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. 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, but at the same time there are undoubtedly important points of interpretation on which other scholars may disagree with him.
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.”
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.” 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) 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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).