Primer on Kabbalistic Terminology in Chassidic Thought

    January 2011            
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Introduction to Understanding the Hasidic Mystical System

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 concisely, the ideas expressed become clear and understandable. The following is the second of a series of articles designed to bring the reader to a level of proficiency that he may begin to delve into the depths of Chassidic thought. Click here for the first lesson.

Continuing from the last lesson:

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. 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."

Godly Manifestations From Before Creation

The creation as originally conceived at the level of the "imprint" is absolutely, infinitely perfect: the infinite capacity to define and limit produces limits that are infinitely perfect. As mentioned above, this is Torah. The sages recount that "the original concept was to create the world according to the faculty of strict justice. Seeing that the world could not endure (in that manner), He joined to it the faculty of compassion." According to Hasidic mysticism, the sages' aphorism regarding the attribute of compassion refers to creating miracles and righteous people. Miracles and the character and deeds of the righteous reflect Godliness.

God's producing miracles and the character and deeds of the righteous and revealing them to those on lesser spiritual levels comes from His kindness and compassion. Its intent is to mitigate the utter severity and expectation of perfection of the "imprint" so that even an imperfect world can exist. Infinite perfection, product of the infinite capacity of the Infinite Light to define and limit, is a standard which people usually can not attain. Therefore God balanced this high standard by giving people compassionate assistance and inspiration. Miracles and righteous people inspire people to do God's will. Without them, there would be only strict insistence on self generated righteousness by all. The faculty of compassion extends the privilege of life and of serving God also to those who are not perfectly righteous. The faculty of Compassion, too, derives from the Infinite Light and manifests Godliness even beyond the realm of the Godly.

Based on Cabala, Hasidic mysticism describes this process. After the withdrawal called the Contraction, the Infinite Light radiated again into the "space" caused by this Contraction. However, instead of being dimensionless like before the Contraction, the Light takes the form of a spiritual beam of light called the "Assessment Line". A line has a direction, from (spiritually) closer to the source to further away. From its source in the Infinite Light, the Assessment Line extends throughout all spiritual levels, also known as spiritual worlds, to the lower reaches of Godliness that ultimately will be manifested even in the lower, created worlds (as will be explained later). The Assessment Line is an "extension" of the Infinite Light, bringing Godliness to every point on the line, connecting each level to the infinite source. Through the Line each level of reality, even the imperfection of lower levels, has a potential for Godliness and perfection. Everything was created for its Godly potential.

To be more exact, we should note that the Assessment Line itself is purely Godly. However, through this Line, the Infinite Light is "extended" as a potential for Godliness on lesser levels.

As a line with a starting and ending point, the Assessment Line "measures" each level according to its spiritual distance from the absolute Infinite Light. It measures and/or determines the degree and manner that each spiritual level manifests Godliness. This is the way that spiritual level eventually will come into existence. It is the true essence of that level.

Hasidic Cabala approaches understanding mystical concepts with the verse (Job 19:26) "…and from my flesh I will glimpse God." This parallels the verse (Genesis 1:19) "In the image of God did He create man." Thus, in order to better understand them, we seek parallels to mystical concepts in human faculties. A human partial analog to the Assessment Line emerges when we apply a perspective not limited or determined by any other consideration, i.e. pure objectivity, to any given subject. Thereby, each subject is revealed (i.e. assessed) as it truly is, and the degree and manner in which it is true is ascertained. Each spiritual level has truth as its essence, as the verse (Psalms 146) states: "Who guards truth forever". The Assessment Line connects with the inner point of this essence within each level of reality.

As stated above, emanating the Line of Assessment was an "act" of compassion. Compassion is the quality of recognizing, identifying with and valuing the very self of the objects of compassion despite their seeming "unworthy". Similarly, the trait of compassion embodied in the Assessment Line extends Godliness and hence existence to levels seeming to lack the absolute Godliness and perfection of the Ain Sof (the Infinite One). It is the spark of sanctity within each detail of the creation.

From this perspective, we can understand that sometimes the Torah is identified with the Assessment Line. The absolute truth within each element of reality is how it connects to God. The Torah determines and demonstrates how that connection is made.

From a somewhat different perspective on the same process, the Assessment Line configures the plethora of spiritual elements into a hierarchy of values and a structure, organizing them in an ideal order in which they are to appear. For example, although intellect and emotion are distinct, disparate elements of spiritual reality, they are linked (generally) by the Assessment Line so that the mind's perception and assessment are followed by appropriate emotions. This order and its spiritual value are set by the Assessment Line. If the ideal order set by the Assessment Line is reversed, the spiritual results are far different. Thus, Talmud tells us that "heart of the righteous is in their own jurisdiction. Evildoers are in the jurisdiction of their heart." (There are exceptions where the heart produces feeling so pure that it is fitting for it to take precedence over the mind. This also has its point of truth in the Assessment Line. However, in normal proper spiritual configuration, intellect and perception precede feeling.)

The Roots Of Existence

The first spiritual level to which the Assessment Line connects is called Adam Kadmon (literal: the first or early man), often denoted by its acrostic, A"K. Adam Kadmon encompasses all of reality after the Contraction within one single "thought". As such, it is really above the notion of different levels; all levels coexist equally within Adam Kadmon.

To explain this idea: Adam Kadmon is a picture of reality subsuming all subsequent levels. Strictly speaking, though, A"K itself is not a level. There are various levels and manifestations of Godliness, of the one God. Moreover, He created the spiritual universe in which there are various non-Godly levels as well, ultimately leading to our physical world. In the hierarchy of worlds, Godly manifestation is entirely different from, and above the created worlds. It is a totally different reality. However, from the perspective of Adam Kadmon, all of these together are an expression of a single "thought". Not only the spiritual and material universe, but even God's creating and directing the world, and even His manifestation within the creation, were generated within the original thought of Adam Kadmon. From that perspective, God is a participant in the shared reality of the universe. The material world is part of reality, spirituality is part of reality, and even Godly manifestation as Creator and Director of all the creation, is part of reality. The entirety as a unified whole first took form in A"K.

On the level of Adam Kadmon (and above that level) we speak of God's existence alone. All the rest of reality is "transparent", nothing but the revelation of God. This is the "original thought" of the universe. In the evolution of worlds proper, subsequent to A"K, one may speak about separate modes of existence, Godly and profane. There, the notion of light and vessels that will be described in a later article becomes more germane. Even the manifestation of Adam Kadmon, of God alone existing, within lower levels as in powerfully mystical experience, is only a pale reflection of A"K within the creation. But here we have arrived at the boundary between exclusive Godly being and what we can term existence.


from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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