Monday, May 29, 2006

Tzimtzum Kipeshuto - Heresy?

For some reason, commenting was disabled on RYGB's blog, so I'll post my response here.

RYGB, who hails from Lubavitcher (on his mother's side) and Telsher (on his father's side) backgrounds, notes on his blog (and Avodah) that

1) Tzimtzum K'Peshuto is heretical, or close to it;
2) Chabadniks claim that the Vilna gaon (and Misnagdim in general) held of it, but it doesn't seem credible; and
3) RYGB agrees with R' E.E. Dessler that nobody held of it.

Reading the Vilna Gaon's letter of 11 Tishrei 5557 as brought in Wilensky, "Hasidim uMitnagdim", is inconclusive - it doesn't go into detail about exactly why the Gra disagreed with the Chasidim, although Wilensky postulates that the Gra had preprints of the Tanya to which he referred in his letter.

Allan Nadler, in "The Faith of the Mithnagdim," explains the Gra holding like the Chasidim that the tzimtzum was indeed not kipeshuto, but that one shouldn't teach this idea to the unwashed masses, for fear that they would take it wrong and come to worship the trees and stones.

So what is tzimtzum? See R' Moshe Miller's explanation, and his discussion of the controversy over its interpretation. It seems to be about the only non-Chasidic explanation on the Web And I am not going to explain it more.

The Etz Chaim (R' Chayim Vital's transcription of the Arizal's ideas) says of tzimtzum:

דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי' אויר ריקני וחלל אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א"ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי' ראש ולא בחי' סוף אלא הכל היה אור א' פשוט שוה בהשוואה א' והוא הנק' אור א"ס. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא' בחקירה הראשונה. והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א"ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש (אמר מאיר בערכינו אמר הרב זה וק"ל) וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה <ציור> והנה הצמצום הזה היה בהשואה א' בסביבות הנקודה האמצעית ריקנית ההוא באופן שמקום החלל ההוא היה עגול מכל סביבותיו בהשוואה גמורה ולא היה בתמונת מרובע בעל זויות נצבת לפי שגם א"ס צמצם עצמו בבחי' עגול בהשוואה א' מכל צדדים והסיבה היתה לפי שכיון שאור הא"ס שוה בהשוואה גמורה הוכרח גם כן שיצמצם עצמו בהשוואה א' מכל הצדדים ולא שיצמצם עצמו מצד א' יותר משאר הצדדים.

See here for translation.

So we see the potential ambiguity, in that the paragraph starts out (Etz Chayim Heichal 1 Shaar 1 Anaf 2) saying that the Or filled all of existence. But then the Ari says that the Infinite One contracted HIMSELF. And repeats the nature of that contraction as perfectly circular (spherical?).

It thus seems to me that the Arizal himself may have held of tzimtzum kipeshuto (of Himself) rather than eino kipeshuto (of His Light). It was apparently a bone of contention among his students. Chabad draws more from the kabbalah of Israel Sarug than from Chaim Vital; see the Sources of Chassidus thread on for more on this. Perhaps this insistence on tzimtzum she'eino kipeshuto comes from Sarugian kabbalah, which appears to talk of a double tzimtzum.

Note that R' Aryeh Kaplan in Innerspace translates this passage in accordance with the Chassidic doctrine that the tzimtzum was in the Light, not in the Infinite Illuminator, but that doesn't agree with the simple reading of the passage above. R' Kaplan was a Breslover, and read Kabbalah through that filter.

The Gra's adherence to Tzimtzum Kipeshuto derives from certain passages in his commentary to Safra DiTzeniyusa; R' Moshe Miller agrees that the Gra held of tzimtzum kipeshuto, others maintain that those passages were inserted by a student, not by the Master.

What are we left with, then?

1) we can't say for sure that the Misnagdim held of tzimtzum kipeshuto;
2) it's hard to maintain, given the Etz Chaim text, that tzimtzum kipeshuto is heretical, if the Arizal, who developed the concept, seems to have held of it himself;
3) if R' Chaim Vital held of it, perhaps others did too.
4) this is all very confusing, and I don't really understand it yet.


David Guttmann said...

I also have been following this discussion from the sideline. I have a basic problem with Ari's Tzimtzum in general. Everybody agrees that there is a line beyond which man cannot go in understanding HKBH. I understand the urge to understand how the transition from ayin to yesh occurred/occurs but isn't that beyond the limit of man? Isn't it pure Koach Hamedameh? Isn't that why they say Ari had Giluy Elyahu? Isn't that statement enough to say bthat it was the koach Hamedameh?

I do not understand how these gedolim had the right to even enter these realms of thought. In my mind they did it innocently because their conception of the physical universe was that it had some spiritual mixed in it. That is how they explained magnetism and other such not understood physical manifestation.That caused them to mmove the line further. But don't we know better? Don't we know that Rambam was right and anything in "Heaven" aristotle was just conjecturing? (I mean this as a metaphor).

Vayaster Moshe (ben Maimon) panav is correct and that is why utemunas Hashem Yabit.

thanbo said...

they did it innocently because their conception of the physical universe was that it had some spiritual mixed in it. That is how they explained magnetism and other such not understood physical manifestation.That caused them to mmove the line further.

But that's just "God of the gaps", to use a term popular on Godol Hador's blog. So they posited a spiritual component to the world to explain physical phenomena they didn't understand. We've pushed the line further, and there are still things we don't understand, they're just so abstruse that only mathematical physicists really can even ask about them. So perhaps that spiritual component is still there? Even Hashgocho is a spiritual presence, no?

After listening to R' Brill's Kabbalah classes on, I better understand RZS's comment to me years ago, that each generation of kabbalah remapped its own meaning onto the same set of symbols: Geronese kabbalah, Provencal kabbalah, the Zohar, the Ari, Chassidus, each remapped new meanings onto the same old 12th-century model of 10 sefirot and 4 worlds, emphasizing this or that aspect (tzimtzum is barely mentioned in Zohar, but is a major part of the Ari, and then heavily remapped by the Chasidim).

Maybe they're still within the meaning of the mishnah in Chagigah: they push their investigation right up to, but not over, the line where ayin created yesh, so as not to "investigage what came before."

David Guttmann said...

I am in the middle of Lawrence Fine book on Arizal. My son read it and he is totally shocked and so am I after the little i read.

You are excactly right. Each generation attached to the same symbol their own interpretation which they got supposedly min hashamayim either directly or via their rebbi who claimed to have gotten it (Gilui eliyahu etc...). Sinai has long been forgotten. I have a hard time coming up with the courage to say what i really believe, but I am convinced it is all wrong especially the conclusions they have arrived at. We cannoy impact HKBH or whatever else they want to call it shechina or tiferes or malchus or whatever .

The proof that it is all false, is the resulting superstition our religion has been permeated with - Amen clubs, Rotlech, Meron, Uman etc...

It is mainstream, so were other things that eventually were proven detrimental to Klal Yisroel, an dit does not make it right.

Ariella said...

I found myself here after following the link on your comment to Gil's quote of my post on the ruby gmach.

If YGB is R' Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, then that is my brother you are referring to. To clarify: my mother is descended of parents who hail from Lithuania. My maternal grandfather attended Telz. He and a number of his children adopted the Lubavitch practice when my mother was over 18. So she was never a Lubavitcher. My father hails from Germany --the Frankfurt area. So we were brought up waiting 3 hours between meat and milk in the great Yekke traditon.

BTW: I had to fill out tons of info to add my name to blogger just to leave this comment.By the time I was done, i lost thispage and ended up posting this on the wrong entry.

My blog: Kallah Magazine is a Word Press one, hosted by by webhosting co. You can access it from my website: or from