Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bo (Hasidism)

The Torah of the Void

Hasidic derashot on Parshat Bo often address the complex and dialectical relationship to evil. The title verse, ordinarily read in a confrontational mode—that Moses goes to Pharaoh to present him with his demands—is read by many Hasidic homilists as a call to confront the “inner Pharaoh”—i.e., the source of negative beliefs, doubt, lack of completeness in the individual and in the cosmos. Thus, Degel Mahaneh Efraim notes that the tefillin—the holy objects worn on the arm and head every morning—are required to contain the name of Pharaoh (in Exod 13:15), symbolically suggesting that one needs to confront, incorporate, integrate, even the most negative forces within life into the holy context of service of God. (Compare Ramban on Lev 16:8, where he interprets the sending the goat sent into the desert, “to Azazel,” as part of the Temple atonement ritual for Yom Kippur, in a similar way).

One of the most interesting and classical Hasidic homilies on this theme is R. Nahman of Bratslav’s “Torah of the Void,” in which he addresses some central paradoxes of religious belief, provides an interesting new twist on the Lurianic concept of tzimtzum, and addresses the perplexing problem of the origin of “apikursut”—“heresy” or, more simply, disbelief. Likkutei Muharan §64:

“And the Lord said to Moses: Go unto Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, that I might place these signs of Mine in his midst, and that you might tell to your children and your children’s children what I did in Egypt and My signs that I placed there, and you shall know that I am the Lord…” [Exod 10:1]

I) For God [Ha-Shem; literally, “the Name”], may He be blessed, created the world because of His love [rahmanut; often translated “compassion”], for He wished to reveal His love, and if He had not created the world, upon whom might He show His love? Therefore He created the entire Creation, from the beginning of [the World of] Emanation to the end of the central point in the physical world, so as to display His love. And when He wished to create the universe, there was no place in which to create it because everything was the Infinite. Therefore He contracted the light, [moving it] aside, and by this act of contraction there was formed the Void [hallal ha-panuy]. And within this Void there came into existence all the days and all the attributes which are the Creation (as stated at the beginning of [R. Hayyim Vital’s] Etz Hayyim); and this Void was necessary for the Creation of the World, for without the Void there would have been no place for the Creation of the World, as mentioned. But this act of contracting, [creating] the Void cannot be understood or apprehended until the future time [i.e., the Eschaton], for regarding it one needs to say two opposite things: being and nothingness; for the Void comes about by means of [Divine] contraction, that the Godhead was so-to-speak removed from there, and there is no Godliness present there. For were it not so, it would not be void, but all would be the Infinite, and there would be no place whatever for the Creation. But the deepest truth, is that there too, certainly, there is nevertheless His Godliness, for there is nothing that exists without His enlivening force, and hence it is impossible to apprehend the aspect of the Void until the future.

This passage confronts the concept of paradoxality (hence the reference to the messianic future, as the time when human beings will be able to understand metaphysical secrets), and specifically the deepest paradox of all in Hasidic thought, if not in religious thought generally: How can there be a world at all? If God is infinite and omnipresent, if all is God, how can anything else exist? (See our discussion of Habad and its “acosmic” conception of the cosmos, in HY IV: Vayishlah.) His initial answer is the well-known one of Lurianic Kabbalah: the idea of tzimtzum, that God somehow “contracted” Himself, thereby leaving an empty space in which He could then create the world.

Note here the definition of the world in terms of its Kabbalistic components. The phrase, “the days and attributes which are the Creation,” refers to the seven lower Sephirot, seen by most Kabbalistic schools as the basic “building blocks” of Creation; the Seven Days of Creation are thus interpreted, not so much as chronological time, but as symbolic counterparts to these middot or sefirot. Or, to turn the same paradox around: from a purely naturalist look at the world, one does not see God’s presence in any obvious way. I go out in the street and see buildings and sidewalks and trees and people and cats and automobiles and sky, but I don’t “see” God in any obvious sense. In this sense, even now, the created world is a kind of “Void.” A certain leap of consciousness is required—whether based on faith, inherited tradition, philosophical argumentation, etc.—to see the world as filled with divine light.

From here, R. Nahman turns to discuss the paradoxes involved in our knowledge or God, presenting a startlingly original theory of the nature of disbelief, which he links to the metaphysical idea of tzimtzum. Here, a historical remark is called for. Hasidism originated more or less contemporaneously with Haskalah, the movement for Jewish Enlightenment in central Europe (where it was accompanied by political emancipation), which slightly later spread to Eastern Europe. Thus, Solomon Maimon, a noted 18th century Maskil, writes in his Autobiography of visiting the court of the Maggid of Mezhirech (which he describes with rather nasty sarcasm), and later travelling to Germany to meet Emmanuel Kant


In the last year of his life, in the Spring of 1810, R. Nahman moved to the city of Uman, a center of enlightenment in the Ukraine, where he was treated by non-religious doctors for the tuberculosis that led to his early death (aged 38) that same fall. He befriended some of these maskilim, with whom he used to spend time playing chess and perhaps arguing religion. We can imagine him, perhaps, like certain types of contemporary religious Jews, enjoying the intellectual stimulation, the thrust and parry of arguing with apikorsim friends, who are seen at one and the same time as dangerous heretics and as dear friends. In the end, he stipulated that he was to be buried there, as a “tikkun” for the souls of the heterodox Umanians. To this day, Bratslaver Hasidim make pilgrimages to his grave there; even after the detente and fall of the USSR, they adamantly opposed reinterment of his bones in Israel.

II) You should know that there are two kinds of apikorsut (heresy/disbelief/ denial). There is that which derives from external wisdom, concerning which it says, “Know what to answer a disbeliever” [Avot 2.19]. For there is an answer for this heresy, for this kind of apikorsut derives from external wisdom, which comes from the remnants of the Breaking of the Vessels. For due to the excess of divine light the vessels were broken, and from it were created the shells, as is known. [see below] And external wisdoms come from there, from the breaking of the shells, from the excess “waste matter” of holiness: [for just as we have] the nails and hair and sweat and other waste matter of the body, similarly all external wisdom comes from the excess and “waste matter“ of holiness, as is known. And so too does magic derive from excess and waste of holiness.

Therefore, whoever falls into this type of heresy, even though he certainly needs to flee away and rescue himself from it, nevertheless, one who does fall there can find a way of saving himself to leave there, for he can find God there if he asks for Him and seeks Him. For as they come from the breaking of vessels, there are certain sparks of holiness and certain letters that have broken and fallen down [even] there. Therefore he can find there Godliness, and intellect with which to resolve questions from this kind of heresy that comes from external wisdom…. For as there is divine life there… there is an answer to these heresies there….

This rather arcane-sounding explanation of the former type of heresy is basically a brief rehearsal of the Lurianic theory of Breaking of the Vessels. In this view, the origin of all evil and disharmony in the world derives from a certain primordial catastrophe known as Shevirat hakelim, the “Breaking of the Vessels,” which occurred during the very process of creation. God emanated life from himself which was meant to be contained in an orderly way by vessels, which were meant to contain and radiate the Divine flow of plentitude. Somehow, something went wrong, and these vessels “broke,” leaving stray bits of holiness, as well as broken “shells,” scattered throughout the universe. This serves as a source of disharmony, and it is the correction (tikkun) of this situation that is the essential task of man, and especially of the Jew, through performing mitzvot and the like. But speaking more optimistically, this is the source of the fact that even within this broken, divided world, even within those things that seem, remote from Godliness, there is also present holiness, as bits of divine light.

But there is another kind of apikorsut, which consists of those wisdoms that are not wisdom; but because they are profound and people do not understand them, they seem like wisdoms. For example, when a person suggests a false theory to explain a difficult Talmudic passage: because [the one listening] is not enough of a scholar to refute the difficulty elicited by this theory, it seems to him that the other person said a great theory and a wise thing, even though in truth it is not valid at all. Similarly there are several conundrums and questions raised by the philosophers [Hebrew: hokrim; literally, “those who engage in inquiry”], which in truth aren’t wisdom at all, and the questions are null and void ab initio. But because people’s intellects are unable to answer them, they seem to be wisdom and difficulties; and in truth it is impossible to answer these questions, for these questions of disbelief come from the place of the Void, within which there is no Godliness, so to speak. Therefore, it is impossible to find answers—that is, to find therein God—for those questions that come from there, from the Void. For if one were to find therein God, then it would not be a void, and everything would be the Infinite.

A key concept here, which may slip by almost unnoticed: that the answer to any question is related to the presence of God “within it.” The epistemology here is totally different from that of Western philosophy: there is no “objective,” “empirical” reality, to be investigated without a priori assumptions. Is there God, or is the world empty of God? Depending upon which of these premises one adopts (or, in R. Nahman‘s terminology, whether one’s starting point is “located” within the world of Divinity or that of the Void), one is led in utterly different directions, such that any meaningful discourse between the two is impossible.

Therefore, concerning this kind of apikorsut [Scripture] says, “all those who go there do not return” [Prov 2:19], for there is no answer to this form of disbelief, as it comes from the Void, from whence His Godliness has been removed. But Israel, by means of its faith, transcend all the wisdoms, and even that disbelief that comes from the Void, because they believe in God, may He be blessed, without any examination or wisdom, with simple and complete faith, that God fills all the worlds and surrounds all worlds.

We therefore find that He is within all the worlds, and surrounds all worlds. But there must be a separation between the “filling” and the “surrounding,” for if it were not so, all would be one. But [this is done] by means of the Void, from which He had contracted His Godliness, so-to-speak, and within which He created the entire Creation. We find, that the Void encompasses the entire world, while God, who encompasses all the worlds, also encompasses the Void. Hence, we may say that He fills all the worlds, that is, all of Creation, that was created within the Void; and he also encompasses all worlds, that is, He also surrounds the Void; but in the middle the Void, from which so to speak His Godliness has been removed, separates [between the two].

A key problem for any mystical theology is this: if all is God (whether, as said earlier, undifferentiated Divine Life or that created by emanation), and God is by definition good, how can evil exist at all? R. Nahman’s answer, which is a kind of gloss or ammendation to the Lurianic schema, is that there is an in-between place that is devoid, empty of God. By the same coin, he explains the existence of “heresy,” of the intellectual option of disbelief, of the very possibility of conceiving of a world without God.

Here, he introduces a tripartite schema of the spiritual universe: the world of the Godhead—of Keter, Ein Sof, etc.—where all is undifferentiated Holiness; the cosmos as we know it, which was first emptied by God of His self, and then filled with created stuff, which theologically may be described as emanations from the Divinity, embodiments of the Light of the Infinite, as well as broken “shells” and “excess of holiness,” etc.; and in between, that space (we can imagine this as the thinnest imaginable layer, a membrane-like sphere—although all these are but images, and not met literally), separating between the other two, utterly empty of Divine Life: this is the Void.

But by means of faith, that people believe that God fills and surrounds all worlds, then even the Void itself came into being through His wisdom, so-to-speak. Certainly, on the deepest level of truth, His Godliness is present there as well—only it is impossible to apprehend this, and to find God there. Hence they [Israel] pass over all the wisdoms and difficulties and heresies that come from the Void, because they know that it is certainly impossible to find there any answer; for if one were to find an answer, that is, to find there God, then it would not be the Void, and the whole creation would not have been able to come into existence….

An important, and paradoxical, theological position: all this, including the possibility of asking heretical questions, is an inevitable and necessary part of the Divine scheme. For God needs a place empty of Himself, in order for the world itself to exist! Once having said that, one may turn to the reassertion of basic faith as answer to questions. Unlike the mood of many moderns, who see intellectual integrity and the willingness to entertain any and all questions as the highest value, R. Nahman is not embarrassed to reject certain kinds of questions out of hand, because these questions derive from an invalid place, rooted in assumptions that deny a priori the existence of a reality that cannot be empirically perceived—and hence exclude the very option of faith. (Or, to put it the other way around: faith pertains to a different level of being than that of the questions asked from “the Void.”)

On another level, it seems to me that the distinction drawn here between two kinds of apikorsut expresses R. Nahman’s intuitive sense that modern thought, and the challenge it poses, is somehow different from the “Greek philosophy” (hokhmah yevanit) that confronted Judaism in an earlier age. Classical thought, even that of ancient Greece, and certainly medieval thought, were based upon a generally theistic view. Inter-cultural debate focused upon the truth of the Torah and (especially vis-a-vis Christians) its interpretation, or on the debate between pagan polytheism and Jewish monotheism. But with the Enlightenment—the French encyclopaedists, Voltaire, Rousseau and other skeptics—a whole new challenge emerged: atheism, the denial of the existence of any God, and the formulation of a purely humanistic, anthropocentric world-view. This new world was bereft of any clear, unequivocal source of meaning. Rousseau attempted to base morality upon a social contract; Kant, on a priori categories of human thought. But, without any deity or Divine will, to back them up, these systems ultimately proved shaky bases for the edifice of human civilization and decency.

Indeed, developments in the 19th and, with greater force, in the 20th century, seem to confirm the accuracy of such an insight: the disarray of modern philosophy and the collapse of (already post-religious) German idealism; the great iconoclasts such as Darwin, Freud, and Marx; the Existentialist movement, which saw no hope of meaning beyond that possible within the individual’s life-span and the meaning he himself chooses; and, above all, the emergence of relativism. How can one engage one committed to relativism and subjectivism to a serious religious dialogue? There was a strange encounter, between those committed to absolute truth against a kind of easy-going tolerance and pluralism, which happily foregoes its own truth-claims in return for expecting, nay, demanding, that others do the same. Today’s highly sophisticated “post-modernism” takes these earlier trends one step further, pulling the ground from beneath almost any meaningful cultural critique, labeling any artistic or literary standards as a form of “coercion,” “judgmentalism,” or—shomu shamayim!—“cultural imperialism.” Indeed, carried to its logical conclusion, post-modernism leaves no basis for any real moral judgments. A current example: those European intellectuals who refuse to criticize Islamic fundamentalism, blaming the West for the barbaric ideology called terrorism, are a practical, dangerous outshoot of this. Is it altogether far-fetched, then, to say that these teachings come from the Void?

What we have presented above is only the first third of this teaching. (Perhaps one day we’ll translate the rest.) Following his typology of the two kinds of apikorsut, R. Nahman turns to an affirmation of the need for the individual to attach himself to a zaddik, of the need for simple faith, and of the niggun, of song and melody as a musical vehicle that can carry this faith. He concludes by connecting it all to the title verse and “going to Pharaoh.”

This motif of sharp conflict between faith and its negation reappears in many of R. Nahman’s stories. Thus, in “The Portrait,” we find a country ruled by lies and deceit and lacking in any decency; while, sequestered behind a curtain, sits a king, who is called “a man of truth and honesty and modesty.” R. Nahman has been compared to Kafka; but, unlike Kafka, with him one always ends up with a bottom line, despite everything, in face of a world filled with corruption and lies and violence—of affirmation of a pure, innocent, unadulterated faith in God and His Torah.


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