Abstract: Why did G‑d create the world? What is the purpose of the mitzvot? The Jewish tradition embraces a wide gamut of approaches, from the rigorously rationalist to the profoundly mystical. But the native source from which these streams flow is Midrash, a genre most obviously distinguished by its richly impressionistic literary style and by the authority of its tone. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s reading of the wise son’s question and the Haggadah’s answer demonstrates how Chabad Chassidic thought rediscovers the Midrashic orientation, and reintegrates the intervening rationalist and mystical streams so that they collaboratively rearticulate the authoritative testimony of their source, making the intimate essence of G‑d openly resonant in the place of otherness.
Part One: The Lost Language of Faith
We are used to thinking in linear terms, stringing a spectrum of ideas between two poles. The notion that this linear orientation can be bent into a circle, so that the poles of faith and reason coincide, seems utterly counterintuitive. And yet, when the Jewish philosophical tradition is traced to its earliest roots, we encounter the distinctly nonlinear mode of thought presented in the collection of ancient texts known as Midrash.
The more linear modes of philosophical and mystical thought actually represent something of a departure from the original orientation of Midrash. Like a person trying to articulate the deepest secrets of their heart to a stranger, the most axiomatic assumptions of Midrash are regrettably lost in transmission.
Nevertheless, Midrash has always been studied, and all streams of Jewish thought draw from its wellsprings. When we probe the depths of these wellsprings, we find that the axiomatic assumptions of Midrash are rediscovered and revived in the wellsprings of Chassidism, especially as developed by the Chabad school.
Unlike formal works of ethics, philosophy or theology, Midrash does not present linear arguments leading from premises to conclusions. Neither does Midrash speak in a single voice. Instead, Midrash curates anecdotes, hermeneutics, parables, hints and metaphors to conjure a colorful mosaic of meaning that transcends direct definition in propositional terms. Midrash is comprised of impressionistic commentaries to the Torah, which are at once chaotic and harmonious, specific and all-encompassing, bearing on all kinds of ethical, epistemological Midrash is most obviously characterized by its kaleidoscopic vision and authoritative voice.and religious questions.
It was primarily in the medieval period that more systematic accounts of Jewish belief began to appear. These accounts were partially formulated in correspondence with contemporaneous intellectual and religious movements, and are necessarily marked by a more rigidly defined religious orientation. In this way the rationalist and mystical schools emerged as distinct strains of Jewish thought. This distinction has never been as clearcut as is popularly supposed, but it provides a useful frame of reference within which the history of Jewish thought can be discussed.
The project of the rationalist school was chiefly to buttress religious faith with the tools of natural philosophy, justifying the commandments in terms of their benefit to humankind, and presenting logical arguments for the existence of G‑d. The project of the mystical school, on the other hand, was primarily to endow religious faith and ritual with transcendent potency and soulful feeling. The mystical school articulates a vision of how terrestrial man can achieve and experience spiritual union (yichud), with the supernal realms and with G‑d’s own self.
Midrash is most obviously characterized by its kaleidoscopic vision and authoritative voice. In its treatment of the biblical text, and in its treatment of religious and ethical questions, Midrash does not proceed sequentially from A to B, formulating composite arguments or instructions, but operates on a principle of ubiquitous similarity and relevance. The entire Torah and the entire spectrum of religious thought are treated as a single, interrelated whole. As the word of G‑d, the Torah cannot be fragmented by context. Midrash testifies to the essential unity of the Torah by illuminating one passage by reference to any other passage, as well as to any question of ethics, theology or The entire Torah and the entire spectrum of religious thought are treated as a single, interrelated whole.faith.
Where rationalist and mystical ideation can often seem abstract and esoteric, Midrash speaks with forthright relevance to the existential issues of real life. Midrash formulates the all-encompassing potency of its truths through a diverse panorama of creative exegesis, colorful allegory and vivid narrative. Rather than communicating through the more rigid packages of logical argument and experiential description, Midrash instead expresses itself in a far more authoritative tone of declarative testimony.
In an earlier article, I discussed the deep tie between unity and faith in Chabad thought, the central axiom of faith being that all the disparate elements of experience are somehow refractions of a single prism. It accordingly comes as no surprise that the most obvious axiom of Midrash is the essential unity of the entire Torah, nor that this sensibility is best expressed through Midrashic decontextualization and diversity. Since Midrash is the original wellspring of Jewish thought, meaning-making and faith, how else could it function but as a harmonious kaleidoscope of all-encompassing impressionism?
Rationalist works speak the language of intellectual reason. Mystical works speak the language of soulful experience. Midrashic texts speak the all-encompassing language of faith.
Midrashic testimony speaks more authoritatively than any argument, and eclipses any experience. Midrashic impressionism subverts the hierarchies that separate sophistication from simplicity, unity from multiplicity, and transcendence from tangibility. Midrashic faith extends the quintessence of Jewish identity into a circle of meaning that is at once accessible and elusive. It takes sensitive and attentive study to discover the harmonious meaning that lies beneath the chaotic mosaic of its surface.
Maimonides famously reinterpreted Midrash to conform with Aristotelian philosophical principles. More mystically inclined commentators employed elements associated with the Neoplatonist school to The axiomatic assumptions of Midrash are rediscovered and revived in the wellsprings of Chassidism.similar effect. The purpose of both rationalists and mystics was actually to preserve Midrashic teachings. But the intellectual frameworks they employed channeled Jewish thought through the constraints of borrowed forms.
A survey of the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, and his successors reveals them to be deeply grounded in all the diverse branches of the Jewish philosophical tradition. But Chabad thought also uncovers a unified vision underlying all the divergent strands of the tradition. Naftali Loewenthal has written that Chassidic teachings represent “a revival of the midrashic mode, in which a text acts as the germinator of an inspired outpouring of visionary narrative, perceptions, and ideas.” In this article, my purpose is to take this argument one step further, demonstrating how Chabad teachings harmonize and incorporate the divergent strands of rationalism and mysticism so that they are themselves integrated within the kaleidoscopic framework of the Midrashic perspective.
Part Two: In Search of the Cosmic Good
Of all the issues explored over the centuries, the question of cosmic purpose stands at the center of Jewish intellectual inquiry. Why do we exist? Why did G‑d choose to create the world and place humankind within it? Closely intertwined with this inquiry is a question regarding the divinely mandated commandments, the mitzvot: Why should an infinite G‑d be concerned about the minutiae of human behavior?
Rationalist and mystical thinkers alike tended to address these questions in terms of utility. But R. Schneur Zalman addressed them in terms of utterly non-utilitarian desire. This radically different approach exemplifies the unique character of his thought, and the degree to which he looked to Midrash for insight and inspiration. The way R. Schneur Zalman’s successors further elucidated and developed his approach illustrates how they reintegrated the rationalist Rationalist and mystical thinkers alike addressed these questions in terms of utility. Rabbi Schneur Zalman addressed them in terms of utterly non-utilitarian desireand mystical branches of Jewish thought within the original Midrashic orientation.
One of the earliest systematic works of Jewish philosophy was The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, known in Hebrew as Sefer Emunot ve-De’ot, by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon. The following passage exemplifies the rationalist understanding of why the world exists and why the mitzvot are important:
The creation of the world was an expression of goodness and kindness on G‑d’s part . . . and afterwards He gave them a cause through which they will reach the most complete happiness and the most complete goodness . . . that which He commanded them to implement and warned them to desist from.
In the rationalist model, the virtues of goodness and kindness are held to be the motivating factors that inspired G‑d to bring other beings into existence. Similarly, the purpose of the mitzvot is to provide humankind with a path to ultimate virtue and happiness.
A more mystical formulation of the same notion considers the attainment of divine knowledge and union, rather than human virtue and happiness, to be the good that inspired G‑d to create man. As the Zohar puts it:
Before G‑d made a countenance or conceived any form, He was alone, without form or likeness. There was no one who could know Him before creation . . .
Accordingly, G‑d brought the world and humanity into being “in order that they should know Him.”
This approach was further articulated by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed Arizal of Safed, and transcribed by his student Rabbi Chaim Vital:
Regarding the ultimate purpose of the creation of the worlds . . . the cause of the matter is that . . . if the worlds and all that is in them were not created, the true demonstration of His eternal being could not be made apparent . . .
As in the rationalist model, these texts imply that the purpose of creation is the achievement of an ideal. But here the recipient of that good is G‑d rather than humanity. The purpose is not that humanity For the rationalist, the good is described in terms of human value. For the mystic, it is described in terms of divine worth.should attain virtue and happiness, but that the fullness of divine capacity and majesty should become known.
Elsewhere, R. Chaim Vital echoes R. Saadiah Gaon’s concept of creation as an act of goodness extended by G‑d towards creation. But in doing so, he shifts the measure of good from the attainment of human virtue and happiness to the attainment of divine knowledge and spiritual union with G‑d:
It arose in His will to create the world in order to do goodness to His creations, that they may recognize His greatness and merit to be a supernal chariot to cleave unto Him, blessed be He.
The metaphor of the supernal chariot, which is also alluded to in the Zoharic passage excerpted earlier, denotes utter submission to the will of the chariot driver. In this formulation, the ultimate good for man is to transform the self into a vehicle of the divine will. Accordingly, the Torah and its commandments map out a path via which we humans can subjugate ourselves to G‑d and achieve the mystic union for which we were created.
For rationalist and mystical thinkers alike, the general purpose of creation leads directly to the divine preoccupation with the minutiae of human behavior. And for both, the ultimate goal is the attainment of a sought-after good. But they are distinguished by their understanding of the nature of that good. For the rationalist, the good is described in terms of human value. For the mystic, it is described in terms of divine worth.
Throughout history, the greatest Jewish thinkers reiterated different formulations and combinations of the same general approach. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi returned to the earlier Midrashic sources and drew forth a radically non-utilitarian understanding of what lies at the core of cosmic purpose.
Part Three: Intimacy in the Place of Otherness
The traditional approach assumes the existence of a spectrum of possibilities ranging from more ideal to less ideal. It also assumes that divine activity and instruction must be motivated by some lofty ideal. This actually implies that the creative project is essentially utilitarian in nature, and we would do well to question whether these assumptions are valid. Can anything really be of utility to G‑d? Can there really be an objective set of ideals that somehow inspire G‑d to embark on the cosmic project? Are such ideals themselves not products of G‑d’s creative capacity?
If G‑d is actually the author of all ideals, no utilitarian ideals can motivate the project of creation. Such compelling impetus can extend only from within G‑d’s essential self.
A striking formulation in several Midrashic texts indicates that creation actually stems from something both more transcendent and more subjective than might reasonably be supposed:
When G‑d created the world, He desired that there should be a dwelling for Himself in the lower realms just as there is in the higher realms.
The important word here is “desire,” which suggests something more urgent and intimate than the cold demands of an objective good. Some Midrashic texts suggest The important word here is “desire,” which suggests something more urgent and intimate than the cold demands of an objective good.that this desire was partially satisfied when the Jewish people built a portable sanctuary for G‑d shortly after the revelation of the Ten Commandments in the Sinai Desert. But it is also implied that this is a macro desire, which encompasses all of creation. The building of the sanctuary is therefore to be seen as a microcosmic achievement, and only the precursor for the incremental transformation of the entire world into a dwelling for G‑d. This conclusion is alluded to in the original Midrashic texts, but in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s foundational work, Tanya, it is amplified in the most explicit terms:
The ultimate purpose of the creation of this world is that the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to have a dwelling in the lower realms. The purpose . . . is not for the sake of the higher realms, because for them there is a descent from the light of His blessed countenance. The ultimate purpose is this lowest realm.
The lowest realm, R. Schneur Zalman explains, is low in terms of the degree to which divinity is revealed therein; it is “this physical and materialistic world” that is
the lowest of the low in terms of the concealment of His blessed light, and darkness that is doubled and doubled again, to the extent that it is filled with husks (kelipot) and otherness (sitra achara) that actually oppose G‑d.
It is precisely here, in the lowest realm, that G‑d’s ultimate desire lies:
For so it arose in His blessed will that He would have pleasure when otherness is suppressed and darkness transformed into light; when the light of G‑d, the infinite, blessed be He, shines in the place of darkness and otherness that is all this world, and with greater intensity and greater power, and with the advantage of light that emerges from darkness . . .
In this model, divine motivation is shifted from objective reason to subjective desire, and the entire hierarchy of ideals is subtly turned on its head. G‑d’s purpose Spiritual illumination and truth cannot satisfy divine desire unless they are drawn into the place of greatest spiritual deficit.is not simply to bestow goodness and inspire perfection. If that were the case, the world could have been made perfect from the outset. Instead, G‑d’s utterly non-utilitarian wish is to draw perfection into the place of imperfection. The purposeful orchestration of imperfection is actually integral to the satisfaction of G‑d’s essential desire. Spiritual illumination and truth cannot satisfy divine desire unless they are drawn into the place of greatest spiritual deficit, where darkness and otherness rule, and where divinity is least apparent.
Aside from the notion of desire, the Midrashic texts cited in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s writings and oral discourses also invoke the notion of “a dwelling,” or a home for G‑d, “in the lower realms.” As we will see, this concept is the foundation for the ultimate integration of the rationalistic and midrashic approaches within the Midrashic framework.
In a discourse articulating the significance of this notion, Rabbi Schneur Zalman distinguishes between the unmitigated revelation of the transcendent essence of G‑d, and the limited revelation of G‑d that is drawn progressively through the sequence of worlds (hishtalshelut ha-olamot). To enter into the role of Creator, G‑d figuratively descends from the essential transcendence of the divine self. In this cosmological model, G‑d’s presence is more overtly and intensely manifest in the “higher” realms. In the “lower” realms, the glimmer of divine ubiquity is progressively obscured by increasing layers of fractured opacity. G‑d’s essential self, however, remains entirely transcendent of even the loftiest revelation.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman likens G‑d’s presence within the sequence of worlds to a person journeying away from home and staying at a series of increasingly less hospitable guest houses. A “dwelling,” however, is not simply a guest house, but a home. And “a dwelling in the lower realms” is a home away from home. Accordingly, the Midrash is understood to mean that G‑d desired a dwelling that would be like the home of a friend in a far-off city, Humankind’s purpose is to make divine ubiquity so apparent that even in this world, in this place of otherness, G‑d will be at home.where the individual feels as comfortable and as uninhibited as in his or her own dwelling.
Our own world is the lowest in the cosmic sequence, the furthest from G‑d’s essential home, and the place where G‑d is least likely to feel at home. Yet it is specifically in this lowest realm that G‑d desired a home away from home. According to R. Schneur Zalman, humankind’s purpose is to make divine ubiquity so apparent that even in this world, in this place of otherness, G‑d will be at home.
Extending the analogy of a journey, Rabbi Schneur Zalman compares the mitzvot to the path that a person must travel from their own dwelling to arrive at the home of a friend in a far-off city:
Similarly, there is a supernal path and approach via which the revelation of the Infinite goes and comes to reside in the lower realms and establish its dwelling within them. For in truth, there is no relationship at all between the emanations and creations in comparison to His blessed essence. Therefore, there must be a path and an approach that serves as a mediator via which He can descend and be drawn down, so that His dwelling and revelation should be immanent within the lower realms just as it is above, a simple unity . . . These paths are the practical mitzvot, which are called “the paths of G‑d,” because in them is the approach and the passage of the revelation of the Infinite, blessed be He, that He may descend and settle in the lower realms.
The primary purpose of the mitzvot is not to achieve any human or divine ideal, but to satisfy and facilitate the divine desire for a dwelling in the lower realms.
The mitzvot, Rabbi Schneur Zalman further explains, are not independent of the divine self. They are not mere mediators between G‑d and the created realm. Mitzvot themselves actually embody the divine. As the Zohar says, they are “limbs of the king.” Mitzvot extend G‑d’s own self into this world, bringing divine intimacy into the place of otherness.
Part Four: Reframing the Hierarchy of Ideals
This Midrashic vision of cosmic purpose is reiterated, and further analyzed, elucidated and developed, in countless texts by Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his successors. On the one hand, these Chabad teachings amplify the tone of authoritative testimony with which Midrash speaks. But at the same time, they make striking accommodations for the rationalistic and mystical approaches of the intervening centuries.
One of the most studied of these texts is the first discourse in the landmark treatise known as Samech-Vav, orally delivered in sections between 1905 and 1907 by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. Taking special note of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s departure from the traditional modes of rationalist and mystical idealism, he cites another Midrash which likewise describes the motivation for creation in vividly impressionistic terms of divine desire:
“His thighs (shokav שוקיו) are pillars of marble” (Song of Songs 5:15): Shokav refers to the world, for He yearned to create it, as it says (ibid. 7:11), “To me is his yearning (teshukato תשוקתו).” How do we know that this is what is meant? For it says, “He completed (va-yechulu ויכלו) the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 2:1). Va-yechulu is nothing other than an expression of desire (ta’avah תאוה), as it says (Psalms 84:3), “My soul desired and yearned (kaltah כלתה).”
This Midrash, Rabbi Shalom DovBer observes, indicates that G‑d created the world “only because of yearning, because the Blessed Holy One yearned to create it, and we know no logical reason as to why He so yearned . . .” We know only that the object of divine desire is “a dwelling in the lower realms,” that the indwelling of the divine essence is achieved through the practice of mitzvot, and that “this is not due to any logical requirement or reason, but only because He desired so, which is beyond understanding and reason.” In this context Rabbi Shalom DovBer cites the testimony of the third rebbe of Chabad does not bring the search for meaning to an end, but rather to a new beginning, reopening a forgotten avenue of creativity and thought.Chabad-Lubavitch that Rabbi Schneur Zalman would elaborate on this theme, saying, “Regarding a desire, questions are not to be asked.”
This sounds like a conversation stopper. And in a sense, this approach does undermine the axiomatic conceptual hierarchy that previously gave meaning to the question of why G‑d created the world. The question “why” demands an answer in the form of an objective motivational reason. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman uncovers something more essential, a non-answer that renders the question moot. Despite this, Chabad does not bring the search for meaning to an end, but rather to a new beginning, reopening a forgotten avenue of creativity and thought. The rich possibilities of rationalist logic and mystical experience are not to be abandoned. They are to be reapplied in a new direction and extended beyond their previous limits.
Why were these Midrashic sources so rarely discussed by the great thinkers of the intervening generations? We can only assume that the long shadows of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic influence obscured the more transcendent modes of Midrashic thought. The linear hierarchy of human reason could look only to an objective ideal for direction, and was unable to square it with the utter subjectivity of divine yearning. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman bent the line between these two polarities into a circle. Objective reason does not stand in opposition to subjectivity, but extends outwards from the subjective core. Rational inquiry can therefore transcend itself, arriving at a more essential vision.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his successors did not arrive at their conclusions only by Midrashic authority, but also by reasoned argument. Ultimate purpose must be tied to the very darkness and physicality of this lowly world, because if it could be reduced to a shining ideal, then the created world would be a utopian one. Ultimate purpose cannot simply be knowledge and recognition of G‑d’s greatness, nor submission to divine will and mystic union, because these ideals The driving purpose of creation cannot be something distinct from the essence itself.would have been achieved far more easily in a more spiritual realm.
A deeper and more disruptive subtext to these arguments was explicated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. Since the divine essence (ha-atzmut) is beyond any duality, it is beyond any relationship with something other than itself. Accordingly, no external object can affect the divine essence, and the purpose of creation can never be reduced to any objective ideal. The driving purpose of creation cannot be something distinct from the essence itself. It can only be a wholly subjective yearning: the inexplicably intimate desire of G‑d, the essence of all things. The world’s non-utopian nature echoes its origin in an essential yearning unconstrained by ideal.
This argument also leads to the striking conclusion that G‑d is not bound or driven by our idealistic conception of how one ought to behave. This has significant bearing on the problem of evil. From the new perspective uncovered by Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his successors, the problem shifts in form. The dark possibility of evil is an intentional result of G‑d’s specific desire for a dwelling in a lowly realm. The objective hierarchy of ideals does not dictate divine purpose. It is only a means to the desired end. Ultimately, the purpose of these ideals is the eventual subversion of all hierarchies: that the very highest of beings will be made most manifest in the very lowest of realms. And this purpose must be achieved by man. Accordingly, the problem of evil is ours to deal with.
Part Five: Beyond Transcendence
In resurrecting divine desire as the core of cosmic purpose, Chabad returns to the Midrashic reservoir from which the Jewish philosophical tradition flows. At the same time, the specific object of that desire, an intimate home in the place of otherness, paves the way for a radical rethinking of how the entire tradition, including its rationalist and mystical branches, should be interpreted.
Ostensibly, the utter subjectivity of divine desire should strip objective reason of all significance. But for Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his successors, the contrary is true. In relation to the divine essence, objective reason belongs to the realm of otherness, and it is precisely in the realm of otherness that G‑d most desires to be manifest. The ultimate achievement of a dwelling in the lower realms can be achieved only when the rational mind somehow assimilates divine essentiality. Objective reason belongs to the realm of otherness, and it is precisely in the realm of otherness that G‑d most desires to be manifestThe divine essence must be revealed in terms that allow it to be experienced, apprehended and internalized by humanity.
As we have already seen, Rabbi Schneur Zalman described the mitzvot as “the approach and the passage” through which the divine essence “travels” to dwell and be revealed in the lower realms. In a discourse delivered in 1978, the seventh rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, probed the question of how the mitzvot facilitate this revelation. His discussion is framed as a philosophical reflection on the famous passage from the Passover Haggadah in which the wise son asks, “What are these testimonials, decrees and just laws to you?”
The wise son enumerates three distinct types of mitzvot: “Testimonials” (eidot in Hebrew) refers to commandments that commemorate the wonders wrought by G‑d in creation or on behalf of the Jewish people, such as the laws of Shabbat and Passover. “Decrees” (chukim) refer to inexplicable commandments, like those mandating the kosher diet or the law of the red heifer. “Just laws” (mishpatim) refers to laws that human logic would independently ordain as the only means of upholding a civilized, safe and orderly society, such as those governing monetary transactions or prohibiting violence.
In Chassidic texts it is frequently said that every individual mitzvah actually incorporates something of all three of these types: something of the testimonial, something of the inexplicable and something of the rational. In the present discourse, R. Menachem Mendel further explains that the three types of mitzvot embody and facilitate three different aspects of divine revelation:
The mishpatim are easily grasped and assimilated by the human mind, revealing the facet of divinity that enters into an immanent, and rationally conceivable, relationship with humankind and creation (ohr ein sof ha-memallei kol almin). At once transcendent of human intellect and immanently grasped within human intellect, the eidot are testimony to the all-pervasive essence of G‑d.These laws do not suppress the individual’s sense of self, and allow the individual to integrate G‑d’s will into his or her natural understanding of reality.
The chukim are beyond human understanding, revealing the facet of divinity that transcends creation (ohr ein sof ha-sovev kol almin). These laws impose upon man’s sense of autonomy, commanding the individual to submit to G‑d’s will without hope of understanding why these precepts are important.
The eidot are in an altogether different category. They are not logically ordained as the mishpatim are. But neither are they utterly inexplicable like the chukim. As testimony to G‑d’s miraculous presence within this lowly world, they allow man to contemplate transcendent divinity and incorporate that transcendence into the mundane cycle of human life.
To further illustrate the distinction between chukim and eidot: The kosher dietary laws, an example of the former, seem to be a set of arbitrary restrictions. But the laws of Shabbat, an example of the latter, are easily appreciated as an oasis in time, set aside from the mundane workweek to celebrate G‑d’s presence within our lives. Such laws do not occur obviously to the human mind, but neither does the human mind reject them as arbitrary or inexplicable. At once transcendent of human intellect and immanently grasped within human intellect, the eidot are testimony to the all-pervasive essence of G‑d.
In citing the triadic classification of mitzvot as eidot, chukim and mishpatim, the wise son displays both knowledge and analytical ability. Accordingly, R. Menachem Mendel argues, the wise son’s question should not simply be understood as a request for information about the nature and significance of mitzvot. Instead, it is to be interpreted as a profound attack on the very assumption that the mitzvot can be so neatly characterized and explained: “What are these testimonials, decrees and just laws to you?” With that last word, R. Menachem Mendel explained, the wise son does not dissociate himself from the Jewish people as a whole, but only from the class of intellectual who ascribes value to anything other than the simple will of G‑d.
At their core, all the mitzvot derive from G‑d’s essential desire. This quality is as much the province of the chukim and mishpatim as it is that of the eidot. To perform any mitzvah is to touch the unknowable essence of all things. But neither the immanent revelation reflected by the mishpatim, nor the transcendent revelation reflected by the chukim, can adequately communicate the true nature of that elusive core. The imposition of this threefold classification The wise son’s question can be reread as an attack on the peripheral ideals embodied in the rational and mystical approaches to G‑d.on the mitzvot, the wise son argues, appears to be both artificial and redundant.
This line of argument can be more broadly applied to the various explanations given for the creation of the world and the purpose of the mitzvot. In fact, one way to conceive of the general difference between the rationalist and mystical approaches is in terms of immanence and transcendence. The rationalist explanations, which focus on the human achievement of ultimate happiness and virtue, reflect the aspect of divinity that enters into an immanent relationship with creation and can be grasped in natural human terms. The mystical explanations, which focus on spiritual union and subjugation to the divine, reflect the aspect of divinity that transcends worldly perception, and which humankind can apprehend only if their sense of self is subdued.
In reviving the Midrashic focus on divine desire, Chabad uncovers a more essential impetus that cannot be reduced to either of these ideals. Neither the assimilation of G‑d’s rationally accessible wisdom, nor the mystical subjection of the self to G‑d’s transcendent will, can reflect or draw forth G‑d’s essential self. This new perspective seems to render redundant the most fundamental assumptions about the purpose of existence laid down by rationalist and mystical authorities alike.
According to R. Menachem Mendel’s analysis and interpretation, the wise son’s question can be reread as an attack on the peripheral ideals embodied in the rational and mystical approaches to G‑d. Given that all the mitzvot embody G‑d’s essential desire, why should three distinct categorizations be used in reference to them? “What are these testimonials, decrees and just laws to you?”
Part Six: Communicating the Ineffable
To the wise son’s question, the Passover Haggadah provides the following response: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G‑d took us out from Egypt . . . and G‑d commanded us to fulfill all these decrees, to fear (ליראה) the L‑rd your G‑d . . .”
In a distinctly midrashic twist, successive Chabad rebbes pointed out that the Hebrew word for fear (יראה) is composed of the same letters as the Hebrew word for sight (ראיה). Applied in the present context, the answer to the wise son’s question is that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only to touch the divine essence, but “to see the L‑rd your G‑d.” The reason why rationalism and mysticism should not be dismissed as peripheral and redundant is because human cognition and experience are the central vehicles of divine revelation. It is not enough that the divine essence should be drawn forth and made present within the created realm; the presence of On the one hand, the essence is “utterly distinct from any specific aspect.” On the other hand, “it is the essence of all specific aspects.”the divine essence must be fully revealed and articulated for all to see and assimilate.
Divine essentiality is the most elusive concept in the chassidic canon. But the line distinguishing the essential core of divine being from its external manifestations can be discovered, and ultimately the ineffable can be communicated without being compromised. In the present discourse, Rabbi Menachem Mendel addresses this only indirectly. But in a landmark treatise delivered in 1965, he built on earlier chassidic texts to delineate a dual description of the essence that is both precise and concise: On the one hand, the essence is “utterly distinct from any specific aspect.” On the other hand, “it is the essence of all specific aspects.”
By way of illustration: Arms, legs, and even the faculties of intellect and emotion are all specific aspects of the human being. But the essence of what it is to be human cannot be reduced to any one of those aspects. A human who lacks a limb or a cognitive faculty is no less human than anyone else. The essence of humanity transcends any such specifics, and yet stands as the immanent core of all of them.
This double-sided delineation of essentiality provides the key to understanding the role and purpose of chukim and mishpatim. Since eidot stand as testimony to the ineffable essence of divinity, they actually embody a decidedly introverted projection of divinity. The full import of eidot can be disclosed only in juxtaposition to its external manifestations: as that which is not limited to transcendence or immanence, but is simultaneously both. The inexplicable chukim and the logically ordained mishpatim respectively embody the opposing poles of transcendence and immanence. Only through their collaboration can humankind perceive the essence of divine being, which embraces both transcendence and immanence, The inexplicable chukim and the logically ordained mishpatim respectively embody the opposing poles of transcendence and immanence.and eradicates the linear opposition distinguishing them.
This brings us back to Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s explanation of the Haggadah’s response to the wise son’s question. “G‑d commanded us to fulfill all these decrees to see the L‑rd your G‑d . . .” The mistake of the wise son was to reduce the immanent and transcendent revelations of G‑d to the sum of their parts. It is true that neither of them alone are full expressions or revelations of the divine self. But the suggestion here is that it is specifically through their cumulative conjunction that the ineffable essence of G‑d can indeed be communicated. Without them, divine essentiality will remain forever introverted.
In Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s own words:
First is the aspect of eidot, drawing forth the essence. Afterwards, this presence should be made manifest; this is achieved by the revelation of the transcendent manifestation that is reflected via the aspect of chukim. And afterwards, this presence should be internalized; this is achieved by the revelation of the immanent manifestation that is reflected via the aspect of mishpatim . . .
This is what is meant by the assertion that “G‑d commanded us to fulfill all these decrees ליראה (to fear) . . . ,” יראה having the same letters as ראיה (sight) . . . That which is drawn forth through the practical mitzvot shall become apparent to the extent that it can be seen . . . perceiving the very being of the Infinite, blessed be He (ראיית מהות אין סוף ברוך הוא).”
The coincidence of immanence and transcendence leads to the discovery of the more essential quality that is the immanent core of both of them, but which is lost when these two modes of revelation are perceived in isolation. Without the mishpatim and the chukim, G‑d’s essence, as represented by the eidot, would remain forever intangible.
The discussion of eidot, chukim and mishpatim is not a local discussion. This discussion directly addresses the far broader question of where Chassidism stands Where does Chassidism stand within the wider expanse of the Jewish intellectual tradition?within the wider expanse of the Jewish intellectual tradition. In his 1965 talk, R. Menachem Mendel said that Chassidism’s role is to reveal how all the different genres of Torah equally express their unified source in G‑d’s ineffable essence. Chassidism achieves this, he explained, by seamlessly alternating between different Torah genres and integrating them with each other.
Seen in its larger context, the present discussion of eidot, chukim and mishpatim is a study in the Chassidic integration of the rationalist and mystical streams of Jewish thought. In isolation from one another, each embodies a departure from the essentially Midrashic orientation of Jewish thought; each becomes more abstractly esoteric, more linear and monolithic. In their integration they transcend themselves, becoming the collaborative modes that disclose the ineffable essence of divine being, and through which the essential core of cosmic purpose is realized.
As Rabbi Schneur Zalman phrased it, the divine desire is not simply to be present within the realm of otherness, but “that He shall dwell in the lower realms as He dwells in His essence . . . as one who dwells in his friend’s home just as he does in his own.” This is not only the key to understanding the triadic classification of the mitzvot, but also to rehabilitating the rationalist and mystical explanations for created existence. The core of cosmic purpose will not be attained till the essence of divine being is made fully resonant within the created realm. And that can occur only when divine essentiality permeates the full range of human cognition and experience.
From the Chassidic perspective, the variant strains of the Jewish philosophical tradition are seen as a single Midrashic sequence, at once divergent and harmonious, When the loftiest ideals of rationalism and mysticism are collaboratively realized, the all-encompassing essence of G‑d will be fully resonant throughout this world.which cumulatively testifies to the essence of divine being:
Midrashic texts assert the inexplicable desire of G‑d to have a dwelling in the lower realm. The rational and mystical branches of Jewish thought provide the paths through which that desire can be achieved. When divine essentiality permeates human intellect, and is expressed through human emotion and activity, then humanity and the world at large will be raised to their loftiest ideals. When the loftiest ideals of rationalism and mysticism are collaboratively realized, then the all-encompassing essence of G‑d will be fully at home and fully resonant throughout this world.
Transcendence is usually conceived of as standing in opposition to immanence. But in the divine essence, in the essence of all things, transcendence and immanence coincide. The divine essence transcends all things, and is simultaneously the immanent core of all things. Through the triadic prism of eidot, chukim and mishpatim, of midrashic testimony, mystical experience and rational thought, the intimate essence of G‑d can openly reside in the place of otherness.