God’s commanding will.  This symbolizes the higher form of teshuva, a repentance that realizes that every act comes from God.[14]   


This contrasts with repentance out of fear.  For R. Zadok, fear of God builds upon the perspective that sees God as a king distinct from his subjects.  Such repentance works with the classic understanding that builds upon regret and resolve.  R. Zadok notes an important difference between the two forms of teshuva.  Repentance due to fear relates to each sin separately.  Repentance out of love, on the other hand, addresses the totality of a person’s sins.  Once we fully assimilate the idea that all actions come from God, no easy task, we engage in repentance for a lifetime of sins simultaneously.[15]


R. Zadok views this as a higher form of repentance that overcomes all barriers.  The Zohar states that repentance is ineffective for certain sins.  R. Zadok contends that this statement refers only to lower-level repentance.  The repentance that sees every act as the will of God can convert any sin into merits.[16]   


Obviously, this idea has the dangerous potential for justifying antinomianism.  Any selfish sinner can act immorally, arguing all along that it represents the will of God.  R. Zadok insists that we can only adopt this perspective after the fact.  At the time of each act, we focus on the perspective in which human choice and initiative impacts on the world.  Form that standpoint, we lack any right to violate divine command.  The mekoshesh etzim who desecrated the Sabbath in the desert erred in precisely this fashion.  He functioned with the assumption that all is divine will instead of focusing on human freedom.[17]  R. Zadok also attributes Elisha ben Avuya’s apostasy to thinking that the “upper unity” renders the commandments irrelevant.[18] 


            How can two contradictory perspectives be true?  R. Zadok argues that only God knows how to unify opposites.  He frequently cites from the Ari’s Arba Me’ot Shekel Kessef.  “In the place of [divine] knowledge, there is no freedom; in the place of freedom, there is no [divine] knowledge.”  R. Zadok sometimes states that both ideas reflect a truth and only God knows how the two can achieve reconciliation.[19]  On other occasions, he seems to divide between our world and the World to Come.  This world, the alma de’shikra (the world of falsehood), creates the illusion of entities and effort independent of God.  The future existence reveals the truth that everything is God.  We currently pronounce the tetragrammaton with the word “A-donai,” but in the messianic era, we will ultimately pronounce the word as it is written (Pesachim 50a).[20]


Some passages depict this realization as the essential goal of religious life.  He contends that the root of the entire Torah is the realization that everything is divine providence and that the world includes no happenstance.[21]  For R. Zadok, sin and happenstance go together.  In the context of describing a wayward nation, the Torah speaks about walking with God “be-keri” (Vayikra 26:21).  Onkelos translates “keri” as harshness or a hardening of the heart.  R. Zadok explains that it comes from the word “mikreh,” chance.  True sin emerges when we fail to see God’s dominant role in the world.  In fact, this reflects the workings of midda ke-negged midda.  God brings about every action, including the transgressions; if we deny God’s role, He attributes to us full responsibility in accordance with our approach.[22] 


Amalek, symbolic of the most deeply rooted evil for R. Zadok, stands for happenstance.  Allusions to “mikreh” occur repeatedly in biblical depictions of Amalek.  Regarding Amalek, the Torah says: “asher karekha ba-derekh” (Devarim 25:18).  The phrase “asher karahu” appears twice in Megillat Esther (4:7. 6:13) because the enemy, Haman, descends from Amalek.  Even the word “kes” (Shemot 17:16) points to the same theme.  According to R. Zadok, the word “kiseh” alludes to God’s royal throne and the aleph indicates the singular God.  Since Amalek denies God’s role, the aleph disappears.[23]


In another passage, R. Zadok contends that all of the esoteric wisdom of ma’aseh bereishit and ma’aseh merkava comes to teach us about the “upper unity.”  Clearly, R. Zadok thought this a central Jewish theme.[24]


Conclusion and Critique


During the previous twenty-seven shiurim I have written for this series, I have tried to analyze and understand the ideas of various rabbinic luminaries without spending much time critiquing them.  I will deviate from this norm in the remaining paragraphs.


R. Zadok is willing to live with a paradox, a contradiction that affirms human independence and freedom even as it denies them.  Is this approach truly necessary?  Rival notions of divine providence avoid denying human independence and freedom.  What forces R. Zadok to affirm omnipresence in a way that diminishes freedom and autonomy?  A Judaism that resists affirming contradictory statements seems superior.


A critic might respond that almost all traditional Jews accept an analogous contradiction.  After all, we believe in both divine foreknowledge and human freedom.  However, the analogy between the two dilemmas breaks down.  In one case, we affirm A and B while struggling to figure out how they can coexist.  Answers have been suggested.  For example, some claim that since God transcends the bounds of time, the two ideas no longer contradict each other.  R. Zadok’s contradiction, on the other hand, simultaneously affirms both A and not A.  In such a paradox, we can form no conception of what a resolution might look like. 


I am also concerned with the determinism implicit in R. Zadok’s view.  Complex philosophical Issues cannot be analyzed in a single paragraph, but suffice it to say that determinism calls into question the meaningfulness of life, the value of Torah and mitzvot, the coherence of reward and punishment, and the value of effort.  R. Shagar, z”l, argues that R. Zadok’s viewpoint might actually enable a person to try harder.  Someone who adopts this view can finally accept themselves for who they are and function accordingly.[25]  While R. Shagar’s point has some truth, accepting oneself can easily become an excuse for continuing wrongdoing with no authentic attempt to change.  Again, other conceptions affirm divine governance without denying human freedom.

[1] Yonatan Grossman, “Tefisat Ha-Elohut shel Rabi Zadok Ha-kohen me-Lublin,” Al Derekh Ha-Avot: Shloshim Shana Le-MIkhlelet Yaacov Herzog Le-yad Yeshivat Har Etzion, eds. A. Bazak, M Munitz, S. Wygoda (Alon Shevut, 5761), pp. 457-474.  For further analysis of this topic, see Shalom Rosenberg, “Torat Ha-yichud Be-mishnato shel Ha-chassidut,” Me’at Le-Tzaddik: Kovetz Ma’amarim al Rabi Zadok Ha-kohen me-Lublin U-mishnato, ed. Gershon Kitzis (Jerusalem, 5760), pp. 289-309.

[2] Dover Tzedek, p. 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dover Tzedek, p. 148.

[5] Resisei Layla, no. 56, p. 155.

[6] Dover Tzedek, p. 5.

[7] Dover Tzedek, p. 11.

[8] Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, no. 257.

[9] Dover Tzedek, p. 139, Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, no. 211. On the other hand, Resisei Layla p. 93 argues that prayer depends upon the perspective that affirms human independence.  From the standpoint that all is God, what place could prayer have?

[10] Divrei Soferim, no. 15.

[11] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 83.

[12] Dover Tzedek, p. 139.

[13] Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, no. 40, 242.  The theme runs through Takanat Ha-shavin as well.  See R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar), “Teshuva Ke-kabbala Atzmit,” Me’at le-tzaddik pp. 193-209.  

[14] Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, no. 40.  See Yonatan Grossman, “Mashma’ut Shilu’ach ha-Se’ir la-Azazel Be-mishnat Rabi Zadok Ha-kohen me-Lublin,” Sinai 121 (Tishrei-Tevet, 5758), pp. 86-98. 

[15] Tzidkat Ha-Tzaddik, no. 242.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Pri Tzaddik, Shelach.

[18] Sefer Ha-zikhronot, p. 63.

[19] Pri Tzaddik, Vayeshev; Dover Tzedek, p. 139, Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, no. 40.

[20] Resisei Layla, no. 56, p. 154.

[21] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 101.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See Yonatan GrossmanTefisat Ha-safa Ve-ha’otiyot Be-hagut Rabi Zadok Ha-kohen me-Lublin,” Shana Be-shana 5760, pp. 396-436.  Grossman notes that R. Zadok not only finds meaning in the numerical value of Hebrew letters; he even attributes significance to the physical shape of the letters.  This fits in with our earlier theme of omnisignificance.

[24] Sefer Ha-zikhronot, p. 58.

[25] See the reference in note 13, pp. 197-198.