Lurianic Kabbalah – Tzimtzum
What is God?
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Lurianic Kabbalah - the Kabbalah teachings from Yitzchak Luria of Tzefat, was all about revelation of Godly light, repairing the universe, collecting sparks of holiness, and completing the soul’s mission through reincarnation. It is complex – on that there is no argument. But it is also extremely reassuring in that it makes a serious attempt to answer all the major questions on meaning and purpose of life, the nature of God and God’s relationship to reality, personal destiny, and the ultimate fate of the world.
Luria, or the 'Ari' is he is invariably called in Jewish circles, wrote nothing down that we know of other than a few poems that are commonly recited by Hasidim during the Shabbat meals. His complex system has come down to us through the writings of his students, primarily that of Chaim Vital, the author of the monumental work of Lurianic Kabbalah, Etz Chaim – Tree of Life.
Among the major issues of Lurianic Kabbalah is something called Tzimtzum, a word that looks like it comes from a Dr. Seuss book. The word means ‘constriction’ or ‘contraction’ or ‘reduction’ or ‘withdrawal’, or something along these lines. This idea made it into Kabbalistic circles of the 14th and 15th centuries and reached its definitive form in the teachings of the Ari as revealed in the Etz Chaim:
‘Before the Emanator emanated the emanations, and all of these dimensions…the En Sof filled the entire space…and there was nothing except for It…But when the will arose to emanate the dimensions…it was first necessary to create a space that was empty and vacated, so that the dimensions could be emanated into that empty space…Since the En Sof at first filled the space of all the dimensions that were created afterwards, and there was no vacated space, the En Sof itself needed to withdraw its reality and its light, and leave a vacated space to emanate the dimensions. In truth, the place of this withdrawal was not on any periphery but right in the middle…And since the withdrawal was in the middle, equidistant from the sides, the vacated space that remained was a perfect sphere.’
Anyone who studies Lurianic Kabbalah even on a superficial level hears about the concept of Tzimtzum. By the same token, almost anybody who actually understands it to some degree and thinks about it a little has questions. First of all, why is this necessary? Why must God ‘vacate’ a space to make room for the created dimensions? Weren’t we all perfectly satisfied with Cordovero’s system of God simply making the Sefirot emerge out of the infinite essence of the En Sof? Second, assuming there is some need for all this, what does it mean? How does God withdraw the infinite essence of the En Sof? Where does it go to? What is left where it once was? Does it mean that the ‘vacated space’ is devoid of God? If so, then does that mean that God is outside of the world? If not, what did the withdrawal accomplish?
These are pretty difficult questions to answer. But they cut to the core of the Lurianic conception of God and creation, so they must be answered. Dealing first with the first question, things weren’t all that satisfactory with the older system. Where did the Sefirot come from to begin with? The explanation that they just ‘solidified’ out of the essence of the En Sof just begs the question. What does it mean to ‘solidify’ out of the En Sof? It was En Sof essence before and now it’s just thicker En Sof. It seems like something is missing from the equation.
The Lurianic answer is that what was missing was Tzimtzum. If it is all God then there is no room for anything other than God, no space for creation. God had to ‘vacate’ some ‘space’ to make room for creation. The Sefirot were formed in the empty space that was vacated by the En Sof. But this just brings us to the next question – how can that space be vacated? What is left? Where did whatever initially filled it up go? In addition, if that space is truly empty, what is it that forms the substance of the Sefirot?
The best we can say is that it was something that wasn’t the pure unlimited En Sof, but some limited aspect of it. Perhaps a good analogy is the human mind. When it is thinking about something, those thoughts can occupy the mind to the degree that it cannot think consciously about anything else. But when it chooses to leave a part of the mind open for other thoughts, while concentrating those original thoughts in a ‘subconscious’ region, it is empty in one part that is ready to be filled again, while remaining filled in another. Perhaps what was left is a kind of 'residue' – empty of God’s thoughts but ready to receive them. The residue in the vacated space was the various dimensions of reality.
What came next? The Etz Chaim explains: ‘After the withdrawal took places so that a vacated space remained…there was a space in which all things could be brought into existence, created, formed, and made. He then extended a straight ray from the light of the En Sof… The highest part of the ray extended from the En Sof itself and touched it. But the end of this ray was below at the end which didn’t touch the light of the En Sof. The path of this ray extends and spreads the light of the En Sof downward. In that vacated space all the dimensions were emanated, and created, and formed, and made. And this ray is like a thin pipe within which is spread and extended the upper light of the En Sof, to the dimensions that are in the vacated space.’
This ‘ray’ was a pipeline to the original En Sof that could selectively fill up the vacated space. Taking our analogy a little further, it was selective thoughts entering the mind that only occupy the mind so much. It is only in one specific region of the mind that these thoughts can arise and be sustained. The rest remains as it was before. In God’s mind, these thoughts were the various Sefirot in their descending order. The highest was Keter (Crown), which emerged from the En Sof itself. The succeeding Sefirot descended along the pipeline, each emerging from the one higher than it to become existent in the vacated space. Thus, the highest Sefira, Keter (Crown), is the closest to the En Sof, while the lowest, Kingship is furthest away.
So the entire sequence of events was a threefold process. The first stage was the En Sof itself, which encompassed everything and allowed no possibility for the existence of anything else. Next came the withdrawal – not an act of creation per se, but of preparation for creation. It was necessary to facilitate the subsequent creation. The third stage was injecting some of the original En Sof essence into the empty dimensions of reality through the ray. This injection took the twofold form of the vessels and the essence. When enveloped by the various dimensions of reality, the essence took the form of vessels. Within those vessels, however, remained some of original essence. Thus the Sefirot are both essence and vessels, each stemming directly from the En Sof itself.
While this sounds like a considerable amount to swallow, it is actually fairly simple. If one can somehow manage to avoid getting caught up with the images of vessels, the ray, the vacated space, and the withdrawal, it actually presents a fascinating picture of the creation/emanation process. Up to now we have been forced to make a choice – either it was creation or it was emanation. Creation was God creating everything from ‘outside’, meaning outside of God. Emanation was God’s essence moving outward (or inward) and transforming into what we call reality. The creation process was classically seen as ‘yesh m’ayin’, something from nothing. The emanation process was ‘something from something’. The process described in Lurianic Kabbalah seems like a combination of the two.
First there was the ‘something’ of the En Sof. Then there was the ‘nothing’ of the empty dimensions with the residue. Finally there was the injected ‘something’ of the En Sof transformed into a slightly different ‘something’ in the dimensions. It was ‘something from something’, but it was also ‘something from nothing’. The first task in the ‘something from nothing’ process was to create a situation of ‘nothing’. This was the crucial step of Tzimtzum. The next step was not forming a new ‘something’ out of the ‘nothing’ but injecting the original ‘something’ into the ‘nothing’ and allowing it to form a different ‘something’.
What image of God emerges from all this? God is the En Sof, which is everything. But God is more than that. God is also the ‘space’ left empty when the En Sof withdrew. But God is even more than that. God is also the ‘residue’ that was left to allow the emptiness to have the potential to be filled again. But God is even more than that. God is also the essence that entered into that empty space and both solidified into the vessels and remained as essence, and filtered all the way down the Sefirot until it became revealed as the created world that we know. So it remains true that ‘God is everything in existence, but everything in existence is not God’. Only one thing has been added. - this remarkable, unique-to-God ability to withdraw and yet still remain. Creation may be a very remarkable and godlike power. But withdrawal is even more remarkable. It is the ability to allow something ‘else’ to be.
Perceiving the Image
The image presented here is that of God enabling ‘others’ to experience the oneness of God. An infinite Being gave up limitlessness to allow finite beings to come into existence. The Tzimtzum, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is the ultimate act of love. The essence of God permeates all of existence while still encompassing all existence. Every breath of life, every thought in the mind, every moment of movement and stillness, pulsates with the essence of God clothed in layers of veils but waiting to be discovered. It is all because God forsook the infinite unknown and came down into the finite known. It is all because God allowed that finite to be.
At the core of all this is God. God is infinite, of that there is no disagreement. The world is finite – that is also agreed upon. How did the one bring about the other? Whatever the mechanism - either Tzimtzum or garden variety creation, the infinite gave reality to the finite. That alone is something worth contemplating. We, our limited selves in our finite world, came to be through an infinite Being. Somehow the infinite made the finite. We may never understand how such a thing could be, but we can recognize it as a truth.
It is quite amazing that this amazing idea rarely shakes us up. We just take it for granted as if it was the most normal thing in the world. In a sense it is the most normal thing in the world, but that is just because we happen to be here. But that very fact – the fact that we are here – is itself the greatest miracle that could be. We exist because the infinite created the finite. We are the result of that miraculous transformation. Our ultimate ancestor is infinite. Is that not a mystery worthy of contemplation?
Without going into the pros and cons of Lurianic Kabbalah, we can all agree that it makes a serious attempt at answering ultimate questions. But does this system answer too many questions? Does it lay out the ultimate mystery of God in too much detail?
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