Tzimtzum: A Kabbalistic Approach to Creation

January 6, 2010
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Rachel Elior

The kabbalistic tradition took shape within the Jewish world in the wake of a profound crisis. Beginning with the destruction wreaked by the Crusades at the end of the 13th century and continuing with the blood libels and expulsions of Jews throughout Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, the crisis culminated with the expulsion from Spain and Portugal during the final decade of the 15th century. The harsh reality that confronted the Jews was one of religious hostility, persecution, destruction, hopelessness, and discontinuity in an ongoing exile whose end was nowhere in sight. The kabbalistic tradition offered an entirely new perception of history embedded in meta-history; it changed the interrelationship of God and man, as well as the relations among past, present, and future. Kabbalah saw the divinity as an ongoing, dynamic process with a meta-historical purpose and direction; its goal was the transition from exile to redemption, and it saw man as playing a decisive role in that transformative process. The Kabbalah proposed a new creation narrative, one that gave new meaning to God’s presence in the world and man’s role there, while formulating a new language that explained the ongoing relation between the infinite and the finite and between God and man. The new creation narrative encompassed the dialectical concepts of overflowing, infinite bounty (shefa) and finite contraction (tzimtzum); the infinite expansion and the limiting withdrawal; and the outcome of this tension: breakage (shevirah) or “breaking of the vessels” (shevirat ha-keilim) and restoration (tikkun). All these concepts (shefa; tzimtzum; shevirah, shevirat ha-keilim) were part of the divine process of creation that preceded the creation of our “broken” world, a world whose fundamental essence is in exile. Only the last concept, that of tikkun — restoration of the broken world — was entrusted to the hands and mind of human beings.

Within the kabbalistic tradition, one can identify two discrete — indeed, contradictory — positions on the question of God’s presence in the world. Both are tied to the concept of
tzimtzum; they are known as “tzimtzum in its literal sense” (tzimtzum ki-feshuto) and “tzimtzum in its non-literal sense” (tzimtzum lo ki-feshuto). Tzimtzum is a kabbalistic term that developed in the Zoharic tradition and was elaborated in the Lurianic Kabbalah of Safed. It addressed God’s presence in the world in the context of the process of creation. The kabbalistic doctrine of tzimtzum argues that when God wanted to create the world, He contracted “Himself into Himself” in order to leave “an unoccupied space” within which the creative process could begin. The idea is expressly attributed to R. Isaac Luria (“the Ari”) in Chapter 1 of R. Hayyim Vital’s book Etz Hayyim (Koretz, 1784):

Know, that before the emanations were emitted and the creatures were created, a supernal light was extended, filling the entire universe. There was no unoccupied place, that is, empty air or space; rather, all was filled by that extended light…. But then, the Infinite contracted Itself into a central point which is truly in the center of the light, and that light was contracted and withdrew to sides around the central point. Then an empty place remained with air and empty space. The Infinite then extended one straight line from the light, and in the empty space It emanated, created, formed, and made all of the worlds in their entireties (Etz Hayyim, Part 1, Chapter 1).

Many kabbalists from the 16th to the 18th centuries understood this argument literally and inferred from it the existence of an unbridgeable expanse between the Creator and His creatures. They reasoned that the infinite God had departed from the world, contracting Himself and retreating into the recesses of the infinite in order to leave an unoccupied space that would allow for the process of creation to begin. Were that not so, and were everything an eternal infinity that extended throughout space and time, how could there be any place for a created finite being, something opposed by its very finite nature to the infinite divine essence? This doctrine holds that the divinity withdrew from the world at the beginning of the creative process and therefore is transcendent to the world and situated beyond it. According to this view, held by those who take the doctrine of tzimtzum literally, the sole divine presence in this world — otherwise bereft of divinity — is to be found in the Torah. Accordingly, study of the Torah and immersion in halakhah are the only ways to achieve bonding with God. R. Elijah ben Solomon of Vilna (the Vilna Ga’on, 1720–1797) affirmed this doctrine of “tzimtzum in its literal sense.” He dealt extensively with Zoharic and Lurianic Kabbalah and sharply attacked the Hasidim, who, as we shall presently see, maintained that God had contracted himself into the world, in contrast to departing from it.

While the Vilna Ga’on used “tzimtzum in its literal sense” to develop a transcendental view that placed God beyond the world, R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (the Besht) took tzimtzum in a non-literal sense and adopted a diametrically opposed, immanent position in which God in all His aspects was within the world. According to this non-literal understanding of tzimtzum — adopted by the Besht as well as many other kabbalists — God did not contract Himself and withdraw from the world in order to make creation possible; on the contrary, He contracted His infinitude within the finite world, in the same sense in which “the divine presence was contracted [to fit] between the panels of the Ark [of the Covenant]” in a dialectical, back-and-forth process. To put it differently, He contracted Himself into the world when He created it so He could vivify it and maintain its existence as the soul does for the body, thus allowing for ongoing creation. From the ubiquity of the divine presence, on which all existence is dependent at every moment, the Besht inferred that every person can serve the God-Who-is-to-be-found-everywhere and can do so not only in the familiar manner of Torah study and observance of the commandments, but also at every time and in every place, in every manner and way, with every word and thought.

The Vilna Ga’on, in contrast, who adopted the doctrine of “tzimtzum in its literal sense” and a correspondingly transcendent view in which God was absent from the world and present only in the Torah, included the Besht’s doctrine of “tzimtzum in its non-literal sense” among his reasons for banning the Hasidim. The doctrine was one of divine immanence, which considered God’s presence to encompass everything in existence, and it served as a first principle, a starting point, for all of Hasidic worship. This form of divine worship, which rested on the cry that “all is God” and declared prominently that “the entire world is filled with God’s glory and no place is unoccupied by Him,” sought the divine presence at every time and every place, in every letter and every utterance. Those who affirmed that view saw divine sparks, divine spirit, and marks of holiness in the living, the inanimate, and the vegetative; in trees and in stones. They affirmed all ways of worship in which a person thinks about the God-Who-is-present-in-every-place-and-at-every-time and thus uncovers the divine substance of all existence.

Originally, the theory of tzimtzum was a way to explain the inner meaning of exile beyond its existential torments. The very process of withdrawal into the innermost parts of the divinity and the ensuing emanation into the created void, which had culminated in the catastrophic “breaking of the vessels” (shevirat ha-keilim), signified that nothing is in its right place in heaven or on earth, i.e., everything is in exile. The kabbalistic tradition concluded from the theory of contraction and withdrawal that a process of mending and restoration had to take place in heaven and on earth. The human role had changed profoundly, because the passage from exile to redemption is dependent entirely on the passage from “the broken” to “the restored,” or from the unjust world as it is known to us after the “breaking of the vessels,” to the world as it ought to be in its ideal, just order. The theory of tzimtzum thus delineated the gap between, on the one hand, exile/ enslavement/ persecution/ separation/ injustice / coercion/ silence/ “broken world” and, on the other hand, redemption/ freedom/ equality/ unification/ benevolence/ “world of speech”/ justice/ “restituted reality.” At the same time, it instructed the mystical way of thinking, focusing on the divine ideal order and emphasizing deveiqut (thinking of, adhering to, and bonding with the divine presence) and kavannot ve-yihudim (intentions and unifications, that is, a focus on the symbols of the divine ideals of the just world). These mechanisms for hastening the passage from exile to redemption were the contribution of the theory of tzimtzum to Jewish thought and to the history of freedom.

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Rachel Elior is John and Golda Cohen Professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has been a research fellow and visiting professor at University College London, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University, Tokyo University, and Princeton University, among other places. She is the author of numerous works on Jewish mysticism and Hasidism, including: The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism (1992); The Mystical Origins of Hasidism (2006), Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom (2007, and, just released in paperback); Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore (2008). The recipient of many honors, she was awarded the 2006 Gershom Scholem Prize for research in Kabbalah by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Translated by Joel Linsider.

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