Is Kabbalah Heresy?

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I. Three Kabbalists

Words have meanings. If I ask your permission to shoot you with a pellet gun, wouldn’t you want to know whether “pellet” means a foam ball or a metal cylinder? If, when stating key beliefs–definitional propositions–we attach idiosyncratic definitions to common terminology, we confuse, mislead and possibly lead others to sin. This issue occupied the minds of great kabbalists of the last century.

God’s unity, His complete indivisibility, is challenged by kabbalistic terminology. I write this with awareness that the mystical metaphysics of Kabbalah are well beyond my training and expertise. Instead, I rely on (my best understanding of) R. Bezalel Naor’s recently published Kana’useih De-Pinchas, in which he presents and analyzes select letters from the archives of R. Pinchas Lintop, a little-known East European kabbalist of the early twentieth century. R. Lintop was a friend and colleague of R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook and R. Shlomo Elyashiv. These three kabbalists represent three trends in Kabbalah as well as communal orientations.

R. Elyashiv, whose famous grandson recently passed away at a ripe age, published guides to Kabbalistic thought, the first under the title Hakdamos U-She’arim, part of his series Le-Shem Shevo Ve-Achlamah (for which he was called “The Leshem”). One of R. Elyashiv’s particular stances outraged R. Lintop, who complained to both the author and R. Kook. While we do not have any response from either recipients, R. Naor is able to infer R. Kook’s response from other writings.

II. Divinity

The debate revolves around an esoteric but crucial point. According to R. Elyashiv, the vessels (keilim) of emanation (atzilus) are not divinity but rather united with divinity via the lights (oros). In this, he follows R. Moshe Cordovero and the school of the Vilna Gaon. R. Lintop furiously argues that this contradicts the teachings of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) and Chabad chassidus, according to which the vessels possess divinity.

R. Naor suggests that this debate hinges on another we have recently discussed here (link). Is God’s self-contraction (tzimtzum) literal or figurative? According to the Vilna Gaon, it is literal; God does not inhere in everything. According to Chabad teachings, tzimtzum is a metaphor and God is everywhere.

In other words, R. Elyashiv explains this kabbalistic concept according to the tradition of the Misnagdim. To them, tzimtzum is literal and the divinity of the keilim is not. Neither, for that matter, is the divinity of the sefiros literal. R. Lintop follows Ramchal and Chabad, for whom tzimtzum is not literal and the divinity of the keilim is.

While esoteric, the debate is fundamental. What do we mean when we say that God is one? If other entities contain divinity, is not the phrase “one with a oneness for which there is no comparison,” in Rambam’s formulation, distorted beyond recognition? This was presumably a factor in R. Elyashiv’s arguments. R. Lintop’s response can be seen in two steps. On the one hand, he was following what he considered canonical sources. He was not innovating beyond the limits but following received tradition, which, by definition, is within accepted boundaries.

III. Principles of Faith

The second step must be seen as profound intellectual honesty. R. Naor publishes another passage from R. Lintop’s writings in which he denies that Rambam’s formulation of fundamental principles is the final word. He argues at length, long preceding the current debates over fundamental beliefs, that many great rabbis have disagreed with the Rambam about the existence of principles. In other words, he may agree that his position may not fit within Rambam’s definition of God’s oneness; he does not attempt to creatively redefine it by distorting words. However, that does not concern him because he does not consider specific principles binding.

Others, of a less radical bent, may take a different second step. Rather than denying the existence of principles, they may argue that the consensus, the kabbalistic tradition, accepts a slightly different formulation of God’s unity that allows for divine vessels. Because they follow tradition, which they believe is ancient and inspired, Rambam was the one who innovated and not them.

We have no record of R. Kook’s response. We know he corresponded with R. Lintop on other matters and presumably received two letters from him on this subject. We also know that R. Kook saw this part of R. Elyashiv’s book in manuscript and actually convinced him to soften his language against those who understand tzimtzum non-literally. To R. Elyashiv, the non-literalists are akin to Pantheists, close to Polytheists. To R. Lintop, the literalists reject divinity, bordering on Atheism. These are strong charges, indeed.

R. Naor found other places in which R. Kook said that he wished to merge the Kabbalah of the Misnagdim and Chassidim. How he planned on reconciling these opposites is unclear. It is hard to believe that he would accept the inherently illogical argument that since debate exists about what God’s oneness means, anyone who claims to accept it, regardless of how implausible that assertion, is adhering to traditional Judaism. Unclarity is not permission for chaos. More reasonable is the claim that since both sides follow respected traditions, both are acceptable. We can be sure that he did not share the antagonism of either side. I suspect that R. Kook’s tradition of reconciliation currently dominates.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

14 comments

  1. It is truly exciting that with the printing of R’ Naor’s sefer, The Leshem zy”a is getting much deserved attention. I have yet to learn the sefer inside, but I would like to comment on the assumption that the Leshem was following the opinion of the Gr”a regarding tzimtzum k’pshuto. The assumption that the Gr”a held tzimtzum k’pshuto is a much longer discussion but b’kitzur milin, it is not agreed upon, especially in the writings of his closest talmidim in sod, Rav Yitzchak Chaver (pischei shearim nesiv hatzimtzum) and the well known shita of the Nefesh hachaim (shaar 3). That being said those who claim the gr”a held ki’pshuto point to “sod hatzimtzum” that is printed in the back of the gra’s perush to safra d”tzniusa. A basic reading shows exactly the opposite, that tzimtzum was not k’pshuto. The Leshem does state explicitly that he agrees with Rav Emanuel Rikki zy”a in yosher levav (19) regarding tzimtzum being literal but that is by no means the end of the Leshems shita. Based on correspondance between the leshem and Rav Naftali Hertz (siddur hagra) it is clear that the Leshems shita in tzimtzum is radically different than any other achron. It is based on the teachings of Rabbenu Azriel, rebbe of ramban as clarified in the teachings of Rav Meir Ibn Gabbei. Al kol panim his shita is anything but the assumed lithuanian shita. The Leshem’s issue with the Ramchal was not personal, he writes in numerous places that he even printed the seforim, rather he takes issue with later thinkers who read too deeply into the “nimshal’ of the ramchal. Either way, it is assumed by many thinkers such as Rav Dessler, Rav Hutner and Rav Kotler that the Gr”a did not view tzimtzum in a drastically different way than the Besh’t as expressed in the writings of the Baal HaTanya.

  2. I tried to incorporate the uncertainty about the Gra by writing the “school of the Vilna Gaon” rather than him specifically. I was not aware about the additional information about the Leshem’s view. Thank you

  3. I am a little confused. It would seem from your post that Chabad Chassidus is not in agreement with the Rambam’s approach to the unity of G-d. I do not believe that is the case.

    An article that explains the Chabad approach to Tzimtzum:

    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/361884/jewish/Tzimtzum.htm

    In depth lecture series on the Alter Rebbe’s take on Tzimtzum:

    http://theyeshiva.net/Video/View/464/The-Alter-Rebbes-Revolution-in-Tzimtzum-Part-1

  4. The Leshem’s opinion of tzimtzum is itself hotly debated. R’ Yakov Adass has an entire chapter devoted to proving that the Leshem believed that tzimtzum was not to be taken literally.

  5. For the peirush of R’KookZTZL on the divinity of örot see Olat Raáya p231 where he quotes the RaMaK.

  6. Funny, I did a search on this post and did not find a yes or a no 🙂
    KT

  7. I’m really not sure about your judgement call on the title for this post. I understand it’s a way to get people’s attention but I think it’s inappropriate, especially considering that no where in the piece do you clearly answer the question in the negative.
    Secondly, after reading yr’s response I wonder if you should really be posting about a topic you are so unfamiliar with in the first place. I appreciate your honestly and humility in the beginning of the post, but I just wonder if it should be more than a disclaimer but a reason nit to post at all. It’s great to be studying on your own, but until you reach a point of greater expertise I don’t think you should be publicly writing articles, especially ones with this title.

  8. yyd: I understand your lack of comfort. There was a subtle allusion in all those choices.

  9. yr,

    Regarding the Gra’s position on tzimtzum kipshuto, the Leshem takes it as a given that the Nefesh Hachaim disagreed with his teacher on this point. So does the Lubavitcher Rebbe. So does Rabbi Norman Lamm in his “Torah Lishmah”. At no point does the Nefesh Hachaim state his position in the name of the Gra. Rav Yitchak Haver was not a talmid of the Gra. He was a second generation student of the Gra.
    Moreover, the “many thinkers” you cite were not known to be scholars of Kabbalah.
    Missing from this discussion is the Sephardic school of Kabbalah, the actual talmidim of the Ari, the chain of transmission, and position of those with access to the authentic and accurate manuscripts. The Sephardic Kabbalaists, arguably the masters of the Lurainic corpus, held tzimtzum kipshuto.
    Perhaps the Leshem’s relationship with the Sephardic Kabbalists influenced his strident opposition to Beshtian innovation.

  10. First, I want to note that “tzimtzum kepeshuto” has two alternatives:
    1- That the verb “tzimtzum” is figurative or approximate, and
    2- That the constriction is literal, but not of G-d.

    Second, I learned something of the three, and this was how their positions looked to me:

    Gra: Tzimtum means the literal constriction of Hashem’s Will.

    My understanding of the Gra is much like RMMS’s, except that the LR speaks in terms of the Or Ein Sof, the Infinite Light of creation, as the noun undergoing constriction. But the emphasis on Or Ein Sof is more Chabad, and the term doesn’t come up in writings by those closer to the Gra.

    The Leshem removes the contradiction (albeit in his own position, not saying whether or not it’s the Gra’s: the Infinite Light and Hashem’s Will are the same thing, which was literally constricted.

    R’ Chaim Volozhiner: Tzimtzum is the illusion of constriction of Hashem Himself, but it is caused by the literal constriction of Hashem’s Will. But unlike the Gra, the Nefesh haChaim appears to use the tzimtzum as jargon for the former.

    Third, in the Rambam’s worldview, there are two kinds of attributes of G-d: description of what He isn’t (e.g. “Eternal” really means “not within time”), and description of how His actions appear to us, what example He sets for us to emulate (e.g. Merciful).

    In comparison, the Gra’s first kelal in his 10 kelalim is that all of Qabbalah is about how G-d looks to us, and not G-d Himself. So, according to him, all of Qabbalah fits within the second category of attributes (or something much like it) and is not heretical.

    Last, how different is the whole subject of Hashem emanating an Infinite Light of Creation, which is then manifest in stages called olamos down until we get to this one, with the Rambam’s model of the chain of intellects from HQBH, His Thought, to His Thought’s thought, through the intellects / forms we call angels, then the Active Intellect, the spheres, and us? We think of the Rambam as a Rationalist, but Rationalist Natural Philosophy was pretty close to Mysticism by today’s standards.

  11. Jacob,
    It is possible that the nefesh hachaim was disagreeing with his Rebbe on this point, but again the Gr”a does not explicitly state in any of his writings that he viewed tzimtzum k’pshuto. Regarding Rav yitzchak Chaver, he was a second generation student, but he is considered peh sheni to the Gr”a along with his rebbe Rav Menachem Mendel m’shklov, who again views tzimtzum as lo k’pshuto. I am aware that these rebbeim were not “scholars of kabbalah” in terms of the written word, but it is assumed and known that Rav Hutner as well as Rav Dessler were fully versed in the writings of the vilna gaon and the Arizal, however their opinions are more anecdotal than anything. In terms of the actual view if the talmidei haAri, Rav Moshe Zacuto zy”a writes explicitly that tzimtzum was lav k’pshuto. We can even go as far back as Rav Chaim Vital based on the new ksavim found (brought in r’ avivi’s kitzur seder haatzilus). Based on these writings its difficult to say the Arizal meant anything but lo k’pshuto. Furthermore, the shomer emunim hakadmon, considered by many an essential depiction of kabbalas haAri emphatically states that its lo k’pshuto. If you are referring to the Rashash and his talmidim, i.e the kerem shlomo, beis lechem yehuda, shemem sasson, toras chochom, its not clear either way, they did not focus on the theological aspects of the eitz chaim as much as the technical and practical aspects of kavanos and avodah. If anything, based on the Rashash’s introduction Rechovos HaNahar one could deduce that tzimtzum is lo k’pshuto, based on the klal of relativity and “archin”. The Leshem, although he respected and worked with the writings of the Rashash and toras chochom, he states in biurim that it is by no means the only way to learn the writings of the Arizal. Aside from his learning the seforim and a small correspondence with the Ben ish Chai, I am unfamiliar with any significant relationship he had with sephardic mekubalim. In terms of “the strident opposition to Beshtian innovation” that you claim the Leshem had, there is not one place in all of his writings that he refers to chassidus or their views of kitvei haAri. In fact he quotes at various times from the Kehilos Yaakov (baal haMaleh Roiam al hashaas) who was a talmid of the Maggid zy”a, as well as from the Komarnas zohar chai, and ohr haeynayim. The only strident opposition the Leshem showed was towards “those who delve too deeply into the writings of the Ramchal” and that has nothing to do with tzimtzum.

  12. “The debate revolves around an esoteric but crucial point. According to R. Elyashiv, the vessels (keilim) of emanation (atzilus) are not divinity but rather united with divinity via the lights (oros). In this, he follows R. Moshe Cordovero and the school of the Vilna Gaon. R. Lintop furiously argues that this contradicts the teachings of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) and Chabad chassidus, according to which the vessels possess divinity.”

    Fortunately, none of these things exist or have anything to do with the Torah whatsoever, so problem solved.

  13. Micha,
    It has now been ten years since this discussion began (and continued) on the various listservs, blogs, and websites. I think you are generally correct in your readings of the sources and would just add that the Gra seems to be following the “Peshat” of the Etz Haim. As for your comparison between the Rambam’s Rationalist Natural Philosphy and Mysticism, I am not sure that hiddush stands if you hold of tzimtzum eino kepishuto.
    yr,
    It is taken for granted in Sephardic circles that the Ari was speaking kipshuto. I know that there are different “schools” of Kabbalah. My point was to highlight that only one school had a direct chain of tradition and access to original manuscripts.
    As for Rav Yitzhak Isaac Haver, I think his works should be carefully studied. I find them extremely relevant and enlightening. But the Leshem remains the most authoritative expositor of the Gra’s Kabbalah. You can add R’ Elya Weintraub to your list of mekubbalim. He was certainly well versed in the Ari, Gra and Leshem and I am told that he maintains that the Nefesh Hachaim did not disagree with the Gra. If you could find that source, I’d like to read it. The Leshem seems quite clear on this point and I can not imagine R’ Weintraub stating the Leshem got anything “wrong”.
    Lastly, would you mind contacting me? My email address is my first initial and last name @ nyu dot edu. Thanks.

  14. “Regarding the Gra’s position on tzimtzum kipshuto, the Leshem takes it as a given that the Nefesh Hachaim disagreed with his teacher on this point. So does the Lubavitcher Rebbe. So does Rabbi Norman Lamm in his “Torah Lishmah”. At no point does the Nefesh Hachaim state his position in the name of the Gra”

    I suspect Rabbonim who were less Chassidic oriented than the Lubavitch Rebbe and RNL- I am far from an expert on nistar I don’t even know the galui -but it is my impression that there is a position that RCVolozhin that tzimzum supplies the answer to how there is room for any individual finite beings if God’s presence permeates all reality while the Baal Hatanya tzimzum is the self concealement of God to make it possible to be the borei olam and which God can be felt even though the whole world is filled with Gods presence.

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