Shiur #16: Theological Dispute with Practical Implications

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

In light of all that we have learned about the idea of tzimtzum, I wish to open today with a quote that is a bit surprising. For the time being I will not reveal the source:


… Even now after [God] created the worlds by His will, He fills all the worlds and all the places and all creatures equally and with simple unity, and there is nothing else but Him, absolutely literally… This is like what the early authorities instituted that we should say prior to prayer: It was You before the world was created, and it is You after the world was created. That is to say, even though the worlds were created by His simple will, nevertheless there is no change or innovation, God forbid, and no division because of them in the simple essence of His unity. He is now as He was before the creation, filling infinity, even where the worlds now stand.


On the face of it, these words exemplify the position of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who admonished us not to allow ourselves to be deceived by the vast universe that stands before our eyes; and that in fact the only true existence is the existence of God, which is found everywhere to this very day, "after the world was created," just as it was found "before the world was created." Who, then, do you suppose authored these words? At first glance, it is reasonable to assume that they were written by one of the Hassidic masters, perhaps a disciple of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, or perhaps even Rabbi Shneur Zalman himself.


However, as you probably have begun to suspect, these words were not written by someone in the Hassidic camp. Rather, the author is the Gra's most illustrious disciple, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin. The aforementioned quote is taken from his book, Nefesh ha-Chayim (III, chap. 4).


These words were recently cited in a Chabad periodical, in the framework of an attempt to prove how deeply Rabbi Chayim was influenced by the author of the Tanya, and how close he came to his positions, virtually accepting them. By implication, what we have here is an argument in favor of Hassidism's victory over its opponents, in light of the fact that the Gra's outstanding disciple veered from the outlook of his revered teacher, and accepted the Hassidic assumptions.[1]


Such arguments from the Hassidic camp are to be expected, and they are not new. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote about this issue in his letters, and asserted that Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin disagreed with his teacher. His words made their way to the Jerusalem Kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Leib Sussman, disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap. Rabbi Sussman wrote the Rebbe a letter of response, in which he argued that this is not true, and in view of Rabbi Chayim's connections to and drawing upon the teachings of his teacher the Gra, it is simply impossible.[2] This debate between these Kabbalistic masters is based on Kabbalistic knowledge, and this is not the place for getting into those details. However, a non-professional assessment of the matter can also have great value. A precise reading of the texts will reveal how far Rabbi Chayim was from the viewpoint of the Tanya regarding this issue.


Going back to the passage quoted from Nefesh ha-Chayim, note that we opened it with the three dots of an ellipsis.[3] The full sentence is as follows (emphasis added):


And the idea is that it is certainly true, that from His perspective, even now after [God] created the worlds by His will, He fills all the worlds and all the places and all creatures equally and with simple unity…


There is an important qualification here. It is true that God did not change because of the creation, but this is correct "from His perspective." There is, however, also another perspective, the human perspective. So writes Rabbi Chayim at the beginning of the next chapter:


But with all of that, these are God's mighty and awesome deeds, blessed be His name, that nevertheless He contracted His glory, as it were, so that newly created worlds and forces and beings can exist, and there can be different places – pure and holy places, and the opposite, foul and impure places. This is our perspective, that is, our sensory perception can only perceive their existence as they appear. It is based on this perspective that all the obligations concerning our conduct, commanded to us by God, are built, a law that cannot be breached.


There are two dimensions to the world that surrounds us, and they maintain between them a relationship of paradox and mutual contradiction. The first is Divine existence, unlimited, uniform and free of any division or gradation, while the second is the reality that we see, that is controlled by a physical and spiritual hierarchy, diversity and differences down to the minutest of details. According to the Ari, this second dimension was made possible by the tzimtzum of the first dimension.


The question arises, however, which of these two dimensions is supposed to interest us more, as servants of God. We saw how Rabbi Shneur Zalman encouraged the first perspective, and how he understood that this obligation stems from the verse, "And you will know this day." In contrast, Rabbi Chayim, at the end of the last passage cited above, emphasizes that it is on the basis of the second perspective "that all the obligations concerning our conduct, commanded to us by God, are built, a law that cannot be breached."


This is the fundamental point. Rabbi Chayim can agree with Rabbi Shneur Zalman that God fills the entire universe even after the world was created, but he asserts that there is another side of reality, that conceals this great light, and builds a different "light" – the light of Torah, which exists and finds expression in the physical world, our three-dimensional world that is subject to the rule of time. This reality is real and not illusory. This is the side that is "from our perspective," that is, as human beings we are part of this reality, and are obligated to live in accordance with it. In this spirit, Rabbi Chayim continues: "But we are not able, nor were we granted permission, to enter at all into meditations about this awesome matter, to understand and comprehend how the Master, the One, blessed is He, fills all things and places in simple unity and absolute equality, God forbid" (ibid., chapter 6). The words "God forbid" relate to the human attempt to consider and fully understand God's absolute existence. Later in that same chapter, Rabbi Chayim continues:


Therefore we must know and set in our hearts with perfect faith that will not fail, that from our perspective there are certainly different places and different things and this has halakhic ramifications… For this is the foundation of our faith, and the primary root of the Torah and all the commandments.


Rabbi Chayim recognizes that someone who purports to base his spiritual life on constant reflection on the nullification of all other reality in the light of God, is in danger of destroying the Torah and its commandments. The entire Torah is based on the assumption that one place is holier than others, and that one action is more desired at a particular time than others, and the like. If all of the diverse reality that we see is nullified in the light of God, then all of the distinctions between what is permitted and what is forbidden, between sacred and profane, between pure and impure, become empty of meaning.


It should be noted that in the continuation of his words – in the dialectical style that characterizes the book – Rabbi Chayim balances his approach in the opposite direction. He recommends to the elite members of the community to reflect occasionally upon the first dimension, especially at particular times, like while reciting the Shema and engaging in prayer. Nevertheless, he repeatedly emphasizes, that this is not the primary component in the worship of God.


“And Consider It In Your Heart” – According To The Nefesh Ha-Chayim


Rabbi Chayim defines his idea of God's existence as an exclusive and all-encompassing presence, using the same verse that served as the basis for Rabbi Shneur Zalman's discussion in Sha'ar ha-Yichud ve-he-Emuna. Rabbi Chayim's interpretation of that verse is entirely different than that of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. He writes in his Nefesh ha-Chayim as follows:


However, be exceedingly careful with your soul. Remember and do not forget what was explained above, that this was only said to know the matter by way of knowledge of the heart, in general, only with speculation of the heart; but not to investigate and contemplate, God forbid, the essence of the matter. Also be very careful that your heart not be drawn to establish all of your practical conduct in accordance with this awesome matter, for it could easily result from this that that you will act in various matters against the laws and principles of our holy Torah… As the verse states: "Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart… in heaven above… there is no other." "In your heart" specifically, that is, only with speculation of the heart…. (ibid., end of chap. 8)


While Rabbi Shneur Zalman interpreted "and consider it in your heart" as an obligation to engage in deep and constant contemplation about the Divine presence, Rabbi Chayim interprets the concept of "consideration" as referring to general understanding, without any details, whose seat is exclusively in the heart, and not in clear reason. Man's mind cannot comprehend God's presence in a true manner, and the attempt to ignore this limitation is futile and dangerous.


It is evident from here that it is in fact correct to say that the author of the Tanya influenced the Nefesh ha-Chayim. Rabbi Chayim's arguments do indeed relate to Rabbi Shneur Zalman's assertions, only that the comparison between them reveals crucial differences, and the places where, according to Rabbi Chayim, the Hassidim veered from the straight path. He does not ignore the conceptual breakthrough made by the Hassidim, but rather he meets them on their own court, and expresses there his resolute position: There is a built-in contradiction between the spiritual contemplation taught by the Hassidim, and a life of Torah and mitzvot.


Two Concerns


To summarize what was stated thus far, the Gra and his disciples had two concerns about the Hassidic teachings regarding God's immanence. The first revolved around a fundamental-theological question. Even if the Mitnagdim did not reject the argument that God's existence is present everywhere, as is implied by the Nefesh ha-Chayim, according to them, this is only one side of the paradoxical reality in which we live. In their opinion, a person can only comprehend this matter in general terms, and he must not focus upon or delve into it, as preached by Rabbi Shneur Zalman. Only members of the elite who are actively involved in constant Torah study are permitted to include this thought in their service of God. Hassidism sinned when it imposed this consciousness as a sweeping obligation, even for people who are far from being fit for it. This was a vulgarization of a deep spiritual principle, which belongs to the paradoxical thinking – "going back and forth" – of the world of Kabbala. It is not appropriate for the thinking of the masses, and the purity of the idea is impaired due to the increased preoccupation with it.


The second concern was practical. Conscious "nullification" of physical reality leads directly to a devaluation of the Torah and the mitzvot that are based on it. In light of this, we can understand the depth of the Gra's classification of Hassidic teachings: "They have invented a new judgment and a new teaching."[4] The Gra understood that the threat regarding the place of Torah and mitzvot was very real. The new theological approach that was becoming more and more widely disseminated could not but bring with it new modes of Divine service, to the point of giving birth to a "new Torah." From now on, the responsibility for safeguarding the ancient and original tradition would not be the top priority of the community leaders. The place of this responsibility would be seized by pretentions and aspirations to achieve closeness to God that is independent of the paths paved in the Torah, and dependent solely on the very connection to His presence. Successful connection will be confirmed by an entirely subjective experience, which will not be made to meet the criteria of the Halakha or fulfillment of the conventional mitzvot. Hence its authenticity will be cast, to say the least, in doubt. And what will happen to tradition after priority is passed over to new paths that are liable to breach its fences? What will remain of it for future generations?


Here is the place to take into account what we have learned in previous shiurim. As we have seen, the Mitnagdim were stirred up by what they perceived as a danger to the observance of Torah and mitzvot that was posed by the experiential aspect of Divine service, which was a central principle for the Hassidim. When the experience becomes the principle criterion, distortions are created, e.g. (in the eyes of the Mitnagdim), the exaggerated importance attached to prayer, and attribution of value to mitzvot performed not in accordance with the strict demands of Halakha (prayer not at its proper time, or, as in the story of Rabbi Elimelekh and Rabbi Susha, a Shabbat meal in the middle of the week). To this is added the danger to observance of mitzvot posed by the Hassidic existential-theological outlook. In a world without barriers, there is no importance to observance, the sole goal being closeness to God.


Were these fears well founded? Was this a realistic assessment which correctly predicted the long-term implications, or was it excessively fearful conservatism, which ignored existential needs that demanded to be met in the present? Offering an absolute answer to this question is beyond us. What we can do is to recognize the practical implications that appear to have stemmed from the fundamental Hassidic approach. In this way our dilemma will receive living and tangible expression, and we will be better able to understand the crux of the disagreement.


Worship of God Through Engagement With The Physical


In its early generations Hassidism introduced a new mode of practical worship, serving God through engagement with the physical world. The underlying assumption is that God fills all being, and therefore approaching Him need not necessarily be through Torah and mitzvot. Even preoccupation with mundane and bodily needs is regarded as doing the will of God and as a means for achieving communion with Him, no less than the fulfillment of one of the 613 mitzvot. So writes Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who was a close student of the Besht, and one of the great ideologues of Hassidism:


The whole earth is His glory, and there is nothing, large or small, separate from Him, for He is found in all existence. Therefore a perfect man can perform heavenly unifications even with his physical actions, whether his eating or drinking or sexual relations or business relations or worldly words between him and his fellow.

(Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, Parashat Naso)


Elsewhere[5] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef cites the famous (and puzzling) midrash: "'And there was evening' – this refers to the actions of the wicked; "and there was morning" – this refers to the actions of the righteous; and I do not know which of them He desires…." The Baal Shem Tov explained that "the actions of the righteous" are mitzvot, while "the actions of the wicked" are not sins, but rather mundane acts – eating, drinking, and the like. The Midrash considers the possibility that mundane actions performed with pure intentions for the sake of heaven are of greater value than actual mitzvot performed without closeness to God. According to what Rabbi Yaakov Yosef says there, this is indeed the Midrash's conclusion, and in fact mundane actions performed by the righteous with closeness to God are preferable. The author finds a source for this idea in the words of the one of the Rishonim, the Ran, who writes in his Derashot:


For the objective of good deeds is not that the limbs should perform them, but rather the heart's intention in their regard. And [the Sages] saw the idea of intention as follows, that one whose thoughts adhere to God (blessed be He) even when he is occupied with mundane matters such as business affairs and property issues, serves God (blessed be He) with perfect service. But one whose thoughts do not adhere to God , even when he intends to serve God , rebels against him. For in like manner, the prophet said: "[Since this people draw near,] and with their mouth and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear towards Me is as a commandment of men learned by rote" (Yeshaya 29:13)… For what is important is not the act of the commandments – the movement of the lips, but rather the validity of the words depends on the intention of the heart. (Derasha 7)[6]


The Ran's words are far-reaching, but we still do not find in them the idea that is cited in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that intention is so central, that it does not really matter what you do in practice, and that proper intention can raise the level of a mundane act even above that of an actual mitzva.


Rabbi Yaakov Yosef's idea echoes also in the words of Rabbi Ephraim of Sidlikov, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov:


It is well known to all who have reason that everything follows the intention… by purifying one's material attributes in all their details, cleansing and refining them, to make them like refined silver and like gold purified seven times… Then his heart will be a lit candle  following God, His Torah and His wisdom, and his eating and drinking will be refined so that it can be called: "This is the table that is before the Lord" (Yechezkel 41:22)… For there is nothing in the world that is empty of God who gives it life and maintains it. Therefore with whatever a person is occupied, even material things, a person adheres to his root, the Divine dimension in him. (Degel Machaneh Efrayim, Parashat Ki Tisa, s.v., ve-la-chashov machashavot)


Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch writes on a similar note:


"In all your ways acknowledge Him" (Mishlei 3:4). All of a person's actions must be for the sake of heaven, even all the affairs of this world, because everything that there is in the world, "the Lord has made for His own purpose"(Mishlei 16:4), and "everything that He created, He created for His own glory" (Avot 6:11), and everything has in it the glory of the Creator. Now, in the case of a king of flesh and blood, he and his glory are not the same thing, but in the case of the Holy One, blessed is He, He and His glory are all one. He who understands will understand. It turns out that everything has in it the glory of the Creator, and so the whole earth is filled with His glory, as there is no place bereft of him. Everything that a person does with respect to worldly concerns, whether eating or drinking, or business matters, it is all the glory of the Creator , for the Holy One, blessed is He, created the world with the Torah (Zohar, introduction, 5a), and there is Torah in everything… It turns out that all of a person's occupations involve occupation with the Creator and occupation with the Torah, for it was by way of the Torah that everything was created, and the Torah is in everything. This is what King David said: "That which (mah)I love is your Torah! It is my conversation all the day" (Tehilim 119:97). For he should have said: "I love your Torah," without the word mah (that which). What he meant is what was stated above that all yearning and love is toward the spiritual, for everything is the Torah, and therefore he said: "That which I loved" in every thing and matter "is your Torah" which I loved, and not the thing in itself. "It is my conversation all the day" – even when I engage in some conversation, my intention is also to the main thing which is the Torah from which all words are taken (Meor Einayim, Likkutim)


The words of the Rebbe of Chernobyl are based on the midrashic principle according to which the world was created based on the Torah. From this he concludes that the Torah is found in everything. The Torah's mitzvot are just one side of it; the essence of the Torah is far broader.


The Mitnagdim, however, understood these fascinating words as a challenge to the unique standing of the Torah and mitzvot. Presumably, they were particularly shocked by an even more far-reaching Hassidic argument – that worshipping God through engagement with the physical is in fact greater than worshipping God through the mitzvot. We will learn more about this in the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Ma'ayanotekha, Chabad Quarterly, no. 39, Tevet 5774, p. 25.

[2] See the writings of Rav Sussman collected in Mi-Bechirei Tzadikaya, Jerusalem 5767, pp. 105ff.

[3] The editors of Maayanotekha (above, note 1) did not do this. Personally, I do not blame them for this. One is permitted to write with an agenda in mind, and this even beneficial when this is done with the full knowledge of the writer and the reader. It is the nature of one who has an agenda to ignore that which does not fit in with that agenda.

[4] See end of shiur 13.

[5] Ben Porat Yosef, Pietrikov 5643, p. 92.

[6] Derashot ha-Ran, ed. Arye Feldman, Jerusalem 5734, p. 103.