Introduction to Understanding the Hasidic Mystical System

    December 2010            
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Before The Contraction: The Roots Of Existence

By Yechezkel Gold


The learning and understanding of Chasidic thought is an important and rewarding area of Jewish thought that is closed to many due to the nature of the terminology that is used. When the terminology is explained clearly and consisely, the ideas expressed become clear and understandable. The following is the first of a series of articles designed to bring the reader to a level of proficency that he may begin to delve into the depths of Chassidic thought.

The Ain Sof

Broadly speaking, the first and highest G-dly manifestation is called the Ain Sof, which means no limit, limitless or infinity. This manifestation can not be considered a true manifestation insofar as it has no defining parameters except that its very description is just that: it has no defining parameters in any dimension. Thus let us contrast Infinity with conceptions such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and eternity. These latter terms too, can not be truly grasped because of the limitless extent of their possible manifestations. However, they are defined respectively as power, knowledge, presence and time. Infinity, in contrast, is undefined in any dimension. We might be tempted to say that theoretically, Infinity subsumes categories like omnipotence etc., and say that G-d is omnipotent etc, but in fact, according to Hasidic mysticism, even the potential existence of such categories bespeaks a prior stage of creativity generating such categories. That already implies a description, and G-d can not be described. We might wish to say, then, that He has an infinite capacity to create, but even that implies a certain description.

Actually, Hasidic mystical literature speaks of Infinite Light or limitless potential as only the reflection or radiance of Ain Sof – Infinity. About Ain Sof itself, perhaps it is more fitting to speak of the Absolute, absolute reality (only G-d has absolute, infinite and limitless reality).

The Infinite Light, as the Orh Ain Sof is called in English, is a limitless potential as discussed above. The potential for revelation and implicit in it is the notion of otherness, of an existence seemingly separate from the Creator to whom there can be revelation, is an aspect of the Orh Ain Sof of this limitless potential. Hasidic mysticism refers to this aspect as the Kingdom (Hebrew: malchus) of the Infinite Light, G-d as King, where the idea of being King implies there being others, i.e. subjects. Being King is the last or external and lowest aspect of the Infinite Light. The very notion of last or lowest came into being within the limitless potential of the Infinite Light only by focus on Kingdom. The function of being King is to reveal still higher aspects of G-dly reality through G-d's subjects.

The original thought of creation began here, in the Kingdom of the Infinite Light, before any existence. Thus, we say in the Adon Olam liturgical song: "Master of the world who reigned before any created being was fashioned". This occurred in the limitless potential of the Infinite Light.

It is important to realize that regarding preceding dimensions of reality we can not speak of existence as we know it but rather only of G-d. To speak of any existence whatsoever, even of spirituality and metaphysics as the manner in which G-d creates, directs and is revealed in the world, there must first be room (Hebrew: makom) in which these spiritual levels can exist. In the presence of the Infinite Light, nothing can exist in its own right. Rabbi Isaac Luria, considered by many the preeminent Cabalist of the last several centuries, expounded on the idea of "Tzimtzum", a contraction within the aspect of Kingdom of the Infinite Light, thereby creating an empty space in which there can be existence. According to Hasidic mysticism, the Contraction was not withdrawal of the Infinite Light – Infinity after all has no limits – rather, the Contraction concealed the Infinite Light. Moreover, the Contraction applies not to the Infinite Light itself but rather only to the reflection, a secondary aspect of the Infinite.

The significance of the Hasidic interpretation of the Contraction is, first, that G-dliness and the infinite potential of the Infinite Light was not diminished by creation even within the creation itself. This expresses the idea of Divine imminence in all aspects of the world, from the lowest to the highest.

Second, the notion that the Contraction occurred only in the reflection of Ain Sof means that the absolute reality of G-d, Ain Sof, is as true and relevant in the created world, in our lives and deeds, as in the reality above and before creation. Exploring the Hasidic conception of the relation between finiteness and Infinity will help us understand the meaning of this idea.

The Hasidic literature often quotes the Cabalistic book Avodas HaKodesh that the notion of Infinity subsumes both boundless reality and definite (finite) reality. The intent is not merely to say that all that exists is finite and is subsumed within Infinity. Rather, it means that what is finite can simultaneously be infinite. A simple understanding of this notion would identify omnipotence (as an example) having both aspects: on the one hand we speak of power which is a definable parameter, and on the other hand we mean a limitless extent. However, there is a deeper meaning: There are (at least) elements of finite, created reality which are really Infinite, namely Torah, Mitzvot, and the people and the land of Israel. Truth is infinite.

While the depth and conceptual extent of Torah is boundless, this is not the primary intent of this idea. Rather, each figurative particle of Torah has infinite, absolute truth and significance. The same applies to Mitzvot and the people and the land of Israel . This is most prominently so regarding Torah Law. Their spiritual reality is absolute. Thus, to do a good deed has absolute, infinite value and significance (and hence is absolutely spiritually obligatory: a Divine commandment.) Thereby, eternity exists simultaneously within and outside of time.

According to the Hasidic literature, the Contraction (Tzimtzum) occurred when the infinite capacity of the Infinite Light to define and create limits emerged, thereby causing the undefinable aspect of the Infinite Light to recede. The emergence of the infinite capacity of the Infinite Light (Kingdom of Ain Sof) to define and create limits, though a level no less than the Infinite Light, is considered an "impression" or "imprint" (Hebrew: reshima) of the Infinite Light. That is, this "imprint" is the Infinite Light as potentially revealed and reflected to the "outside", to the world which was potentially created by the infinite capacity to define and limit.

Although the Infinite Light's capacity to define and limit is limitless, nevertheless its function is to limit and define. Indeed, this is what it did: to initiate creation. In this "imprint" arose the form of the spirituality and physicality of the universe in which revelation of the Infinite Light is to take place. The Contraction created a "space" in which there can be existence. True to the infinite, absolute character of the Infinite Light's capacity to define and limit, it gave rise to an absolute existence. The form that arose in this imprint was Torah, which gives absolute meaning and reality to all. Thereby, all "else" came into potential existence, as the Zohar states: "He (G-d) looked into the Torah and created the world."

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It is the intention of the author to present more basic concepts in Mystical Chassidic thought each month.


from the December 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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