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Shiur #25: Dispute (part V) ֠Dispute and The Empty Space

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction To The Thought Of Rav Nachman Of Breslov
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Lecture 25: Dispute (part V) –

Dispute and The Empty Space

By Rav Itamar Eldar

Following four shiurim in which we have attempted to survey R. Nachman's position regarding dispute, the time has come to return to teaching no. 64. In the fourth section of that teaching, R. Nachman says as follows:

Know that dispute is an aspect of the creation of the world. For the creation of the world was primarily by way of the empty space, as mentioned above. For without that all would have been [His] infinity, and there would have been no room for the creation of the world, as explained above. For that reason, [God] contracted the light to the sides, forming an empty space, and in [that space] He created the world, that is, the days and the middot, by way of speech, as stated above, "By the word of God, the heavens were fashioned, etc."

The same is true regarding the aspect of disputes. For had all the Torah scholars been in agreement, there would have been no room for the creation of the world. It was only by way of the disputes between them, having been set apart one from the other, each one pulling himself to a different side – in that way there was formed between them an aspect of the empty space, the aspect of the contraction of the light to the sides, in which the world was created through speech, as stated above. For all the words that each of them speaks, they are all solely for the sake of the creation of the world, that was fashioned by them in the empty space between them. For the Torah scholars create everything through their words. As it is written (Yeshayahu 51:16): "And say to Zion, You are My people" – do not read ami ("My people"), but rather imi ("with Me") – just as I formed heaven and earth with words, so have you done the same.

One must take care, however, not to speak too much, but just enough for the creation of the world, and no more. For it was because of the great amount of light, which the vessels were unable to bear, that they broke, and from the broken vessels the kelipot came into being. So too if one speaks too much, this causes kelipot to come into being, for it is the aspect of excessive light, on account of which the vessels broke, causing the kelipot to come into being. (Likutei Moharan Kama 64, 4)

There are two aspects of this passage that we shall try to analyze:

First, we shall examine how this passage relates to what we have seen thus far regarding R. Nachman's understanding of dispute.

Second, we shall try to understand the specific context of this teaching which deals with the idea of empty space.


R. Nachman follows the conceptual structure of the Ari z"l with respect to "empty space" and applies it to dispute. We shall briefly review this idea.[1]

The infinite light of God that fills the entirety of being does not allow for the creation of a world with clearly defined boundaries. For this reason, God moved His light to the sides, thus forming an empty space, as it were, void of His divinity. It was in this empty space that God created the finite and defined world, for the moment that there exists a space void of God it is possible to speak of Divine revelation and the emanation of God's light into the world by degree and at different levels. R. Nachman proceeds from here and applies this idea to dispute.

R. Nachman contends that a dispute between Torah scholars is similar to God's removal of the light to the sides, with each party to the dispute pulling himself in a different direction. This movement results in the formation of an empty space between the disputants. This empty space allows for the creation of the world, which is achieved through the words of the disputants themselves. It is important to note and emphasize that, according to R. Nachman, the words of the Sages that create the world are not the words that resolve the dispute, but rather the words of the dispute itself.

A dispute between the Torah scholars is comprised, then, of two stages. The first stage involves the formation of an empty space, which is fashioned through the psychological movement of the dispute, in which each party pulls himself in a different direction. The second stage relates to the words of the dispute, which, by way of the empty space created through the psychological movement of the previous stage, are capable of revealing themselves and creating a world with vessels, definitions, and distinctions.

According to this, the existence of dispute enjoys exceedingly high status in the thought of R. Nachman. It does not come to repair some deficiency in the disputed party, as we saw at the beginning of the discussion of the topic. Nor does it come to repair the disputants themselves or even the world. R. Nachman is also not dealing here with benefiting the tzadik or mitigating dispute and the evil yetzer at their root, as we saw in the previous shiur. According to what R. Nachman says here, dispute is a necessary condition for the continued existence, and even for the creation, of the world.

The essence of this statement grows out of the parallel that R. Nachman draws between dispute and the most primary and fundamental movement of existence, the movement of tzimtzum, "contraction." This comparison says everything. R. Nachman teaches us that tzimtzum, which from the outside appears to be a movement of strict judgment, hiding, clash and distancing, actually prepares the world for the love and bounty that God intends to bestow upon it. When we see two Torah scholars battling each other, each one attempting to negate the view of the other, and creating a feeling of separation and distance – each one pulling in the opposite direction – we experience the harsh feeling of judgment and the absence of light. This is just like the feeling we have when we encounter the world growing out of the empty space, which radiates a feeling and an existence of the absence of God.


We saw in the previous shiurim that, according to the Rambam and Rabbeinu Sa'adya Gaon, dispute results from a certain blindness and the inability to reach the truth. In contradistinction, R. Nachman tries to give dispute a much more objective dimension.

It is related about the king of the Khazars that he summoned to his court a Moslem, a Christian, and a Jewish sage, to learn about the three religions and decide between them.[2] When he was unable to decide, it is told, he asked each of the sages which one of the other two he prefers from a theological perspective. When both the Christian and the Moslem answered that they each prefer the Jew, the Khazar king adopted the Jewish religion.

If we follow the Khazar king's logic and take it one step further, we can say that when we see two Torah scholars contradicting each other, we have only to learn from them that the truth is absent from each of them, and perhaps it is missing altogether.[3]

There is only one truth, and when the world is filled with an infinite number of opinions and alternatives, a question arises regarding the very existence of this truth. Just as the empty space raises doubts in us whether God exists, as we saw in previous sections of the teaching, so dispute leaves us with a question: is there really such a thing as truth? This uncertainty, contends R. Nachman, serves as the foundation for the creation of the world of ideas. The multiplicity, variety, and different possibilities regarding each idea, cannot grow directly out of the absolute truth that fills everything and leaves them no room. Only one who frees himself, for a moment, from the blinding power of the absolute and unified truth – even if this liberation leads to an emptiness that challenges the very existence of an absolute truth – can in just another moment, understand the foundational concept of Jewish dispute – "both opinions are the word of the Living God."

In the infinite world that preceded tzimtzum, it is impossible to speak of "both opinions are the word of the Living God," for in the infinite world there is no such thing as "both opinions." The contradictions and opposites within infinity are swallowed up and unified in one universal truth that nullifies and causes every boundary to disappear. He whose life is guided by this truth is unable to distinguish between that which is forbidden and that which is permitted, between the unclean and the clean, or between the holy and the mundane. The ability to look upon the two disputants, and see how the truth hides itself behind each of them and how each opinion reflects a different side of Divine truth, can only grow out of the uncertainty of the empty space. This is true in precisely the same manner that the only way that God can reveal His diversified light in the world passes through the contraction of His infinity and the formation of an empty space.[4]

As we saw in earlier lectures, an important role falls upon the Torah Sages – to bring out the diversified Divine truth, that which is reflected in the statement "both opinions are the word of the Living God." Their ability to present this truth, however, passes through the growth of uncertainty, which involves a slight removal of this absolute truth. For this reason, their words, which build and fashion a diversified world out of all the ideas and truths, are preceded by the psychological movement of each one moving to the side, which leaves behind a harsh feeling of the absence of truth.

The love that Chazal promise us at the conclusion of the war between two Torah Sages – et vahav be-sufa (Bamidbar 21:14; – "they did not move from there until they became lovers [ohavim]" – is not the resolution of the dispute, but rather the ability to contain both sides of the uncertainty. This ability grows out of the uncertainty that nests in the heart when we witness the war that precedes the love. Only one who has experienced the collapse of the ideological structure that he had fashioned for himself can look upon the structures of others with a tolerant eye and locate within them the kernels of truth.


It appears to me that this is also the underlying assumption of the following words of R. Nachman:

And through this they merit universal peace, peace in all the worlds. And then, when they will merit universal peace, all business activity will be eliminated from the world. This is because all business activity in the world stems from a lack of peace. For it is impossible for the will of the seller and the buyer to be the same; this one wants to sell while the other one wants to buy. If their wants were the same, it would be impossible to transact any business.

We see, therefore, that all business activity and trade come only through the concept of strife, when there is no peace between the wills. This is alluded in (Bereishit 13:7), "Friction existed between the shepherds of Avram's flocks and the shepherds of Lot's flocks; and the Cana'anites were living in the land." Cana'an alludes to a trader, as in Rashi's explanation of the verse (Hoshe-a 12:8): "As for Cana'an, the balances of deceit are in his hand." In other words, due to the aspect of friction and strife – corresponding to "Friction existed…" – through this, the "Cana'anites were then living in the land" – there are traders and business activity in the world.

But in the future, when there will be wondrous peace in the world – as in, "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…" then all business activity will be eliminated. As it is written (Zekharya 14:21): "And the Cana'anites will be no more."

And this is also the aspect of "until people stop walking about in the street" [literally, "until there is not a regel (foot) in the marketplace"]. In other words, the mitzva of lighting the Channuka candle until people stop walking about in the marketplace corresponds to peace, which comes about through returning the glory until such time as all business activity is eliminated. Thus, "until people stop walking about in the street" indicates that there will not remain a regel in the marketplace; because of the peace, all business activity will have been eliminated, as mentioned above. (Likutei Moharan Kama 14, 12)

Business activity, trade, and the market place – that which constitutes the foundation of the existence of the material world in which we live – are the result of dispute and the absence of universal peace in the world.

Economic life and the need for business activity are based on the conflict of interests between the buyer and seller, employer and employee, and every set of two people who come into contact with each other. We are dealing with the most elementary aspect of the world, which existed from the very first moment of human existence. Already in the Garden of Eden, we encounter conflict of interests between the woman and the snake, and in a certain measure, also between the man and the woman. As the population grew, so grew controversy and the need for business activity. Were it not for the conflict between the shepherds of Avraham and those of Lot, the land would have remained desolate. Controversy requires renewed deployment and dividing up of territory, and all this leads to additional encounters and further dispute. Business activity is not, however, merely the result of a conflict of interests, but rather it is the moving force that fashions the world and pushes it forward. Disputes are constructive; contradictions require the fashioning of complex systems that will answer the varied and contradictory needs of people, and in that way the world enjoys continual progress.

R. Nachman is aware of the fact that dispute invigorates the world, infusing it with the adrenaline of creativity and growth. He is also aware that the universal peace for which he yearns, is a peace that cannot be applied in the natural framework within which we live. "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid" constitutes that universal peace in which the laws of nature are all mixed up, and with them also the natural law of business activity and dispute.

Until then, contends R. Nachman, we need controversy, it being the basis for the continued existence of the world. If there is no dispute, there is no business activity; and if there is no business activity, there is no movement and flow in the world, and in the absence of movement and flow, death rules.

Dispute, then, is fertile ground for the growth of life, for the dynamics of renewal, and for the new revelation of wants, concepts and ideas. The world continues to be built.


R. Nachman, however, qualifies his words. Again he is aided by the kabbalistic model of the Ari z"l (we return now to teaching #64): "One must take care, however, not to speak too much, but just enough for the creation of the world, and no more." R. Nachman himself seems to have been frightened by the absolute legitimacy that he gave to dispute and to the words of controversy. Words of controversy do in fact build the world and reveal the varied truths of which it is comprised, but nevertheless one is permitted to speak only as much as is needed for the creation of the world. Once again the matter is clarified against the backdrop of the kabbalistic model that R. Nachman uses.

The situation of which R. Nachman speaks is the stage of the breaking of the vessels. This is the phase when the infinite light first revealed itself and began to illuminate the empty space in vessels that were supposed to contain the light and clothe it in concrete garments. The light, however, was bestowed without hindrance and without limit, and the vessels, being too small to contain the light, broke.[5]

The light that broke the vessels was the light of the seven spheres called "the seven ancient kings."[6] Each sphere, that is, each Divine light, each Divine truth, sought for itself full sovereignty, saying, "I will rule." The desire of each and every truth to go beyond its measure and achieve absolute exclusivity led in the end to the breaking of the vessels.

R. Nachman supports the psychological movement that seeks to negate all other opinions, though the motive must be pure, or in kabbalistic language, the light must be connected to the world of atzilut ("emanation"). The disputant must feel that his action is one of Divine influence in the world. He should not seek kingship for himself, or multiply his words in order to fortify and strengthen his personal standing as a man of controversy. Divine truth is the objective, and the building of the world through its revelation is everything. If, therefore, this becomes blurred and the golem rises up against its maker, dispute will turn from a constructive process to a destructive one. Arguments also have their limitations, or in kabbalistic language, the world of vessels cannot contain infinite dispute and contradiction, even if they contain within them Divine truth.[7]

This approach fits well with the understandings that we reached in the previous shiurim.

The dispute in holiness is the dispute that is connected to the knowledge of God, as R. Nachman said in one of the teachings that we have already seen, in that it reflects the complex Divine truth of reality. R. Nachman teaches us here that the uncovering of the diversified Divine truth of "both opinions are the word of the Living God" through dispute, proceeds by way of the psychological movement of moving to the sides. The dispute in holiness, i.e., the dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, gives life and creates the worlds in which we live, those that contain within them the complex truth of "both opinions are the word of the Living God." The uncertainty and the pain that grow out of the dispute give rise to the profound, mature, and moderate perspective, which does not gallop ahead with the intensity of uncompromising absolute truth. That perspective opens its arms wide to receive the Divine profusion streaming towards it in all the diversity of the words of the disputants.

Here is the appropriate place to add what we saw in the previous shiur, that this perspective is also visited by the evil yetzer. The openness and tolerance that grow out of the recognition that both opinions are the word of the Living God, and out of the profound insight that Divine truth is found in everything, is liable to lead to a standstill on the practical level and to an absence of commitment to truth and knowledge on the cognitive level. "Those who hold the absolute truth" are liable to sin by blurring the complexity and variety of reality; on the other hand, "those of infinite tolerance and openness" are liable to sin by losing boundaries and adopting dangerous arbitrariness. All is true and all is correct, the Divine light rests in everything; and therefore, all is permitted, all is fit, and all is holy.

This is the evil yetzer, which R. Nachman describes as grabbing hold of a dispute in holiness and taking its nourishment from it, as we saw in the previous shiur.

The solution that R. Nachman proposes to protect oneself from this danger is decided Halakha. "Both opinions are the word of the Living God" represents the truth that reveals itself when the world was created, in the transition from the infinite existence that contains universal unity to finite existence that is comprised of a plurality of things. The continuation of the rabbinic dictum, however, "but the law is in accordance with Bet Hillel," represents the truth that reveals itself in the continued existence of the world, as we saw in the previous shiur. Forward progression requires choice and decision. Dispute allows the ideas of He who is perfect in knowledge to be revealed in the world, but decision allows finite man to live alongside the infinite. This comes at the cost of ignoring those truths with which the law is not in agreement, the aspect of "a tzadik experiencing misfortune." It is, however, accompanied by the inner awareness that even though "the law is in accordance with Bet Hillel," nevertheless, "both opinions are the word of the Living God," and this will remain so until the arrival of universal peace, when opposites will be unified and contradictions harmonized.


R. Nachman concludes section 4 with the following:

This is the meaning of the Mishna (Avot 1:17): "All my days I have grown up between the Sages and have found nothing better for the physical welfare of man than silence; study is not the most important thing but practice; and too much talk brings sin."

"Between the Sages" is the aspect of the empty space that came into existence and was made between the Sages, by way of the separation and dispute between them, as was mentioned above. This expression, "between the Sages," is precise, that is, there is separation and dispute between them. For if they were all as one, it is not fitting to say "between the Sages." Through dispute, empty space was formed, and in the empty space, the world was created, that is, the days and the middot. This is the meaning of "All my days I grew up," that I made my days and middot grow, which is the aspect of the creation of the world, "between the Sages" – "between the Sages" is precise, in the empty space, as stated above, for all of creation took place there, as stated above. This is the meaning of "I grew up," namely, I caused my days and middot to grow from smallness to greatness. That which he called them "my days," is because they are his days, because he creates the world, etc., as stated above.

"And I have found nothing better for the physical welfare of man than silence," because there, in the empty space, there is nothing better than silence, as stated above, for entry is permitted there only for one who is the aspect of silence, the aspect of Moshe, as stated above. And that which he said: "All my days I have grown up between the Sages and have found nothing, etc," for by grabbing hold of this level, the aspect of silence, as he said that there is nothing better than silence, he therefore caused his days and middot to grow there in the empty space, for entry is permitted there only to one who has the aspect of silence, as stated above.

"Study is not the most important thing but practice; and too much talk brings sin." For all their study and talk that these Sages speak - the most important thing is not study alone, but rather practice, that they should do and create the world by way of their words, as stated above. "Do not read ami ("My people"), but rather imi ("with Me")," as stated above. "Too much talk brings sin," because it is from excessive light that the kelipot came into existence, as stated above. (Likutei Moharan Kama 64, 4)

Through an analysis of a Mishna in Avot, R. Nachman connects these ideas to the previous passage that deals with silence.

We have seen in the shiurim dealing with section 3,[8] that silence is the only way to confront the uncertainties that grow out of the empty space, in that it expresses man's inner ability to stand before a world void of explanation, incomprehensible, and saturated with infinite uncertainty that expresses, as it were, the absence of the Divine – and still believe.

Here, however, we encounter what seems to be an internal contradiction. The ability to confront the empty space, says R. Nachman in the earlier passages, is to pass over it in silence and ignore its existence. Only the absolute tzadik can enter into it and in his silence redeem from it those souls that fell into it. In this passage, on the other hand, R. Nachman sees the empty space as a necessary means through which Torah scholars are obligated to pass in order to create the world with speech, rather than with silence.

It seems to me that these things can only be reconciled if we make a certain distinction. This distinction is correct with respect to all of R. Nachman's writings, and appropriate here as well.

We have already seen previously[9] the various ramifications arising from the difference between an immanent conception of Divine existence, which sees all of reality, including man, as a revelation of the Divine, and a transcendental conception which clearly distinguishes between man and the world on the one hand and God on the other. We noted that R. Nachman identifies various movements that take place in the world and in man as part of the Divine movement in the world. Thus R. Nachman identifies the act of tzimtzum with all types of movements and processes that take place in man and in the world. This means, as we have seen, that the Divine light that reveals itself through that movement or through that man develops in the same manner that the Divine light has always revealed itself since the first stages of existence: infinite – tzimtzum – empty space – measured and defined revelation.

We must, however, add certain reservations. The assertion that the Divine light reveals itself through the world and also through man, according to R. Nachman, does not negate man's standing before God and before His revealing light. Man is at times an expression of the light that reveals itself and at times he stands before the light that reveals itself to him.

In teaching no. 64, as we have seen thus far, man stands before the infinite light, in its various revelations and absences, as receiver and contemplator. The objections, uncertainties, questions and answers are Divine light that comes to man ("from within him" or "into him"), and it is with that light that he must struggle – sometimes by way of search, sometimes by way of exposure, and sometimes by way of silence. In sections 1-3, man, including the tzaddik, seeks the Divine revelation. He ponders and seeks answers, he wishes to hear the voice of God, and sometimes God is silent. When God is silent, man must be silent as well.

This is not the case in section 4. Here the disputing Torah scholars are not acted upon, but rather they act. They do not seek the Divine light that reveals itself in the world, but rather they bring it. They are God's agents for revelation, and paraphrasing the dictum, "the Torah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one," we may say that Torah scholars and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one!

When R. Nachman describes the empty space in sec. 4, he is not trying to teach man how to deal with this type of Divine revelation. He is not offering advice and guidance to man who has fallen into the depths of uncertainty, as he did in the three previous sections. Here R. Nachman wishes to show how dispute is yet another expression of that revelation of God's light that follows the course of infinity, contraction, and revelation through the middot.

The speech of the Torah scholars in their disputes is not the way to deal with the empty space, as is the silence of the just tzadik mentioned in the previous section, for that is not the subject of the discussion here. The words of the Torah scholars constitute the objective that the empty space comes to allow. Just as God, on His way to revelation, does not remain silent, so too Torah scholars, on their way to bringing the Divine light into the world, do not remain in their silence.

"Do not read ami ("My people"), but rather imi ("with Me") – just as I formed heaven and earth with words, so have you done the same." Here the Torah scholars do not stand up against the created world, contending with the layers that talk and those that remain silent. They are the ones who create it together with God. Their silence is not the way to deal with the empty space, but rather it creates the empty space. Thus, their words do not reveal God's truth in the world, but rather they create that truth and establish it in the world. Therefore, Torah scholars ultimately speak in order to advance the Divine light from the stage of tzimtzum to the stage of revelation. This is different from the previous sections, where we were commanded to remain silent in the face of the reality that reflects the Divine contraction ruling over us.

The empty space, then, is not merely a decree of fate, with the existence of which one must come to terms. It is a necessary condition for the creation of the world. As such there are times that a person, when he merits to become one with the light of God and be its carrier in the world, is obligated to pass through the empty space together with the light, and from within it and with its help create a world together with God. Such are Torah scholars who contradict each other: Contradiction that begins with war and casualties, and ends with total love of universal Divine truth that proclaims over and over, "Both opinions are the word of the Living God."


[1] One who wishes to refresh his memory regarding the idea of "empty space" should review shiurim 5-6.

[2] It was on the basis of this historical event that took place over a thousand years ago, that R. Yehuda ha-Levi composed his work, the Kuzari.

[3] Many atheists who claim that all religion is the product of human imagination base their argument on the plurality of religions and sects, which they see as attesting to the fact that we are dealing here with subjective truth, growing out of human needs.

[4] Again, as in previous cases, R. Nachman does not deal only with the disputes between Torah scholars that relate to study, but also with disputes that come upon a person through the world. Thus he says in another passage: "I heard in his name that he said that through dispute that people oppose a certain person, they do him a favor, for in that way he can grow and develop. Just as when a seed is sown in the ground, if the ground were solid, it would be impossible for a tree to grow and develop from the seed, and so the ground perforce separates a bit so that there be room for the tree to grow – in similar manner, by way of dispute, a person is given room in which to grow and develop (Chayei Moharan, The Service of God 60, 503).

[5] Again, anyone who wishes to refresh his memory and delve deeper into this idea should review shiurim 8-10.

[6] Based on the Edomite kings in Bereishit (chap. 37), regarding seven of which the verse states "And he reigned… and he died."

[7] See teaching 75 in Likutei Moharan Kamai, which we cited in the previous shiur. There too R. Nachman draws a connection between dispute and the breaking of the vessels.

[8] Primarily in shiur 18.

[9] Shiurim 6-7.

(Translated by David Strauss)