Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chabad, The Rebbe, God and pantheism - the Dangers of Ignoring Human Limitations.

I read a very interesting piece rebuffing Rabbi Dr. David Berger on an article he wrote against Chabad and its current Meshichist trend. Thanbo argues that he did not bother to learn Chabad theology before indicting them of Kefira and anthropomorphism / pantheism.
You can read the whole argument here According to Thanbo, "Rather, the world is in some way a part of God. I am part of God, you are part of God, the trees and rocks are parts of God, the PC is part of God, etc. That is the reality of the Universe from God's perspective. It is only from our perspective that we imagine the rock to have physical existence, that I have physical existence, that the PC has physical existenceI." The idea is that somehow the Rebbe is the manifestation of God in this world. Not that God resides in the Rebbe but being that he is so attached to God his deeds are indeed God's will. Again in Thanbo's words "When the tzaddik has become a tzaddik, his will is entirely shaped by Torah, which is the expression of God's Will in the world. Conversely, then, anything which he wills to do is an expression of God's Will. This is the meaning of "Tzaddik gozer" - that the Tzaddik decrees something and God does it. Not that the tzaddik can "force" God to do anything, God-forbid, but that what the Tzaddik wills is a pure reflection of what God Wills". I am not sure I get it exactly but enough to scare me to death - (Nadav and Avihu type of death as we shall see).

My earlier post about the limitation of human knowledge, when it comes to metaphysics, addresses exactly this issue. Mekubalim especially the later ones who flourished in Italy, Tzfas after the Girush from Spain, wrestled with the problem of how one understands that God is everywhere, Melo Kol Ho'oretz Kevodo, and the existence of a physical universe. How can two things occupy the same space? They came up with the idea of Tzimtzum, where God left a space within himself, or as Chabad understands it, reduced the light emanating from Him to allow for the universe to exist. (You can see more details on Thanbo. I am even uncomfortable rpeating those ideas.)

I believe that they should have stopped right there at the question and admit that as humans these concepts cannot be fathomed. An existence that does not exist in time and space is beyond our comprehension and that is all we can say about it. If we don't understand its existence how can we ask how it occupies more than one space? In fact the limitations that we face in understanding Him underline His uniqueness and are a cornerstone of real monotheism.

As Rambam says:

"Praised be He! In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proves to be ignorance, and in the endeavour to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure". (Moreh 1:58)

Regarding the word Makom - place as it refers to God Rambam deals with it in several places. In Moreh 1:70 he addresses this concept head on and denies that it is acceptable.

Referring to the Gemara in Talm. B. Hagigah, p. 12," The high and exalted dwelleth on 'arabot, as it is said, 'Extol Him that rideth upon 'arabot '" (Ps.lxviii.4). Rambam notes:

"Consider well that the expression" dwelling over it," is used by them, and not" dwelling in it." The latter expression would have implied that God occupies a place or is a power in the sphere, as was in fact believed by the Sabeans, who held that God was the soul of the sphere. By saying" dwelling over it," they indicated that God was separate from the sphere, and was not a power in it.

Clearly God is not in the universe but separate from it and the Rabbis were very exact in their language when trying to depict how God has an impact on it, they use a term that connotes Him being outside of it, lest we think of Him as a natural component of the world.

Addressing the word place - Makom - as it relates to God, Rambam in Moreh 1:8 states:

"In the verse," Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place" (mekomo) (Ezek. iii. 12), makom has this figurative meaning,(" position," or degree," as regards the perfection of man in certain things) and the verse may be paraphrased" Blessed be the Lord according to the exalted nature of His existence," and wherever makom is applied to God, it expresses the same idea, namely, the distinguished position of His existence, to which nothing is equal or comparable, as will be shown below.

The word Makom instead of implying space when it is used with God it reflects a status that we confer to Him in our mind when we meditate about Him, His uniqueness. Once we have accepted that whenever there is a connotation of location when talking about God it means a hierarchical position Rambam in Moreh 1:19 deals with Melo Kol Ho'oretz Kevodo -

"In this sense it is said" The whole earth is full (melo) of his glory" (Isa. vi. 4)," All the earth gives evidence of his perfection," i.e. leads to a knowledge of it. Thus also" The glory of the Lord filled (malei) the tabernacle" (Exod. xl. 34): and, in fact, every application of the word to God must be interpreted in this manner; and not that He has a body occupying space."

The word "Melo" translated as full, means that the world when looked upon by us, in its magnificience, every detail of it, conveys a sense of God's perfection.

To me this understanding of theses concepts is so elevating and thought provoking that I don't understand why reduce God to an imaginary presence everywhere through Tzimtzum to accomodate a literal reading. Tzimtzum is not understood by us either so what have we gained? Even if the original thinkers who came up with the idea had something in mind that could be seen as not pantheist, their followers have certainly distorted it and turned it into a Meshichist nonsense. It is the story of Nadav and Avihu who went further than was permitted and, in spite of their greatness, "Bikrovai Ikadesh", they were wrong and misguided.

This reinforces and explains the importance Rambam placed on understanding our limitations.


  1. The overestimation of human understanding has caused much misery throughout history.

  2. The Chabad take on M'lo is Daas Yochid. Most Mekubbolim do not beleive that G-d is present in eerything; this is an early Chassidic innovation which Chabad takes to extreme. Classic Kabbolah posit hishtashlus from madreiga to madreiga but Chabad invented another mechanism of connecting to G-d - Atsmus of Ein Sof being present everywhere thorugh sefiros of gilgulim. In general, there are many points of Chabad theology that are a regression from Kabbalistic approaches of Ramak and the Ari who were very careful about these issues, and their earlier interpeters. The Chabad approach is extreme and leaves me very uncomfortable and can lead to the kind of overreaching of which you speak.

  3. Rav Kook claimed that the Rambam was the tikkun of rationalism, taking Judaism as close as it could get to pure rationalism without straying into kefira.

    He said Chabbad was the tikkun for Spinoza, taking panentheism as a system that comes as close to pantheism as possible without straying into kefira.

    I think this is telling of his whole system of thought. No hashkafic system which remains true to halacha and is accepted by a large part of the Jewish world is devoid of purpose.

    We need to remember that chabbat reintroduced and re-emphasized the idea of an immanent G-d, not one Who is only transcendent.

    I do not believe any part of their system tries to "limit" G-d to a certain space or time. Rather they are cognizant of the idea that reality from the perspective of Hashem and reality from our perspective are infinitely divided. One might then say that we can say nothing about the world from Hashem's perspective, but all mystical systems reject such an approach. We can grasp a refraction of such objective reality (although never in a complete fashion) and thus discussing it is of great value to those who feel the vacuum of the subjective human experience (as long as they liberally throw around the word "kibeyachol") ;)

  4. >and thus discussing it is of great value to those who feel the vacuum of the subjective human experience (as long as they liberally throw around the word "kibeyachol") ;)

    This is the crux of the problem. Using Kevayochol, seeing theology as a panacea for the human condition rather than a pure search for God is close to idolatry. It can be used as a stepping stone as Ramabm introduction to Chelek explains with the parable of the child, but it is not the truth and the goal. Chabad believes it is the core of Judaism.

    R. kook probably agrees with me but being the great man he was, the ultimate ohev Ysroel, he saw everything Jews did from a positive perspective. I wish I coul do so but...

  5. Using Kevayochol, seeing theology as a panacea for the human condition rather than a pure search for God is close to idolatry

    It is much more than that. The mekubalim would say that the human need to "know" G-d is an essential need, much like food and drink are real needs for the body.

    But simultaneously, G-d is essentially not knowable. What then remains is our ability to get glimpses of the light of Hashem through meditative techniques and through meditative speculation. When a mekubal comes to try and comunicate these experiences, he is confronted with the complete inadequacy of human language.

    So Kabbalah makes a cost-benefit analysis. Do the benefits of making these experiences "teachable" outweigh the danger of those teachings getting into irresponsible hands and causing kefira and idolatry. The historical answer was to maintain these teachings within a small elite who will gaurd them from the masses. In other words, the teachings themselves are of great benefit in the quest towards "knowing" G-d and are a nessecary component of our spiritual life.

    R. kook probably agrees with me

    Many elements of Rav Kook's though integrate panentheistic ideas. Have you yet read the Ish Shalom book I recomended to you?

  6. >What then remains is our ability to get glimpses of the light of Hashem through meditative techniques and through meditative speculation.
    I take issue with that. It is impossible that the imaginative faculty, koach hamedameh, will not mislead you. I understand that to Moshe Hashem said 'hineh makom Iti" but i suspect it was not thorough a meditation "technique" but Behokitz velo bachalom.R.Avraham Abulafia introduced the twchnique idea, and probably was the underlying cause of rashba, no small Mekubal himself, putting him in cherem as the navi Me'avila.

    >Have you yet read the Ish Shalom book I recomended to you?

    Are you sure you gave me the info/ i must have missed it. I do make a point each shabbos to learn a segment in Orot as per your suggestion. i am still too raw to have an opinion. Some of it is beautiful.

  7. The book is here:

    The imaginative faculty COULD mislead you but not beHechrech. And you can not learn from the level of nevua of Moshe Rabeinu. He was unique.

    I will not argue that these ideas are dangerous when not controlled or when not made subject to the scrutiny of chochma. However, an idea being dangerous does not make it false. Some of the most beautiful ideas are also very dangerous.

  8. thanks Chardal, just ordered it.Shabbat Shalom.

  9. Well, to listen to some Chabadniks explaining the Gra's opposition, they claim the Gra believed in "tzimtzum kipshuto", that God literally created a vacuole inside His infinitude, in which to create the physical universe. That does seem to be the Arizal's understanding, although Allan Nadler believes that the Gra actually agreed with Chabad on the metaphoric nature of the Tzimtzum, with its corollary that God's presence is everywhere in the physical universe now, just as it was before Tzimtzum and creation.

    The "rebbe as Divine essence and existence" was purely the late Rebbe's speculation, as he says explicitly in the sicha where he puts forth the idea. It is, unfortunately, a "reasonable" extrapolation from the ideas that the Tzaddik is one who has conquered his yetzer to such an extent that his will is always congruent with God's Will, and that God is as present in every place as He was before Creation. Both of those foundational ideas are clearly present in the Tanya, the "Written Torah" of Chabad Chassidus, as they call it.

  10. Thanbo, Thanks for visiting and you make my point. One has to stop at the limits of human knowledge and be humble.

  11. Joe de Hamadan6/05/2006 9:10 PM

    Dear Chardal,

    where does Rav Kook say that Chabad was a tikkun for Spinoza? If you had the exact citation, I'd appreciate it.

    Joe de Hamadan

  12. David Guttman,
    you say "one has to stop at the limits of human knowledge and be humble".
    Let me ask you something, in your humble opinion, do you feel that rejecting the Kabalistic understanding of Tzimtzum and there by rejecting the hundreds if not thousands of Gedoley ha Torah like the Ari Z"l, the Vilna Goan, etc... who held these ideas to be a true expression of Torah, do you think it is "humble" to say that they are all mistaken and close to idolatry while you, David Guttman, student of the Rambam have the real understanding of humility??
    Furthermore, you criticize Chabads understanding of these concepts and claim that they are "extreme", and not accurate reflections of the Kabbalists true intent...
    I would suggest you look at the beginning of the sefer Shefa Tal by Shabatai Ha Levi Horowitz, written in the 17th century with a haskama by the Kli Yakar.
    Also the Shney Luchot ha Brit in his introduction Bet Hashem, siman 1 to 18.
    Also Nefesh ha hyim by R. Hayim of Veloshin, shaar 3, perek,3.
    These are only a few of the sources that come immediately to my mind that seem to me to very much support Chabads understanding of the concept of Tzimtzum.
    You should be aware David Guttman, that when one calls a true representative of the Torah a heretic, that person is transgressing both loshon hara as well as the issur of disgracing a Talmid Chacham which is itself an act of heresy as pointed out in Tractate Sanhedrin.
    And such a person has no place in the world to come.