Monday, November 16, 2009

Chassidic Idiom in English

I've been reading Elliot Wolfson's latest work, "Open Secret", on Chabad and its messianism (not just recently, but as an underlying thread throughout its history). Dr Wolfson (no relation to Harry Austryn Wolfson, AFAIK) has, in recent years, taken to writing in a flowery style affected by contemporary literary theory. This style seems to adapt itself well to the flowery style of the Chasidic maamar, which in essence is the model for his prose.

At times he uses Hebrew terms for Hasidic concepts, since they are the best way to express them. Sometimes, however, he attempts to (re)cover Hasidic concepts using English terms. For instance, the following passage, which struck me:

The forms of contemplation are aligned with two philosophical approaches with respect to the question of the relationship of God to the world. The former and less theologically dangerous orientation, which corresponds to what is usually called by historians of religion panentheism, considers the one reality to be unified in and yet distinct from all matters of the world, and hence everything in the chain of becoming is part of the evolving whole that is the divine source, and the latter is the far more challenging view -- what is referred to as acosmism - that there is no independent ontic status to the world, that God is the only substance in reality and thus the world in all of its multiplicity and differentiation is negated, since it is but a manifestation of the divine essence.

First off, I had never actually seen a differentiation between panentheism, the concept that everything in the universe is part of God, and acosmism, the idea that everything in the universe is nullified as part of God as is the finite against the infinite. I had thought them two different words for essentially the same idea. Wolfson here does draw a distinction, but is it really a distinction that others would draw?

It seems to me that Wolfson is actually trying to fit English words to the Hasidic concepts of yichuda ila'a and yichuda tata'ah, the upper and lower unities. The upper unity, more or less how the universe appears from God's perspective, is what Wolfson calls acosmism, while the lower unity, or how we can perceive the world, is what Wolfson calls panentheism. For the Alter Rebbe's own understanding of these Unities, see Tanya, Shaar Hayichud VeHa'Emunah (second part of the book), chapters 4-7. Much of the book Kuntress Eitz haChaim by the Fifth Rebbe, particularly chapters 6-9, explain how the two different Unities affect us in our lives.

Another example of Wolfson's elliptic prose that reveals as it conceals, as does the prose of the Rebbes in their Maamarim, extended mystical discourses:

(p.27) To be exposed, the Infinite must be camouflaged; to be forthcoming, it must be withheld. Envisionin gthe essence in Habad tradition may be cast as apprehending the "absolute nonbeing of the event,"[134] which "results from an excess of one, an ultra-one,"[135] the oneness beyond the distinction of one and many. The unicity consigned to the end is a visual attunement to the void of all being, the void of all things fully void, the breach of unity by which the unity of the breach (dis)appears in and through the cleft of consciousness. In this temporal crevice and spatial hiatus, the symbolic is imagined as real, the real as symbolic.

134. Yitzchak Eizik Epstein, Maamar yetziat mitzrayim. Vilna 1877
135. Alain Badiou,
Being and Event, 2005

This looping repetitive prose, reflecting in and on itself, echoes another writer trained in Hasidic idiom, R' Abraham Joshua Heschel.

So too Chasidic writings reveal as they conceal. My wife tried reading Wolfson and didn't make much headway, despite (or because of) being a fiction writer and former English & History teacher. Sometimes you have to read through the text to (un)read the text.


evanstonjew said...

Wikipedia is with Wolfson.

thanbo said...

I'm not so sure. The wikipedia article contrasts with PANTHEISM, not with PANENTHEISM. And if you look up the Wiki article on Panentheism (all in god, where pantheism means all IS god), I still don't see a real difference between the two.

So I still think Wolfson is trying to create a distinction between the two by making them correspond to the two different yichudim.

Neither article uses the other term, nor references the other article. The article on Panentheism talks about Hasidic theology.

thanbo said...

Update: I had a fascinating exchange with Prof. Wolfson offline about this post.

I would like to emphasize that I did NOT mean to criticize him for his style. Adjectives like "flowery" and "elliptical" were descriptive, not negative. If anything, the literary style greatly contributes to comprehension of these difficult (to Western eyes) ideas.

Lubavitch's own translators don't engage in this style; I like that Prof. Wolfson has found an English style that conveys the flavor of the Chasidic writings, not just the apparent content, because in part, "the medium is the message" - style and idiom convey additional meaning.

When I ask if acosmism vs panentheism was a distinction that others would draw, I was simply noting that the few sources I (not a professional in the field) had seen using these terms had been rather vague on the actual difference between them. It is clearly not my place to accept or not accept the distinction. Therefore, to me, Prof. Wolfson's distinction was new. And the correspondence to Upper and Lower Unities was entirely intentional, and in fact (having encountered the Unities before) clarified the distinction.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had a chance to read the book yet but can you help me with this?

Does he explain why the last two years of the Rebbe's talks became overtly and personally messianic? To my mind there is a recklessness there which is not often seen in Jewish leaders who are usually suspicious of Bar Kochba or Sabbateanesque vested messiahship.