The Teaching of the Ariz"l Concerning Tzimtzum (Contraction)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
One of the main issues that crops up over and over in the teachings of R. Nachman is that of doubts that plague one's faith, and heresy. Countless teachings, sayings, stories and even prayers are devoted to those times when a person falls into doubt in his faith.
R. Nachman's guiding approach to this issue is found in a teaching that I personally consider the most fundamental to all his works; a teaching that has become the mantra of all those who follow his way; a teaching I personally consider to have been uttered with rare and outstanding inspiration, even for someone such as R. Nachman: teaching no. 64 in Likutei Moharan.
Before addressing this teaching, it is appropriate to generally sketch the various philosophies of the Divine, and particularly their ramifications concerning the man-God relationship, which is the main subject of this teaching.
The classical view of God, dating back mainly to the Middle Ages, speaks of God's transcendence above human material experience. This transcendence creates a powerful dichotomy between material reality, which is limited, contracted and - most importantly - finite, and the God Who cannot be defined or quantified and Who is characterized by His infiniteness.
The basis for this perception is found in neo-Platonic thought (which influenced medieval intellectuals and also left its mark on the early kabbalists). Neo-plutonism which regards the process in which the world came to be as gradual and evolutionary, beginning with the elevated and noble "Primary Cause," from which objects emanate, clothed in an increasingly particularistic, defined and limited, until they become the components of our revealed, material world. (It is interesting to debate whether this process is compatible with the biblical concept of Creation or whether the two theories are necessarily contradictory. Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages did not reject this view out of hand, and even attempted to identify it with the biblical account of Creation). The distance between us and God, according to this view, is the distance between the Primary Cause at the beginning of this evolutionary process and the last object that emanates from it at the end.
This view led many Greek philosophers - with some degree of justification - to conclude that this transcendence precludes any possibility of contact, dialogue or connection between man and God. The abyss was considered too deep and wide to allow for any bridging. The finite cannot touch the Infinite, and no matter to what degree man develops, he cannot reach it. The echo of the Infinite may ring in our ears, since after all, we emanated from it, but the process of development is strictly one-way and the distance between God and us will remain eternally. A person seeking to encounter the Divine must climb from one rung to the next, yet even as he reaches great heights he will be able to come closer, but not encounter its reality. [Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, in the Kuzari (4:3) explains the Jewish concept of 'devekut' ('cleaving' to God) as referring to "a cleaving to His guidance and providence, not a cleaving of dependence and contact." In other words, a person who "cleaves" to God is one who knows His commandments and lives his life accordingly; his 'cleaving' is not literal in the sense of unmediated contact. Aristotelian schools that did not accept the concept of revelation in the literal sense, as Judaism does, turned to the world of consciousness, maintaining that 'cleaving' and 'revelation' refer to the intellectual understanding and rationalistic knowledge that man may attain.]
Medieval Jewish thinkers sought to retain Greek philosophy's perception of a transcendental God without relinquishing the fundamental Jewish tradition concerning the permanent connection between God and man, as expressed in almost every pasuk of the Torah, from the detailed system of laws, and the entire philosophy of reward and punishment, through the very tangible descriptions of revelation. They exerted themselves to bridge the wide abyss between the traditional view and the transcendental perception of the Divine. (Non-religious philosophical schools, not bound by the Torah's concept of revelation turned to consciousness, maintaining that 'cleaving' and 'revelation' refer to the intellectual understanding and rationalistic knowledge that man may attain.)
For the sake of clarification, we will choose an example, the attitude towards the Divine word. Since, in the view of medieval thinkers, the idea of God speaking to man could not possibly be understood literally, they proposed that Divine speech is a tangible creation of God. This creation both communicates and connects with man while simultaneously serves as a barrier between man who hears the Divine voice (at Mt. Sinai, etc.) and God Himself. By means of this interpretation the encounter between man and God is maintained without in any way undermining God's transcendental status.
In contrast to the transcendental approach, which relates to God and the material world as polar opposites, there is a completely different approach which seeks not just to lessen the distance but actually to do away with it altogether - the philosophy of immanence. (The scope of this article does not allow for a full treatment of the fine differences defining the various pantheistic schools; we shall suffice here with a general definition.)
The roots of the Jewish version of this approach are found in the development of kabbala, which later also branched out to form the fundamental concepts of Chassidism and other systems.
The fundamental position of kabbala on the relationship between God and the world is that "there is no place that is devoid of Him" (Zohar). God dwells within all of reality, from the most lofty angels to the lowliest and most mundane level of this vulgar, opaque world. There are places where the Divine light can be perceived only faintly, but it is still the Divine light. (In this context mention should be made of R. Azriel, who, in his commentary on the Ten Sefirot, makes extensive use of the neo-Platonic models with regard to kabbala as well.)
This view, as we shall see, greatly reduces the distance between man and God. God is not to be found beyond the seven heavens (in space) and at the historical starting-point of the entire development of the Creation (in time), but rather firmly and squarely in the here-and-now.
This view has many existential ramifications for religious worship, some of which we shall encounter below, but let us begin with the starting point that brought the kabbalists to this view - which is also the starting point of R. Nachman's teaching no. 64. (When we speak here of the 'kabbalists' we refer to R. Yitzchak Luria, the 'Ariz"l' - mid-16th century onwards - who consolidated the concealed wisdom that had been handed down until his time, including study of the Zohar, and was unanimously accepted in kabbalistic circles. This shiur intentionally evades a discussion of the various stages in the development of kabbala, except for a few instances where such distinctions will aid us in understanding more accurately the various views that we shall discuss.)
The beginning of reality, according to the kabbalists, is in the Infinite One who dwells in everything. The existence of the Infinite One - God - has two critically important ramifications:
First, it negates the existence of anything other than the Infinite One, for the Infinite One does not leave any space or vacuum that undermines His Infinity. In other words, if we say that Infinity is God, then all of existence is God and there is nothing besides Him.
Second, it negates the existence of anything that is separated or defined within the Infinity. The possibility of speaking about definition, boundary, or a separate object does not exist within Infinity. For every tiny point within the Infinity is itself infinite and devoid of boundaries, and therefore it is nullified and included within Infinity. For this reason, on this level it is impossible to address God's attributes, His ways and His various characteristics.
These two limitations - speaking of something that is outside of God and speaking of any definition or boundary within Him - negate the possibility of the Creation of the world.
The two pesukim with which the biblical account of Creation opens, undermine these two limitations. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" - this assumes the concept of boundary and limitation. There are the heavens and there is the earth, and a dividing line passes between them.
"And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters"  - this assumes the existence of something that is outside of God. The 'spirit of God hovers over...' - i.e., there is a discrepancy, a barrier, a space between the waters and the spirit of God that hovers above them.
The Ariz"l devotes an extensive and significant portion of his teaching (as recorded by his two principal disciples - R. Chaim Vital and R. Yosef Ibn Tibol) to an explanation of the jump from the Infinite - with all its implications - to Creation, all based on the concept of 'tzimtzum' (contraction).
In order to allow for the development of something outside of God, and in order that that thing would have definition and dimension, the Infinite had to "make room," as it were; to create an empty space in which the possibility of Creation could exist.
Thus, the very beginning of the process of Creation is the act of 'tzimtzum' (contraction), where the Infinite One "placed Himself aside," and created an empty space. Within this empty space a world was created; a world that is not identical with the Divine but is nourished by it, via a connecting channel that blazed its way between the empty space and the surrounding Infinity, allowing for the influx and creation of a world, but now the light that came through would be limited, contracted and controlled.
What is the nature of that empty space? The key question is whether this empty space is completely devoid of Godliness. This is more than a purely technical question; it has vast significance both for the theological debate and for one's existential view, as we shall see in R. Nachman's teachings.
We began by saying that the most basic, fundamental element in kabbala is the assertion that "there is no place that is devoid of Him." How, then, can we suddenly speak of a reality - even if we call it "empty space" - in which there is no Godliness?
There are some (especially based upon the writings of R. Yosef Ibn Tibol) who maintain that according to the Ariz"l, even within the empty space itself there remained a pale glow of the light called "Reshimu," which is a sort of weak, dull residue of the Great Light. We cannot accept this opinion without coming back to the difficult question of the contradiction between the Infinite One and finite, limited reality. Is the weakening of the light that "making space" discussed by the Ariz"l that was necessary in order to make the creation of the world possible? Is this sufficient in order to facilitate the existence of a reality that is outside of God? It is perhaps this difficulty that brought R. Chaim Vital to tend quite clearly towards the opinion that the empty space was devoid of any Divine light at all. However, as we have mentioned, this approach brings us into conflict with the statement of the Zohar, that "there is no place that is devoid of Him." (Another issue related to this difference of opinion is the status of evil in the teachings of the Ariz"l; however, we shall not elaborate here.)
The first ramification of this question pertains to what we mentioned at the start - the distance between man and God. We began by saying that the classical view of divinity, perceiving the relationship between the world and God as one of a chain of phenomena emanating from God downwards, emphasizes God's transcendental aspect and creates a significant distance between Him and the world.
The immanent approach, on the other hand, narrows the gap, and in fact brings God into every nook and cranny of material reality. God's immanence in reality is the focus of this view.
R. Chaim Vital's understanding weakens this emphasis somewhat. Again, R. Chaim Vital creates a gap between God in His primal Infinitude, and the world. All the worlds that came into being within the empty space - including divine worlds - are nourished by the Supreme Divinity, yet with the empty space still separating and preventing them from unifying with it completely.
The second approach, that of R. Yosef Ibn Tibol, leaves a point of contact between the Infinite and the finite. This point of contact may be difficult to accept and to understand, but it exists. The faint impression of the Infinite that remains in the empty space is what preserves the unbroken continuity between the original reality of the Infinite One and the reality that is revealed to us - the temporal, limited reality.
Is there a definitive conclusion on this issue? Is there any way of reaching a definitive conclusion? What existential ramifications concerning the man-God relationship are associated with each view?
R. Nachman of Breslov presents a fascinating and meaningful path in addressing this issue, and we shall, God willing, turn our attention to it in the next shiur.