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.

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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.