Shiur #14: The Vilna Gaon in the Eyes of the Chassidim: The Letter of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liai

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

The Interpretation of Divine Immanence


The Vilna Gaon saw in Chassidism signs of Sabbateanism. While examining the background of these suspicions, we encountered one of the main areas of contention between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim, namely, the way that God and His presence in this world are to be perceived.


The Gra came out strongly against the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, according to which the Divine presence is found everywhere, in every phenomenon and every object. This radical theory of God's immanence had previously been unknown in Kabbala and in Jewish thought in general. Here is one formulation of this view:


This is an important rule: Everything in the universe contains holy sparks. Nothing is devoid of these sparks, even wood and stones. There are sparks from the "breaking [of the vessels]" even in all of man's deeds, even in a sin he commits.  (Tzava'at ha-Rivash 141)


A renowned parable of the Baal Shem Tov relates to the Zohar's assertion that angels raise up and transmit the prayers of Israel from Heikhal to Heikhal in heaven. This description assumes that there is a vast distance between the worshiper and God, and the role of the angels is to bridge that gap. The Baal Shem Tov asks:


Now this must be understood: Do we not know of God, blessed be His name, that "the whole earth is full of His glory" (Yeshaya 6:3), and that there is no place empty of Him? (Tikkunei Zohar 57) If so, then His blessed glory is found wherever anyone prays. In that case, why is it necessary for our prayers to be received by angels who go and transmit them from Heikhal to Heikhal? (Keter Shem Tov 51)


            The Baal Shem Tov answers that there is no real distance between the worshipper and God; it is merely an illusion, which God created for the purpose of teaching man to strive to overcome the gap. The Besht expresses this idea through a parable about a king who surrounded himself with walls and gates that were only an illusion, and promised great reward to anyone who reaches him despite all the obstacles. Some reached the first gate, others proceeded deeper, but only the king's son with great effort made it all the way to the king. And then "he saw that there was really no barrier separating him from his father, for it was all an illusion." The Besht goes on and explains the moral of the story: God surrounds himself with many barriers which at first glance man cannot breach. But the truth is that:


…"The whole earth is full of His glory", and that every motion and thought, everything, comes from Him… By means of this knowledge, there is no longer any barrier separating between man and God, and with this all the workers of iniquity are scattered.


The Baal Shem Tov's last words imply that the very knowledge that all the barriers are an illusion enables a person to overcome them in practice and impacts upon his experience as a servant of God.


The Gra attacked these ideas in the letter cited in the previous shiur. Now I wish to examine one of the letters of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, which indicates that he was well aware of the centrality of this issue.[1]


Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote the following in the wake of the plight of his followers who lived in Vilna, the center of the Mitnagdim, and suffered from the severity of the struggle against them. In 5557 (1797) they turned to their leader, and urged him to work toward calming the storm of controversy. Rabbi Shneur Zalman replied in a letter, in which he expresses his conviction that such efforts would be futile. He writes that he sees no way to overcome the opposition of the Vilna Gaon, or to bring the Gra himself to change his position. After all, we've tried, he says, I and my friend, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, to meet with the Vilna Gaon and lay out our arguments face to face, but he refused to see us. Close associates of the Gra also tried to persuade him to meet with us, but he left the city in order to escape the pressures.[2]


In the course of his words, Rabbi Shneur Zalman spells out a matter that lies at the heart of the conflict. This is an issue that he would have liked to clarify openly in a direct discussion with the great Torah authorities of the generation, if only he could:


Especially in the matter of the belief, which according to what has been heard in our districts from his disciples that this is the perception of the saintly Gaon concerning the book Likkutei Amarim[3] and the like, which explain the idea that "He fills all the worlds" and that "there is no place empty of him" in the literal sense. In the eyes of his honor it is outright heresy to say that He (may He be blessed) is really found in lowly, earthly things… As for the aforementioned statements, they have a hidden and concealed meaning, and "the whole earth is filled with His glory" means providence, etc.


The Chassidic position is that when the verses or the Sages say that God is present everywhere, this means that He is "really" found in everything, a fact that invalidates all other existence. The Gra, on the other hand, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman heard from his disciples, explains such statements not in their literal sense, but in "a hidden and concealed" manner. It is not God Himself who is found everywhere, but rather "His eyes rove in all places" – His providence and His knowledge embrace all of existence. The implied criticism is that the Gra's position is far from the plain meaning of these statements. Rabbi Shneur Zalman rejects the idea that providence is a sufficiently strong basis for faith, and he prefers the radicalization of the religious belief in the infinite nature of God, by bringing Him into the very midst of the material world, "really."


In contrast to the position of Rabbi Shneur, the more traditional approach is built on a paradox. It implants within the believer the feeling of standing before the Divine Presence, without asking how this is possible in light of the vast distance between Him and us. His infinite Being is wrapped in mystery and exceedingly far from man's earthly experience; it is impossible even to talk about it. Understanding this distance is both a theological and an experiential necessity. In this distance lies also a danger, since it is so vast, to the point that it becomes irrelevant to the religiosity of the individual. Any connection between man and God - not to mention closeness - becomes unthinkable and impossible.


The traditional approach bridges this gap using the concept of providence, on the one hand, and the connection created through prayer and Divine service, on the other. I bring as an example the words of the author of the influential Mussar tract, Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avoda, of Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Horodna. Rabbi Alexander Ziskind lived in Lithuania, in the generation of the Gra and the Besht and his disciples. He was certainly not counted among the Chassidim, but he also appears not to have been involved in the struggle.[4] He and his book were admired in both camps. Here are his words concerning the issue at hand:


…The Holy One, blessed be He and blessed be His name, who is master and ruler of all the worlds, who created worlds without end and number - certainly a man who knows but the tip of the exaltedness and greatness and mighty acts and wonderful wisdom of the Creator, may He be blessed and exalted, and only in connection with the governance of this lowly world… Upon such a person there certainly falls the fear of His exaltedness, and he is immediately overcome by dread and great shame to draw near to Him, … But man has no escape from His fear and His splendid majesty, may He be blessed. And when King David, peace be upon him, attained this fear of God's exaltation, he said: "Where shall I flee from Your presence" (Tehilim 139:7). And a person is greatly ashamed even to talk to Him about his needs, as he is afraid to approach Him... But in the place of His greatness, there you find also His humility… This is learned from the Torah of Moshe… that one should draw close to Him and ask of Him, may He be blessed, all his needs, and He will fulfill his request…. But without this permission, man would dread and be afraid to draw near to Him to speak words before Him…. (Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avoda, I, chap. 3)


Let us take note of the parallels and the contrast between what is stated here and the teachings of the Besht. God's rule and governance, i.e., His providence, encompass all the worlds; this creates a feeling of standing before infinity, which all but invalidates man's existence. It is not that God's actual being in "every tree and stone, really" invalidates all physical existence, but rather the experience of a person who reflects upon the intensity of His works and mighty deeds implants within him the feeling of smallness and unbearable meaninglessness. This feeling causes him to want to flee, even though he knows that he has nowhere to run. Only in the second stage, is the person invited, out of God's mercy, to come back and draw close to Him. This is an expression of His great lovingkindness with man. Rabbi Alexander Ziskind gives expression to the transition between these two stages, in the fascinating interpretation that he gives to the verse: "You shall fear the Lord your God; Him you shall serve" (Devarim 10:20): "What this means is that even though I told you to fear Him, blessed be He, nevertheless, Him you shall serve." All this stands in contrast to Chassidism, which sees in the "invalidating" presence of God factual reality, rather than human experience. The experience that arises in the wake of this reality, according to Chassidism, is not a wish to escape, but rather a conscious desire to cling to infinity.


With respect to this theosophical debate, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was certain about the correctness of the Chassidic position. From where did he draw his confidence? Later in his letter he describes this idea of radical immanence as stemming from the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. It was the Ari who introduced the concept of the sparks of holiness that are scattered across the universe, even in areas of impurity. A person should be aware of the sparks, so that he can "raise" them. According to this, it is clear that the Divine Presence is found in all things. Rabbi Shneur Zalman also asserts that one should have no doubts about this matter, for the Ari learned all of his teachings through a revelation of Elijah the prophet. The Chassidic masters were also taught their teachings through such a revelation. This being the case, the Chassidic position is not open to any doubts.


The Gra’s Opposition According to Rabbi Shneur Zalman


Rabbi Shneur Zalman also had to explain the Gra's opposition to the Chassidic teachings. The Gra's greatness in Torah, combined with his stubborn, and one may even say violent opposition, constitutes a most serious difficulty for the Chassidim, and they must reconcile this reality, first and foremost, for themselves. Rabbi Shneur Zalman must walk here on a tightrope. He must of course passionately preach his doctrine and deflect the attacks of the Mitnagdim, but at the same time he must explain the opposition without defaming the Vilna Gaon. He must show respect to his foremost opponent, but he must not revere him to the point that he bestows credibility to his opinion. The task is exceedingly difficult, and it should come as no surprise to find that even Rabbi Shneur Zalman, with all his wisdom, had difficulty squaring the circle.


First of all, says Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "we judge him favorably," because the Gra's opposition was caused by the fact that reliable witnesses with a presumption of credibility testified before him to the detriment of the Chassidim. And certainly "it never entered his mind that they received the word of God through Elijah, to explain the materialism of the holy Zohar in a way that is hidden and concealed from for him… Since such an elevated level requires great and intense holiness, just the opposite of what was verified for him according to witnesses who were reliable in the eyes of his honor… And for this reason he did not want to receive from us any argument or answer or solution or explanation for the words of Torah that he heard…."


In other words, the explanation offered by the Chassidim about their teachings, and their claim that the latter stem from the words of the Zohar, could not be accepted by the Vilna Gaon, because in fact the Chassidim rely on the Zohar according to their interpretation, and the Gra is not familiar with this interpretation, as it is "hidden and concealed from him." The argument that the Chassidic teachings are rooted in a revelation of Elijah could also not be accepted by the Gra, because only people with "great and intense holiness" have access to such heavenly revelations, and, according to the testimony that was presented to the Gaon, the Chassidim are characterized by "just the opposite."


Thus far the image of the Gra remains untarnished. The situation becomes more delicate when Rabbi Shneur Zalman claims that the teachings of Chassidism are based on the Kabbalistic teachings of the Ari regarding raising the sparks of holiness. Granted that the Gra is not prepared to rely on the Chassidic masters, but how can he dare to reject the revelations of the greatest Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria? Indeed, Rabbi Shneur Zalman argues that the Gra does not believe that all of the Ari's teachings stem from a revelation of Elijah. "We know with absolute certainty that the saintly Gaon does not believe that the Ari's Kabbala as a whole is entirely from the mouth of Elijah; just a tiny bit is from the mouth of Elijah, while the rest is from his vast wisdom, and there is no obligation to believe in it. What is more the writings are exceedingly corrupt."[5] Therefore, continues Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Gra allows himself to decide what is correct in the Ari's teachings and what is not. That is to say, the Vilna Gaon does not consider the Ari an absolute authority, and therefore there is no point to argue that the source of Chassidic teachings is found in the words of the Ari.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman is left with no other choice but to present the spiritual advantage found in the Chassidic movement, in a manner which ultimately diminishes the stature of his opponents. The Chassidim are the "believers," who have a most authoritative tradition and an authentic mystical doctrine that is based on the heritage of the Ari, which he received through a heavenly revelation; the Chassidic masters themselves also received a revelation from Elijah. The Gra himself, as it would seem, is not at that level, and he is also far from the truth because he chose to decide on his own what is true in the Ari's teachings and what is not. Moreover, since the Gra does not believe in the Ari's teachings as a whole, he is also not authorized to interpret or refute the interpretations of others. Rabbi Shneur Zalman goes to the extreme when he attributes to the Gra a "philosophical" theological approach:


O that I would know him, and I would guide him, and I would arrange our judgment before him, in order to remove from us all of his philosophical complaints and arguments that he has accepted… to investigate God with the human mind.


The Chassidim, so it is implied, are far from relating to theological matters through rational human thinking; their entire position is based on holy foundations, the Kabbala, which is a set of knowledge derived from heavenly sources. This stands in contrast to the Gra, who questions the teachings of the Ari and does not accept his authority, but rather formulates his theological understanding in accordance with his independent rational-philosophical judgment. Rabbi Shneur Zalman's hidden message is clear: If such is the leading authority among the Mitnagdim, it can be assumed that the Divine truth is with us, and not with them.


Is It True That “So Said The Ari”?


Presenting the Gra as a rationalist scholar, whose outlook and lifestyle are not anchored in the Kabbala and the mystical tradition, was one of the few measures that the Chassidim could use in their struggle with their opponents.[6] This was a way to diminish the image and credibility of the Gaon, without risking being accused of showing contempt to Torah. Kabbala enjoyed great prestige, but a great Rabbi who is not fluent in its mysteries is nevertheless entitled to respect by virtue of his achievements regarding the "revealed" aspects of the Torah.


This critique of the Gra invites further examination in two directions. First of all, was it justified in itself? Second, were the Chassidic ideologues correct when they presented themselves as carrying on the Kabbalistic tradition taught by the Ari? We will set aside the first question, and focus on the second.


Chassidism never had to stand up to the criticism that it cast upon the Mitnagdim: detachment from the traditional mystical tradition. From its earliest days, the movement was marked by excessive devotion to the Kabbala, at the expense of occupation in the revealed aspects of the Torah. On the contrary, the critics' arrows were directed against the neglect of diligent study of Gemara and Jewish law. However, an objective examination reveals that while the Chassidic renaissance appropriated for itself the Kabbalistic tradition, it produced a world view and mystical practices that were very different from its Kabbalistic sources.[7]


The position of radical immanence, which sees the Divine Being as filling all of reality in equal measure, clashes with the traditional Kabbalistic view of the universe, accepted also by the Ari. According to the Kabbalistic outlook, there are spiritual worlds that are hierarchically arranged and divided into countless levels. This reality serves as the backdrop for the Ari's introduction of ritual practices involving "intentions." The Kabbalist directs his actions or prayers to a particular "place" in the spiritual system, in order to make the necessary repair. These intentions are very detailed, and persistence in this activity requires extensive knowledge and high mental concentration. The Baal Shem Tov ordered that these practices be entirely abandoned. According to him, the connection of the servant of God to the upper worlds does not pass through mental focus on a particular spiritual "address," but rather through experiential cleaving to all-embracing God. The foundation of this devotion is emotional awareness, which seeks ecstatic experience. The hierarchical system of the spiritual worlds that is presented by traditional Kabbala bears resemblance to the barriers mentioned in the Baal Shem Tov's parable, which ultimately are nothing but an illusion, and do not really distance God from man.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman argues that the Ari's doctrine of "raising the sparks" is consistent with his interpretation of "the whole earth is filled with His glory," that God is "really" found in every tree and stone. But the Ari presented his doctrine of "sparks" in the framework of the dualist outlook of the Kabbala, which recognizes that there is in the world a realm of evil and darkness, that stands in contrast to the Divine and is distanced from it. Though this evil was indeed created by God, after it was created it is truly "evil" as it appears, and it is into this evil that the sparks fell which must now be redeemed. In contrast, the Baal Shem Tov with his doctrine of immanence tends to deny the reality of evil. He stresses that evil is "a seat for the good":


"And Pharaoh drew near" (Shemot 14:10) – the Baal Shem Tov explains: When evil causes good,[8] it becomes a seat for the good, and everything is absolutely good. (Keter Shem Tov 106)


According to the Baal Shem Tov, then, evil is essentially an imaginary, rather than an objective reality. It is found in a person's mind and experience, and it is there that it can be repaired, when the person uses it for good. This repair, where the evil itself is the seat of the good, and everything becomes "absolutely good," is the process of "raising the sparks." We see here once again the line of thinking that is typical of the Besht, according to which all the distances from and barriers to holiness are merely illusions.


Despite these fundamental and far-reaching changes in the mystical mindset and world view, the Chassidim viewed themselves as the authentic heirs of the mystical legacy. In a future shiur we will discuss some of the ramifications of this point.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Iggerot Ba'al ha-Tanya u-Venai Doro, sec. 56 (ed. Rabbi David Tzvi Hillman, p. 95).

[2] This behavior is somewhat puzzling, and I hope to return to it in a future shiur.

[3] He seems to be referring to Rabbi Schneur Zalman's own book, the Tanya.

[4] His book shows traces of the writings of the Maggid of Mezeritch, which might testify to the author's respectful attitude toward the Hassidic movement's leaders. See M. Piekarz, "Bi-Yemei Tzemichat ha-Chassidut," Jerusalem 5758, pp. 372ff.

[5] That is to say, the writings of the Ari that have come down to us, which in fact were written by his disciples, are filled with errors, and therefore there is no guarantee that they faithfully represent the Ari's positions.

[6] Hassidism adopted a similar position with respect to general studies. The Hassidim presented the Gra's openness to general studies as a dangerous brush with the Haskalah movement, while they themselves, who cling solely to the spirit of traditional Judaism, are protected from that danger. See I. Etkes, Yachid be-Doro, chap. 2.

[7] See I. Etkes, Ba'al Shem: Ha-BeshtMagi'a Mistika ve-Hanhaga, chap. 4.

[8] As in the situation at hand, Pharaoh's pursuit of Israel caused Israel to cry out to God.