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On the Eternal Unfolding of the Transcendent Torah

On the Eternal Unfolding of the Transcendent Torah

Torah Hermeneutics in the Thought of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson


Abstract: Throughout the ages the Sages of the Jewish People have applied received exegetical principles within new contexts. Conceptual, geographic and temporal diversities have led to a multiplicity of apparently conflicting conclusions, all drawn within the internal framework of interpretative methodology prescribed by the Torah itself. But when we understand the Torah as a singularity that transcends the triadic configuration of past-present-future, then the apparently disparate elements of Torah interpretation can be re-framed as narrow windows representing different facets of an integral whole. With the opening of each new window, the quintessence of Torah further unfolds and emerges, and all past applications are further illuminated by the broadening view.

I have spent the later hours of the last several nights reading Prof. Elliot Wolfson’s intensely bold and thought provoking exposition of the unique brand of mystical rationalism espoused by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – a work that carries the captivatingly paradoxical title, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of [Rabbi] Menahem Mendel Schneerson. This is not an easy task, but it is certainly a rewarding one.

In Tanya, the Bible of Chabad Chasidic thought, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known in Chabad as the Alter Rebbe, described the role of a Rebbe as being “to teach wisdom to the people, that they may know the greatness of G‑d”. Conversely, he writes, it is incumbent upon the people to invest “great and intense labor, doubled and redoubled,” in an attempt to truly assimilate those teachings.1 The Talmud (Avodah Zarah, 5b) cautions that even the most erudite student may spend forty years in study and not arrive at a complete understanding of his master’s thought. Certainly Wolfson has made the requisite effort to assimilate the Rebbe’s thought patterns,2 but at the same time there are undoubtedly important points of interpretation on which other scholars may disagree with him.3

My purpose here is not to review Wolfson’s work in its entirety, but rather to highlight a passage towards the end of the introductory chapter that I found particularly illuminating. Many scholars of the Rebbe’s work have struggled to understand what has been described as his “harmonistic” approach to the interpretation of Rabbinic texts penned by the greatest Jewish minds over the centuries. This is certainly not an approach that is unique to the Rebbe or even to Chabad in general, but in the Rebbe’s thought it is given such emphasis that it becomes impossible to ignore. Perhaps the best overview of the issue for our purposes, is the one offered by Dr. Jacob Gotlieb in his recent Rationalism In Hasidic Attire Habad`s Harmonistic Approach to Maimonides.

Many scholars of the Rebbe’s work have struggled to understand what has been described as his “harmonistic” approach to the interpretation of Rabbinic texts

Gotlieb cites the treatment of Maimonides by Chabad thinkers as an example of what he considers to be their view of “the developmental nature of Jewish Belief, which is continuously revealed from generation to generation... According to this view... [the doctrine of Jewish] Belief is continuously clarified and revealed over the centuries by the famed Sages of Israel whose teachings become the inheritance of the community... Major currents in Jewish thought such as rational philosophy, the Kabbalah of the Zohar, the Kabbalah of the Arizal, and Chassidic teaching, do not reflect different views of the Jewish faith, but a [single] developing view... The "revelation" of Chassidic teaching does not require the rejection of Maimonides, but its inclusion within the [Chasidic] framework… The interpretive approach… of Chabad thinkers is therefore characterized by harmonistic interpretation, based on a developmental approach.”4

Although Gotlieb does adequately demonstrate the validity of his theory, he does not satisfactorily explain the theological basis for such a bold approach. We are left to wonder at the all too obvious historiographical issues that are apparently ignored. Paradoxically, this approach maintains that the entire corpus of Jewish thought in all its conceptual, geographic and temporal diversity, is but a homogeneous system of unchanging unity.

It is precisely on this issue that I was struck by the sweeping clarity that Wolfson provides. Commenting on the broader issue of historical context he writes, “Notwithstanding… the prudence of always taking the historical context into account, I would insist that the complex patterns of [Rabbi] Shneerson’s worldview need to be evaluated with a different conception of temporality in mind, a notion of time that calls into question the model of aligning events chronoscopically in a sequence stretched between before and after.”5 Using the oft repeated dictum, “There is no before or after in Scripture - ein mukdam u-me’uchar be-torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:I, 49d) as evidence of the use of atemporal forms of interpretation within the Rabbinic tradition, Wolfson points to a talk published on the 22nd of Shvat 5752 (January 27th 1992)6 where the Rebbe himself explained his view of the Torah’s essentially transcendent nature and the role that the Jewish people have in making it manifest.7

The Torah... is revealed by G‑d to the Jewish people who then study it, assimilate it and use their own intelligence and judgment to correctly reapply its principles

The Midrash states that “the thought of the Jewish people came before everything else – machshavtan shel yisrael kadmah le’chol davar” (Bereishit Rabah, 1:4). Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, interpreted this “thought” as being analogous to “the image of the son that is imprinted on the mind of the father” (Or Torah 2, 3). The image projected by the son onto his father’s mind is in some sense synonymous with the Torah, which is revealed by G‑d to the Jewish people who then study it, assimilate it and use their own intelligence and judgment to correctly reapply its principles within the new contexts constantly presented by the unfolding of history.8 The Rebbe used the Maggid’s paradigm to turn the regular hierarchy in which the father precedes the son, on its head. Here, it is the son’s own image (that is, the Torah as assimilated and reapplied by the Jewish people) that precedes, causes and defines, the image imprinted upon his father’s mind (i.e. the essence of the Torah as it (pre)exists within the G‑dhead). As the Maggid points out, being that for G‑d past and future are as one, in the Divine analog this can occur even before the Jewish people have been created. Wolfson calls this type of paradigm “a temporal configuration that is circular in its linearity and linear in its circularity.” In other words, the linear configuration of time has been subverted.

As the Rebbe goes on to explain, we are now forced to think of the Torah as essentially transcendent of time. Insofar as it does relate to time, all that will later be unpacked by the Sages of the Jewish people as they correctly apply its principles, must already be pre-included within its essence.

The very boundaries that define the Jewish People, the Torah and G d as three distinct identities standing in relation to one another, collapse into the essential core of ineffable Divinity

By default, manifestation entails a linear hierarchy in which the hidden precedes the manifest. In subverting that hierarchy we are forced to subvert the very concept of manifestation itself.9 If the linearity is to be made circular, it can only appear to remain linear from the perspective of its later manifestation within the linear paradigm of time. As it exists essentially, however, it must remain circular, and if it is to remain circular it cannot be manifest. In other words, the Torah cannot both proceed from G‑d to the Jewish people, and from the Jewish People to G‑d, unless their is no actual (manifest) procession. The very boundaries that define the Jewish People, the Torah and G‑d as three distinct identities standing in relation to one another, collapse into the essential core of ineffable Divinity, so that neither one precedes the other.10 We are forced to conclude that even as specific applications later to be unpacked by the Jewish people are already included within the transcendent essence of the Torah, their inclusion therein cannot be manifest in any way. The essence of the Torah exists rather, in a form that has no form – or, as the Rebbe terms it, as “concealment that does not exist – helem she’eino be-metziot”. This is not to say that it does not actually exist; on the contrary, this configuration denotes a form of existence so eternal and infinite that it cannot be limited by our conception of existence – even as it can no longer be said to “exist” in the regular sense of the word, it yet exists. Indeed, therein lays the true potency of its absolutely non-contingent existence.11

These are issues of deep abstraction, and as Wolfson points out (Introduction, n. 119) an entire monograph could be devoted to the concept of time as dealt with in the vast corpus of Chabad thought. Doubtless there are issues that require further clarification, but the limits of this essay require us to do no more than highlight the relevant point. The Torah as it exists in its highest form, within the G‑dhead from whence it unfolds, includes within it the entirety of all that will later be unpacked by the Jewish Sages who will study and correctly interpret it throughout the ages. As Wolfson phrases it, “New interpretations of Torah that come to light in the course of history preexisted in the infinite thought or wisdom of the Divine, the supernal Torah… that transcends the triadic division of time, the eternal present wherein past and future are indistinguishable as it is perpetually becoming what it has always never been.”

With the opening of each new window, the quintessence of Torah further unfolds and emerges, and all past applications are further illuminated by the broadening view.

Having reframed the very nature of the Torah’s relationship with time, the difficulties posed by the harmonistic interpretive approach earlier described, simply dissolve. The entire corpus of Jewish thought with all the conceptual, geographic and temporal diversity of its specific applications, can indeed be seen as variant facets of the singular, eternally unchanging Torah, whose transcendent essence unfolds in a fragmented sequence of developmental interpretation.12

Specific applications of Torah interpretation must now be understood as contextualized windows onto a far greater truth. Each new application represents a new facet, broadening the collective view onto the greater whole. Like the manifold pieces of a mosaic, each application can be better understood when placed within the broader pattern. With the opening of each new window, the quintessence of Torah further unfolds and emerges, and all past applications are further illuminated by the broadening view.

For a more humorous but no less serious demonstration of how this harmonistic system of developmental interpretation may be re-imagined in the context of the Chanukah miracle see The Menorah Files, by Tzvi Freeman (based on Kuntras Mai Chanukah, compiled and edited by Rabbis Yoel Kahn and Dovid Olidort).


Lekutei Amarim, Chapter Forty Two.


Evidenced in the thousands upon thousands of citations to all of the Rebbe’s published output made in his copious footnotes, and even in his most personal reflections. In writing of his choice to work intensively on Habad material he writes, “That I could have chosen otherwise is beyond doubt, but then, it would not have been my choosing.” (Wolfson, xiv.) A statement that to my ear echoes the Chasidic doctrine of free-will or free-choice, the principle (and most paradoxical) feature of which is that the choice is rooted in and mandated by the very essence of one’s self.

This offers me the opportunity to direct the interested reader to take a look at the following passage:

“Choice is loftier than intellect, and also loftier than will. For when one’s intellect determines that this object is fitting to be chosen, and also when one desires a certain object… one is forced into this [choice] and it is not free-choice, and the true concept of choice is when one’s choice is not [determined] by the intellect or by the will, but rather that one chooses with free-choice… The fact that one chooses as one wills (despite both options being equal (from that [most transcendent] perspective)) comes from the essence of the soul.” Torat Menchem, Sefer Ha-ma’marim Meluket Vol. 3, 70-71.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Klatzkin, for example, has criticized a fundamental element of Wolfson’s approach, writing, “Wolfson has an academic’s love of abstractions but lacks the Rebbe’s grasp of the continuous grounding of abstractions in the concrete.” (Revealing the Secrets: An Academic Explores The Rebbe’s Teachings.) This lead to a spirited exchange of emails, subsequently published as Elliot Wolfson And Shmuel Klatzkin: An Exchange.


Gotlieb, 12. This is a recurrent theme throughout the book. At the beginning of Chapter One, for example, he cites the famous statement of Maimonides, “He is the knower, He is that which is known, and He is the knowledge itself” (Yesodei Ha-torah, 2:10), and the Maharal’s critique (in the Introduction to Gevurot Hashem), that one may not limit the Deity to such a narrow definition. Gotlieb then cites the harmonistic interpretation of the Alter Rebbe in Tanya (note to Shaar Ha-yichud Ve’ha-emunah, Chapter Nine, 87a) based upon the Kabbalistic doctrine of Tsimtsum.


Unless otherwise stated all further citations of Wolfson refer to pages 22-24.


The fourth anniversary of the passing of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson.


The relevant pages of the published talk, upon which the following paragraphs are based, can be viewed Here and here.


The process of interpretation on the part of the Jewish people must remain within the internal framework of developmental methodology proscribed by the Torah itself. In the Rebbe’s own words, “The Sages interpreted the Torah via the thirteen rules of exegesis... [thus,] the specific thought is a novelty on the part of the veteran student... [but it is] built upon the general rules that Moses received at Sinai.” In other words, the novelty is in the correct application of the received principles within a new context. If the application is made incorrectly, or the received methodological rules are discounted, then the novelty is indeed not Torah, but “contradictory to Torah, as the Mishna (Avot, 3:11) states, ‘one who interprets the Torah without according with the Halacha, although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.’” Likkutei Sichos Vol. 29, pages 175-6. See also below, n. 9.


See Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, Discourse beginning Vayachulu in Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah 5666.


See the closing paragraph of the discourse delivered on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 1980, beginning Zeh Ha’yom (viewable here): “Although it is said [Tanya, Chapter 2]… that just as the son proceeds from the thought of the father, so the soul of every Jew proceeds from the thought and wisdom of G‑d, this… applies [only] as it is made manifest, but its (true) root is in the essence of Divinity… (which is beyond any manifestation)… This is especially so according to the teaching of the Maggid… that it [the way the Jewish People exist in G‑d’s most essential “thought”] is analogous to the son whose image is etched on the thought of his father, only that by humankind this can only occur after the son has been born, whereas for G‑d, even before the Jewish People have been created, their image was etched in [the primordial] thought, for before Him the past and the future are one. From which it is even more understood that the root of the souls… is in the essence of Divinity.”


See the relevant discussion in Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, Rosh Emunah Chapter 7, quoted in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (the Tzemach Tzedek), Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Haamonot Elukut, Section 2.


For more on the rules that govern the developmental system of Torah interpretation, see The Thirteen Principles of Torah Elucidation by Rabbi Immanuel Schochet.

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Discussion (26)
March 10, 2014
The Unfolding of the Transcendent Torah.
I am not learned and it is daunting to offer my comments when I am clearly out of my depth. We cannot all understand at the same level as learned rabbis, and a Tzadik, such as the Rebbe, understands at levels that even the most learned find
difficult to plumb; yet we are all confronted by this mystery. As a human being, I am
programmed to understand life as it is experienced, one moment after another. Even reviewing my own life, so far, I can only see it as a progression with some areas more vivid than others. Yet, with the help of a metaphor from somewhere, if I
think of my experience, I can understand this progression as an arpeggio and I can
understand the divine perspective as a chord; and if that chord is my life, from start to finish, I can begin to sense all lives as other chords co-existent in harmony.
Then, beyond existence, other aspects, at which I am lost in wonder at what is too
profound for me to contemplate. I can say no more.
February 19, 2012
To Shmuel
Yashar Koach for the mm!

I don't have TM 5744, but the Sichos Kodesh is available at HebrewBooks dot org 4620. The Rebbe seems to be adding another, quite significant point to the Urim v'Tumim: Not just that "the spirit of G-d dwelled within them," but that "since they have been accepted in all the diaspora, therefore they have become a portion of the oral Torah."

The tacit words there are "if it is Torah, every word is precise"—regardless of the author's intent. The work's context as a portion of Torah overrides the context of its authorship.

This lines up much more with the Rebbe's concept of Torah as Eli presents it here—an ever-unfolding singular entity.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
February 17, 2012
The Rebbe vs. the Rambam
See Rabbi Yonasan Eibshutz, Urim vTumim 25 - Kitzur Takpo Kohen 124: The laws of the Shulchan Aruch and Rema have been explained in ways that it is impossible to have been considered by their author. Rather it was the spirit of G-d that dwelled within them, and brought them to word their books in a manner that includes many more ideas.
See also from the Rebbe: TM 5744 vol. 2 p. 614; Sichos Kodesh 5739 vol. 1 p. 268 (see there why one cannot attribute the 'four elements' to the limited knowledge of the time.)
Passaic, NJ
January 19, 2012
Rebbe and Rav Kook
Rabbi Freeman: So would ! But I do not think I am the right person to undertake this major project. Perhaps I can persuade my good friend and colleague, Prof. Jonathan Garb to undertake it.
Lawrence Kaplan
January 19, 2012
Re: Rebbe and Rav Kook
Prof. Kaplan, please do. I would be fascinated to read.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
January 19, 2012
Rebbe and Rav Kook
It would be worthwhile comparing the views of the Rebbe and Habad Hassidut regarding harmonization with those of Rav Kook.
Lawrence Kaplan
January 18, 2012
While not attempting to address all the individual points raised here, I'd like to provide a general pointer on the Rebbe's anschauung re diversity in Jewish thought vs. harmonization. Chassidus views every intellectual 'sevara' as expressing a discrete subjective spiritual reality. The variety in the system though is ultimately an expression of the 'pirud' inherent in the lower spheres, which results in multiple, partial 'truths'.

Thus, whatever Rambam might state is merely representative of some subjective truth he arrived at through utilizing his admittedly mighty intellect; it expresses some higher truth, but he might not have been fully aware of its fuller context and significance. [Thus the classic chasidic assertion that 'hu ha'deah atzmah' is incorrect except in terms of describing the world of 'Atzilus']. Chasidus and a Rebbe, on the other hand, are about drawing the ultimate, objective Truth into our lives; Atzmus is consummate unity. It's certainly not about any one person.
S.D. Homnick
Brooklyn, NY
January 18, 2012
Re: The Rebbe & Rambam
In answer to Michael's question, but also to fill in some of the holes in my previous post:

There are many references, both from the Magid and from the Baal Hatanya, describing the source of "otiot" as within "kadmut hasechel" or "b'etzem hanefesh." In other words, HOW a teacher says something tells you much more than what he says. And I believe that's to the point that the talmid may even discern from the nuances of the teacher's otiot something to which the teacher himself was oblivious.

For example, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, who never taught anything he did not hear from Rabbi Yochanan, his teacher--and nevertheless surprised his teacher with his chidushim (see the account in Pirke D'Rabbe Eliezer) and was (by some readings) of Bet Shammai, even though his teacher was of Bet Hillel!

If so, I believe that to make dikdukim in otiot ha-rav, you really need a feel for the etzem ha-nefesh of the rav. That the "gedola shimusha"--and the yirat shamayim.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
January 18, 2012
I agree with Dr. Lefcoe. Indeed, Eitan Fishbane in his book on R. Isaac of Akko shows that this was his approach. I cite from Sefer Meirat Eynayim:

The wise individual should not only make peace between the words of two different Sages by the way of truth [Kabbalah], but even with respect to matters of philosophy, the wise individual should make peace between them and matters of Kabbalah.

On the other hand, R. Isaac warns against premature harmonization, against those who "confuse the traditions" ["le-arbev et hakabbalot." ] As Dr. Lefcoe states, one must first work out fully all the individual shittot, and only afterwards seek to harmonize them with each other.
Lawrence Kaplan
January 15, 2012
To Michael re: "commitment"
To me the harmonizing trend comes after one has toiled in the analysis and clarification of the individual shitot, with the commitment to linear reasoning, ukimta and so on. Only after that process has reached a maturity does the individual begin to break through into "seeing" the overall picture, a holistic view wherein all the individual Torah views find their respective places as expressions of various aspects of an overriding whole of Torah. In the old days this would be done sequentially, with the "harmonizing" nistar view being taken on only later in life (40 years, with a family etc). Nowadays it seems that we teach harmonization/nistar early in life, lechora due to the lower level of emuna of our generations. We need to be reassured that there is a transcendent Whole Torah in a way that previous generations may not have.
Dr. Yaacov Lefcoe
Yesod HaMaala, Israel