Tsimtsum In Life Of Pi, Part 1 (Daniel Reiser)

The following is the first of a four-part series.


Yann Martel’s 2001 bestselling novel Life of Pi, later released in 2012 as a prize-winning box office hit, addresses themes such as religion, faith, imagination, and their relation to psychology and human life; hope and despair; and the struggle with human nature. The author promises that his book will bring readers to a belief in God—“Then the elderly man said, ‘I have a story that will make you believe in God.’ […] I agreed with Mr. Adirubasamy that this was, indeed, a story to make you believe in God.”[1]

The book was written in response to the author’s spiritual searching and inner distress—“This book was born as I was hungry,” he attests (vii)—with the aim of liberating readers from the clutches of rational skepticism, regarded by Martel as a honeytrap, “A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, […] were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright.” (5); “the agnostic […] to the very end, lack[s] imagination and miss[es] the better story.” (64)

Pi, the nickname of a young Indian boy named Piscine Molitor Patel, is an active, spiritually curious child with an inclination towards religion who accepts upon himself all of the religions at hand in his childhood home of Pondicherry: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He declares that “many people seem to lose God along life’s way. That was not my case.” (47) For him, “religion is more than rite and ritual,” (48) for he senses the essence common to all religions beyond the rituals which divide them, “[for] Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.” (50) But make no mistake, Life of Pi does not study the established religious dogmas; in fact, it shies away from them.

Three representative figures—a Hindu sage, priest, and Iman—encounter Pi as he strolls on the beach with his family. Exhorting Pi to choose among their faiths, they proclaim, “[H]e can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.” (69). Pi, in turn, responds, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’” (ibid.) The book deals not with the content of faith, but rather with a deeper stratum; it seeks to uncover faith itself, the foundation common to all religions. In other words, Life of Pi does not ask “what am I to believe?” (a question which sets various faiths at odds with each other), but rather, “what is belief?” It thus directs our attention to the character of the person of faith and their relationship to the world.

Judaism ostensibly has no place in Pi’s spiritual life. It merits only a single mention in the whole book, when Pi’s brother Ravi mocks his tri-religious affiliation:

“So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the hajj this year?” he said, bringing the palms of his hands together in front of his face in a reverent namaskar. “Does Mecca beckon?” He crossed himself. “Or will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pius?” He drew in the air a Greek letter, making clear the spelling of his Mockery. “Have you found time yet to get the end of your pecker cut off and become a Jew? At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.” (70)

Pi is the only human survivor, his entire family, the sailors, and other passengers having perished. He drifts across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat together with the sole surviving zoo animals—a hyena, a Bengal tiger, an orangutan, and a zebra hobbled by a broken leg—before washing up on the shores of Mexico. The lifeboat too, like its mother ship, is named the Tsimtsum, “The words Tsimtsum and Panama were printed on each side of the bow in stark, black, roman capitals.” (138) Pi must survive for 227 days on board the smaller Tsimtsum. He witnesses, during this time, the deaths of the zebra and orangutan at the hands of the hyena, and, subsequently, the tearing apart of the hyena by the tiger. Pi is compelled to learn to live with the tiger, whose name is Richard Parker,[2] tame it, and maintain his supremacy; to fish for fish and turtles; to ration water and other supplies; and provide food for the tiger.

Tsimtsum is not a Japanese name. While the ship is identified as Japanese, perhaps leading the author to choose a name with a “Japanese” ring to it, the word signifies a Jewish theological concept which emerges from the kabbalistic doctrine of R. Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Kabbalist of Safed. As I mentioned above, the author “ostensibly” does not address Judaism, but despite this one must note that the opening chapter of the book mentions this Jewish Kabbalist and his doctrine. This is the opening of the book, a highly-significant introduction which conveys a key idea:

My suffering left me sad and gloomy. Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly wrought me back to life. […] After one year of high school, I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor’s degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. (3)

The Hebrew name for Luria’s theory of cosmogony is none other than Torat ha-Tsimtsum, the doctrine of Divine contraction. Stated otherwise, the author’s usage of the Jewish concept of tsimtsum, a term recurrent from the beginning of the book to its end, is an intentional choice—I believe the entire book to be a brilliant psychological commentary on this concept that explores the nature of belief, the life of the faithful, their difficulties and struggles, and, with that, the benefits belief provides to the faithful.

Following 227 day of anguish, suffering, despair, and fear, Pi washes up on the shores of Mexico and is subsequently hospitalized. Representatives of the Japanese shipping company pay him a visit in order interview him and learn why the Tsimtsum sank. Pi relates his tale to the Japanese representatives, but they do not belief his story, At their request, he provides another, more plausible, account.

The second version provided by Pi is quite brief and, at around fifteen pages in total, comprises the third and final section of the book (less than ten percent of the book’s length). The survivors here are Pi, his mother, the ship’s cook, and a beautiful sailor with a broken leg. The survivors amputate the sailor’s leg in order to save him from further infection, but he dies as a result of the operation. The cook is quickly revealed to be a glutton who eats all of the food on the lifeboat and even begins to consume the body of the dead sailor, as well.

In a subsequent scuffle between the cook and Pi’s mother, he kills her, leading Pi to repay him in kind. Having killed the cook, Pi is compelled to consume his body in order to survive. In this account, the survivors are all human beings. It is human beings, and not the Bengal tiger, who rampage and kill. Earlier in the novel, Pi had recalled: “Just beyond the ticket booth Father had painted on a wall in bright red letters the question: DO YOU KNOW WHICH IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE ZOO? An arrow pointed to a small curtain. There were so many eager, curious hands that pulled at the curtain that we had to replace it regularly. Behind it was a mirror.” (31) Indeed, in a world compared to a zoo, it is man who is the “most dangerous animal.”

As the Japanese businessmen realize, this account corresponds to the first version of the tale. The sailor with the broken leg correlates to the zebra with a broken leg; Pi’s mother correlates to the orangutan; the cook is the hyena; and Pi himself is the Bengal tiger. The sailor/zebra dies from gangrene and the amputation of his leg and is subsequently consumed by the cook/hyena. The orangutan/Pi’s mother sets upon the sailor/hyena and successfully hinders him. The cook/hyena exacts swift retribution and kills her. Measure for measure, the Bengal tiger/Pi slays the cook/hyena and devours him/it. Upon concluding both accounts, Pi notes that one cannot prove which tale is “true,” prompting him to ask the Japanese officials which version they prefer:

“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between. […] Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum. […] You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. […] In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer. […] So tell me […] which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”

Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”

Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”

Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” (316-317)

The book opens with the assurance that “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” and draws to a close with two stories, the first of which—the better story, that of the animals—leads to the belief that “so it goes with God.” It is not a question of which story is true, but which story is better. The recognition of the better story is portrayed in the novel as the recognition of God. Life is a story—“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it […] Doesn’t that make life a story?” (302) The two stories, therefore, are two divergent approaches to life.

Surprisingly, these two stories correspond to two rival interpretations of the doctrine of tsimtsum disputed among kabbalists to this day. A key issue which divides kabbalistic schools is whether the doctrine of tsimtsum is to be understand literally [ke-peshuto] or figuratively [eina ke-peshuto]. Once, when I was young, I asked a student from the Beit El kabbalistic yeshiva, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, to explain to me a kabbalistic text. His first question in response to my query was “do you maintain that tsimtsum is literal or figurative?”[3]

The Theological Doctrine of Tsimtsum

The cosmogonic theory of R. Isaac Luria assumes that the Divine, referred to also as Ein Sof (The Endless), fills all space and comprises everything to the exclusion of anything else. If God is an infinite fullness, how, therefore, could something exist outside of God, how could God create anything? Luria’s doctrine of tsimtsum emerges as an answer to this quandary.[4] While Luria left no writings, his students preserved his teachings.

One student, R. Hayyim Vital,[5] explained in the name of his teacher that in order to create the world, Ein Sof withdraw Himself, or His light, from His middle point,[6] forming a vacuum within himself (which the Kabbalists termed “tahiru).[7] Following this, Ein Sof let a single ray of light, known as the “reshimu”—a weak impression of light— into the vacuum, by means of which all of the worlds were created:

Know that prior to the emanation of the emanated and the creation of the created, a simple supernal light filled all of existence and there was no empty space, like unoccupied and vacuous air, for all was filled by that simple light […] Ein Sof then contracted Himself within the midpoint in the very center of the light, contracting the light and displacing it to the margins surrounding the midpoint, leaving behind an vacant space and empty vacuum. […] Following this contraction, which left behind the space of the vacuum and the vacant and empty air truly within Ein Sof, as stated above, there was already space to contain the emanations, creations, forms, and things made. A single straight beam of the light of Ein Sof then proceeded downward from His encircling light, concatenating downward into the vacuum […] In this empty space He emanated, created, formed, and made all the worlds.[8]

Read in a straightforward manner, the Lurianic mythos implies the existence of a place of emptiness, that is, the “vacant place and empty vacuum.” Devoid of what? Without what? Ostensibly, it is empty of Divinity, devoid of the light of Ein Sof. Furthermore, Luria contended that the world was created within this “empty vacuum.” It emerges, therefore, that God is not present in the world. Practically, the doctrine of tsimtsum removed the presence of the Divine from the world, relating to God, the light of Ein Sof, as a transcendental force nearly entirely removed from the cosmos (with the exception of the “reshimu”).[9]

This notion of Divine withdrawal from the world is inconsistent with the common mystical standpoint according to which God is found in all, even in the lowest of things, such that the mystic might uncover the Divine and occasionally encounter Him within the lower levels of this world.[10] This apparent contradiction spurred the development of interpretations arguing against a literal understanding of tsimtsum. For this school, the Lurianic cosmogony is to be read as an allegory, with an effort made to understand its metaphorical import.

This dispute over the literal versus non-literal, or allegorical, conception of tsimtsum erupted with the subsequent dissemination of Lurianic Kabbalah among early-eighteenth-century Kabbalists.[11] With that, the hasidic tsaddikim active from the late eighteenth century and onwards were, with no exceptions as far as I am aware, wholeheartedly of the opinion that tsimtsum was allegorical.

The most significant hasidic work to treat the subject is R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady’s Sha’ar Yihud ve-Emunah (1796). R. Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Habad hasidic group, posits in the seventh chapter of his book that a literal understanding of tsimtsum would imply a diachronic change within the Divine—prior to tsimtsum the unadulterated light of Ein Sof filled all of existence before its subsequent evacuation from the empty space. He argued that this could not be so, pointing to the biblical verses and rabbinic teachings to the effect that God neither undergoes changes nor is subject to time.

R. Shneur Zalman further draws on the writings of the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who had stated of God that “He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself—all are one.” Maimonides contrasted human knowledge—which receives information from outside of itself—with divine knowledge. Seeing as nothing exists outside of God, He does not receive His knowledge from external sources, but rather through knowing Himself:

All are equally permeated with the light of the Ein Sof, blessed be He… Now, from the foregoing exposition the verse, “I, Lord, have not changed,” (Malachi 3:6) will be understood. This means: there is no change [in the Divine] at all; just as He was alone prior to the creation of the world, so is He alone after it was created […] without any change in His Essence, nor in His Knowledge, for by knowing Himself, He knows all created things […] And as Maimonides, of blessed memory, stated, that “He is the Knower, He is the Known, and He is Knowledge itself— all are one.”[12] This is beyond the power of speech to express, beyond the capacity of the ear to hear, and of the heart of man to apprehend clearly. For the Holy One, blessed be He, His Essence and Being, and His Knowledge are all absolutely one, from every side and angle, and every form of unity. His Knowledge is not superadded to His Essence and Being as it is in the soul of man, whose knowledge is added to his essence […] The Holy One, blessed be He, however, is a perfect unity, without any composition and plurality at all. Hence, perforce, His Essence and Being and His Knowledge are all absolutely one […] for the Holy One, blessed be He, is completely One and Unique. He and His Knowledge are all absolutely one, and knowing Himself, He perceives and knows all beings.[13]

R. Shneur Zalman draws on this principle in his attack against literal conceptions of tsimtsum. His critique is predicated on two philosophical axioms previously advanced by Maimonides. These consist, firstly, of the complete negation of corporeality in relation to God[14] and, secondly, that nothing exists outside of God, who is omniscient in His self-knowledge, as stated above:

In the light of what has been said above it is possible to understand the error of some, scholars in their own eyes, may God forgive them, who erred and misinterpreted in their study of the writings of the Ari, of blessed memory, and understood the doctrine of tsimtsum, which is mentioned therein literally—that the Holy One, blessed be He, removed Himself and His Essence, God forbid, from this world, and only guides from above, with individual Providence, all the created beings […] Now, aside from the fact that it is altogether impossible to interpret the doctrine of tsimtsum literally, is a phenomenon of corporeality, concerning the Holy One, blessed be He, who is set apart from them by many myriads of separations ad infinitum, they also did not speak wisely, since they are “Believers, the sons of believers” that the Holy One, blessed be He, knows all the created beings in this lower world and exercises Providence over them, and perforce His knowledge of them does not add plurality and innovation to Him, for He knows all by knowing Himself. Thus, as it were, His Essence and Being and His Knowledge are all one. And this is stated in Tikunim, Tikun 57: “There is no place devoid of Him.”[15]

A literal understanding of tsimtsum constitutes a blatant corporealization of God, attributing to God qualities of space, volume, and time. In this reading, God did not have space to create the world, necessitating that He contract, that is, remove Himself in order to make space for creation. This corporealizing mythos thus portrays God as existing within space and acting within a chronological timeline (prior/subsequent to the tsimtsum).

The weight of R. Shneur Zalman’s critique, however, was directed at the premise of Divine absence from the empty space formed in the wake of the tsimtsum. Adopting Maimonides’ conception of Divine unity alongside a notion of Divine providence maintained by subscribers of literal tsimtsum who are “Believers, the sons of believers that the Holy One, blessed be He, knows all the created beings in this lower world and exercises Providence over them,” he deduces that God’s being is indeed present within the empty vacuum of the world.

If, as Maimonides stated, no distinction can be made between God’s knowledge and essence of unity, then if God knows all that occurs within the empty vacuum, His being and essence are consequently present as well. One who acknowledges that God knows all that occurs within the empty space is compelled to further admit that God is found within it. If so, there is, in fact, no vacuum devoid of God, and the tsimtsum is merely an allegory and metaphor.

R. Shneur Zalman, and Hasidism in general, did not interpret the doctrine of tsimtsum as a cosmogonic myth, but rather as a metaphor for revelation. In place of a creation story, tsimtsum is taken as an allegory of God’s revelation to man: “God, may He be blessed, contracted [tsimtsem] His luminosity. This may be compared to a parent who contracts their intellect and speaks simply in order that their young children might understand.”[16] In other words, the tsimtsum is not an “removal,” but rather a “concealment” or “dimming,” of the Divine light. God matches His revelation (light) in accordance with the capability of the person to receive: “The Divinity did not remove its light, but rather revealed it in accordance: “Divinity did not really remove itself; it fills being with its light in accord with the abilities and mental capacity of each creature. Rather than a limiting of Divinity, what takes place is a special revelation of the Divine.”[17]

This theological standpoint emerges from sensitive reflection on the paradoxical human relationship with concealment and revelation. If I were to enter my classroom in a state of undress, it is reasonable to assume that my students would experience great discomfort and swiftly leave the classroom. The act of concealment—in this case, the concealment of the body—allows us to be “uncovered,” to reveal ourselves. For things to be revealed, they oftentimes, in fact, need to be concealed. One who wishes to safely observe the sun must wear special glasses containing a protective element to screen out solar radiation.

This protective obscuration is what paradoxically allows the sun to be revealed before our eyes. Much like the sun, were God to be fully unveiled, “no creature would remain alive,” “for no one shall see Me and live.”[18] The parent or teacher must diminish themselves to match the intellectual capabilities of the young student. This is not to imply an actual change in the intellect of the teacher, but rather that the teacher who does not know to diminish themselves cannot be “revealed” and remains inaccessible to their young students. R. Shneur Zalman stresses time and again that God does undergo any change. The revelation to humankind does not infantilize the Divine—God comes to match each person while remaining the same God just as a grown teacher instructing children remains an adult.

“No two prophets prophesy in the identical phraseology.”[19] The prophet (or any other person who experiences a revelation marked by a linguistic component) perceives the divine word in the language most familiar to them. Even within a common language, every prophet speaks in their own distinct style. Jeremiah’s Hebrew indeed differs from that of Isaiah, “and the prophet Isaiah, a resident of the capital city, makes extensive use of imagery borrowed from urban life, while the prophet Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, speaks in the language of the natural world in which he lived.”[20]

This question has been dealt with by bible commentators and scholars who point to the direct link between the prophetic language and the character and background of the prophet.[21] In other words, a given prophecy matches the prophet who utters it. The hasidic interpretation of tsimtsum likewise transforms the cosmogonic myth to a theory of divine revelation to humanity. The act of tsimtsum, in which God comes to fit every person “according to their own measure,” is a necessary precursor of revelation.[22]

The students of R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, known as mitnagdim [opponents] due to their opposition to the Hasidic movement,[23] took issue with this understanding of tsimtsum.[24] The students of the Gaon of Vilna comprise several schools, a detailed discussion of which is beyond the framework of this paper.[25] With that, it may be said of the mitnagdim that they wished to preserve a clear dichotomy between God and the world in alignment with the words of the psalmist (Ps. 116:15), “The highest heavens belong to the Lord but the earth He has given to mankind.”

To the mitnagdim, the hasidic notion that “No place is devoid of the One” blurs the boundaries between God and the world, and, accordingly, between the sacred and the profane. The standpoint that God is found in all negates any dimension of the non-holy. This is at odds with the distinctions between pure and impure, good and evil, and commandment and prohibition that lie at the basis of the Bible and rabbinic tradition. Their concern was substantiated—the sense of absolute divine imminence, even within sin, has spurred the development of antinomian streams of thought within Hasidism.[26]

Students of the Gaon of Vilna, from his direct disciple R. Hayyim of Volozhin in his Nefesh ha-Hayyim, up to the early-twentieth-century writings of the Lithuanian Kabbalist R. Shlomo Elyashiv, continued to express opposition to the hasidic conception of tsimtsum.[27] This latter Kabbalist approached the study of Lurianic Kabbalah as a hermetic system. By this, I mean that Elyashiv’s works sought to harmonize internal contradictions within the Zoharic and Lurianic corpora by means of kabbalistic terminology alone.

His approach to Kabbalah mirrored that of the mathematician, who does not employ historical or sociological considerations in order to solve mathematical problems.[28] He therefore strongly opposed any interpretation of Kabbalah which might lead to the transformation of kabbalistic terminology, as well as the translation of kabbalistic terminology to any external subjects.

Daniel Reiser is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog College in Israel. His dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was entitled “To Fly like Angels: Imagery or Waking Dream Techniques in Hassidic Mysticism in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.”


* This article was supported by Herzog College, to which I would like to express my sincere and deepest gratitude. I am very grateful to my student Hayim Ezra Ani, who first exposed me to Life of Pi and the appearance of the term tsimtsum within the book

[1] Yann Martel, Life of Pi (New York: Harcourt, 2001), x.

[2] About the meaning of this name and its significance see Florence Stratton, “‘Hollow at the core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,” Studies in Canadian Literature 29, no. 2 (2004): 11-12; Hamza Karam Ally, “‘Which Story Do You Prefer?’: The Limits of The Symbolic in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,” Literature and Theology 34, no. 1 (2020): 90-91.

[3] On the kabbalistic yeshivot of Jerusalem and the differences among them, see Jonatan Meir, Kabbalistic Circles in Jerusalem (1896–1948), trans. Avi Aronsky (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016).

[4] The doctrine of tsimtsum predates Luria. With that, it was only fully developed in his teachings. On pre-Lurianic notions of tsimtsum, see Moshe Idel, “On the Concept of Ẓimẓum in Kabbalah and its Research,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 10 (1992): 59-112 [Hebrew].

[5] The figures of Vital and his teacher Luria were an inspiration for the Dutch author Geert Kimpen’s best-selling novel De Kabbalist (2004), published shortly after Life of Pi and translated into dozens of European languages.

[6] This proposition is viable from a mathematical standpoint, for infinity does not have a discrete midpoint. Put differently, every point of infinity is its midpoint.

[7] The term tahiru is borrowed from the Zohar (1:251a) and later cited by the students of Luria. See, for instance, Naftali Bacharach, Emek ha-Melekh, Section 1, Chapter 57.

[8] R. Hayyim Vital, Ets Hayyim, Gate 1, Branch 2. The term “reshimu,” (“imprint”) appears further on in the book, Gate 6, Chapter 4, “All that remained within it was an imprint (reshimu).”

[9] Divergent theories of Lurianic tsimtsum, indicative of differing and even opposing conceptions, appear in the writings of another of Luria’s students, Joseph ibn Tabul. Per Vital, the act of contraction formed the power of judgement, that is to say, tsimtsum brought about the existence of evil (which is the absence of Divinity engendered within the vacant place), while ibn Tabul reasons that it was this very power of judgement which necessitated the act of contraction. The Divine sought to be purified of the evil latent within, meaning that the act of contraction was intended to cast evil out of the Divine. On the Lurianic doctrine of tsimtsum and its various theories and explanations, see Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 109-113; Isaiah Tishby, The Doctrine of Evil and the “Kelippah” in Lurianic Kabbalism (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984), 52-61 [Hebrew]; Yoram Jacobson, From Lurianic Kabbalism to the Psychological Theosophy of Hasidism (Tel Aviv: Misrad ha-Bitahon, 1984), 24-30 [Hebrew]; Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 128-131; Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat ha-Ari, vol. 3 (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 2008), 1384-1388.

[10] Jacobson, From Lurianic Kabbalism, 27.

[11] R. Immanuel Hai Riki argued for a literal understanding of tsimtsum in his Yosher Levav (folio 6, §6; folio 9, §14), while R. Joseph Ergas stated in his Shomer Emunim (second disputation, §35) that tsimtsum was not to be read literally, as did R. Abraham Hirera in his Sha’ar ha-Shamayim (Puerta del cielo). On this dispute, see Avivi, Kabbalat ha-Ari, vol. 3, 1051-1077; Nahum Greenwald, “Ha-Or ve-ha-Tsimtsum Lefi Torat ha-Hasidut,” Pardes Habad 7 (2002): 35-48; Moshe Idel, “Conceptualizations of ‘Tzimtzum’ in Baroque Italian Kabbalah,” in Michael Zank and Ingrid Anderson (eds.), The Value of the Particular: Lessons from Judaism and the Modern Jewish Experience: Festschrift for Steven T. Katz on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 28-54.

[12] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” 2:10. It should be noted that Shneur Zalman reading of Maimonides – in his pantheistic interpretation – is a revisionist reading and is not accepted by most modern Rambam scholars, who claim that this approach is most likely even more anathema to Maimonides. See James A. Diamond and Menachem Kellner, Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2019). On Maimonidean Hasidic Theology see Jacob Gotlieb, Rationalism in Hasidic Attire: Habad`s Harmonistic Approach to Maimonides (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2029), 47-70 [Hebrew]

[13] R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Sha’ar Yihud ve-Emenuh, Chapter 7. Quoting above-cited Maimonides with minor changes.

[14] See commentary of Maimonides to M. Sanhedrin 10:1 (Introduction to chapter “Helek”), 1st and 2nd axioms in Hakdamat ha-Rambam la-Mishnah, ed. I. Shilat (Ma’ale Adumim: Ma’aliyot , 1992), 141.

[15] R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Sha’ar Yihud ve-Emenuh, Chapter 7.

[16] R. Dov Ber of Mezeritch, Maggid Devarav le-Ya’akov, ed. Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990), 9.

[17] Hillel Zeitlin, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin, trans Arthur Green (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 2012), 81.

[18] b.Berakhot 61b; Ex. 33:20.

[19] b.Sanhedrin 89a.

[20] Yuval Cherlow, “‘Ein Shnei Nevi’im Mitnavim be-Signon Ahad’: Al Atsmi’ut ve-Nevu’ah,” in Prophesy, O Son of Man: On the Possibility of Prophecy, ed. Odeya Tzurieli (Jerusalem: Reuvan Mas, 2006), 133. See, ibid.: “If we must decide between cause and effect—did God choose to convey a certain prophecy to them on the basis of where they lived, or were their different prophetic languages formed as a result of their environment—the latter seems to be the simpler possibility. Their differences in personality result in a different prophetic style.”

[21] Bible commentators are divided over the question of stylistic differences—is God responsible for the different styles, or did the prophets formulate their prophecies themselves? See the introduction of Abarbanel to Jeremiah and Malbim, who disagrees with him. In any case, there is agreement that prophetic style differs from prophet to prophet. For scholarly approaches, see Hans Walter Wolff, “Die Begründungen der prophetischen Heils und Unheilsspriiche,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 52 (1934): 1-22; Isaac Leo Seeligmann, Studies in Biblical Literature (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992), 171-188 [Hebrew]. On the personal language of the prophet as an independent component of the prophetic literature, see Gershon Brin, Studies in the Prophetic Literature (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2006), 9-34 [Hebrew].

[22] See more Martin Buber, “False Prophets,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse University Press, 1997), 113-118, and see there p. 114: “God has truth, but he does not have a system.”

[23] On the Gaon of Vilna and his opposition to Hasidism, see Immanuel Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and his Image, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 73-150. For the response of his student, R. Hayyim of Volozhin, see ibid., 151-208.

[24] Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 11-28.

[25] See Tamar Ross, “Rav Hayim of Volozhin and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi—Two Interpretations of the Doctrine of Zimzum,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 2 (1982): 153-169 [Hebrew].

[26] See Mendel Piekarz, The Beginning of Hasidism: Ideological Trends in Derush and Musar Literature (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1978), 173-302 [Hebrew]; Tsippi Kauffman, In all Your Ways Know Him: The Concept of God and Avodah be-Gashmiyut in the Early Stages of Hasidism (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2009), 523-571 [Hebrew]. Radical notions of divine imminence within sin are found primarily within the Izhbitz-Radzin school of Hasidism. See Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003); Morris, Faierstein, “Two Radical Teachings in The ‘Mei ha-Shiloah’ and their Sources,” Kabbalah; Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 21 (2010): 111-114; Ora Wiskind-Elper, Wisdom of the Heart: The Teachings of Rabbi Ya’akov of Izbica-Radzyn (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010), 77-111; Herzl Hefter, “Reality and Illusion: A Study in the Religious Phenomenology of R. Mordekhai Yosef of Ishbitz,” MA thesis, Tel Aviv University, 2018, 18-32. Antinomian notions likewise characterized the Sabbatian and Frankist movements. Jacob Frank was active up until the end of the eighteenth century, contemporaneous to the Hasidic movement. These messianic movements advocated for notions of divine imminence and blurred the distinctions between commandment and sin to the point of permitting prohibitions. The concern on the part of the mitnagdim that Hasidism would usher in a new antinomian messianic movement may be understood in light of these earlier movements. See Paweł Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); idem (ed.), Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), xii, xix.

[27] See Ross, “Rav Hayim of Volozhin and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi.”

[28] This stance, which characterizes Lithuanian Jewry, is well described by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. See idem., Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 49-63. Soloveitchik compares the study of Halakhah to mathematics, rejecting the consideration of any non-Halakhic parameters. This is reflective of the Talmudic methodology developed by his grandfather, R. Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk. Elyashiv, a staunch Lithuanian, applied this approach to the study of Kabbalah, developing an intellectual system of Kabbalah informed solely by kabbalistic language and terminology.

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