The Theology of Chabad

The problem of divine withdrawal inspires an alternate view of the universe.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Chabad is the movement and tendency within Hasidism which places particular emphasis on the role of the intellect in the life of religion. Chabad is an acronym formed from the initial letters of the three Hebrew words: Hokhmah, Binah, Daat, standing, respectively, for Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge; in this context these refer to the three unfoldings of the divine mind taught in the Kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot.

Intellectual Mysticism

Because of its special thrust, Chabad is sometimes described by modern writers as the intellectual movement in Hasidism. There is some truth in this designation but it is a little misleading. Chabad does attach great significance to contemplative thought and its writings do contain many profound religious ideas but it can by no stretch of the imagination be seen as rationalistic. The Chabad thinkers build all their theories on ideas given in the Jewish sources and never try to reason out for themselves the basics of Judaism. They never feel the need, for example to argue for the existence of God or that the Torah is revealed truth.

The founder of the Chabad tendency, Shenur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1813), became a formeost disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech (d. 1772), disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and organizer of the developing Hasidic movement. Shneur Zalman evidently owes many of his specific ideas to the Maggid and his son, known as Abraham the Angel; ideas to which Shneur Zalman gave systematic form.

Chabad theology involves a radical interpretation of the Kabbalistic ideas of the famed sixteenth-century Safed mystic, Isaac Luria, known as the Ari. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, the first step in the divine creative process is a withdrawal or contraction of the Ein Sof, the Infinite ground of being, God as He is in Himself, "from Himself into Himself." This act of divine limitation is known as Tzimtzum. As a result of the Tzimtzum an "empty space" is left into which the light of Ein Sof then streams forth eventually to produce, through a further series of contractions, the Sefirot and through these all the worlds on high and the material world experienced by the senses.

Divine Limitation and the Ein Sof

The basic problem is how the Tzimtzum and especially the "empty space" are to be understood. The Kabbalists generally understand the "empty space" in other than spatial terms, as a metaphor for that which is other than God, very few entertaining the bizarre notion that there really is a kind of immense circular hole in Ein Sof into which the universe has emerged. But even if the Titimtzum is understood in more sophisticated terms to denote spiritual processes in the divine realm taking place outside space and time, humans do have the experience of space and time and the physical world certainly seems real enough. Since this is so, the problem the doctrine of Tzimtzum was intended to solve, how there can be a universe apart and separate from the limitless and infinite Ein Sof, still remains as obdurate as ever.

In Chabad thought the extremely radical solution is that, from the point of view of ultimate reality, there is no universe. The universe and the creatures who inhabit the universe only appear to enjoy existence. From our point of view, the world is indeed real, but not from God's point of view, as the Chabad thinkers put it. The meaning of Tzimtzum is not that it results in a real world, only that God allows the apparent existence of that which is other than He. The all-pervasive divine light is screened from view and this screening is what Tzimtzum denotes.

The Chabad thinkers stop short of saying that the world is an illusion, as in some varieties of Far Eastern thought, since such a view would tend to deny the reality of the practical laws and observances of the Torah which only have meaning in a real world. Instead, the distinction is drawn between the universe from God's point of view and the universe from our point of view, a concept difficult to grasp, and one which renders opaque the meaning of "real." The Chabad view is basically one of acosmism ("there is no universe") or panentheism ("all is in God").

Shneur Zalman gives the illustration of the sun and its rays. We see the sun's rays because we are so far distant from the sun but there are no rays in the sun itself. Similarly, creatures are sufficiently remote, in a non-spatial sense, from God to enable them to perceive the material world as real and as apart from Him but through which His glory is manifested. It follows that the nearer humans are to God in spirit, the closer they approximate to the mystical ideal of annihilation of selfhood. The more humans perceive the ultimate reality that is God, the less they become aware of themselves and the world of the senses. Chabad teachers like to tell of Shneur Zalman being asked what he saw when he lay on his deathbed. "I see only the divine light that pervades all that there is," was his reply.

The Divine Map

Chabad contemplation involves a survey in the mind of the whole complicated process described in the Kabbalistic scheme, the gradual unfolding and screening of the divine reaching from Ein Sof to the Sefirot, from the Sefirot to the lower world on high, and from these to our material world. All the complex details of the process as described in the Lurianic Kabbalah are to be followed in the mind with a view to grasping the divine unity, that in all the multiplicity of being there is only the One. When the Sefirotic map is perceived in the mind in descending order, from Ein Sof through all the worlds, this is termed "the higher unification." When the map is drawn in the mind in the opposite direction, in ascending order, from the material universe through to the Ein Sof, it is termed "the lower unification."

The Chabad contemplatives try to achieve both unifications especially when they recite the Shema, their minds undertaking the long and hazardous journey up on high and back again. The more zealous of the Chabad devotees have been known to spend a whole hour and more lost in contemplation while reciting the first verse of the Shema.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.